The terrible news came through on Saturday 31 July that the person so many of us hold to be our greatest keeper of song and musical truth-teller, Uncle Archie Roach, had died aged 66 after a long illness. I’m personally crushed by this loss and I’ve been letting the tears flow as I’ve been reading tributes from so many people’s whose lives have been touched. I only had one face-to-face meeting with him. That was at Port Fairy Folk festival in 2014. I waited for the rest of the line to clear before approaching him and I sheepishly asked him for an autograph. I let him know that my family were trying to connect the dots back to our mob, coming from Stolen Generations grandmothers on my mothers side. I was deeply moved when instead of just writing his name and waving me goodbye, he wrote the message: “You’re beginning a Journey that i have already taken. Take Strength and Pride in who you are!”
That message hangs beside a portrait of him in my hallway. I often pause to read it and just take in the power of his words, forever grateful he took the time to pass them on. They are key to who I am, the suffering of my grandmothers under systemic racism and the relationship I have to the land I’m living on. To me this man was like a spiritual superhero. His music, honesty and big-heartedness had literally changed my world as well as so many others coming from similar experiences. Listening to him perform was the closest thing I had to going to church, because he sang from the heart. “This story’s right, this stories true” were literally the first words most people heard from him in Took The Children Away and there was never any question about where he was coming from.
Archie Roach was a musical healer to himself and others. He knew the importance in truth in making any form of healing possible. He didn’t tire of singing his most famous song. In his book Tell Me Why, he makes it clear that the song helped to set him free from pain the more he sang it.
I’ve heard Emma Donovan refer to him as being a bit like our Dalai Lama, which makes me laugh and smile. Humour was a huge part of the medicine that he shared freely with audiences at countless shows. He sang in all kinds of settings: protests, parks, prisons, festivals and concert halls.
Paul Kelly give him an initial big break in a support slot that left the audiences speechless. Imagine how different this country would be if Archie didn’t bring his gifts forward like that. I doubt there would ever have been the Rudd Apology or forms of compensation that came later, though there’s still ongoing child removals. In many ways, Roach has raised up a new generation of artists and activists to take on the issues of now. The is a giant with broad shoulders for young mob to stand on and he actively nurtured, supported and cultivated younger artists like Gina Williams, Emma Donovan, Emily Wurramara and so many more. Uncle Kutcha Edwards is also sharing truth and touching hearts and influencing minds with songs based on his own firsthand experience as a Stolen Generations survivor. Archie’s son Amos Roach is doing amazing cultural and song work of his own, carrying forward the family’s tradition in stories and song.
While we grieve, I feel we have so much to be thankful for in what Archie Roach has creating, music that we can listen to, learn from, appreciate and share, pass on to our kids and their kids. What an incredible example of cultural leadership he gave, starting with those who needed it most, then extending out to everyone who has ears to listen.
Archie Roach’s name and music will live forever. His story is our story and we will always treasure the gifts he left behind. He fought the best possible fight and now he’s reunited with his beloved Ruby. Thanks you, Uncle Archie, for the incredible difference you made to our lives and we will carry your spirit forward with us until all the children are home.