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Briggs and Archie Roach's Zoo Twilights performance was a sombre reminder of our nation's history

This was the performance we all needed on Australia Day.

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Image source: 
Ian Laidlaw

Bodies lay stretched on picnic blankets, carpeting the Melbourne Zoo as a cool breeze dulls the sting of the harsh summer sun. It's Australia Day, a highly contentious date which has caused more division and scrutiny with every passing year, but amongst those gathered for the evening's all-black lineup at least, the consensus is unanimous. 

Wergaia woman Alice Skye's warm rasp wafts across the crowd, sprinkled with shimmering keys, soft drum pangs and gentle strums of an acoustic guitar. Even while grappling with the rogue strap of her dress, slipping from her shoulder intermittently as her fingers brush the keys, there isn't a foul note. Skye admits she is nervous and despite what appears to be a quiver in her fingers, there’s no evidence of such. 

Skye's place is soon taken by Archie Roach, who pulls up a seat at the front of the stage. He feels like an old friend who has popped over for coffee before the first song has even begun. A storyteller through and through, Uncle Archie welcomes each of his songs with a tale of their origin. "Stories tie us to country and people and family," he puts it simply.

His words on the Stolen Generation and stories of his culture, through song and discussion, are especially poignant on the anniversary of the First Fleet's arrival on Aboriginal land. At 63 years old, Roach's voice is as strong as his unwavering spirit, his stuttering vibrato and rugged gnarl fill the now still air, each note sounding as though it has been dredged from his heart.

"I've been talking too much, as usual," he laughs as his set nears its end, but before departing, he introduces his friend and fellow Aboriginal pioneer, Jack Charles. The pair's duet of 'We Won't Cry' earns them a standing ovation and rapturous applause. 

Before Briggs appears for his set, his mum takes the opportunity to acknowledge not only the land on which we are on and its owners, but all of Australia's Indigenous people and their land. 

Briggs has barely emerged on the stage before he introduces Roach back to accompany him in ‘The Children Came Back’, a song written as a homage to Uncle Archie’s own ‘The Children Came Home’ of 1990. The pair embrace as the now-standing crowd reciprocate the shift in energy.

Briggs speaks of Roach’s influence, acknowledging that it was Uncle Archie who opened the door for the artists of today and an Australia in which an entirely Indigenous lineup would pull such a crowd. Before launching into an unreleased song, the Shepparton rapper warns parents that kids will be copping an earful of expletives from here on out, but there are no hands covering ears as young ones dance emphatically atop picnic rugs.

 
 
 
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A post shared by Senator Briggs (@senatorbriggs) on Jan 26, 2019 at 6:37pm PST

As beatmaker jayteehazard scratches the vinyl spinning atop his turntables, the bass shudders with such force the entire stage rumbles. We’ve been told the animals aren’t disturbed by the noise from these shows, but the power erupting from the speakers suggests otherwise.

A handful of songs in, Briggs tells the crowd of a promise he made to his crew that as soon as he had reached a certain level of success, he would share it with them. With that, he welcomes a medley of fellow rappers Philly, Kobie Dee, Birdz and Ecca Vandal, and disappears from sight.

When Briggs returns to the stage, he has one more surprise guest up his sleeve – the other half of his rap duo A.B. Original, Trials. What’s coming is obvious, in fact it’s the moment we’ve been awaiting all evening. Welcoming Ecca Vandal back to join them, they launch into an explosive rendering of ‘January 26’ that has all hands stretched towards the clouds threatening to rain overhead.

If you’re white, it’s impossible to understand the frustration, hurt and disenfranchisement felt not only on January 26 but every day by a government and nation which refuses to acknowledge Aboriginal history, let alone respect it. Standing in solidarity and listening to the stories and experiences of just a handful of Indigenous voices, the hopeful future of Australia shines bright.

Highlight: Jack Charles joining Archie Roach for ‘We Won’t Cry’.

Lowlight: The fact that Aboriginal people are still fighting for justice on their own land.

Crowd favourite: A.B Original and Ecca Vandal’s smouldering rendition of ‘January 26’.