Features May 7, 2018

No more box-ticking: we need more cultural intelligence

Brynn Davies
Assistant Editor
No more box-ticking: we need more cultural intelligence

The passing of two Yothu Yindi members in the last five years – Mr M Yunupingu, who passed away in June 2013, and Dr. G Yunupingu in 2017 – shone a light on Australian media’s inept grasp of the protocols, understanding and respect for Aboriginal culture.

In both instances, the media used the musicians’ full names and images to report on their passing.

While it is not standard for all 500+ Aboriginal clans to adhere to this avoidance practice, it is still a powerful tradition in communities such as the Yolngu people in Arnhem Land (to which the men’s Gumatj clan belong).

Initially, Mr M Yunupingu’s grieving family – led by his daughters – made a public appeal through the Northern Land Council for the use of his name to cease. The media quietened and removed his image and his first name from their reports. Within a few days, the family dropped the prohibition on the use of his image.

Similarly, Dr. G Yunupingu’s family also allowed for the use of his name and image to preserve his legacy; however, both had appeared in the media prior to the announcement.

It’s 2018, and we should know better.

The cultural insensitivity of the reporting of both Yothu Yindi members’ passing is only one example of the lack of improvement when it comes to understanding and respect for our First Nations people, not just in the media but the wider Australian community. 

Chryss Carr – who was Dr. G Yunupingu’s publicist from 2007 until 2012 – continues to refrain from the use of his first name; instead, simply calling him Dr. G.

“What I’ve been taught by Yolngu people is that when an Aboriginal person passes, you don’t call their name for a while, because they’re travelling off to the spiritual dimension.”

“By calling their name, you’re making them earthbound,” she explains. “And he didn’t die – he passed over, so you say that he ‘passes’.”

What does ‘Indigenous’ actually mean?

The lack of understanding of semantics extends to the commonly misused (and overly politicised) collective noun – Indigenous.

“The word Indigenous is a general term used for the race that was first in that country…” explains Carr. 

She draws the comparison of using the term Indigenous instead of Aboriginal to “almost like saying a European person versus a Greek person”, adding that it’s in her experience, when speaking to Aboriginal people, “they don’t say, ‘I’m Indigenous,’ they say, ‘I’m Aboriginal’.”

“Or, in fact, they go a little deeper and say what country, culturally, they are from,” she added.

“With any labelling, there are pros and cons – the politicisation of the term can sometimes be tokenistic; a word used as cultural appropriation to make some factions feel better about themselves,” adds Deborah Brown, former dancer and choreographer with Bangarra Dance Theatre.

Brown believes that it’s this type of tokenism that eliminates the eclectic cultures that exist, and shuts down any chance of reflecting diversity.

“I don’t think we are at an early stage of diversifying; I do think we’ve stagnated.”

“The political climate has bamboozled me… Every now and then there’s a spark and I become excited that a great shift is going to happen, but for now, we should really be further along.”

The diversity dilemma

It’s this “slowly slowly” approach that Carr also refers to when speaking of artists performing today.

Carr notes that a decade ago, Indigenous and World Music stages at festivals were the only way Aboriginal artists would have a platform for their music. But in 2018, these denotations feel exclusionary.  

“The first time I ever saw Dan Sultan,” she remembers, “was performing on the newly-launched Indigenous stage at Bluesfest in 2012… If it wasn’t for that Indigenous stage, he wouldn’t have performed that year.

She says that specific stages for Indigenous artists aren’t necessary, as the industry is now aware of the importance of diverse and inclusive lineups. “Clearly, Aboriginal artists should not be an afterthought, which they used to be.”

Carr references BIGSOUND’s recent appointment of a First Nations Producer, Alethea Beetson, to ensure “a more culturally appropriate event that celebrates First Nations peoples and music in a way that is inclusive and authentic,” – as described on the website. She believes First Nations artists should be included in a diverse lineup as a natural part of programming. “When I read [that announcement] I’m like really? That’s it?” she exclaims.

“It’s the agenda, sort of a diversity balance, right? When we talk about [billing women on lineups], there should be always a balance of talent… You can’t just programme somebody because they’re ticking all the right boxes in the diversity section of your programme, or your missions statement. The talent that is being recognised talks for itself.”

“It’s an unspoken language of tokenism,” Brown adds. “I dislike when people incorporate Indigenous stories into their events without having a genuine investment into who and where the stories come from. Ticking a box does not bring us closer together, it keeps us estranged.”

The same goes for awards: “Why do we have to categorise people down to that ninth degree? Why don’t we just acknowledge them for the merit of the award just generally speaking?” questions Carr, while acknowledging that it’s a double-edged sword; additional categories provide greater opportunity to celebrate more Indigenous artists.

I think recognition within the community is great, but I can also see how sometimes it can be isolating,” says Brown. “It can make me feel boxed in and I feel a push to adhere to a particular set thought structure and stereotype. However, when I think ‘Indigenous’ I think of this beautiful connection to country, beautiful spirits, beautiful songs and beautiful dances. Makes me proud.”

Next generation, new role models

Headlines were made recently when A.B. Original became not only the first hip hop artists, but the first Indigenous artists to take out the APRA Songwriter Of The Year Award at last month’s ceremony.

Briggs noted in his speech that it was because of artists like Dr. G and Archie Roach that “we were able to stand on the platform on the foundation that they created, where we could come out and be the artists that we needed to be, we wanted to be; to make the recorded that we wish we had when we were kids. There was a big piece missing for young Indigenous kids like ourselves.”

A.B. Original, in particular, have become role models and, inadvertently, spokespeople on Indigenous issues. Carr explains that ”it’s that time in history on their pathway that requires or asks that of them.”

Another of Carr’s clients, Baker Boy (Danzal Baker), from the remote top end communities of Milingimbi and Maningrida – “… is inclined to be a role model because that’s how he was raised,” Carr explains. “He understands the importance.

“Then there’s other people who don’t wanna be role models, but they just can’t help but be them because in Aboriginal society, those people that have made it are someone to aspire to… they’re just immediately admired and put up on that pedestal as a role model.”

She says that this is part of the “cost” of being an Indigenous musician; “by nature, it can be a very political pathway.”

Similarly, another of the artists she has worked with – Dan Sultan – while committed to sharing his heritage, at times also felt it overwhelmed his music. The track No More Explanations was written about journalists who ask questions about his lineage rather than his art.

“I’ve had this conversation with a few Indigenous artists,” adds Brown, “and when entering a public arena with your work, your vision and story is your primary purpose and the role model aspect isn’t something that you initially seek.

“Once you recognise that people are listening to your voice and you observe changes in perspectives then I think being a role model naturally follows suit.”

Brown shares that, as an artist of Torres Strait Island descent, she has found herself walking the line between her identity as an artist and her cultural identity. She believes that the labelling experienced by Indigenous artists then sets up an expectation for what form of art an Indigenous storyteller is to create.

“It’s almost like a rule that if you’re Indigenous, you have to tell Indigenous stories all the time… or particular types of Indigenous stories – that of the social, spiritual or historical. To just be you sometimes feels like a betrayal and therefore as a role model, are you allowing the next generation to be happy in their own skin?

“We should never deny our ancestry, because it truly does enrich us, but we also cannot become cookie cutouts because of outsiders’ expectations.

“On the other hand, my background as a contemporary Indigenous dancer has been exploring authentic Indigenous stories whereupon a deep connection has been made. I always feel my job as an artist to make a connection with the audience, and therefore if it’s an Indigenous story then, of course, that should be acknowledged and celebrated.”

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