At 61, the Victorian singer-songwriter Archie Roach has come a long way from the self-described “angry young man” whose early years were a blur of foster homes, homelessness and alcoholism.
As a survivor of the stolen generations, the elder statesman of Indigenous music has every reason to be angry at a system that today sees more Aboriginal children removed from their families than at any other time in Australian history.
He has every reason to feel dispirited by the personal hardships that have visited him in recent years, first with the death of his wife and musical soulmate, Ruby Hunter, in 2010, then a stroke he suffered later that year, and then losing part of his lung to cancer in 2011. Rather than being bitter at his lot, however, Roach says he can now see things “more on a universal level”.
“You realise everybody suffers,” he says. Everybody goes through hard times. “I’m able to have that hope, you know. I’m able to hold on and see the light in the darkness.”
He credits his manager, Jill Shelton (“if it wasn’t for her I probably wouldn’t be around”), as well as music, with helping him through the hardest times.
The healing power of music is a subject that the typically reserved Roach could gladly chat about for hours. At this year’s Womadelaide festival, the singer – who performed at the first event in 1992 –alongside a strong lineup of Indigenous performers, including the Yolngu artist Gawurra and the hip-hop duo AB Original. He’ll also be taking part in with a good friend, the actor and elder Uncle Jack Charles, on the subject of “healing and empowering through the arts”.
“Jack and I have been working together for a while in the youth justice space, and really getting our heads around healing and rehabilitation through the arts,” Roach says. “[Music] gives a lot of young people who can’t express themselves in any other way – which is probably why they’re in the youth justice system in the first place – it gives them a voice.
“Having your own voice is very powerful and healing. [When I was young] music helped me stop drinking. I stopped getting into trouble. I turned a corner and music was great therapy for me – it still is. It gave me a way to express myself – a lot more positively than going around and doing stupid things.”
Hunter, who met Roach in Adelaide when they were both homeless teenagers, was instrumental in elevating her partner’s music from street to stage. She insisted that the retiring singer record his debut album, 1990’s Charcoal Lane. Its first single, the autobiographical ballad Took the Children Away, propelled Roach to national prominence.
Ten albums and 27 years after that seminal song about his experience as a member of the stolen generations, Roach says today’s record rate of Aboriginal child removal troubles him deeply.
“In some cases children need to be removed because they’re in danger of being harmed,” he says. “But it still weighs on me that so many are being removed and the governments haven’t learned a thing from past practices..
“Maybe we can do something to keep these kids if not with their families then with extended families, and try to … sort out some of the problems that they do have. What’s affected the old people back 200 years ago is still affecting us today. It’s hard, that intergenerational trauma.
“People say, ‘Oh they’re just no good, they’re trash, the parents aren’t looking after the kids.’ But we’ve got to understand the root cause of it and try and work through it.”
Roach is also an advocate for moving Australia Day from 26 January – the date of European invasion – so that “Australians as a whole along with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are able to celebrate on a particular day that we all agree on”.
Indigenous spirituality – woven in with the Christianity of his youth – has been a source of ongoing strength for Roach. On Spiritual Love, a song from his latest album, Let Love Rule, he sings about spirituality being the most important “relationship” a person can have.
Roach says he has a “big” spiritual connection to where he lives now, on his mother’s country – Gunditjmara land near Warrnambool in south-west Victoria. “Christianity as well – I was brought up with that in three foster homes. There’s a lot of parallels between Christianity and Aboriginal spirituality, in the sense there’s one creator.”
Roach relishes his solitude at his home in regional Victoria. “At my age, I actually like [living on my own]. It’s a lovely property and I can sit down and watch the little superb fairy-wrens jumping around the backyard. It’s beautiful, it’s peaceful and it’s good. [In the evening] I just relax by playing some music, or reading, or going for a walk along the beach.”
There’s a discernible peace about the softly spoken Roach, who has long been a mentor to Aboriginal youngsters. His previous home in Berri, South Australia, had an open door to troubled youth who were struggling with the same addiction and identity issues he had as a teenager. Is there any advice the 61-year-old would give to his “angry” younger self?
“I’d probably say, ‘Listen, settle down, go take a deep breath. Maybe have a look at other people around and realise there’s people that are a lot worse off than yourself … We don’t have a monopoly on suffering.’
“Yeah, I’d have a good talk to him, that’s for sure.”
• Archie Roach plays Womadelaide, in Botanic Park, Adelaide, from 10–13 March. Guardian Australia is a media partner for Womadelaide