Content warning: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that the following text contains references to Indigenous persons who have died.
Archie Roach, a groundbreaking Indigenous voice in Australian music, has died aged 66 after a long illness.
“We are so proud of everything our dad achieved in his remarkable life,” Amos and Eban, Roach’s two sons, said in an official statement. “He was a healer and a unifying force. His music brought people together.”
Both men gave permission for Roach’s name, image, and music to be used posthumously, “so that his legacy will continue to inspire”.
Tributes from other musicians, political leaders and members of the public have poured in.
“His passing is not just a loss to Australia,” tweeted English folk singer Billy Bragg, “but also to all of us who believe that music can be used as a tool to seek justice.”
Legendary Indigenous athlete Cathy Freeman described him as a “courageous story teller” and Minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney praised him as a pioneering musician whose songs “will live forever”.
Senator Pat Dodson called him a “poet warrior of the First Nations” whose “contribution and commitment to healing and truth telling will be a lasting legacy”.
So saddened to hear the passing of such a champion for First Nations people and all humanity. I will remember (Uncle) Archie Roach as such a courageous story teller and remarkable musician! You’ll never be forgotten. Rest in Peace. Sincerest condolences to all the family. pic.twitter.com/7OVBfvRldw
— Cathy Freeman (@CathyFreeman) July 30, 2022
Roach, also known as Uncle Archie, first rose to prominence with the release of his debut single Took The Children Away, a song detailing his experiences as a member of the Stolen Generation.
A proud Gunditjmara (Kirrae Whurrong/Djab Wurrung) and Bundjalung elder, Uncle Archie was also instrumental in campaigning for Indigenous rights – a theme that frequently underpinned his music.
In 2015, he received the Member of the Order of Australia for his services to music and ‘to the community as a spokesman for social justice’.
Born on January 8, 1956, in the rural Victorian town of Mooroopna, Roach was the youngest of seven siblings. When he was aged just two years old, Archie and his siblings were forcibly removed by government officials and left to assume that their biological parents had died.
After several unsuccessful foster home experiences, Roach was fostered by Alex and Dulcie Cox, Scottish immigrants who lived in Melbourne.
It was here that Roach’s love of music began to take hold. The Coxs’ eldest daughter Mary taught him the basics of guitar and piano, and he learned to sing church hymns whilst briefly attending a Pentecostal church. His foster father also maintained an extensive collection of Scottish music.
Aged 15, Roach received a letter from his biological sister, Myrtle, informing him of his birth mother’s death. He set off in search of the rest of his family, spending the next 14 years on the streets.
It was during this time that he met Ruby Hunter, a Ngarrindjeri woman and another member of the Stolen Generation, in a Salvation Army drop-in centre in Adelaide.
I am so very grateful that when I first got to Australia, I received my first lessons on Australian history at Archie Roach concerts in the early 90s.
— Solo Monk (@JJKALE2) July 31, 2022
Together as teenagers, they travelled between Victoria and South Australia, with Roach inspiring Hunter to pick up the guitar.
In return, Roach called Hunter his ‘saviour’, crediting her as the catalyst to turn his life around after struggles with alcoholism and mental health. The pair would go on to become both partners in music and in life until Hunter’s death in 2010.
They had two sons together, officially fostered three more children, and kept their home open to disadvantaged youth whom they mentored.
While he had undergone brief stints in music in the late 1980s – forming a band with Hunter called The Altogethers and later performing his music on community radio – Roach first began to attract serious attention after opening for Paul Kelly in 1989. With only a two song set, Roach was met afterwards with awed silence, followed by deafening applause.
“I had goosebumps and the hairs went up on the back of my neck,” said Kelly, reflecting on the concert. “People were so stunned at the end of the song that it took them a while just to gather themselves to applaud.”
We all mourn the passing of Archie Roach, poet warrior of First Nations. His contribution and commitment to healing and truth telling will be a lasting legacy, as we go forward to a reconciled nation where respect is given to the truth of our history.
— Patrick Dodson (@SenatorDodson) July 31, 2022
One of the songs Roach had played was Took The Children Away. It was properly released in 1990, during a time where the Stolen Generation was beginning to garner increased public attention.
The song would go on to earn him an International Human Rights Achievement Award – the first time it had ever been awarded to a songwriter. It also featured on his debut album, Charcoal Lane, which received ARIA Awards for Best Indigenous Release and Best New Talent in 1991.
Following Charcoal Lane’s success, Roach went on to release nine more albums and toured extensively worldwide, opening for household musical names such as Bob Dylan, Tracy Chapman, Billy Bragg, Joan Armatrading, Patti Smith, and Suzanne Vega. In 2019, he released a memoir, Tell Me Why, along with a companion album of the same name.
Since the 2010s, Roach had been battling lung cancer, which he survived after having a lung removed. He continued to perform using the help of an oxygen tube.
In 2020, he received the Victoria Australian of the Year Award. That same year, Roach launched the Archie Roach Stolen Generation Educational Resources, a free collection of educational materials with the aim of teaching Australian youth about Indigenous culture and history.
Main image by Gary Chapman/Flickr.