Last week one of Australia’s most important musicians died. He didn’t trade on rockstar sexuality. He made money but he didn’t buy fancy cars or expensive real estate – his money went back to his community. He didn’t even really do interviews. He was too shy.
Years ago when I interviewed him I spoke to his manager. He wasn’t from Melbourne, or Sydney or Adelaide, or any of the usual places world-famous Aussie musicians live. He was from Galiwin’ku community on Elcho Island off the coast of Arnhem Land and he made his mark even though he never acquiesced to dominant Anglo culture and sang in English.
Dr G sang in his language in a way that was so transcendent it was impossible to listen and not feel transformed. As an outsider I was so moved that his song graciously offered me a chance to step inside and quietly experience the story of this country that existed long before my white ancestors came here. His song has a way of getting inside you. His music came from a place that felt more like the spirit of this country than anything I’ve ever heard, a story whose words I don’t speak or even understand but somehow they find a place in my body.
It’s a wail I feel under my skin, his music a soft breeze around my legs that gently pulls to the centre of a mystery I am unable to fathom. It was the music of place. His music felt like something sacred, and hearing him live was nothing short of a privilege for a middle-class white woman living on the coast, far far away from the places he sang to.
Singing in his native Yolngu language, this modest and quietly spoken man sold more than half a million copies of his album around the world. He sang for the Queen and yet he spent his last days in an itinerant camp on a Darwin beach before being taken by friends to hospital where he died of renal failure. He was just 46.
Dialysis wasn’t available on Elcho Island so he was forced to stay in a long-grass camp. He had suffered from liver- and kidney-related health problems since he contracted Hepatitis B as a child, thanks to the third-world health conditions Indigenous people experience in this country. Forty-six-year-old white men with international music careers don’t die like this.
It’s the consequence of being a black man in a country that doesn’t think it’s racist, that took too long to say Sorry. And when they did say Sorry it became about how wonderful Kevin Rudd was for being part of this ‘seminal’ moment for whitey, celebrating how great we were for apologising. Somehow the pain and trauma of stealing children was overshadowed by how impressed we were with ourselves for finally showing compassion. Showing. Not feeling.
Of course it’s not ‘our fault’. Modern Australia has always been uncomfortable with acknowledging their guilt. That a few generations down the track from our racist roots that we still benefit from white privilege derived from invasion, but hey, we’re not responsible for the behaviour of our ancestors! We didn’t do it! But we did. And we still do. We all benefit from Invasion privilege. Generations of trauma have delivered the Indigenous nation of Australia with health inequities that mean they die at least ten years before non-Indigenous Australians. That’s why a man who should have had access to gold-class healthcare dies at 46 of a chronic health condition. That’s what we were saying Sorry for.
But Sorry isn’t enough. I remember being taught that it’s not enough to say sorry, you have to change your behaviour. It’s time for a treaty. Australia is the only Commonwealth country that doesn’t have a treaty with its Indigenous peoples. No doubt we’ll eventually negotiate a treaty and then spend the rest of history congratulating ourselves on how inclusive we are. Maybe whitey should meditate on this next time they’re getting a facial or are on a massage table listening to the number-one choice in relaxation music at doctors’ surgeries and wellness clinics around the country: Dr G Yunupingu. How ironic is that? I for one, am very, very Sorry.