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Chasing Ghosts' Jimmy Kyle on How White Australia Can "Pay the Rent"

Jimmy Kyle discusses how White Australia can "pay the rent", what impact he would like to see from Australia’s music and arts industries when it comes to the Black Lives Matter movement, and what he has learned about how the local music sector handles First Nations culture.

Jimmy Kyle is an artist of great substance and impact. His recent single “Summer”, released with his band Chasing Ghosts, pays homage to his family elder Jack Scott, the sole survivor of the 1865 Towel Creek Massacre. With the hard-earned steely rock urgency of a seasoned player and the poetic prowess of Paul Kelly, Kyle is bringing generational issues to the forefront. In fact, the band’s upcoming EP Homelands (out May 14th) is partly inspired by the resilience of the human spirit.

A proud Koori man, Kyle is a descendent of the Thungutti mob from the mid-north coast of NSW. Using his platform to inspire and advocate for change, Kyle told Rolling Stone his deep connection to this land is something he treasures. “Being Aboriginal fills me with pride and being authentic helps my soul rest,” he says.

In the Q&A below, Jimmy Kyle discusses how White Australia can “pay the rent”, what impact he would like to see from Australia’s music and arts industries when it comes to the Black Lives Matter movement, and what he has learned about how the local music sector handles First Nations culture.

“I understand non-Indiegnous people today are not responsible for the atrocities in our shared history and prescribe no guilt or blame,” Kyle says. “However, to be very clear they are the beneficiaries of those atrocities and we collectively have a responsibility to make things better today and for the next generation.”

Tell us about the story behind “Summer”… 

JK: The song is about the paying tribute to Baaba (Babaang) Jack Scott the sole survivor of the Towel Creek Massacre in 1856. This massacre took place near Bellbrook, NSW towards the end of the Frontier Wars for that region. The Thungutti Nation had been in engaged in a long running conflict to defend their lands and taking in a number of other southern mobs as refugees into our lands as they escaped the atrocities of men like Macquarie.

The Frontier Wars saw the invading pastoralist, squatters and colonial forces continue to push further into Thungutti territories committing massacres, indiscriminately killing woman, children and the elderly. Baaba Jack was found alive, hidden amongst the bodies of his dead relatives, as a baby still sucking on his dead mother breast.

Baaba Jack had been overlooked by the invading forces and survived. The song confronts the white supremacy of the time, the roots of contemporary white nationalism and the Frontier Wars. Additionally, recognising Reconciliation while shining a light on the resilience of Aboriginal peoples. As a person whose had the great privilege of being an educator in this field, I didn’t want this story lost to the hands of time and figured if The frontier Wars are not being taught in the curriculum in every school I’ll put it on the radio instead.

“I didn’t want this story lost to the hands of time and figured if The frontier Wars are not being taught in the curriculum in every school I’ll put it on the radio instead.”

The Homelands EP covers hate crime, present political challenges, suicide, survival, and so much more. Where and how did you hone your craft of storytelling?

JK: I’m often inspired by the resilience of the human spirit. I draw a lot of inspirations from songwriters like the great late Johnny Cash and the great country storytellers. I really took note of his approach especially on [Cash’s] album Bitter Tears. Closer to home, Uncle Kevin Carmody and Paul Kelly are both great influences.

Maybe more surprising to some is I take inspiration from rap artists, in particular Joyner Lucas and the iconic rapper Biggie and Tupac. Locally Briggs’ work on the track Bad Apples is another great story telling moment I admired. For me the stories are the most important part and the conversations they bring. I usually try telling the everyday specifics of the story that give it character but keep the universal concepts that are relatable.

The hooks come first, and the idea is refined and massaged to the confines of the melody and syllable count. Ultimately, I tell it as a viewer using imagery that can play in the listener’s mind and let the listener decide how it makes them feel, rather than telling people how to feel by using statements.

What’s something that fills you with pride right now?

JK: Being Aboriginal fills me with pride and being authentic helps my soul rest. Weirdly my slowly receding hair line – it reminds me of my Dad, so I’ve grown to like it. My wife fills me with pride. I’m a very lucky man. The amazing band mates and our team are some of my closest friends and many of the people I admire to my core. I’m proud to call them my friends.

Relationships for me are the most important thing. Most importantly when a fan connects to my music or when I’m educating people in a training session, witnessing that penny drop moment. When I see those people go on to speak up or make change, I’m proud of them and that restores my hope.

“Relationships for me are the most important thing.”

You’ve said before that you don’t want your music to be seen as a personal attack on White Australia. How can White Australia better unite with First Nations peoples?

JK: It’s not a personal attack on the average non-Indigenous person who’s just going about their business, I understand for many folks they’re just trying to pay the bills and live the contemporary life. I can’t say I’ve solved all the challenges of other marginalised groups, so I can empathise with the task I’m challenging folks with. The goal is to make change in your capacity and sphere of influence.

I understand non-Indiegnous people today are not responsible for the atrocities in our shared history and prescribe no guilt or blame. However, to be very clear they are the beneficiaries of those atrocities and we collectively have a responsibility to make things better today and for the next generation. Reconciliation has close to nothing to do with Aboriginal people, it’s about white Australia reconciling the truth. As Aboriginal people we have nothing to reconcile, what did we ever do to England or contemporary Australia?

“Reconciliation has close to nothing to do with Aboriginal people, it’s about white Australia reconciling the truth.”

From my perspective our job is to shine, never step backwards like Dinawan (Emu) and Bunda (kangaroo) and to tell it straight every time to the best of our ability. It’s the job of all those who call our lands their home today to reconcile the truth, to stop minimising our grievances and to listen to our Elders and to begin to see our culture as something they can engage with.

The first step is deep listening from the heart – not the ego. To walk beside us and move into action. To become great listeners who seek to understand before asking to be understood and comprehend this may be their home, but they are standing on stolen land. We are in the invasion. It’s long overdue for Treaty, we’re the last nation in the commonwealth to have a Treaty with its first peoples.

It’s time white Australia speaks up when they hear racist comments. The behaviour you walk past is the behaviour you endorse; your silence will be mistaken as agreement. People say and do racist things around you because they believe you’re ok with it. Being passive is not enough. Your silence makes you complicit. That said you don’t need to shame people or get on a soap box, you can quietly talk to people remembering that we’re not born educated and we’re not born racist, we’re taught these things and can be untaught.

“The behaviour you walk past is the behaviour you endorse; your silence will be mistaken as agreement.”

jimmy kyle of chasing ghosts

Jimmy Kyle. Photograph by Ian Laidlaw

From your career working as an artist and also someone who works within Indigenous communities, what have you learned about how the local music sector handles First Nations culture?

JK: In more recent years I’ve seen an increase of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists included on bills as a response to criticism of whitewashed straight cis male-dominated bills. The mindfulness of agents and promoters has in turn been reciprocated by enthusiastic crowds and artists who deliver a more dynamic experience drawn from a broader pallet of inspirations.

The steady increase of respectful practices like Welcome to Country from Traditional Owners or Acknowledgement of Country by bands (such as the hardcore band Outright) has seen crowds have a moment to come together and connect with the Traditional Owners and reflect in a personal affectionate and conciliatory way.

I champion all artists, promoters, venues and booking agents that are building their networks in the Aboriginal community and are looking for more ways to create inclusive diverse bills. In response I see the standard being delivered by First Nations artists as world class and highly engaging.  Previously those artists were overlooked and not given their moment to show they have what it takes alongside anyone else.

There is an overall lack of cultural awareness due to a lack of exposure to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders Peoples cultures and a lack of education. A lack of Aboriginal networks to reach those artists has also been a challenge to overcome. This is changing. The crowds embrace Aboriginal artists and in many cases are seduced by the authenticity and charm of First Nations performers. We are born story tellers.

Black Lives Matter.

“We are born story tellers.”

What impact are you hoping the current Black Lives Matter movement has on Australia’s music and arts industries?

JK: I think the role of the Arts is fundamental to sharing stories in a way that engages all of society, especially when its uncomfortable and challenging – that’s what we’re meant to do! It should make you think.

The Arts are a powerful tool to give voice to the voiceless and can leverage the aspirations of communities and their Elders in a respectful way, highlighting community stories of The Struggle in our past and present, while celebrating Aboriginal culture.

The music industry is responding as are other parts of the Arts. It’s welcomed and I commend it but recognising inclusivity is fundamental on bills whether its concerts, festivals or tours. It’s important we maintain the notion that First Nations people are the first point of call when operating on their lands not an afterthought.

Catch Chasing Ghosts live in Sydney on 13 March at Crowbar Leichhardt.