Blue Sky City, Ja-Ann Lin

A week before Corrine found out that she could turn into a bird, Shaun, from year ten, had stolen her bike. We were leaving school after our after-school dance group on Fridays. The birds were noisy in the trees above, where the blinding gold sunlight filtered through the branches to cast long stark shadows across the ground below. We always left school through the side gates, where we had to pass Shaun and his boy-crew, who always hung around the dirty, adjacent café, even well after school.

We avoided their gaze as we walked past, and I remember seeing Corrine’s eyes flicker before I heard footsteps and voices grow louder behind me. Shaun skipped up beside Corrine, his friends giggling behind him as he did.

‘Hey Corrine, that’s a nice bike. Are you sure a year seven can handle something like that?’

She ignored him, but in the next moment the bike was pulled from her hands in a motion that nearly dragged her to the ground.

‘What the hell…’ Corrine managed to breathe before yelling, ‘Give that bike back! Oi! Give it back!’

The boys were laughing and screeching and Shaun became emboldened, ‘What do you mean? This bike? Give it back to who? Doesn’t have your name on it.’ He smirked.

‘You know it’s my bike Shaun, just give it back.’ Corrine’s jaw was clenched.

‘Huh? I found this bike!’ Shaun laughed and his friends smacked him chummily on the back. ‘Go back to your housos, Corrine.’ Shaun laughed, and then he was pedalling out onto the road, through the crawling queue of traffic. The rest of the boys loyally sprinted after him, their laughing and hooting receding as they did.

In the following week, Corrine called me to go over to her house. ‘Sorry, I can’t give you a hint. But I have something really important to tell you.’

My dad drove me over after his morning exercise routine (which he needed to calm his arthritic elbows). We had his usual music on the stereo. He always played the same playlists he’d burned onto some CDs, maybe ten years ago: Taiwanese 80s political songs, Eurovision hits, a P!nk song, some Japanese ballads, and a Taiwanese singer called A-Mei.

‘She’s actually a Taiwanese Aboriginal, you know, Angela?’ my dad said. I told him Corrine was Indigenous too.

‘What is Indigenous?’ he said.

‘It’s the same thing, Corrine just says Indigenous more, I think.’

My dad nodded, ‘Maybe it is more respectful word.’

Linda answered the door when we arrived.

‘Hello! Thanks for coming. Corrine’s just run upstairs to get changed.’ Linda turned to Dad, and shook his hand. ‘How are you? I’m Linda, Corrine’s mum.’

Dad looked at Linda, at the stray blonde hairs curling out around her forehead.

‘Oh! Hello, thank you for having Angela coming here to play.’ He paused again, wearing a sheepish smile as Linda smiled at us. ‘I’m sorry, I did not know that—Angela just told me you are…’

Linda scratched her elbow, and gestured us inside. ‘Why don’t you come in first?’ She was calm, but I felt like I swear there were bugs in my clothes.

I slipped my shoes off and stared hard at the floor as I stepped onto the floor boards inside. I even noticed a mountain-like pattern in the wood grain.

‘That’s okay, bring your shoes in,’ Linda interrupted my thoughts.

‘Umm. Nah, it’s okay,’ I said, without looking at her. ‘They’re already off anyway.’

She invited my dad in and he began to untie his sneakers. Linda held the door open politely as we waited for Dad to take his shoes off.

Walking down the hallway, the air became cool. Somewhere here, Dad asked, ‘Sorry Linda, if you don’t mind me to asking, I did not know Indigenous can mean white?’

There was a pause before Linda responded as we walked into the warm kitchen, the oven whirring in one corner.

‘Ah. I have a good answer to that, brother. You see, actually, I’m not white.’ She smiled. ‘I’m a Burramattagal woman of the Darug nation, and I’m fair-skinned.’ She shrugged her shoulders, like she’d been found guilty of a crime she did not feel very guilty for. She pulled out some chairs for us around a circular wooden table, and raised her eyebrows in expectation when we heard Corrine’s boots stomping down the stairs. In the moment of disruption, Dad quickly turned to me, quietly saying, ‘Angela, what is Bu-bruma-gal?’

‘Hey Angela!’ Unfortunately for him, Corrine got to me first. ‘Hey, Mr. Liu.’

Dad smiled and nodded. ‘Hi Corrine, thank you for inviting Angela to play.’

‘Thanks for coming!’ Corrine said, before drifting to the pantry and investigating its insides.

We turned back to Linda, who was leaning with her forearms on the back of a chair beside us.

‘I’m sorry,’ my dad had his head tilted. ‘Can you say again? I am not sure I quite catch it.’

‘Sure. Coffee or tea first?’ Linda moved towards the kitchen counter.

‘Yes, thank you, coffee,’ my dad said, his head bobbing. ‘Thanks.’

She continued as the kettle began to boil. ‘I think this might make more sense; no matter how much white you drop in a black pool, the water still flows from our ancestors. I say I am proud to be a Burramattagal woman because it’s important for me to remember who I am, for us to remember. It means our identity hasn’t been stolen from us.’ She offered dad his coffee, sat down, and added milk to her own. The cup tinkled as she stirred. ‘Something we like to say: coffee’s still coffee.’

She continued, ‘Sorry to create this big conversation, but it’s important to me, because it’s about who we were, and fighting for that.’ My dad was nodding slowly and blinking quickly.

‘Okay,’ Corrine said. ‘We’ll be off then, Angela, before my mum gets started.’

‘Hey, I’m a passionate lady!’ Linda was laughing.

‘I think it is good to have a passion,’ my dad chimed in. ‘It is something that driving people throughout their whole lives… Those with passion are the lucky ones.’

‘Okay, let’s go,’ I said. It was time for me to get out of there before my dad started too.



We walked to a bushy reservoir down the road where we often hung out. There, a concrete footpath wound through sparsely grown bush, woven with gently spiralling trails of bare hardened dirt, where people had wandered further into the trees. At the end of one of these trails was our rock; a large angular rock that sat in a bed of leaf litter beside the bend of the skinny, polluted creek that trickled through the reserve. We picked our way through fallen branches and web-covered trees before shuffling onto our rock.

I sat and waited for Corrine to speak. I listened to the trickle of the water, and looked down at its marbled surface, glittering with shards of sunlight. In the water below, I saw something move.

‘Whoa, is that an eel?’ I leaned slightly towards the movement.

‘Oh what? No way!’ Corrine planted her hands on the rock and pushed her head down towards the water. ‘Wow,’ she whispered. ‘You wouldn’t think they’d survive in that.’

I laughed, before the trickling sound of the creek settled back into our silence.

Corrine took a deep breath and picked up a pebble before flicking it into the water with a gentle splash. ‘So, do you remember that time we were talking about ghosts? When you said your friend and a group of his friends saw ghosts in a forest, and now they all believe in ghosts?’

‘Yeah,’ I nodded.

‘And we were talking about how you want to believe, but even though your friend is so sure, and all his friends are so sure, and you trust him, you still just kinda doubt the story and can’t believe in ghosts?’

‘Yes,’ I nodded again.

‘And same with aliens and mega monsters?’ Corrine’s fingers toyed with another pebble, before she threw it into the water.

‘Yeah…’ I was unsure then. Corrine’s shoulders tensed and untensed as she spoke. Her fingers picked at the pebbles that lay too close, before they were sent to join the others in the creek. Her eyes had not met mine yet, but her lips were pulling back against a smile. Corrine never flirted with mystery, but I could not figure this one out. ‘What was it you wanted to tell me?’ I said.

‘Okay. Sis, I’ll just give it to you straight.’ Her eyes slowly moved to match mine. ‘I can turn into a bird.’ The creek trickled. ‘And I’m just going to do it, okay? Okay, don’t freak out.’

Before I could even open my mouth to speak, Corrine leapt backwards off the rock and leaned into the leaf litter on all fours. She flexed and strained, looking like she was trying to burst from her own skin. And then she did.

A smoky cloud of feathers ruptured her figure, the force of it lifting her body into the air in the same moment, her body was like a volcanic eruption, sending leaves and dirt blowing into the air around her. She stood before me. Corrine’s human body had disappeared beneath a vibrating shifting layer of glossy plumage.

‘Oh my god,’ I chanted it like a mantra. ‘Oh my god.’

Her feathers settled, and her shoulders became smooth, curving wings, resting on an arched back, sloping towards an elegantly fluffy tail.

Protruding from the mass of feathers were two leathery grey legs, standing on gnarled, clawed feet. Proportionally, they did make sense, but when you see something like that so big and close… all I could think was, dinosaur feet.

Corrine’s face peered out from beneath a crown of feathers that followed her hairline, and loosely down around her jaw. ‘So yeah, uh, don’t tell anyone, please.’ Her feathers moved when she grinned.

‘Oh my god,’ I said again. And then I began to laugh. Something about her fleshy face grinning from a mess of feathers just hit the spot, and I laughed so hard tears sprung to my eyes and Corrine was quick to join. I didn’t know what to say, and Corrine didn’t either, so we just laughed.

I could hardly believe it; Corrine was marvellous. And she was my friend; my real-life friend who was a real-life bird who existed in real life!

When we had calmed down, Corrine shrunk back into her human form, and thanked me. ‘I mean it. Thank you for understanding,’ she said.

I didn’t actually know what she meant, but I gave her a hug and thanked her back. Later in the night, in the darkness of my room, I was woken by a string of text messages from Corrine. I read them like a dream. I only managed to skim them, before slipping into a sleep filled with the sound of wind pressing against my windows.




Sat, 23 Sep, 3:25 AM

I was flying above the house for maybe twenty minutes before I finally landed. The dog had already seen me by then, and he seemed to be waiting. It was lucky how windy it was, I wasn’t quiet when I landed. It was amazing though; he made way for me to land, and when I did, he looked afraid. He walked over to me slowly and sniffed at the air between us until he was sniffing at my wings. His name was Rex, I managed to see on his collar…


Sat, 23 Sep, 3:27 AM

At that point, the wind made the clotheslines turn and make a terrible high-pitched squeak, and Rex jumped back. I went over to my bike, and luckily, Shaun didn’t manage to mess it up—the stickers were still there and everything. I had a rope with me and I quickly changed back so I could tie the body of the bike to my ankles…


Sat, 23 Sep, 3:31 AM

When I turned again, Rex must have been sniffing behind me and I heard him jump and run behind the shed and a motion light switched on. God, it was terrifying, Angela. I just turned around and I see the door leading to the house and Shaun is right there. He was crouching on the concrete, clutching an Ipod…


Sat, 23 Sep, 3:38 AM

I couldn’t move. We just stared! He looked like he was going to vomit. I didn’t know what to do, I had this bike tied to my legs and I panicked, so I just jumped and flew. Shaun fell backwards then, and I saw the shadow of my wings black him out as I rose, can you believe it!

After dance group that day, Corrine asked me if I’d mind taking another route home. She fidgeted as she started, ‘I dunno, it’s probably fine, I’m just freaking out…’

‘No, of course,’ I said.

‘I mean I don’t think he’d do anything…’ She was rubbing her forehead.

‘Don’t worry,’ I reassured her, let’s just go to the back gate.’

Her shoulders unwound at my words.

We walked through the empty school grounds, past dark classrooms, accompanied only by the afternoon song of birds. I walked alongside Corrine, pushing her bike between us. We reached the main oval, sitting atop a hill that rose above the rest of the school. It was surrounded by tall swaying trees that bordered the bright blue sky above. We walked across the oval, the yellowy grass crunching under our footfalls and the rolling bike wheels, the burning sun touching all that the shadows could not.

As we approached the back gate, Corrine jolted to a stop, and I followed her gaze to find Shaun’s back, many steps ahead of us. He walked slowly. And he was alone. Corrine’s eyes were trained on the back of his head as we approached the gate. Our pace soon exceeded his, and I kept my eyes on the sharp dry blades of grass under my feet as we passed him; I could hear the grass crunching beneath his feet. Corrine was quiet, and her footsteps were just as measured as mine. We walked through the metal gate and down the dirt path that led to the road. Shaun never once seemed to notice us.

When we reached the top of the road, where my bus stop stood, and where we would be parting ways, a sound void seemed to be filled with the sound of traffic. I looked up at Corrine and saw that tears sparkled in her eyes. She was smiling.

‘Thanks, Angela,’ she said. ‘Jesus.’ She laughed.

We hugged and Corrine climbed onto her bike and pedalled across the road, where the line of houses foregrounded a hill dotted with other houses, and a big blue sky. I closed my eyes and felt the warmth of the sun against my skin. It felt like I was on the edge of remembering something, a happy memory I know I’d never remember, and maybe never even had. When I opened my eyes again. I saw that Corrine had stopped too, and in that moment, she turned around and waved at me. Corrine turned her head and squinted up at the gauze of thin wind-blown clouds, before waving again and getting back on her bike. I looked up to see the sky behind the houses and thought about how cool the mist would feel against her face later, when she would be flying in the sky above me.

Download a PDF of Blue Sky City here.


Planet Earth, Red Alert, Rima Martens

A woman draped in purple stands ankle deep in the shallows, and the waves break around her. It is only her body that interrupts the clean line of a sky that meets the water’s horizon. The rest of us are gathered up on the rocks. A black veil covers her head, one arm is up in the air, and her hand is something of a constant wobble. At first, my novice ears mistake her war cry for wailing.

I’m standing on Whakatane’s pebbled beach in the Bay of Plenty, New Zealand. It’s Waitangi Day, and a crowd has gathered to watch the Wakas go out to war.[1] Even the group of boys with gang emblemed bandanas over their faces has turned from their intimate circle. Their cool cigarettes are dropped and snuffed out with the latest air soled sneakers. Their attention shows respect.

Although Australia has Indigenous people, we do not have an equivalent to Waitangi Day. For those that share views with Tony Abbott, it might be a concept a little hard to grasp.[2] Waitangi Day celebrates the signing of a treaty between the Maori people and the white settlers. And even though Australia does not currently have an Indigenous treaty, I cannot imagine an equivalent day would be very joyful.

As we listened to the chants of rowing men and women echoing around the bay, it is incredible to know that in exactly two months the area would be flooded so severely that even evacuation centres would have to get evacuated. In April 2017, Whakatane homes filled with water two metres high, treasured letters and books were sodden, photo albums washed away and the woodcarvings of Maraen, rotted.[3]

For New Zealand this would be deemed a ‘freak’ accident: Mother Nature lashing out as she occasionally does (of course, she has lots of reasons too). However, some 3000-kilometers away, the island of Tuvalu feels these lashings a lot more fiercely and frequently.

The saying, ‘trouble in paradise’, seems a cruelly shallow way to describe the small nation, though it is fitting. If you google Tuvalu you will be met with pictures of swaying palm trees, bountiful reefs and aqua waters that look like they are straight out of a luxury travel magazine. Alternatively, googling ’Tuvalu climate change’ presents an entirely different colour pallet, of children standing ankle deep in brown waters brimming with trash and holding signs saying: To the rest Of the World Please Could you Prepare a place for my country to stay.

Tuvalu is one of the smallest countries in the world, after the Vatican, Monaco, and Nauru. It is an island group in the South Pacific Ocean, halfway between Hawaii and Australia. Its name, Tuvalu, translates to ‘eight standing together’ and refers to the eight traditional islands of Tuvalu (Nanumea, Niutao, Nanumaga, Nui, Vaitupu, Nukufetau, Funafuti, and Nukulaelae), the ninth island is tiny Niulakita. With a total land area of ten square miles, it consists of nine coral atolls, four of them being reef islands the other five being true atolls. As Tuvalu is low lying, rising no higher than one-point-eight-three metres above sea level, it is particularly threatened by a rising, warming ocean.

Tuvalu is considered one of the world’s countries most susceptible to climate change. In the last five years, its media coverage has been dwindling. This is possibly because it is a story that no one is interested in anymore, or perhaps because it only has a population of approximately 11,000. It may also be because our current world leaders don’t know how to sustaining their economies while dealing with the critical needs of current science.

Tuvalu could be depicted as a contemporary Atlantis, soon to crumble into the bubbling seas. The thought of a country disappearing altogether seems a part of the way-off future—when the fish are belly up, and we go to museums to see trees. The forces working against Tuvalu are far too many, with beachhead erosion, coastal engineering, environmental mismanagement, overpopulation, deforestation, and deteriorating coral reefs just some of global warming’s teammates. A 1989 United Nations report on the greenhouse effect stated that Tuvalu would entirely recede into the ocean in the twenty-first century unless our attitudes and practises affecting global warming dramatically changed. Yet it is the United States that is the world’s largest overall polluter, and Australia takes the trophy for highest greenhouse-gas emissions per capita, and both countries continue to take scant action on climate change.[4][5]

The spotlight first fell on Tuvalu in 1997. While I was in nappies, crying about a dropped dummy, Tuvalu Prime Minister Koloa Talake addressed a collection of world leaders at the Kyoto conference in Japan. Talake pleaded that immediate action was required, in order for the effects of global warming to stop from growing. While most nations agreed to reduce their emissions, neither the United States nor Australia supported the Kyoto Protocol at the time. Again, in 2000, then Tuvalu Prime Minister Ionatana Ionatana focused international attention on Tuvalu by addressing the United Nations to speak on global climate change and the impact it would have on indigenous cultures, security, and sovereignty. Australia finally ratified the agreement in 2007, but it is clear this reluctant attitude still lingers. Since then, there have been multiple global conferences that have grown in frequency, where the leaders and members of the Tuvaluan public have campaigned for climate change action.

I was already touched down dry in Sydney when I heard of the floods in Whakatane. It was at home that I began to wonder about the surrounding Pacific Islands. I wondered about the phone calls being made, whether any crackly lines voiced that it could be contributed to climate change?

Amongst the stalls nearby Whakatane beach that February I first became aware of an organisation called 350 Pacific. It is an organisation dedicated to connecting individuals from the Pacific islands who are trying to campaign and raise awareness about climate change. As a Maori girl, I was intrigued. Scrolling through the Facebook groups, I stumbled upon that of Tuvalun multiple global conferences that have grown in frequency, statuses of some of their young and active members, such as Betty Melton.

When I Skyped Betty, she was in Perth where she studies at Murdoch University in Engineering, majoring in Renewable Energy. She believes renewable energy is how we will save the world. Hesitantly, she told me of what life is like in Tuvalu, her home.[6]

The biggest change, she says, is that there are no longer seasons. ‘It’s more than thirty most of the time, it didn’t use to be that hot’. What I’m most interested in, however, is not so much the physical. I want to know how the community feels living where the impacts of climate change are so tangible that they are forcing people to leave. In 2014, for the first time, New Zealand granted a family from Tuvalu legal residency as refugees from climate change.

‘Yes, a lot of people have migrated because of this, gone to Fiji New Zealand. They go in packs. But even the people that have stayed have had to move their homes more than once.’ Most of the people are anxious, she tells me. Mothers and grandmothers are worried about their children’s future. ‘They are worried that, in the future, Tuvalu won’t be there. You know what the scientists say, that Tuvalu will be the first to go.’ Yet when I press her about the perspectives of the older generation she continues that in fact, ‘most don’t agree with what the scientists are saying. They say that climate change is happening but they don’t believe it [Tuvalu] is going to go. They say scientists have been saying that for a long time, but yet we are still here… Back home, they are really religious… they have the hope of what God provides. We do believe in climate change because we are experiencing it, but we still have the hope.’

Since 1990 scientists have mapped the increasing number of tropical storms and cyclones that Tuvalu experiences. In the years between 1970 and 1990, only three tropical storms, hurricanes or cyclones struck Tuvalu. However, between 1990 and 2005, the islands experienced thirteen. 2015 then brought on what Betty described as the worst that Tuvalu had seen, causing over $360 million dollars of damage.[7][8][9]

High tides are probably one of the biggest problems that Tuvalu faces on a daily basis: the constant creeping water. I canreepingly one of the biggest problems that Tuvalu faces on a daily basis over $360 million dollaring. How could you plan for a future so uncertain? ‘Yes,’ Betty agrees, ‘the government talks about it a lot, on social media and they use the radio for educating people about climate change, most of their trips overseas… Most of what they do is for the climate. Our government and our people do not want to move… that is not a choice.’

Fifty-Fifty seems a rather casual way of describing the chances of your nation surviving, that’s how Betty puts it. ‘We are working on the fifty increasing,’ she laughs.

‘Do you believe it is possible to undo the damage?’ I ask.

‘Reversing the effects are impossible, but we can minimize,’ she says through the screen. ‘If we are sinking, there will be another island next.’

‘Do you think these effects will have an impact on Tuvaluan culture?’

‘It hasn’t had any effect on the culture. That is still there.’ What I was hinting at though, was what the possible impacts might be on the culture of a community spread across the globe.

As she tells me these things, I wonder why it is the first time I have really heard them. Is it because the populations are small that these stories do not receive sound? Perhaps, once in a while when the Very Important (Orange) Man takes a break from his tweeting:

‘Global warming is an expensive hoax!’[10]

Some days at the bottom of the pages a mention of the changes the earth is going through will appear through vicious scrolling. Perhaps a picture of a polar bear will win some kind of award, and we will all nod our heads ‘how sad, how sad.’ We won’t hear though, about the man who moved his brothers grave three times because of the changing tides. As Vlad Sokhin, a photographer of the effects of climate change in the Pacific said, “this is a story about people who stand to lose everything—people who may need to flee their native home and never come back. These people are refugees, but they’re not running from war or an oppressive government. They’re seeking asylum from climate change.”

It is easy to think that New Zealand is untouchable, that the home of the skyrocketing Mount Cook will be a refuge for the other smaller nations to cling too. However, the recent flooding in Whakatane is a reminder that New Zealand is also, just a collection of Pacific islands like Tuvalu. Two larger islands, to be specific. As Betty said if Tuvalu goes, who will be next? 10,800 residents of Tuvalu are by no means the only ones at risk of losing their homes to climate change. While the estimates of future migrants vary widely, from tens of thousands to one billion, there’s little question that an increase in climate refugees is on the way. There is meaning in what Betty and 350 Pacific campaign say, that if we save Tuvalu, we save the world.

As I write this, a past leader has just made a statement about climate change being good. He believes that climate-related deaths will be beneficial.

Injustice to the planet, injustice to the people.

The threat to the Pacific islands is more than a means of measuring how truly troubled our planet is, this threat to Tuvalu is a threat to all countries. And given the much greater connection to the land that Indigenous people have, their loss will be the greatest. It is also somewhat frustrating that places like Tuvalu with the smallest contribution to climate change are receiving the consequences. Kylie Loutit, who wrote her thesis on Māori interactions with Climate Change and discussed how vulnerable populations, such as indigenous people (like that of New Zealand and Tuvalu), face risks that are disproportionate to the relatively small contributions they make to greenhouse gas emissions.

It can be considered, however, that climate change may provide a stage for Indigenous empowerment and advocacy of Indigenous worldviews through involvement in climate discussions. Empowerment and cultural understanding might even contribute to Indigenous resilience against climate change. As despite making up only four percent of the world’s population (between 250 to 300 million people), Indigenous people use twenty-two percent of the world’s land surface.[11]These areas reflect eighty percent of the planet’s biodiversity and are near eighty-five percent of the world’s protected areas. [12] Maintaining important fisheries, water systems and regenerative forestlands are all part of Indigenous peoples profound knowledge base.

There might be one way that climate change can be addressed, by listening to the people who are being most affected. To change the perspective that Indigenous peoples are merely victims of climate change. That they are the drowning people. The knowledge of Indigenous People should offer them certain opportunities and platforms. That there is the potential to mitigate the risks and disintegration of their lands, such as those of Tuvalu, as well as address the centuries of marginalisation.

It is unlikely that climate change will mean a group of Indigenous people rise to become the world’s most powerful players, but I wonder what that world would look like?  Though, when I watched the woman stand in the shallows of Whakatane beach, I did not think of the waters as rising. I was watching the Wakach ride the bay.



[2]“This outrageous and completely over-the-top attack on Australia Day by mad leftie council”.- Tony Abbot 16 August, 2017.

[3] Maori meeting house

[4]Justin Gillis, Nadja Popvich ‘The U.S. Is the Biggest Carbon Polluter in History. It Just Walked Away From the Paris Climate Deal’,

[5]Uma Patel and Naomi Woodley, ‘Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions rising, Government figures show’

[6]Betty thought I was a scammer when I first got into contact with her about Tuvalu.

[7]AJ Smith, Klima Tuvalu ‘’

[8]AJ Smith, Klima Tuvalu ‘’

[9]United Nations Development Program, Crisis Response,

[10]Tweet by Donald Trump,

[11] N Alexandratos, World Agriculture Towards 2030/2050: the 2012 Revision.

[12] The World Bank, The Role of Indigenous Peoples in Biodiversity.

Planet Earth, Red Alert, Rima Martens PDF

The Heaviest Matter in Australia, Michael Sturtridge

It’s Saturday night at the Bald Faced Stag, and the seedy inner-west pub is awash with black t-shirts, flat-caps, bullet belts and ripped jeans. The familiar faces of local metal-heads crowd out the bar while they wait for the first band of the night to start playing in the adjacent room. In the meantime, the bourbon and coke flows freely as mops of long unkempt hair wax lyrical about their favourite bands and who they’re seeing next. The answer is usually, ‘me too!’ Followed shortly by, ‘are you going to X?’ There are one of two local punters determined to tune out the sea of head bangers as they watch Saturday Night Football on the wall-mounted widescreen TVs.  Before long the thundering distortion of a guitar prompts a slow migration to the stage next door, giving the locals a brief respite. The band tunes up their instruments and sound-check their amps while the crowd of bearded beer-swillers looks on with stony indifference. The front-man nods to the sound guy at the back of the room and approaches the microphone: ‘We are Dispossessed, and Australia is under military occupation.’

Vocalist and lead guitarist Birrugan Dunn-Velasco’s antagonist display of righteous anger continues throughout their set, in stark contrast to his otherwise unintimidating stature. His modest height and slender figure are only further diminished by the guitar he wields with ferocious precision. Despite being the main point of contact for the audience, he tends to avoid direct eye contact as he summons hell from within his lungs, preferring the wall running along stage right where the group’s entourage watch on dutifully.

Serwah Attafuah and Jarred Osei round out Dispossessed’s lineup, forming the tight rhythm section which frames Birrugan’s violent rejection of white Australia. Sans bass player, Serwah is left to round out the bottom end of their aural assault. She remains effectively stationary throughout the performance, her eyes darting between Birrugan and drummer Jarrod Osei. Her withdrawn presence is challenged only by the loudness of her guitar and the long dreadlocks that weave down the left side of her face from a loosely bound top-knot. Jarred appears the most at ease, perched on his drum stool-throne, he breezes through blast beats and an array of splashy drum fills. The two remain silent throughout the performance. As it would happen, the majority of the talking this evening would be given to the band’s entourage of guest speakers.

And there’s every reason for their audiences to listen. Indigenous Australia faces a constant uphill battle for the kind of recognition and respect becoming of the world’s oldest known culture. Somewhat ironically, the average life expectancy of an Aboriginal or Torres-Strait Islander is on average 10 years lower than that of their non-indigenous counter-part[i]. Structural inequality is still an everyday fact of life for Australia’s first people – more children were being taken from their families during the Rudd Labor government than during the stolen generation[ii]. Fast-forward to 2016, and the Turnbull Liberal government refused to consult with indigenous leaders before forming the royal commission into youth detention in the Northern Territory. Only after former Supreme Court judge Brian Martin resigned as commissioner for perceived bias did the federal government appoint Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Justice Commissioner Mick Gooda alongside Justice Margaret White.

It is for this reason that Sydney-based heavy metal band Dispossessed are so vital to the modern music scene. Traditionally an overwhelmingly white genre, with (ironically) subgenres such as black metal promoting white supremacy, the presence of an aggressively black band has made many a mayonnaise metal fan uncomfortable. So we should feel uncomfortable – hard rock and heavy metal is derived from the blues, which is a black form of music. The entire history of rock music in the Western world is built on cultural appropriation. Elvis Presley made rock and blues palatable for white audiences in the 50s. The Beatles and other British Invasion groups did the same for England in the 60s. As Mos Def once wisely espoused, ‘You may dig on The Rolling Stones, but they ain’t come up with that shit on their own.’ In 1982, MTV allegedly only began playing Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean after CBS Records Group President Walter Yetnikoff threatened to pull all CBS videos. I reached out to Dispossessed multiple times for an interview, hoping to get some insight into their firsthand experience with racism in music (and specifically, heavy metal), but was met with silence. I can hardly blame them for being trepidatious about the motives of a 24-year-old white boy.

Heavy metal itself was born with the arrival of Black Sabbath, a group of disaffected white teenagers from Birmingham with an interest in horror movies. Lower-middle class suburbia in England offered little in the way of job prospects, which left academic under-achievers with nowhere to turn but factory labour. It is these foundations that have helped perpetuate the status of heavy metal as a predominantly white genre. People of colour are scarcely represented throughout the genre’s history, with a few notable exceptions: Brazil’s Sepultura helped to pioneer thrash and death metal in the mid to late 80s, before redefining groove metal in 1996 with Roots. In America, Run DMC revitalized Aerosmith’s career with their 1986 remix of ‘Walk This Way,’ whilst Living Colour’s 1988 album, Vivid, gave funk metal an authenticity sorely lacking in the likes of Faith No More and Red Hot Chili Peppers. They too experimented with rap-rock alongside Public Enemy’s Chuck D on ‘Funny Vibe’. Then there was Rage Against the Machine.

Australia is no stranger to this exclusionary approach to rock. Just last year, critically lauded two-part documentary, Blood + Thunder, detailed the evolution of the ‘Australian’ sound guided by the vision of pioneer Ted Albert (founder of Albert Music and Albert Productions). Albert helped the careers of now iconic artists like The Easybeats and AC/DC. Conspicuously absent is Albert’s hand in introducing Australia to jazz and blues, when he brought the Sonny Clay Orchestra to our shores in 1928. As The Conversation notes, they were deported 9 weeks later after a directive from the Musicians Union to ban visas for ‘coloured’ artists[iii]. This ban wasn’t lifted until 1953, a full 25 years later. We are expected to accept the notion that Australian (read: white) musicians simply discovered and mastered the blues through divine providence.  This is before we consider indigenous Australians, who weren’t even granted personhood until the 1967 referendum.

There are a select few indigenous rock acts to have achieved varying degrees of mainstream success either before or after the referendum: Jimmy Little, Yothu Yindi, Troy Cassar-Daley, and the Warumpi Band are largely recognizable. Narrow the focus to heavy metal, however, and the list becomes essentially non-existent. Nu metal act NoKTuRNL, who won The Deadlys’ Band of the Year in ’98, ’00, and ’03, and toured nationally with Spiderbait, Powderfinger, and Regurgitator, appear to be the only real antecedent to Dispossessed. Even then, NoKTuRNL fall more in line with the hip-hop stylings of Shepparton rapper Briggs than anything resembling Dispossessed’s hardcore-tinged extreme metal. Despite this, hip-hop and extreme metal share commonality through their inherently political worldviews. Both speak to the socially maligned and downtrodden, albeit in different ways. It’s amazing Dispossessed didn’t happen sooner.

‘Alright, after this us black fellas are gonna tell you off,’ Birrugan murmurs. A collective chortle emerges from the crowd. ‘I’m serious,’ he retorts with indignation, before introducing a tune tentatively titled ‘Kill All White People’. A second chortle is drowned out by screeching guitar distortion flooding the room as Jarred’s double-bass reverberates through the floor, sending every beer-addled bro off balance for a single moment. Windmills of hair turn in unison as fast as their hardened necks will allow, struggling to keep up with the rapid-fire snare. The song crashes to an abrupt finish and the walls look as though they’re about to cave in around us. As we gather our composure, Birrugan tells us to shut up and listen as he introduces each guest from his entourage. A night of killer riffs evolves into a demonstration before our very eyes.

These extended breaks are a feature of all their gigs, and often provoke defensive indignation if not outright hostility. We are treated to a poem and a rap. The whole room fell silent, and each performer was applauded as they concluded their piece. This, from the same audience that is presently mad at Rihanna for unveiling a metal-inspired type-font at this year’s VMAs, and previous abused Kanye West for doing the same for his Yeezus tour merchandise. Such viciously insecure reactions might lend itself to the view that such a scenario as this could never take place. Even as the last speaker, a slightly older indigenous man who is unmoved by liberal platitudes, tells us in between sips of his drink that we’re all complicit in systemic racism, everyone nods silently. ‘I’m probably going to be harassed by the police the moment I leave this venue. I have every other night.’

This is not a surprise. Since the tabling of the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody 25 years ago, rates of indigenous incarceration have doubled, and their risk of landing behind bars is 13 times that of non-indigenous Australians[iv]. In between 1989 and 2013, 365 indigenous Australians have died in custody[v]. It is hard to believe that the current royal commission into youth detention will yield any real results considering the country’s history of inaction on indigenous issues. The terms of reference remain confined to the Northern Territory, meaning that any abuse happening outside the state will continue unperturbed.

The revelations aired by Four Corners have sparked a slew of protests nation-wide against torture in detention. Dispossessed has been actively involved with the promotion of these protests. In an interview with Vibe, Birrugan stated:

‘I see the work we do as Dispossessed and the work we do on campaigns, speeches at rallies, grassroots stuff like that, as one and the same. The band is a platform for a wider movement.’[vi]

This is in stark contrast to the tendency for musicians and bands to distance their art from their personal views. For Dispossessed, their political ideology is an integral part of their music, not a subtle undercurrent. They are a band with a purpose.

Indigenous Australia needs a band like Dispossessed right now. A study conducted by the Larrakia Nation (representative of the Larrakia community in Darwin) in conjunction with the University of Sydney and the University of Tasmania which suggests many indigenous Australians feel they have to abandon their culture in order to succeed. According to the ABC, more than 500 Darwin residents took part in the study, ‘ranging from long-grassers to university students.’ The report indicated that over 50% of respondents felt unwanted in Darwin[vii]. One anonymous participant is quoted as saying:
‘We get our power from knowing we are connected … knowing who your family is, who your background is, got the country, how you’re connected, what your totem is and your dreaming is like.’

‘But there’s this other culture that says no, that’s not power.’
Dispossessed command your respect, and refuse to take white Australia’s dismissal of indigenous culture. Every gig they play is a violent reminder that black Australia isn’t going away silently.

This lack of respect for indigenous heritage is also part of why constitutional recognition is not perceived within the community as the fix-all the media would have you believe. In an interview I conducted with Jenny Munro of the Redfern Tent Embassy last year, she stated: ‘I don’t want recognition in the constitution – I want that racist document torn up.’ More recently, The Guardian reported on a survey conducted by social media channel IndigenousX which found that of 827 respondents, only 25% supported Recognise. This in stark contrast to Recognize’s claimed 87% support[viii]. The overwhelming sentiment amongst those surveyed by IndigenousX is that their lives are unlikely to improve with constitutional recognition. However, the notion of a permanent representative body within parliament garnered widespread support. It’s pretty simple, really – indigenous people want their voices heard when the nation makes decisions.

The recent death of a 14-year-old indigenous boy, Elijah Doughty, in Kalgoorlie has only further illustrated the need for greater consultation with the community. WA Today reports that the boy was riding a scooter when he was involved in a car crash with a Nissan Navara[ix]. Protests erupted outside Kalgoorlie Courthouse demanding justice for the deceased boy, a ‘well-loved community member and local football team player.’ The protests ended in violence as riot police were brought in to control the crowd, many of which believe the death was a racially motivated murder. Elijah’s aunt is reported as telling the Kalgoorlie Miner his death was the third in the family in the last few weeks[x]. It is in situations like this that indigenous people feel their lives don’t matter to white Australia. It is the reason Dispossessed sees no hyperbole in writing a song called ‘Kill All White People,’ because white people have done nothing but kill black people since first invading ‘Terra Nullius’ in 1788.

This predicament is not unique to Australia, however, which the group are often highlighting through their Facebook page. Racial injustice is a systemic problem on a global scale, which greatly affects indigenous communities and people of colour all over the world. Whether it is the Black Lives Matter movement in the USA, or Ethiopian runnerFeyisa Lilesa’s protest against government killings at the Rio Olympic Games, Dispossessed are consistently among those expressing international solidarity and pushing against discriminatory power structures designed to maintain white supremacy. As Desmond Tutu astutely proclaimed, ‘If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.’

Dispossessed and their guests receive a round of applause as their mid-set showcase comes to an end. The segment has soaked up most of the allotted time for their set, and they’re left with just enough to perform one more song. The lights dim and the band dive into a cacophony of frantic riffing and vocal howls. The crowd returns to causing ourselves irreversible neck damage as if nothing had happened. One can only hope the message sunk in, and wasn’t lost in a drunken haze of indifference. Their final song collapses under its own weight as the final chords are struck and distortion rings out before being abruptly cut off, and the band walk off stage without a second thought. They don’t need to say anymore, they’ve already cemented their place as the most vital metal band in Australia.




Works Cited:


[i] Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (2016). Life expectancy (AIHW). [online] Available at: [Accessed 1 Sep. 2016].

[ii] Australian Government Productivity Commission. (2016). Report on Government Services 2014. [online] Available at: [Accessed 1 Sep. 2016].

[iii] O’Connell, D. (2015). Blood + Thunder: patriotism whitewashes Australian music history. [online] The Conversation. Available at: [Accessed 1 Sep. 2016].

[iv] SBS News. (2016). ‘A national crisis’: Indigenous incarceration rates worse 25 years on. [online] Available at: [Accessed 1 Sep. 2016].

[v] Booth, A. (2016). Stop Indigenous incarceration rates from rising by ‘addressing poverty’, says Mick Gooda. [online] NITV. Available at: [Accessed 1 Sep. 2016].

[vi] Collins, S. (2016). Meet The Radical, Indigenous Metal Band Out To Destroy The Status Quo. [online] Vibe. Available at: [Accessed 1 Sep. 2016].

[vii] Lawford, E. (2016). Aboriginal people ‘pressured to lose culture’, report suggests. [online] ABC News. Available at: [Accessed 1 Sep. 2016].

[viii] Liddle, C. (2015). 87% of Indigenous people do not agree on recognition. You’d know if you listened | Celeste Liddle. [online] the Guardian. Available at: [Accessed 1 Sep. 2016].

[ix] Young, E. (2016). Enraged crowd attacks police at Kalgoorlie court after Indigenous boy’s death. [online] WA Today. Available at: [Accessed 1 Sep. 2016].

[x]Hickey, P.,Kelly, J. and Campbell, K. (2016). Community mourns Kalgoorlie teen. [online] Perth Now. Available at: [Accessed 1 Sep. 2016].



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