[MUSIC: Interview] Dan Sultan
In the shameful history of the treatment of Indigenous people since European settlement, a few shining lights of symbolism stand out: the 1967 constitutional referendum, which amended the Australian Constitution to allow the Commonwealth to make laws in relation to Aboriginal people (thereby putting an end to the draconian State government policies that underpinned the Stolen Generation), Paul Keating’s Redfern speech in 1992, and Kevin Rudd’s apology to the Stolen Generation in early 2008.
Such acts have not necessarily improved the lives of Indigenous Australians – health, education, social and economic statistics remain a matter of national embarrassment – yet the symbolism remains important. “Very important,” comments Melbourne singer-songwriter Dan Sultan. “We’ve got a long way to go, and I think there’s a big road ahead of us. These things that some people might think are just symbolic are very important to me and my family. I don’t want to speak for every Aboriginal person, but symbolism is the basics, and there’s a lot more work to be done.”
A Gurindji man, Sultan doesn’t claim to be a political activist, but he’s acutely aware of the issues facing Indigenous people and the importance of his role in championing efforts to improve their position. Sultan’s mother is a member of the Stolen Generation – a topic addressed in his song ‘Roslyn’ – and Sultan is, de facto, a role model for young Aboriginal Australians. In early November Sultan will headline the Rock For Recognition shows in Melbourne, Sydney, Perth and Fremantle. Supported by fellow Indigenous musician Leah Flanagan, and with special guests in each state, the aim of the concert series is to build awareness and rally community support around a change that needs to be made to the Australian Constitution, to formally recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
Although ‘real’ improvement to the conditions of Indigenous people remains a critical focus, Sultan explains that the mere recognition of Australia’s native people is a significant first step. “We have to start with the basics, like acknowledgement in the Constitution, and being paid the respect of an apology for the wrongs that have been committed,” Sultan says. “If non-Indigenous Australia was ready to do something about it that’d be good, but if they’re only ready to do symbolic things, then that’s nothing to turn your nose up at. It’s a good start – it’s a start, which is more than nothing.”
In that context, Sultan was moved by Kevin Rudd’s apology in 2008. “When Kevin Rudd apologised, I accepted the apology – my mother was taken away, and that decimated my family, as it did a lot of Aboriginal families,” he says. “It was a form of genocide. I think the day of the apology was a beautiful day in Australian history, and I think it’s something a lot of nations around the world really admire that happened. It’s something to be proud of.”
Of course there’s a risk that events like this will simply preach a political message to the converted. Will Rock For Recognition genuinely change the opinions of the wider community? Sultan says that even if only a few people come around, progress is being made. “As long as we’re out there doing what we can, then you’ll always get a few people on board who haven’t been exposed to the issues,” he says. “There’s a bit of a risk of [preaching to the converted], so it’s important to get a few bands in the future whose fans might not be too aware of what’s going on.”
Despite his starring role in the upcoming shows, Sultan doesn’t see himself taking on an overtly political role – he’s a musician with an interest, not an activist brandishing a placard. “I’m not a politician, and there’s a lot more people out there who know a lot more about this issue than I do, who are doing a lot of work,” Sultan says. “Obviously I support what’s being proposed, but as a musician I’m just looking to put on some shows and hopefully get some people clued up. There might be a lot of people who’re sympathetic, but they might not know all the ins and outs of the issues.”
A former drummer in sadly-departed Melbourne band The Roys (“Drumming was always a bit of a hobby. I was never really much of a drummer, and I’m still not much of a drummer,” he laughs), Sultan says he doesn’t see himself in a formal mentoring role to young Indigenous musicians, though he’s always happy to convey the benefits of his experience to up-and-coming artists. “I’m happy to, though I haven’t done anything in an official sense. I’m happy to sit down with anyone, and I have spoken to a few people,” Sultan says. “Leah Flanagan is a great musician, and we both started out around the same time, playing shows. I’m not sure I see myself in a role model sense. If someone’s a role model or mentor, then it requires other people to see them in that way, and I don’t see myself like that. But at the same time I’m not going to turn anyone away. I’ve been shown a lot of support by both Indigenous and non-Indigenous musicians. And if I can pay some of that back, that’s great.”
Who: Dan Sultan, Leah Flanagan, The Dead Marines
Where: Rock For Recognition @ The Factory Theatre
When: Friday November 9
More: Learn more about the issue at antar.org.au