Australia’s historical and ongoing treatment of First Nations people is embarrassing, disturbing, and downright shameful. Our understanding of First Australians’ communities, culture and language is lacklustre. We’re home to more than 250 Indigenous languages, including around 800 dialects, but many of these living languages are slowly dying out and face the threat of being lost.
“Language is part of our songlines, stories, spirituality, law, culture, identity and connection. Language transfers important knowledge passed down from our Ancestors and Elders that guides us,” says Ngunnawal, Wiradjuri and Kamilaroiwoman Lynnice Church. Language is important. Language is survival. Language is identity.
Music has been used as a vehicle to help revitalise Indigenous language by putting it in the ears of mainstream audiences. Here, we look at eight musicians who have done just that.
She worked on the project with consultants, translators, language experts, and elders, including Sir Tīmoti Kāretu, Hana Mereraiha, and Hēmi Kelly.
Most recently, Lorde and Marlon Williams performed a Māori version of 'Stoned At The Nail Salon' at her headline show in London this week.
It’s an album that has been met with mixed reactions from the Māori community, with some welcoming the move, others resenting it, and yet others still unsure of where they stand.
I think it's also important as Māori to feel ok about feeling all the feelings. There aspects about this project I am proud of. There are aspects that bring me deep mamae. Colonialism & its impact on our reo = complex, as are our feels.— marnie reinfelds (@ngatau) September 9, 2021
"The question of what is right is a complex one,” explains writer Leonie Hayden for The Spinoff. “There is a cohort that believe te reo Māori should only be spoken by Māori. After concerted attempts by the state to eradicate the language over the past 150 years, it’s hard to blame them for being reluctant to share such a fragile gift.”
Lorde didn’t shy away from speaking about the cultural lines she had to tiptoe either. “I’m white — however you want to interpret me wanting to engage with our Indigenous culture, that’s fair enough. I totally accept that, because it is really complicated,” she tells The Spinoff. “What would have been worse is to just have been too scared to do it… That to me is sadder and scarier than being attributed any kind of white saviour complex.”
Wergaia/Wemba Wemba musician Alice Skye creates music that's charged with emotion and brimming with vulnerability. Originally from Western Victoria and now living in Melbourne, Alice has carved out a space for herself in the indie-pop world.
She celebrates her Indigeneity through her storytelling skills, heard clearly in tracks like 'Wurega Djalin'. Her latest album I Feel Better But I Don’t Feel Good's album cover was designed by Gumbaynggirr artist Aretha Brown; Indigenous collaboration reigns strong.
Indigenous singer-songwriter Emily Wurramurra hails from Groote Eylandt. The 25-year-old's music is soulful, and seamlessly combines both English and Anindilyakwa languages. It's led her to tour and perform with musicians like Archie Roach, Mavis Staples, John Farnham, Missy Higgins, Jessica Mauboy, and John Butler.
In 2018, she released her album Milyakburra, and next year, a new album is set for release.
24-year-old Yolngu man Danzal James Baker OAM, aka Baker Boy, is a national treasure when it comes to multidisciplinary art. The Indigenous rapper, dancer, artist, and actor released his first song at age 20, and a couple of years later, was named Young Australian of the Year in 2019.
Charisma and magnetic energy ooze out of Danzal, as does his commitment to his Indigenous roots. He raps in both English and Yolngu Matha, his first language. "When I speak in language I’m crazy fluent. It’s easier for me to write songs in language than in English," he tells LNWY.
Yorta Yorta hip-hop and classic R&B artist DRMNGNOW is an outspoken, political force for change. As an MC, instrumentalist, and poet, his songs are soaked in unfiltered emotion, with decolonisation at its forefront.
His tracks 'Australia Does Not Exist,' 'Get Back To The Land,' 'Always Remember,' and 'Indigenous Land' have a unified message, acting as music and education as one.
His latest track ‘Doobs’ continues to pay respect to his heritage — ‘dubay’ a Bundjalung word meaning Aboriginal woman or a dark-skinned woman of any race.
“Kodie is a rapper’s rapper — he has the fundamentals of the OGs. His flow is effortless and honest, his art is steeped in his identity and connection with his culture,” Briggs says.
As a proud Widjabul Wybal and Gomeroi woman and an AnR (artists and repertoire) representative in the music industry, Jinaya Walford witnesses the intertwining of Indigenous language with today’s urban music scene firsthand. She curates a Spotify playlist for Ditto Music called Dass It – Homegrown; “dass it” is slang that originates from Bundjalung language, one of the most broadly spoken Aboriginal languages.
“Uncles always say ‘yoway’ meaning ‘dass it’. Urban slang is growing, everyone is saying ‘dass it’ from rappers to sports stars. I love to see the connection between urban and Aboriginal culture,” she tells Refinery29 Australia.
One of The Preatures' most important singles was the 2017 hit 'Yanada', which means 'moon' in Indigenous Dharug language. The recently disbanded non-Indigenous band collaborated with Indigenous language teacher Jacinta Tobin to create this track. Over an 18-month period, lead singer Isabella Manfredi learnt elements of Dharug, and was given both cultural and spiritual permission to write and sing in language.
"I want to hear Indigenous language on the radio again. I want to see Indigenous languages in the mainstream," Isabella says.