Power of Artivism

Last year just before Australian singer/songwriter Shane Howard released his new album “Deeper South” I had the privilege to talk with him for a few hours. This year Australian Quarterly published my piece in their April 2016 Issue.

Artists, whether they be musicians, painters, dancers, sculptors or writers, have incredible potential to catalyze social change through the way they use their art.

I’ve long been drawn to the story of Shane Howard’s life, first as creator-singer of the band, Goanna, and later as a solo musician, Shane Howard continues to use his lyric power to reconnect Australians to spirit of place.

This spirit takes the form of connection to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders’ dreaming and creation stories and identity, and to the communal power of standing ground for what’s worth fighting for.


Shane Howard – Spirit of Place

[symple_testimonial by=”Shane Howard” fade_in=”false”]I woke up in the Dreaming. I realised there was a powerful intelligence at work — a great sense of understanding in the land and landscape. And the cosmology, spirituality and the cultural depth of Aboriginal society really woke up there as well.[/symple_testimonial]


Many things can be said of Shane Howard — that he’s an Australian musician, he’s a poet laureate of the people and he’s an artist activist who fuelled our consciousness of what it means to be Australian. As  the founder, in the 1970s, of the band, Goanna, Howard’s lyrics drew on his own journey into the interior — of himself, and of Aboriginal Australia. In so doing, Howard held up to us that cultural mirror of identity, land and dispossession, and then he used his music to engage us in a national conversation about those issues that continues to this day.

Shane Howard was born in Dennington, Victoria in 1955. As he recalls: ‘Where I grew up in south west Victoria, it’s Gunditjmara country and on the border between Gunditjmara and Girai Wurrung country. So Aboriginal people were a fact of life for us growing up but it was a very dispossessed reality. … My early secondary schooling goes something like “Aboriginal people lived here and then the first fleet came — colonial settlement — and it was all quite peaceful”. That was the popular narrative in terms of the history that we were taught. … [However,] what I saw around me was drunkenness, I saw Aboriginal people completely pushed to the fringes of society, discriminated against, the butt of jokes, you know, racism. Not in my own family but certainly in the wider world. …

‘My Dad had a very keen sense of justice … [and] Mum was a musician. She played music, she played piano and we sang as a family. … She instilled in us a love of music and, I suppose, the power of music too. …

‘There’s one … very beautiful moment for me that fed into my songwriting and a kind of “fire in the head” moment. … When I was only about 10 … [I heard] The Times They Are a-Changin’ by Bob Dylan.

‘We’d grown up with a lot of folk music around us … but Dylan brought something new to that whole genre. … He was speaking about contemporary issues, and I guess that was the great awakening. …

‘Song is one of the oldest and most transportable and transmissible forms of memory … and I still see myself as part of a troubadour tradition — and the balladeer, the storyteller. We were the media once and we would travel from place to place and take the stories of one place to another. And I still think that’s an important role of the songwriter and the singer to the communication of ideas. …’

Standing on Sacred Ground

When he was 19, Howard went hitchhiking across the country, and he recalls his own social awakening from these trips:

‘I felt a keen sense to write about my Australian experience. … I did lots of journeys. … It’s amazing how far 32 dollars and a guitar can get you. And of course, as I went further north, I met more and more Aboriginal people. … So my experience deepened, and I began to hear the stories of dispossession, of colonisation, of stolen generations, and of course, the questions became more amplified and the racism became far more conspicuous. …

‘The band [Goanna] had started by then. It was very, very early days, but I got very sick and very run down and I had to take a break, so I ended up going to Uluru by train and by bus. It was pretty basic in those days.

‘The first night I set up my tent and set up camp. The next morning I went to the store … and said to the people, “I’d like to pay my respects to the local people, and how would I do that?” And they pointed me in the direction of a house. …

‘And I went over to that house and knocked at the gate. An Aboriginal guy came to the gate and [said], “What do you want?” and I said, “I’ve just come to pay my respects”.

‘In the end, they let me in and … there was an old Aboriginal man sitting there, whom I learnt, very much later, of course, was a very senior custodian for that country, with his wives and children and extended family all sitting around a small fire. I went over to where he was and felt the gravity of that moment. … And he said, “What do you want?” And I said, “I just want to pay my respects and walk the country. I don’t want to go anywhere I’m not supposed to go or go to any places I’m not supposed to be”. And he was lovely; he said, “No, you’re right, you’re right … most of the places where you’re not supposed to go are marked and just respect that”.

‘Over the next few days, … as people went past my camp, they would wave, and … I felt like a welcome visitor and not an intruder. … [One day,] there was a little sign on the toilet block that a white woman, a non-indigenous woman, was putting up. It just said, “Inma, other side of the rock at sunset.” And I said, “What’s an Inma?” And she said, “Ah, a Corroboree dance, you know, songs.” … So I walked to the other side of the rock. It’s a long way, 9 kilometres. When I got there, there was a group of people set up, sun going down, darkness fell, … the dancers came into the firelight, the body paints made them look like spirit figures — in the firelight, against their dark skin.  

‘And at the moment the women began singing and chanting, the full moon rose over the back of Uluru, and I describe that experience as my “wake up” moment. I woke up in the Dreaming. I realised there was a powerful intelligence at work — a great sense of understanding in the land and landscape. And the cosmology, spirituality and the cultural depth of Aboriginal society really woke up there as well. …

‘What I didn’t realise until years later was that … [these people] were coming back to reclaim their connection with Uluru after their own disconnection and removal. … And that dance, that Inma that night was a very important moment for them as well, and so it was those experiences that really coalesced in the first two verses of “Solid Rock”.

‘It was an experience to … go to sleep out on the ground, under the stars, like you were on a floating platform in space with a circle of Aboriginal people all speaking across the camp to each other in their language until the voices died down to a murmur and everyone goes to sleep under a full moon. …

‘I remember the very first night writing, “Out here nothing changes, not in a hurry anyway”. And that song then grew out of that experience, and then the last verse grew out of going back to Alice Springs after that experience and seeing — being confronted, after that very gentle experience, with the harsh reality of racism, colonisation, defamation, drunkenness, violence, dispossession. …

‘I saw something profoundly beautiful, and then I came back into the Western world out of that experience and saw something really ugly and I wondered who was civilised. And some things are so compelling that you can’t turn away. …

‘We’ve grown up with images of the Civil Rights Movement in America, and with all the imagery of Martin Luther King … and Bob Dylan’s “Hollis Brown” and those very powerful songs and all the great black artists as well, [like] Sam Cooke. … All of a sudden, it’s real to me in my own country and I felt embarrassed and ashamed of the country I was living in, and I suppose when you see something so wrong you either turn away or [you act]. …

‘I got deeply radicalised by the experience and I couldn’t shut up about it, but most people just glazed over. … But of course, bearing in mind during the seventies there’d been …  great Aboriginal activists at work: Gary Foley, Charlie Perkins, Cheryl Buchanan, these people I came to know later, who were rattling the can. …

‘[And me,] I’m a young bloke starting out in a band, with a young family … all I could do was write a song. I didn’t know at that time how persuasive that might become.’   

That Spirit Following You

In 1982, Howard’s band, Goanna, released its debut album, Spirit of Place, featuring the rock anthem ‘Solid Rock’. Spirit of Place was an album that ignited the social conscience of a new generation, fuelled in particular by the raw power of the lyrics of ‘Solid Rock’, the album’s distinctive didgeridoo feature (played by Billy Inda) and the use of traditional clapping sticks.

‘I felt strongly that a band called Goanna … had a really strong sense of trying to articulate an Australian sound because, at that time, … Australians … weren’t writing about Australian subject matter seriously.

‘And I was influenced by people like Henry Lawson and John Shaw Neilson … and Professor Manning Clark … . He was the one who … used the phrase “spirit of place”. … He was saying that the land, the landscape, the colour of the sky, all this will inevitably determine who will become an Australian in our evolution as a national identity. And so, … who better to go with as a guide into that understanding as a young evolving nation than the First Peoples who have been here for thirty, forty, fifty, sixty thousand years and have an intimate knowledge of the country, the land and landscape.

‘So, Manning Clark was very, very influential … and we approached him about writing the liner notes for the album, thinking he’d say no, but he actually agreed to do that. It was an unusual thing to have an emeritus professor of Australian history write out the liner notes for a pop album.’

The success of ‘Solid Rock’ gave Howard a platform for a wider public conversation about race and justice.

‘[The song] threw me headfirst into mainstream Australia and … popular culture at the same time as it threw me headfirst deeper into Aboriginal culture, and those two things were quite oppositional in many ways. …

‘An old Aboriginal fella said to me many years later after the song was released, “Ah, Shane, you’ve been going to that country, to Uluru, and that spirit been followin’ you around”. … Some things come from you and some things come through you, but I think in many ways that was a song that came through me. … It still continues to do that and it calls me powerfully every time I sing it, to really give your spirit. …

‘Once “Solid Rock” [came out] … there [were] Aboriginal people coming to every gig, coming to check out these white fellas. … People were telling me stories of the “Stolen Generations”. ……

‘Archie Roach was one of those kids, the great Aboriginal singer songwriter, who was taken away from the family and community … 20 kilometres away from where I was living. And of course, Archie and I became great friends over the years, and he and I are the same age and we often ruminated that if … he’d not been taken away, we may have been great friends [earlier]. We would have grown up together in the same town. A lot got broken.’

Something Worth Fighting For

‘[In 1972,] Lake Pedder was dammed in Tasmania for hydroelectricity. … I remember when first I saw the photos of Olegas Truchanas, his photos of Lake Pedder. It was enough to make you weep for the loss of what can only be described as the “goddess’s bath”, one of the natural wonders of the world. I think that’s true for a lot of my generation, that we felt a deep sense that there should be no such loss like that again.

‘So then to go to the Franklin River, at the invitation of Bob Brown … and to be there with hundreds and hundreds of young people my own age who gave up their own time … to be there in very harsh conditions in the middle of the bush … all these people, with this great energy and exuberance and dedication to what they were doing, that was inspiring to me. … I had a week to write that song [“Let the Franklin Flow”] before we performed it live at “Stop the Drop” concert in front of 70,000 people in Melbourne. We had the ear of the media at the time because we were coming off the back of the success of “Solid Rock”. So we had the opportunity to get that song out there and on to the airwaves … before the … federal election. …

‘Peter Dombrovskis’ photo [of “Rock Island Bend” became] the front cover of the single, and … there were … full-page ads in newspapers all around the country that said, “Would you vote for a government that would destroy this?” That was an amazing campaign; it was the first for the Greens in Australia, and it was really the awakening of the environmental movement in Australia.’

The song, ‘Let the Franklin Flow’, became an anthem for those working to save the Franklin and, ultimately, a victory song when the river was saved.

Later, it also led Shane Howard to spend more time working with young people and fuelling their social conscience.

‘I’ve done work with a lot of kids in schools … and I say to them, “Today we’ll learn a song in an Australian language”. And they look at you strangely because they think they’re speaking an Australian language, but of course, they are not. And we teach them “Solid Rock” in Pitjantjatjara. …

‘I’d love to think that we would adopt an indigenous language as a … national language, so that we have a way of speaking [to] each other as a nation that is not just English. … It goes right back to what Manning Clark said about spirit of place, that, inevitably, the country, the land, the light will determine who we become as Australian people, and we already have a beautiful model here before us in terms of the First Nations people, so why not follow that lead?’


Last year, Howard released his 13th solo album, ‘Deeper South’, which is drawn from 5 years of songwriting.

‘This is an album of deep material … I deal with the sea and there’s a lot of references to the ocean. I’ve lived in a lot of places … most of my life has taken place around the sea, and ironically, I’m best known for a song about the desert.

‘We’re at the edge of the world here and anywhere south of here, [like Antarctica] … its wild country.’

Wildness in all its dimensions has had a defining influence on Howard, and so have other artists. ‘I’m so drawn to the old masters like the Joni Mitchells, the Van Morrisons, the Leonard Cohens, the Bob Dylans. These artists who have lived an artistic life, and continue to do so, they’ve inspired me since my childhood and they continue to speak to me about living an artistic life and staying true to the past. Making art that is useful and not just entertainment. …

‘I think we lost something in the last 30 years. We were on the path to somewhere and we lost that. … Modernity came on us very shortly after our establishment as a nation, and by that I mean “as a colonial nation”, so we didn’t have time in isolation to develop a really strong cultural identity. So we have to work really hard if we’re not to just be swept up into the powerful forces of an American cultural imperialism. …

‘[However,] there is something in us as humans that is about the joy we derive from doing good for the other. There’s something hardwired in us about being decent and doing the right thing.

‘I have to believe we’ll get it together despite [laughter] everything and deal with these big issues like climate change and the ongoing issue of injustice, and we will, despite everything we do [laughter] to damn ourselves, we will find the pathway to decency. And you know, there is more good in the world than there is the opposite and we’ll find a path forward. But our art is playing a central role in prompting our conscience.’

In this respect, Shane Howard seems attuned to another of his muses, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who said, ‘In the final analysis, the questions of why bad things happen to good people transmutes itself into some very different questions, no longer asking why something has happened, but asking how we will respond, what we intend to do now that it happened.’

As de Chardin encapsulates, ‘Love is … the affinity which links and draws together the elements of the world. … Love, in fact, is the expression and the agent of universal synthesis’ and ‘The day will come when, after harnessing the ether the winds, the  tides, and gravitation, we shall harness … the energies of love. And on that day, for a second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.’

Shane Howard’s music has about it the qualities of infinite space, energy, timelessness — and definitely fire — that also seem to infuse his journey and his social activism. His hopefulness, social witness, attunement to the land, and to the universal, mythological and cosmological is, in itself, a love story.

[symple_box color=”white” fade_in=”false” float=”center” text_align=”left” width=””]Shane Howard is one Australia’s most influential writers and singers. He was the founding member of the iconic Australian band, Goanna, whose first album, Spirit of Place, went to the top of the charts in its first week and was released in 35 territories worldwide. The first single from the album, ‘Solid Rock’, challenged colonization and injustice experienced by Aboriginal people. With Archie Roach, Howard won a 2015 APRA Screen Music Award for ‘A Secret River’. In 2000, Howard was awarded a fellowship by the Music Fund of the Australia Council for his contributions to Australian musical life.[/symple_box]

Australian Quarterly April 2016 p26

Jane Sloane


Full Frame CCTV Interview – Sept. 2015

Ending child marriage interview

My appearance on Full Frame CCTV with Mike Walters talking about ending child marriage…

Thanks Mike and the team @ Full Frame for such a wonderful experience



Mike Walters

This is shocking. 700 million of the world’s married women were wed before they turned 18. That’s according to UNICEF. This means that twenty eight girls are entering into child marriage every minute worldwide; some 15 million girls per year. Tragically some are as young as eight years old.

Two of the regions where child marriage is most common are South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. So as a result of these unions in countries in those regions the leading cause of death for girls between the ages of 15 and 19 is pregnancy and childbirth. If nothing is done to prevent child brides from being forced into marriage, 1.2 billion girls will be at risk by 2050.

Jane Sloane is fighting to protect the rights and dignity of child brides and hopes to see an end to these practices in her lifetime. The vice president of programs at Global Fund for Women, her organization has funded 241 organizations in 53 countries that are all working to end early marriage. Today she’s here to share what can be done to change these startling statistics. I want to welcome you to Full Frame Jane.

Jane Sloane
Thanks very much. It’s great to be here.

Mike Walters
I always say that people who have purpose driven lives, they’re like candles, something or some thing ignites that candle and in your case it was Nelson Mandela. Tell us the story.

Jane Sloane
Yes, I had a day with Nelson Mandela in 2000 just before the Olympic Games actually, and he said to me, “Jane if you really want to make a difference in your life you should focus on conflict resolution and citizen lead change.” That really took me in the direction that I am now focused on which is really fighting for the rights of women and girls, worldwide.

Mike Walters
People don’t focus on this one. It’s tragic and it’s widespread, isn’t it?

Jane Sloane
it’s very widespread and in countries like Niger in West Africa seventy-five percent of girls under the age of 18 are married off early and in places like Ethiopia, girls are actually initiated into a practice where, if they’re eight or nine, they’re taken out and they’re taught how to handle a man and then they are brought a man who they don’t know at all and they are forced to have sex with him and then after that they are considered to be a woman and so within two years of that early practice they are married off and then expected to really serve that man for the rest of their life.

Mike Walters
And you’ve met some of these girls along the way undoubtedly, what is it like? I mean it’s so tragic, because you think of a life having an arc to it. Their life is over at a very young age. I mean it’s already predestined isn’t it?

Jane Sloane
It is. if you can imagine a girl of nine or ten years old who really doesn’t know anything other than her family to suddenly be married off, often to an older man, to imagine herself being in a very different household where she is expected to serve his every whim and to not have any access to an education, to not have any other life other than serving within that household, within that environment. It’s a really tragic waste of life for a girl.

It means that she no longer has the opportunity of an education, of any kind of job or livelihood, her dreams are lost in that situation. It really means that if we look to your earlier statistic, if we’re looking at 2050, 1.2 billion girls will be in this situation.

Mike Walters
As a parent you know I always think I want what’s best for my kids. This clearly, to most of us would think that this is not what’s best, so talk to us about all the different things that kind of flow into this.

Jane Sloane
Well seventy-five percent of families who do marry their children off early, particularly girls, are living on less than $2 a day, So poverty has a lot to do with decisions that parents make to marry off their daughter or their son.

Often it’s also because of a debt that a family will have, where it’s easier to marry off their daughter than to pay back their debt, than to do anything else. Sometimes it’s because of the honor that parents feel towards their daughter, they want to keep her safe and so they feel the best way to keep her safe is to marry her off early, so that she isn’t violated, she isn’t raped.The irony of course is that girls who are married off early are twice as likely to be violated or to be abused within that marriage, so even though parents will often see it as a safe way of ensuring that their daughters are protected, often they’re actually doing the opposite.

The other thing is in countries like Bangladesh, which has the highest rate of girls being married off under the age of 15 it’s compounded by the level of natural disasters there’s constant natural disasters and so parents again often panic at that time because of lack of access to food and water and would think the best way that they can get some income for the rest of their family or ensure that their daughter has food and water is to marry her off at that time and with the increasing number of natural disasters and climate change impact it means that situation is really playing out in many countries around the world.

Mike Walters
You know it’s interesting, I’m sure when you entered this field you were like I’m gonna go attack this but I’m sure you must have come in with some idea of what the situation was like and what were the things that you saw outside of that scope that really surprised you.

Jane Sloane
The love that parents have for their daughters and sons; I think that it’s very easy to be judgmental about ‘how can they possibly marry off their daughters at such a young age?’ and yet they are very complex feelings and beliefs and reasons for marrying off girls quite early.

Also though I would say the tenacity of girls to try and fight that situation and of course that’s what we really focus on. We focus on supporting girls and women to realize their rights to understand that they have rights to claim and how to be able to fight against that practice and one of the most effective ways to do that is to support women’s groups and groups of girls to be able to lobby community chiefs and people within their villages or communities to agree to not marry off a girl early.

And one example I can give of where that’s worked really well was there was a girl in one village that we were supporting and she had a disability. She had a leg that had been badly burned from a cook stove and her father wanted to marry her off because he saw her as a real burden on the family and felt it would be better to marry her early.

Her friends who knew how much he wanted to go to school brought together everyone within the local community to the family to the household and gave the father all the reasons why it was better for his daughter to go to school rather than for him to marry this girl off. He came up with a lot of reasons including; well she won’t be able to walk to school, there’s the problem of transport and one of the girls said that they would put her on her bike and carry her to work each day and that’s actually what ended up happening.

I mean the irony was his daughter was actually walking as far every day to deliver this man lunch every day, but he really felt that it would be better for her to be married off. In the end what happened was he agreed to the wishes of this girl group, he agreed to the wishes of the community and to this day she’s being “donkeyed *” to work every day on the back of this bike and she’s now got a dream of becoming a doctor when she finishes school.

So it just shows the power of girls and I think that rather than girls feeling that decisions are being made on their behalf, when girls feel that they have their own power to claim it makes a huge difference in terms of what’s possible and of course that needs to be coupled with advocating for changes at a national level and getting governments to change laws at a national level as well.

Mike Walters
We were talking about the ages of these young girls. I can’t imagine for a minute a little girl like these that you’re describing, being pregnant, having to deliver a child and this is a real issue as well the health concerns can you talk to us about that?

Jane Sloane
Yes, you can imagine a girl of nine or ten not really knowing very much about sex, being penetrated the first time, getting pregnant at the age of nine or 10, giving birth, if she actually gets through a pregnancy of course, because the rate of girls dying in pregnancy is one in five for any girl under the age of 15, so that’s very high. But even if she gets through pregnancy, she faces a lot of health issues over her time. It might be fistula, it might be any number of other disorders both physical and psychological,l because girls just aren’t psychologically prepared to be able to either carry a child or to even be a mother at that age. As well and of course if they don’t have access to sexual and reproductive health information, they don’t know how to be able to protect themselves. So by having access to those services what we say at Global Fund for Women is this:

Four things that we really need to do to be able to support gender equality and girls empowerment.

One is for a girl to know her rights,

The second is for a girl to be able to access resources so that she has the information and the support that she needs,

The third is to be able to influence and change community attitudes and behavior and that’s often the hardest thing to change people’s mindsets,

And the fourth is to be able to change laws and legislation.

The laws and legislation aren’t just about passing laws which is what happened in Ethiopia earlier, and now in Bangladesh, it’s then ensuring that those laws are implemented because quite often you can have a law that says we make it illegal for any girl to be married under the age of 18 but often those laws also have a rider that says ‘except at parents discretion’ and it’s often parents discretion or parents paying bribes to local community chiefs that means that those girls are married off as young as nine or ten or their birth certificates are changed.

Mike Walters
Not just that they’re second class citizens that they have no rights in many respects. What does it do to you when you’re thinking about your day in approaching your day every day trying to change this?

Jane Sloane
I think it speaks to the power of women because Global Fund has supported groups, women have ended civil wars women who have become Nobel Peace Prize winners as a result of a dream that a woman has had.

One woman’s dream has become an incredible reality if you think about what Malala has done, if you think about Wangari Maathai you had a dream to have a greenbelt movement that ended up planting millions of trees. If you think about Leymah Gbowee, she had a dream to end the civil war in Liberia. She managed to do that with many other women who we supported to get the first president woman president of Liberia elected.

All of that because we believed that they believed in their own power of dreaming, and I think that’s an incredibly important thing to hold onto. That you trust women, that you trust girls to know what’s needed and that we find the funds at every level to be able to make that dream a reality and that’s what I hold on to in my work. It’s so important to believe in one girl because if you can believe in one girl then she’ll make the most incredible things possible and I think that we have to do so much more to really recognize what happens at a grassroots level when we get not just money into the hands of those girls but also give them a voice, lift them up to be able to speak for themselves and they’ll do the most incredible work as a result.

Mike Walters
One final question before we go, Nelson Mandela, that linkage to you that he changed your life and you know that you’re changing lives what about his legacy through you and through all these other people that you’re touching.

Jane Sloane
Well I think the most incredible thing about Nelson Mandela is that he really recognized what it was like to be in someone else’s shoes. That whole idea of ‘I and Thou’, ‘you are me and I am you’ and that we are all connected in a very powerful way and once you really embrace that idea, once you recognize that there is very little difference between us then a lot of prejudices a lot of barriers fall down and it means that a whole other world is possible and that’s his great legacy to us that great hope, the belief that you can actually change the world. And I think we have all got that ability within us.

Mike Walters
Well we certainly know you are doing your part, so thanks Jane for coming in and talking to us. We appreciate it.

Jane Sloane
Thanks so much.

* Donkey, regional word that belongs to the realm of childhood. If a kid gives someone a lift, as a passenger, on a bicycle, in most parts of Australia this is called a dink or a double. In parts of Adelaide, however, it is called a donkey. Do kids still give dinks or donkeys, or are these words that are on their way out of Australian English? Donkey, however, is an important part of the history of South Australian English.
courtesy ABC Adelaide Blog – Top 10 SA phrases and words