Australia is a settler colony founded on anti-Blackness. This is most evident in the carceral aesthetics and generalized intergenerational amnesia of the white majority in the visual arts and university sectors in which I work. As a Sāmoan artist, curator, and writer in poetry and art criticism who grew up in Australia, it is particularly moving for me to hear Aboriginal bush rock when I would travel around the world before the COVID-19 pandemic. The compelling lyrics and rich layered music that are hallmarks of Warumpi Band, Yothu Yindi and, more recently, Baker Boy, Yirrmal, and Electric Fields, among others, are expressed in English as well as in the Indigenous languages of the northeast and central desert regions of so-called “Australia.”
When the Black Lives Matter protests were gaining large-scale mainstream media and political attention in the United States, as well as in other settler colonies in mid-2020, a friend of mine asked me what the mood was like in Nhulunbuy (Gove). In the first months of the pandemic, I lived in a small mining town on Yolngu lands in the northeast of the island continent, following my doctor partner there when borders closed, and I couldn’t return to my postdoctoral research in Tiohtià:ke/Mooniyang (Montréal). The scale of the police presence and carceral industrial complex in occupied First Nations lands and waters in the so-called Northern Territory, as in other states and territories of the Australian settler colony, underscores the spectre of repercussions for massive land and wage theft in the white settler imaginary.
Years ago when I lived in Naarm/Birrarangga (Melbourne), I would feel such encompassing release when Aboriginal bush rock classics like Warumpi Band’s Blackfella/Whitefella (1985) or Yothu Yindi’s Treaty (1992) would play in the club or at house parties. I’m not sure if that elation came from exhaustion and social isolation due to precarity in the visual arts roles I filled, or to casualized academic labor, but it was sweet. These moments, dancing to Yothu Yindi’s Djäpana (Sunset Dreaming, 1992) or Tribal Voice (1992), made me believe that decolonial futures lay just around the bend. Broken promises of treaty negotiation with First Nations in so-called Australia have extended from 1988 to today, though finally some processes are taking root in various jurisdictions.
Aboriginal bush rock is a gift for posterity of First Nations sovereignty and relational balance. This music and these songs resound ever strong, despite the accumulated failures of the settler colonial governments hell bent on intergenerational absolution of foundational genocidal campaigns and ongoing structurally racist violences. Having recently lived a year in the central deserts due east of Warumpi Band’s first concerts and practices, the horizons of decolonial possibility seem distant, and yet already present. The strength of First Nations peoples despite the ongoing settler colonial and militourist projects on the island continent are sometimes expressed in song, sometimes now in the chambers of parliaments, and always in ceremonial performance, visual cultural practice, and in community settings throughout the deserts and coasts. ■