Carmody on music, struggle and politics


KEV CARMODY, who has just released his latest album Images and Illusions, has found that while the music industry was happy to accept his money to produce the album, they have been equally happy to ignore its release. But, as he told Green Left Weekly's JILL HICKSON, this hasn't stopped him from campaigning for a hearing for Black music. Do you think that the reason you can't get a good hearing is because your music is political? They always call us political forgetting, of course, that the Michael Jacksons and Madonnas of the world are political; music is used to support, bolster and glorify consumer society, the capitalist society. The moment they see something that's the opposite, it becomes "political". But mainstream music is totally political. They're saying their politics is different to ours and therefore you can't come into our bloody house. Where did the title come from? I got to looking how the [music industry] sells their consumerist ideology by using images and illusions in the music. I thought I'd call it Images and Illusions because I wanted to see how they would deal with indigenous music. The music industry don't want to hear it because they really can't sell consumer products on the stuff we're doing. You can go so far in the music industry, as far as sales go, and then you don't get mainstream airplay. Your music tell stories of people in struggle. The song "From Little Things Big Things Grow", for example, was about Vincent Langari and the Gurindji drovers, a struggle which sparked the land rights movement. Do you see your music as an oral history? I never got into school until I was 10, and never learned to read until I was 12. They expelled me at 16. My grasp of English was very limited, so the oral tradition was so important. When you look at our cultural heritage, everything was passed through story-telling, song and art. To me it comes very naturally. I had uncles and aunties who knew a 54-verse poem about an incident on a station, and they were illiterate. But they weren't really, they had just developed their recall skills. They didn't have to go to the library, they didn't need a video or a radio, they transmitted it orally and that person-to-person contact was so important as well. I was taught as a tiny kid that there were two main things in life's journey to do: the first was respect and responsibility to the earth, and the second was respect and responsibility to fellow homo sapiens, no matter what creed, colour or gender. Three years after the Mabo decision, has the struggle for land rights been made any easier? Mabo opened a door. One thing it did was to show up the colonial law. Six high court big-wigged, upper-class males said that their law was wrong. We bloody knew that! In its wider implications, the law - not the lore we are socialised under - did go some way. But there's still over 80% of us who live in the urban areas. We have our connections back to our land, but where is the benefit to us. If they want to get fair dinkum about Mabo and native title, they've got to enshrine us in that constitution as this country's indigenous sovereign people, just like the First Nation people in Canada. We're still not recognised constitutionally as the people of this land. The song, "The Young Dancer is Dead", is about the 1992 death in police custody of an Aboriginal dancer, Daniel Yock. The police are saying they're not racist. How true is this? That was a big blow up in Queensland. One of the former police has come out and said that this is sort of par for the course. We know that they hide behind a facade of respectability, this inhuman conduct where the state can terminate a person's existence without any recompense or trial. If I go in the lock-up, it's always in the back of your head that it can happen. We're told we live in a democracy. Do you think this is the case? When I went to university, I got the Oxford Dictionary, and looked up the word "democracy". There were three categories: tolerance of minorities, government by all the people and absence of hereditary class distinctions. I thought "Wow, this Oxford mob, the upper class, have even defined democracy in a way that I can relate to!". But if you look around, where is this so-called democracy? It's an illusion. What does commercialisation do to music and culture? In the '50s, we heard the early Jimmy Rogers, Leadbeater and Woody Guthrie. In the '60s we got the protest music. By that stage, the paranoia of the McCarthy era had gone and the industry found that they could market millions of records with protest music. And then boom, we've got all these singers singing about oppression. But to my knowledge, the majority, except for the Hispanic people like Rodriguez, were middle-class kids singing about the oppressed, not about their oppression. During the '60s we never heard about the Reverend Kirkpatrick or Jimmy Connolly or Gill Scott Heron [until] the music industry learned to market it. The two big musics, beside rock and roll, that came from the streets were punk, [which] came out of anger and frustration and rap - we're sick of oppression. And again it goes into house, techno, hip hop, boom boom boom, and, oh, now it's marketable, [now that] the guts have been taken out it. In federal Labor's 12 years of government there has been a massive shift in wealth from working people to the rich. What is your impression of Labor in office? The Labor Party purported to represent the working people. When I first started work [on cane farms] there were literally hundreds of labouring jobs, then along comes technology [which] cut all those jobs out. It forced black people to move to the fringes of the towns and re-skill ourselves. I swept the floor of a welding shed for nine months and taught myself to weld. And then welding got computerised. Bell Corporation, where I made parts for the Mack truck with about 360 men, got bought out by Holmes a Court in the '80s. He closed it down over five years, not because it wasn't viable - we were making millions - but because he wanted a tax deduction. So 300 fully skilled men hit the dole queue in a little place like Toowoomba. We're confronting this, but the Labor Party's spending all its time trying to keep down its current account deficit. It's got to the point where working people are [becoming] a privileged class, because it's the non-working people and the under-employed and single mothers that are another class below the working class. They're the ones that can't even get a mortgage. What hope do you see for musicians like yourself? The mainstream music industry has been powerful up to a point, but now you can play at festivals around Australia. The Malaney Festival puts through 60,000 to 70,000 people. If people are aware that there is an alternative that they like, they'll go. We're black-"outing" the [mainstream music industry]. It's a long-term process, but people if they stand together and are made aware of their common focus, we certainly can achieve things.