Archie Roach on Black Lives Matter and writing a better future for all Australians

TREASURE: Archie Roach was honoured to be recognised as Victoria's Australian Of The Year for 2020. Picture: Anthony Brady
TREASURE: Archie Roach was honoured to be recognised as Victoria's Australian Of The Year for 2020. Picture: Anthony Brady

YOU won't hear Archie Roach calling for the destruction of statues honouring colonial figures like Captain James Cook and Lachlan Macquarie.

But if he did, you couldn't blame him.

The 64-year-old singer-songwriter and Indigenous rights activist has suffered unimaginable horrors due to white settlement.

At two he was forcefully removed from his family as part of the Stolen Generation. Roach would never see them again. He'd later learn his father died in custody.

As a teenager and a young man Roach lived on the streets in poverty, battling alcoholism. Eventually through the love of his late partner Ruby Hunter and music, Roach dragged himself away from the bottle and began his ascent to become one of Australia's most revered songwriters.

The song Took The Children Away from Roach's ARIA Award-winning 1990 debut album Charcoal Lane is arguably the most powerful song written about the Stolen Generation.

The whole story for this country is yet to be written. What's been written has been written, whether we agree with some things or not.

Archie Roach

The current and historical treatment of Indigenous Australians has been thrust under the microscope over the past month, after the death of African-American man George Floyd at the hands of Minnesota police ignited the Black Lives Movement on a truly global scale.

It's led to the defacing of historical statues, such as one of Captain Cook in Sydney's Hyde Park. There have been further calls to wipe clean the slate of colonial references in Australia, which has provided more ammunition for the culture wars.

"In this country with statues being defaced, I don't agree with it," says Roach from his home near Warrnambool in western Victoria.

"I don't like people doing things like that. But there should be some other monument put up alongside statues celebrating white settlement to see a parallel history as well. That while Captain Cook was here doing this, someone else or this tribe or this mob were here doing something else.

"It's all part of the history. We can't just have one history."

Archie Roach - Took The Children Away

While Roach rejects using the Black Lives Matter movement to erase history, he welcomes the conversations it's created to pave a different future.

"As far as Black Lives Matter, I think we're talking about that all lives really matter, but in the past these lives didn't matter and it's part of the history that's been archived," he says.

"A lot of the First Nations people in this country, their lives were taken over and controlled. We need to equal things up a bit."

Through his 30 years in the public eye Roach has preached unity, peace and love between white and Indigenous Australia. But he's never shied away from calling out the inequalities too. It's earned Roach overwhelming respect, an Order of Australia Medal in 2015 and last October he was named Victoria's Australian of the Year 2020.

"It's always great to be recognised for what you do and what you've done in the past," he says. "It was most unexpected."

DEBUT: Archie Roach found fame in 1990 with the single Took The Children Away.

DEBUT: Archie Roach found fame in 1990 with the single Took The Children Away.

Roach's profile has undoubtedly grown with the publication of his memoir Tell Me Why last November and its accompanying top-10 album. It's a vivid and honest portrayal of Roach's struggles to reconnect with his family and culture while battling addiction and trauma.

He was supposed to headline the opening night of the Newcastle Writers Festival in April, before it was cancelled due to COVID-19. The national tour to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Charcoal Lane this year was also postponed until 2021, which led to Roach launching a YouTube channel. Every week Roach uploads a video sitting at his kitchen table discussing his life and music. It's humble, unrehearsed and typically genuine.

He's also re-recording a stripped-back acoustic version of Charcoal Lane.

Roach says writing the memoirs and the YouTube videos have helped process some of the more traumatic aspects of his life. But mostly, he hopes it provides solace for others.

"You're obliged to talk about the things and how you overcome the obstacles and hard things in your life," he says.

"Because people could be going through hard stuff and hopefully it can give them a little bit of encouragement, at least, to forge ahead."

Roach's audience also continues to encourage him. The past decade has been difficult.

In 2010 Ruby Hunter died of heart failure, leaving Roach and their five children - biological sons Amos and Eban, and foster children Terrence, Krissy and Arthur - shattered. Later that year Roach suffered a stroke and in 2011 he was diagnosed with cancer, resulting in the partial removal of a lung.

"Ten years ago we looked at the audience and who they really were," Roach says.

"We discovered they were more than people who come and listen to you sing and tell some stories, they actually reciprocate and give you this energy in return.

"In certain cases they've probably helped me through certain times."

Archie Roach

In the 30 years since the release of Charcoal Lane, Roach says he's seen "positive change and no change at all in some instances" for Aboriginal people.

He remains optimistic, despite the 2020 Australian Government Closing The Gap report stating that an Aboriginal man's life expectancy of 71.6 is 8.6 years less than a non-Indigenous Australian and the disparity won't be overcome by the target of 2031.

"The whole story for this country is yet to be written," he says. "What's been written has been written, whether we agree with some things or not.

"But there's a new story to be written and all people from all creeds and walks of life are gonna be the authors of that story and it'll be a beautiful story.

"We've started, we've written the first few words and sentences in this story. So we're on our way."

WHO WILL YOU NOMINATE?

You can help find the 2021 Australian of the Year, Senior Australian of the Year, Young Australian of the Year and Australia's Local Hero by nominating a champion in your community. Visit australianoftheyear.org.au to nominate someone you admire who is helping to make Australia better. Nominations are open until July 31.

ACM, the publisher of this newspaper, is a proud supporter of the Australian of the Year Awards.

This story Brighter future ahead for Australia says Archie Roach first appeared on Newcastle Herald.