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Music is such a powerful tool, it can help us

Introduction by Croakey: This is the second article in a two-part series exploring the impact of the COVID pandemic upon musicians.

From North East Arnhem Land, Yolngu musician, song writer and storyteller Yirrmal writes about the challenges of creating music and generating exposure from a remote community during the pandemic.

Yirrmal, son of Yothu Yindi musician Witiyana Marika, calls for supportive allyship and policies to help support having “First Nations artists involved more in the music industry”.


Yirrmal writes:

I’m a Yolngu musician, but a song writer and storyteller first and foremost, and I love to share my stories of this land and our people.

The Yolngu people – my people – are from the North East Arnhem Land community of Yirrkala in Northern Territory.

Sitting with my dad inspired me to start thinking about music as a way to express myself so I could tell my own stories.

I moved down to Geelong to complete my education and studied music for a while after that.

About five years ago, I moved back home to Arnhem Land to start learning our Rirratjingu song lines for ceremonies and funerals. So COVID or pandemics were not really a part of my life before 2020.

Then, many of my family were sick with COVID, even my two kids had it as well as my partner. My Dad was having life-saving heart surgery in Adelaide, and I was very worried that he would get COVID.

We were worried that other people would bring it to our old people out on community who are very frail and sick – it really impacted on us in a big way spiritually too.

For me personally, I would really love people to walk away from COVID with a sense of hope, positivity, and for people to know that if they are going through a tough time, they are not alone.

Music is a powerful tool, it can help us, it communicates to us as people in such a way that other ways can’t. Music should make you feel something or else it’s not doing its job.

Changing landscape

It’s been challenging to be able to balance my music with my ceremonial, family, work, and community responsibilities, as well as getting through COVID.

Overall, music is changing and it has definitely been harder to get music out to an audience with so much competition on digital platforms, as opposed to performing live during the pandemic.

COVID stopped me from performing at a lot of gigs; but at the same time, I was able to record an album during the early stages of COVID with Andrew Farriss (INXS) at his home in NSW, so I was able to have that music sitting there for when I wanted to release it.

It was a great time – Andrew is such a genuine and thoughtful friend and mentor, and I learned so much from that experience.

During COVID I needed to stay on country in Arnhem Land for a lot of the time to help with ceremonies and funerals, so I was able to be there to support my people and family emotionally and spiritually. I also got to spend a lot of time with my partner and two kids which was great seeing the two little ones grow.

But it meant I didn’t have a lot of money coming in to support my family. This then made it challenging to promote my profile as a musician, develop new markets or generate exposure and media interest that supports new opportunities including performances.

There were grant funding rounds for musicians in the early stages of the pandemic, which was great, but because COVID affected so many people, the rounds were really competitive and not everyone was able to secure support to make a difference.

I support community-based activities and performances, but many communities cannot afford the fees.

Showcasing my culture the way I want to is a responsibility I take very seriously.

When COVID was nearly finished, a lot of the festivals that I wanted to play at had budgets that were slashed compared to budgets before COVID, so that impacted me a lot. Coming from remote Arnhem Land and having a nine-piece band made it quite a challenge to get out there and do those performances.

Some festivals have continued to be cancelled, and others that agreed to consider previous performance fees want reduced fees.

Plans for the future

My priority now is to be able to balance my family, community, work and ceremonial responsibilities with my music. Every day I wake up and think about how I’m going to make it work. Some days it’s easy and some days it’s a bit harder.

Where I live in remote Arnhem Land, it is always expensive to make music, and sometimes it is hard to get the services to do that remotely. Sometimes I have to go interstate to make music and music videos, and travel is always expensive from here.

COVID has meant that I need to be careful about planning music performances – for example we know that the airlines are not always running on time or are cancelled a lot, so I need to make sure I get to my performances a full day or two early to manage this risk, same for my band. So that is even more expense.

So while the music industry is in challenging times and trying to recover, I am also trying to grow my visibility and draw on allies to push for more affirmative playing fields in the mainstream music industry.

My Australasian Performing Right Association and Australasian Mechanical Copyright Owners Society (APRA/AMCOS) royalties go back into my own business to support my music, but it’s not enough to get by – we need more opportunities to play on the main stages.

Maybe there needs to be some minimum standards that government applies to their funding of festivals.

Allyship and supportive policies

Like I say to people, I bring my own culture, and I play the music and tell the stories that I want to tell. I want to see First Nations music being accepted as part of mainstream festivals. But we need the support to be able to be accepted onto the main stages.

I have seen the people who inspire me and what they have done for their own people. I have seen how they have made this road for us to walk on and have given us these opportunities in our lifetimes to keep our culture strong and keep our people represented in the music industry.

Dr M Yunupingu told me to take up the baton and run as far as I can with it, and show the world that we are still here, still bringing people together to make a better future. So that’s what I’m doing.

Adding to having to be thoughtful about where my energy is spent on music and at which gigs, is breaking into the mainstream music industry for a whole range of reasons.

We are usually stereotyped as ‘world music’ or Indigenous music’ even though collectively we figure prominently in rap, blues, rock, and much more.

Unless you are on Triple J or Double J, it is very hard to get your music listened to by mainstream radio stations apart from the ones who support First Nations music as a whole.

It’s difficult to get consideration to perform on mainstream festival stages. Some festivals make room for Indigenous-specific stages and more often than not, we need that support to be able to take up opportunities to develop our audiences.

No doubt there is demand for Indigenous-specific stages by audiences who want to immerse themselves in cultural experiences.

This also sometimes means that there is not the mainstream audience there – in this sense, it is a form of allyship that we need to grow and to cultivate in the music industry; to advance the needs of minority groups, to help remove the systems that challenge basic rights to equal access and ability to thrive in the music industry, and advance real change.

This means empowering and enabling marginalised groups to be able to take to the main stages, as opposed to relegating artists to Indigenous-specific stages during mainstream festivals. For me personally, this does not create lasting, meaningful change if there is no opportunity for us on the main stage also.

All levels of government should support a mandatory guidance document for mainstream festivals in order for the festival to receive government funding. This will also contribute to closing the gap.

Policies I would like to see progressed include:

  • an agreed minimum percentage of festival funding is allocated to First Nations service providers and organisations contracted by the festival
  • an agreed minimum percentage of First Nations musicians and artists performing on the festival main stages contracted by the festival
  • an agreed minimum percentage of First Nations musicians and artists performing on other festival stages contracted by the Festival.

If allyship is practised properly, it can help make it a normalised practice to have First Nations artists involved more in the music industry, including all of the supply chains and supporting mechanisms, structures and systems.

This includes performances, services, food, promotions and other key mainstream services.

We played at Woodford Folk Festival 2022/2023 which was amazing. The volunteers there were so helpful, and the crowd was the best.

It was the first time my new band played together and we had Dami Im jump up for a couple of tracks that she recorded vocals on – Wow! What a great opportunity for me and my band in our first festival back! I’m so pumped for Bluesfest!

I find music healing in general, it’s one of the things all people have in common, right? I’d probably be in a dark place without music. And I hope my music helps others too.

Yirrmal. Photo by Roy Nien.

See Yirrmal play

Yirrmal is performing at Bluesfest 2023 on 7, 9 and 10 April, and headlining Darwin Festival on 13 August.

He is releasing a new single on Thursday 30 March.

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Also read: Songs from the pandemic: Australian musicians share their COVID stories, by Alison Barrett.


Croakey thanks and acknowledges donors to our public interest journalism funding pool who have helped support this article.