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June 7, 2023

Mandy Nolan’s Soapbox: Australia has lost its voice

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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.

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  1. Whitey is faster than a speeding bullet to claim glory for heroic deeds of long ago but the shameful deeds and they include the worst that humans are capable of, are buried deep and never fully acknowledged. Sorry is a word and a small beginning. When the lives of the First Australians really matter to the white colonisers no 46 year old of any race will die for want of basic health care.

  2. Mandy, many indigenous people don’t believe in the word ‘sorry’. It’s said that most white people only say it because they know what they’ve done [or haven’t done] is wrong in the first place so ‘sorry’ is just a pretend state of mind to make them feel better. Hey! You certainly mean it & I definitely mean it… the sickness, the treaties that are lacking plus the roll-call of unwarranted death shouts for ‘a shame day’ or year. And yes, I’m listening to the man singing his beyond beautiful song in the Yolngu language. I’ll cry with him simply because he was almost too beautiful for this world we’ve created.

  3. Mandy, many indigenous people don’t believe in the word ‘sorry’ because it’s thought that white people only say that word when they know they’ve caused heartbreak in the first place thus saying sorry helps them to feel better about what they have or have not done themselves. Yeah! I know, you certainly are sorry… & I definitely am as well. The ‘good intentions’ – health, treaties, deaths, go on mounting up. And I’m listening to the beyond beautiful
    voice singing in the Yolngu language. I’m listening & crying because I hear the cry [his cry] for a world we should never have created for such a gentle man.

  4. Mandy, I love how you get past the post things I would love to say…..truth unedited….thanks to the good Dr who stepped past many hurdles….an inspiration with a 1-way ticket to Paradise…..seeing clearly now….singing with the angels….

  5. Well put Mandy! I know exactly how you felt when you first heard him. A tremendous loss to our nation black or white!

    RIP Dr G!

  6. Mandy I watched the injustice first hand living as a child in the Northern Territory. Even as a child I knew that the way our indigenous people were mistreated was a crime. I can’t believe that 40 plus years later nothing has changed. It’s easy to say ‘sorry’ as we all know, but to actually do something about the past and present pain caused to these ancient people is something I’ve yet to see. Thank you for shedding light on the terrible imbalance existing in our country.

  7. The world is a lesser place without him in it. He sang to my soul, the place where my love emanates from. This should never of happened, I am disgusted with the doings of our government, our media, our citizens, our psyche and apathy. Love to you beautiful man on the next leg of your journey❤️

  8. Indeed a loss Mandy, as so much of First Australians culture is denied and lost at great spiritual and human cost. It begs the question why, given the appalling high incidence of renal failure and dismal health services available to Arnhem-land people, $ made from sales of indigy music has not combined to install and staff a renal health unit in Nulunbuy?. A question I shall ask of those I know who have connection to country there.


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