ARIAs 2020: Sampa The Great and Archie Roach call for change in powerful live perfomances

Wednesday night’s ARIAs were a standout for many reasons. Most notably was Sampa The Great and Archie Roach’s stirring performances addressing Australia’s history of racism.

Since its debut in 1987, Australia’s ARIA Awards (a.k.a. The ARIAs) have been criticised for their treatment of Black and First Nations artists. Taking to the stage during this year’s ceremony, 2020 Hall of Fame inductee Archie Roach and Sampa The Great used their performances to ignite a crucial dialogue about our nation’s racist history.

64-year-old Archie Roach delivered a heart-stopping rendition of his song Took The Children Awayreflecting on his experiences as part of the Stolen Generation, while Zambia-born artist Sampa The Great called out both the ARIAs and the Australian music industry as a whole in her captivating performance of Final Form.

Aria Award winner
Photo: The ARIAs

Livestreamed from Botswana, Sampa The Great began her ARIAs performance by advocating for greater diversity and meaningful change within Australia’s music landscape. “This industry, for people like me. Diversity, equity in your ARIA boards,” she said. “To my people I say… we are our own. Freedom.” Sampa has been a powerful voice for change in Australian music for years, speaking out against the industry claiming her as an Aussie without adequate recognition of her African heritage.

“In a country that pretends to not see Black, to not see its origins and its past, not only do Black visionaries make you see, but made it clone who created human history,” she said in her performance. “And when we win awards they toss us in ad breaks. Is that history lost? Can’t remember what you forgot. Is it free?”

Last year, Sampa became the first woman of colour to ever win the Best Hip-Hop Release category for her track Final Formbut her acceptance speech addressing diversity and racial injustice was cut from the transmission. In her speech, she said “it’s really bittersweet that in 2019, I’m the first woman of colour to win in the hip hop category. I really hope I’m not the last. I hope the change in this category pushes us to talk about how diverse Black music can be. I hope the Australian music industry starts to reflect how our community looks like.”

The win came the same year that the Best Urban Release category was renamed as the Best Hip Hop Release, in an attempt to make progress towards racial equality the industry. Yet, the progress came in vain as the awards show snubbed the victories of Black and First Nations artists from their broadcast.

ARIAs CEO Dan Rosen did express regret at the move, admitting they could have done more to highlight and celebrate diversity during the show. “We should have handled it better last year in acknowledging the important reforms we made to change that award and, in particular, acknowledge the historic wins by Sampa and Kaiit,” Rosen told The Music Network last month.

“I regret we didn’t take the opportunity to provide the national platform that those wins warranted and I apologise for that. We need to do better this year and will continue to improve as an organisation and how we best represent the diversity of our artists and our industry.”

Archie Roach was honoured last night as well, winning the Best Adult Contemporary Album and Best Male Artist categories, as well as being inducted into the Hall of Fame. In his performance, the music legend addressed issues of racism and the problematic history of colonisation in his 1990 song Took The Children Away.

He was accompanied by long time colleague and friend Paul Kelly, who originally co-produced the track. Both Roach and Kelly were tearful throughout the performance as the comradeship shined on stage.

The Stolen Generation is a dark part of Australia’s history which saw Aboriginal children forcibly removed from their families to ‘breed out’ their blackness. These were government-sanctioned policies that served from 1910-1970, and inflicted untold physical, spiritual, and mental trauma on First Nations communities across the country. The horrific and violent effects of these policies are still widely felt today.

In his induction speech, Roach thanked all those who supported his career, with a nod of recognition to his old mate Kelly. “Thank you ARIA for this day. You never really think much about awards when you perform and write songs about country,” Roach said.

Rapper Briggs introduced Roach in a moving speech before he was inducted into the Hall of Fame. “Archie Roach took his story, vulnerability, his heart and made it art. Once again, a Blackfella was going above and beyond to reach out and educate the rest of Australia,” he said.

“Having the strength to share his story, Uncle Arch gave us all strength too. Strength to be artists. Artists that are yet to begin their careers. He created a path, and we have a benchmark to strive for.”

Later in the evening, we saw the icon again, this time surprised by his Best Male Artist win. In an acceptance speech, he said: “I’m sure any of the other nominees could have won – they didn’t make a mistake, did they? Thank you”.


You can watch the full performance from the 2020 ARIAs here: