I have always loved politically inspired music. When I was in primary school, my favourite album from my parents’ collection was the best of Midnight Oil. I didn’t really understand what most of the songs were about (and hadn’t been alive when they were written), but I knew they were about something, as opposed to the “baby baby” meaningless songs that were on the radio.
I remember buying the cd single of Chumbawamba’s “Tubthumping”, but being taken more by “Farewell to the Crown”, its anti-royalty b-side. Over the next few years I would grow to love Rage Against The Machine, and there were little bits of politics in the hip hop and punk music I got into as a teenager.
But the first time I remember really becoming aware of the power of the protest song was when I was 15, as I was both becoming politically aware and forming my music tastes.
In the leadup to the Federal election in 2001, one of the big political issues was “boat people”. There were three separate instances in late 2001 when boats of asylum seekers made big news. Firstly the SS Tampa, a Norwegian ship which had rescued hundreds of shipwrecked asylum seekers, attempted to dock at Christmas Island and was met by the Australian army refusing it entry to Australian waters. Eventually it was sent to Nauru.
Following this, the fishing boat SIEV X sank in international waters off Christmas Island with no Australian response for 3 days. Over 300 asylum seekers died. When another boat sunk and had to be rescued by an Australian ship, senior government figures John Howard, Peter Reith and Philip Ruddock accused the “boat people” of throwing their children overboard. A horrendous claim which, as proved by a later senate inquiry, they knew was false.
These events had a major politicising effect on my teenage self. I had been raised with a sense of compassion and decency (and told it was “the Australian way”) which said that refugees were people to be looked after. Our government not only failed to do that, but actively used them as election tools, demonising “boat people” and playing up its role as Australia’s protectors.
As John Howard declared “we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come”, his Liberal government rode to an election landslide in a frenzy of xenophobia. The other legacy was offshore processing; temporary protection visas (which could be terminated at the government’s discretion); the “mental illness factory” detention centres; and today’s ugly “stop the boats” politics. Fortunately the senate blocked Howard’s Border Protection Bill, which would have allowed Australia to use the military to remove any ship from Australian waters.
It was in these circumstances that I first heard John Butler Trio’s “Home is Where the Heart Is”, a blast of frustration at the xenophobia which had allowed the whole thing to happen. Over his usual slide-and-wah-wah guitar twang, Butler cries out “it seems strange to me… that a country founded on immigration can be so damn racist.”
Not long later came The Herd’s similarly scathing “77%”. Its profanity laced chorus (especially the use of the c-word), led to it being one of the few songs to attract the attention of the censors at JJJ. But it also was a classic protest song that helped to push Australian hip hop into the mainstream, as over an old school funk loop Ozi Batla spat out fury, disowning his race and nationality.
It’s hard to put into words what those songs meant to me then. They resonated with me in a way few songs ever had, expressing the frustration and disbelief (is this really happening?) that I felt, speaking up for justice and compassion in an atmosphere of conservatism and fear that the aftermath of September 11 had created. They helped to solidify that process of politicisation, reassuring me that I wasn’t crazy and there were other people that felt the same. And they were great to sing along to – catchy songs with an added feeling of catharsis.
Nearly a decade later, in 2010 and in the leadup to another Federal election, I wrote my own protest song about asylum seekers. Some things are slow to change, and once again “boat people” were the unwitting scapegoats in the election games of our head schemers. Fearing a similar result, Labor turned its back on its former more compassionate position. There was a race to the bottom on human rights (still being run, actually), and once again xenophobia proved the real winner.
It’s a reminder that protest songs usually don’t change the world. Still, as I perform that song to another group of people; attend another refugee action protest or planning meeting; or have somewhat awkward conversations in broken English attempting to welcome refugees to Australia; I can reassure myself that doesn’t mean that protest songs don’t change anything.