Bhiamie Williamson, Australian National University.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised this article contains names and images of deceased people. Archie Roach’s family have given permission for his name and image to be shared.
I am not sure of the first time I heard Archie Roach’s music.
Like most Aboriginal people born during or after the 1980s, we grew up listening to the person we affectionately called Uncle Archie. But there was one song that spoke to me from the first moment I heard it: From Paradise.
The song tells the story of a young girl who was taken away from her Country, the river lands, part of the stolen generations.
While his songs will play loud and long into the future, beneath his music Uncle Archie gave us something else, something deeply profound but mostly invisible.
He gave us – and all of Australia – an image of an Aboriginal man, tender and humble. An image long denied us.
Our greatest storyteller
The passing of Archie Roach has hit us – Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people – like the first crack of thunder after dark clouds descend.
You know it’s coming, but it shocks you still.
Uncle Archie gave voice, a story, to the experiences of so many of our people. His song Took the Children Away gave shape to a suffering so deep and profound. “This story’s right, this story’s true,” he sang.
These cathartic melodies continue to offer us healing.
His catalogue of music spans distances and experiences difficult to grasp. Uncle Archie’s gift was to write and bring to life through the strum of his guitar, the stories so familiar to us all.
His success took our stories to the nation, and the world.
To describe him simply as a musician fails to recognise him as a messenger. His music reaches through darkness like the beam of a lighthouse, offering guidance and safe harbour in times of despair.
Through his life and love of music, Uncle Archie became our greatest storyteller.
The father and mentor
The music of Uncle Archie came from a place of suffering. Taken away as a child, being homeless, a drunk, locked up, learning of the death of family through whispers and letters, grief was his constant companion.
Through this time, he found Ruby Hunter. They would have two sons, Amos and Eban. Uncle Archie and Aunty Ruby, with their kids, shared a life of love, laughter and song. My personal favourite song, Down City Streets, was written by Aunty Ruby.
Uncle Archie has supported hundreds of young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists and inspired countless more through his foundation.
For decades Uncle Archie worked in youth detention centres, talking with young people who found themselves in hardship. He offered guidance and mentorship to young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people, illuminating a road through the difficulties of life, often the result of colonisation and racism.
Through his life, his dedication to Aunty Ruby, his devotion to his sons, his work with disengaged youth and his profound love for his people, Uncle Archie gave the nation an image of an Aboriginal man seldom found in the national psyche.
Images of the violent abuser, the drunk, the criminal, the absent father, or a combination of these, saturate our print media and television news bulletins. Even positive representations of Aboriginal men – the warrior, the sports star – exudes a sense of toughness and candour.
Rare, almost unheard of, are the stories of Aboriginal men as sensitive, soft, loving and vulnerable people.
Yet it is these qualities my research has revealed are most valued by our people.
He carefully navigated these spaces, acknowledging that while many young Aboriginal people, and especially boys, are born into a world that has been built to suppress them, they possess an inner strength stemming from culture and community.
The notion of “Emu Men” has emerged throughout my PhD.
Male emus are the primary carer for their chicks. The male partner will sit on the nest and the father rears the babies.
This notion of manhood and fatherhood – someone dedicated to his family, who has a primary responsibility to ensure the safety of his children and their passage through the world – appears to be deeply entwined in many of our peoples’ customs and cultures.
In Uncle Archie, we find the most profound sense of this alternate masculinity.
His songs will live on forever. But he also gifted us this alternate image of an Aboriginal man: someone soft, tender, loving, vulnerable, generous, resilient. Someone profoundly strong and with an inner wisdom, who sat on his nest and looked after his family and young people experiencing hardship.
It will take time to come to terms with this loss.
To his family we offer our hearts and hold you in our spirit.
This great songman gave our people a voice and a way to understand what has happened to us. He gave so much to a nation that treated him so badly.
As for me, like many others, Uncle Archie’s music and concerts has offered companionship through major life events. My wife and I danced to Love in the Morning on our wedding day.
And as for From Paradise, from the first moment I heard this song I thought he wrote it about my grandmother who was taken away and sent to Palm Island.
It is difficult to put words to this loss – Uncle Archie was always the one with the words.
Thank you for everything Uncle. May you soar with the eagles.
Aunty Ruby be happy to see you.