david bowie spoke about indigenous issues when many australians weren’t ready to listen
In the 80s, the artist lent his voice and fame to a local conversation.
Screen grab via YouTube
When David Bowie first visited Australia in 1978, the public embraced him without hesitation. Fans camped out for three weeks to secure tickets to his packed-out stadium shows and the 60,000 strong crowds were among the largest he'd ever drawn. The love was clearly mutual, over the years Bowie toured Australia regularly; at one point even keeping a Sydney harbourside apartment. But it was in 1983 that his Australian presence was immortalised in the film clips for Let's Dance and China Girl—which he filmed in rural NSW and Sydney.
International artists have always been drawn to Australia, but Bowie's relationship with the nation was more nuanced than most. We're often the recipients of easy and constant praise for our sun and sand, but Bowie didn't shy away from approaching darker issues, still cloaked in national shadows. This was never more clear than in the video for Let's Dance— the David Mallet-directed film that starred young Indigenous performers. Bowie described it as a "simple and direct statement" against racism, and he presented it as a comment on Indigenous rights and the clash of urban and rural lifestyles in Australia.
Let's Dance was a global hit and it brought Indigenous Australian issues to a audience who may not have been exposed to them before. For context of the national conversation at the time, just a year before the clip was filmed, the Northern Land Council signed an agreement with the Pan-Continental mining company, allowing the mining giant to dig for uranium at Jabiluka—an area of land belonging to the Mirarr Aboriginal people. While obviously a small gesture in the scheme of massive issues, the clip was timely as it came at a period where young white Australians were waking up to the culture of endemic abuse and neglect that had run rampant since European settlement. Bowie wanted to build on this growing visibility by using his profile to illuminate an issue that he felt still needed more time in the mainstream media.
Speaking to Rolling Stone in 1983 he commented, "As much as I love this country it's probably one of the most racially intolerant in the world, well in line with South Africa. I mean, in the north, there's unbelievable intolerance," adding "Aborigines can't even buy their drinks in the same bars—they have to go round the back and get them through what's called a 'dog hatch.'"
Obviously these gestures did come from a undeniably wealthy white man, who would eventually leave the areas that he was advocating for, and return to his life of inconceivable privilege and opportunity. But as the tributes to David Bowie flow in this week, it's worth noting that one of the most famous people on earth spoke out about a fractured part of our society. One that is, in many ways, still broken. So when you remember him for his genius, also remember and be inspired by his willingness to speak up, and lend his voice and spotlight to those who need it.
For more on David Bowie, check out the i-D archives
Text Wendy Syfret
Screengrabs via YouTube