Singing Along a Delicate Line: XIT and Yothu Yindi’s Navigation of Contradition

Native American and Australian protest music are as united by underlying concepts and paradoxes as they are divided by cultural, social and historical intricacies unique to national (and even tribal) backgrounds. Neither genre of political song, like any art form, was created in a vacuum, and where there are parallels between the social, cultural, and political climates in which they formed, certain fundamental differences separate the musics and the outcomes of each continent. Social unrest was present in the historical background during the formation and creative heyday of both the popular Australian band Yothu Yindi and the Native American Red Power music group, XIT. Political and social context also played a major role in the positive reception of Yothu Yindi in the Western World. These varied historical contexts, coupled with the   significant tension between the traditional and the contemporary inherent in modern indigenous music, creates musical indexing in both Australian and American indigenous protest musics. This tension also creates a struggle for both authenticity and inter-tribalism, saddling both groups with the obligation to truthfully represent a supratribal pan-Indian identity (or a pan-aboriginality) which could be argued to be an impossibility. Despite significant historical and cultural differences, both forms of protest music are valid mediums in which to negotiate the complex process of ethnogenesis, explore the tension between contemporaneity and tradition, and (albeit with certain cultural and hegemonic barriers) air grievances and express desire for sovereignty, respect, and political action.

It is important to first acknowledge the historical context of each form of protest music to fully understand its creation, motivation, and effects. Red Power music arose from the 1960’s and early 1970’s, a time of tumult and a mass-surfacing of civil rights activists from many previously silenced minority groups. Amid the violent images returning home from Vietnam, the fear associated with drafting, and the frustration of a highly controversial and unpopular war which sent a total of 61,000 American Indians into battle, XIT sang “Oh, I want peace with my soul again.” Amid the voices of the Black Power movement, LaRaza, New feminism and the New left, XIT sang “Your America has not been a land of your proclaimed equality, and justice for all / May your God forgive you.” Amid the sharp contrast between reservation and city, between the urban Indians, youth motivated by the supratribal Red Power movement and the concerns of reservation Indians, tribally focused and concerned with immediate land claims, XIT  sang “As a young Indian boy / I was raised / the true Indian way.  Free as the wind / on wings of white clouds / those were happy days.”

Historical Context was equally important in Aboriginal Music. Facing a similar contradictory urbanization, Archie Roach’s face appears on the cover of the album Charcoal Lane in a medium which “could be on one of those inner city posters coming away in the rain, but reveals itself as more likely inscribed on a stylized ghost-gum (tree) trunk” (Castles 20). Responding to a history of forced governmental assimilation programs, Roach sang “Back to their people/Back to their land/All the children came back/Yes I came back.” Yothu Yindi is also contextualized by the resurgence of racism and Anglo-Australian Hegemony in the 1996 election of a Conservative national government, creating a climate often cold, dismissive, and openly hostile to their protest songs and messages.

An important difference to note is the two-decade gap between the popularity of XIT and that of Yothu Yindi, the early seventies and the nineties respectively. Another important difference is that in Australia, indigenous people are considered black people, and identify heavily with African Americans, whereas during the Red Power movement, American Indians and African Americans are considered distinctly different, each with separate goals during the civil rights era. However, both American Indians and Indigenous Australians could be argued to share several important socio-cultural themes prevalent in their otherwise unique history: assimilation by European colonizers (as well as, arguably, multiculturalism as a thinly veiled descendant of that assimilation), demand that sovereignty and respect be given to indigenous groups and that government promises be honored, and a reclamation of traditional languages, instruments, and values amidst the chaos of a rapidly modernizing, urbanizing, and expanding world. These shared themes lead to another common trait within the tracks themselves, musical blending of traditional and modern, indexing of contemporary popular sound and indigenous language and instruments. In the case of XIT, “Plight of the Redman displays the kind of stylistic blending and creative indexing that is now a common occurrence in much contemporary Native popular music, with uniquely ‘American Indian’ musical elements embedded within a rock writing and production style very typical of the time period” (Scales 15). Yothu Yindi also blends musical styles of aboriginal and rock, however Hayward claims that particularly in the (arguably watered-down, anglo-palatable) remix Treaty II, all political meaning (and therefore, all relevance and impact) are washed away by a danceable modern beat and the removal of English Lyrics.

While American Indian and Aboriginal Australian protest music have important historical and cultural differences, they each navigate the complex themes, histories and events which contextualize them. Similarly, they each make revealing choices concerning contemporaneity and tradition, riding the fence between the old and the new, rural and urban, the oppressor and the rising voices of those who refuse oppression. They seek, in ways sometimes limited by political climate or the restrictions of the terms of success in the popular music industry, both authenticity (a contradiction in itself!) and relevance, using “musical means to extramusical ends” (Hayward-Neuenfeldt 176) be they a means to a political end, or a means to explore a world of delicate contradictions.

Published in: on March 27, 2011 at 9:32 am  Leave a Comment  

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