How To Reclaim Australia Day

Photo: Justin McManus / SMH

Editor of The Vocal

Approx 9 minute reading time

The year was 2011. Or maybe it was 2012. I can’t remember now. The day was most definitely January 26 and for once, it was raining in the middle of an Australian summer. I was holed up in my small square room in our three bedroom apartment in Pyrmont. My phone was buzzing endlessly because I was supposed to be at some assortment of Australia Day parties that I had lost track of and had purposefully not committed to. I ignored the buzzing, wildly thinking up a range of fake excuses in my head before deciding I could just ignore it.

I don’t know what happened to me that year or maybe it was the following year or maybe it was both years, but I was hit with a wave of apathy and anger that rendered me immobile. My brain considered the possibility of getting up and leaving the house, but the rest of me wasn’t having a bar of it.

I didn’t want to celebrate January 26. I didn’t want to watch other people celebrate this day. I didn’t want to pretend this day meant something to me. So the only logical thing was to stay in bed. Funnily enough, even in my performative Rear Window style shut in, I could still hear Triple J’s Hottest 100 wafting in from other apartments.

I could hear the sound of fun having in the form of splashes and makeshift kiddie pools and the smell of sausages sizzling. I shut the windows, I closed the blinds, I cranked up the air conditioner and I binge watched whatever shows were on at the time, maybe Breaking Bad or Mad Men. And I felt relieved that I could do that. But I also felt bad. Who was I helping by doing this? Did anyone even know I was in here? I experienced quite the existential angst of my life in that small room. My housemates were a bit concerned but they weren’t celebrating either, they just chose to do housework instead, at least adding some productivity to their boycott.

It felt strange that I had to resort to such measures to avoid a day that made me and so many Australians uncomfortable. I felt isolated and alone. I questioned if maybe I had it all wrong, that I was basing my discomfort not on the ample evidence that celebrating Australia Day on the 26th of January is offensive and barbaric to our Indigenous population. Or did it just come down to an instinctual whim I felt on that day, emboldened by the dark clouds and the occasional rain and the fierce desire to ignore my phone and my friends who maybe didn’t get it and who I didn’t want to have to explain it to and end up in a heated argument with etc.

And then this year I watched a video that reminded me it was always about the date, what it represented and the cruelty of ignoring that this is a day of mourning for so many. That discomfort is hard to manufacture. You either feel it or you don’t. I saw this video, and I decided to never again question that instinct or that innate understanding. It’s the same feeling that creeps up on Anzac Day. It speaks to you on the level that says, if you’re not acceptably White Australian, you’re not Australian. And every single one of us who hails from a minority community has felt that feeling at some point in our lives. The ugliest extension of that manifests itself in the form of racism, hate speech, death threats, incarceration and the list goes on. I didn’t want to second guess radical empathy of the kind that is so hard to channel towards action and in boycotting the things that feel wrong on every level, but that one time I did. I didn’t have a name for it.

Briggs and Aamer reminded me of this at the start of 2016. A whole five years after I Rear Window-ed Australia Day. I didn’t feel so alone anymore. I felt emboldened to stop celebrating, to chuck FOMO out the window and do what felt right, joining protest marches and festivals in the park dedicated to celebrating and mourning Indigenous culture.

It was strange and illuminating to hear that Briggs did the same thing, turning off the lights and peering out through the curtains. But now I think it’s time to come out of the shadows and be vocal about why changing the date matters (or #ChangeTheDate as it’s officially known on the twitters).

This time Briggs the artist has come through once more with the goods. Briggs and Trials, Yorta Yorta and Ngarrindjeri men, form the duo A.B. Original. They recently released an album called Reclaim Australia. That’s right, it’s a big fuck you to the Australian white supremacist hate group of the same name. They’re reclaiming Reclaim Australia.

Hailed by Rolling Stone as “revolution rap at its best”, covering systematic racism, police abuse and of course, the personal favourite, calling out the Australia Day celebrations for ignoring the fact that this day is a day of mourning for our nation.

“Bookended by a baton-pass intro with indigenous leader Archie Roach and a soulful closing cameo from Gurrumul, A.B. Original share more than just aesthetics with the G-funk era, swaggering and smirking like a heyday Ice Cube, as they deliver plainspoken punchlines of both poignancy and humour, all antagonistically aimed to “hit you with that Andrew Bolt of lightning” – as Trials boasts on “2 Black 2 Strong”.

The SMH describes it as:

“…the most forthright, engaged and wholly committed political musical statement made here in a long time.”

“Nice things are not promised, even though it has pop hooks and great rhythms in there. You won’t finish the album loving your fellow man and wanting to have a meaningful dialogue like Waleed Aly wants you to have with your One Nation-supporting uncle and your Trump-loving colleague. There are no hugs dispensed on Reclaim Australia.  

You will find yourself saying hell yeah (actually far stronger than “hell yeah”, but that’s another story) this is appalling, still; shouting at the radio/stereo/phone in unison with Briggs and Trials; and declaring I’m seriously bloody angry (actually far stronger than “bloody”, but …).

Too much politics and anger for you? That’s now how we do it in Australia? Actually, it’s time.”

The Huffington Post interviewed Briggs and Trials “It’s Shit Being A Black Man In Australia”.

“It’s a good time for the album to come out huh” he laughs.

“But I think anytime would be a good time to drop this album. Anytime, because the shit we’re talking about is not new. These issues have been around forever and ever. That’s our job now, to bring attention to these issues, highlight what’s fucked up in this country, and try to take a step forward.”

An album this fierce, unapologetic and brutally honest is long overdue in Australia. There are a lot of standout tracks on this album, but the one I want to draw your attention to is “January 26” featuring Dan Sultan.

“The lead single, ‘January 26’, is about changing the date of Australia Day from what Indigenous people often call “invasion day” to a time more inclusive of the entire community. Briggs and Trials’ lyrics compare commemorating the date, the arrival of British settlers and the beginning of the killing of thousands upon thousands Aboriginal people, to celebrating “on your nan’s grave” and having people “piss on her face”.

“I don’t think you can find a more concise analogy. We don’t want to piss on your nan’s grave but that’s what it means to us. It’s a slap in the face,” Briggs said.

“It’s a hard thing for us to discuss. It’s a difficult topic, when we’re usually met with such resistance,” Trials added.

“We want to make people think from our perspective. Imagine if we had a holiday to piss on your nan’s grave. We want people to take that and think ‘yeah wow that’s pretty disrespectful’. Now think about that as a whole, all your ancestors are having their deaths celebrated, then we can have a conversation.”

If you think changing the date is a pipe dream, then how else to explain that Fremantle plans to move Australia Day two days later after hearing the concerns of Aboriginal elders?

They’re not alone. Adelaide-based brewers Sparkee Change Beverage Co. have launched the message via their cans, a company that New Matilda is now involved in after owner Chris Graham straight up became a part-owner of the company

Riding the momentum of this album’s release and the shifting attitudes in the mainstream media, The Saturday Paper have launched their own version of a campaign to #ChangeTheDate.

“The case for a new Australia Day is a case for inclusion. It is about finding a new date for all Australia. Until this is done we will not be a whole country. Ours will be a heart of unconnected chambers.

The request to you, our readers, is simple: don’t celebrate dispossession. Stop marking Australia Day until it is a day for all. If you are a musician, don’t play the concerts. If you are a performer, don’t take the stages. If you are a family, don’t attend the festivities. By your own actions, speed the will on this uncomplicated change. Without the public to lead the politics of this, it will not happen.”

The Vocal supports this campaign and wants to take it one step further. If Triple J’s The Hottest 100 insists on going ahead on January 26 for Australia Day, make sure you vote for the song “January 26” by A.B. Original and get it to number 1.

Send a message either way.

And anytime someone tries to accuse you being angry, remember these words from author Michael Mohammed Ahmad on the difference between rage and resistance:

“Most of the time what those people are doing is mixing up rage with resistance. Rage is about complaining and arguing and fighting and abusing people because of the problem. Resistance is about healing. It’s about identifying what the problem is and then building strategies to respond so that you can heal.

”What I can say is that in my writers’ group, my participants are always making that mistake. They’re always saying this isn’t fair, this is bullshit and they take a shot at the one white guy in the room. And I say, while I respect the politics of what you’re talking about, I don’t have any patience for your practice because the practice is about rage, which is justified in a lot of cases, but it’s just not useful. It doesn’t lead to change. Resistance leads to change and resistance is about response and formulating a response to your circumstances through critical consciousness.”

Take some action

Support good Australian music by listening to (and buying) the album

  Reclaim Australia