Five Things I Know: Ben Graetz, National Indigenous Music Awards

In 2020, the National Indigenous Music Awards went virtual – reaching over 250,000 people and ending up the biggest in the event’s history. Serving as creative director for 2021 is longtime performing arts worker Ben Graetz, a descendant of the Iwaidja and Malak Malak clans in the Northern Territory and of Badu Island in the Torres Strait. Ahead of this year’s virtual NIMAs on November 14, Graetz talks to NME about First Nations solidarity, the ceremony’s theme of collective experience, healing and reflection and more.

1. Virtual events bring distant communities together

Last year’s virtual ceremony was one of our most successful NIMAs in terms of reach. It was a really challenging but beneficial exercise in how we can connect to community in ways that we probably haven’t had the opportunity to before. And I think that’s one positive that’s come out of all of our restrictions with COVID: to be able to connect with Yirrkala [in East Arnhem Land], but also Broome communities [in Kimberley], and then also to be beamed through YouTube, Twitter, and all those various other platforms as well.

One of my focuses has been how to make the event much more complementary with the broadcasts. So for example, being able to incorporate live crosses to community around the country, but also doing backstage vox pops that the live audience can be a part of, too.

It’s really about fusing together broadcast with a live performance and a virtual capacity – that’s the aim we’re going for this year. Where we land, who knows, what with all the current restrictions happening around the country. But we definitely have learnt a lot from last year; I don’t think we’re as fearful about going into this space, as opposed to 2020.

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[Editor’s Note: the NIMAs were due to take place at the Darwin Amphitheatre in August, but were postponed due to coronavirus restrictions. The NIMAs will go ahead November 14 as a two-hour virtual special on triple j.]

“If you were born Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, you were born political”

2. First Nations solidarity extends beyond borders

We’re always looking at the different ways that we can improve the NIMAs. One such way is looking at how we can expand its reach and visibility and possibly be international. There are definitely very easily obtainable connections to the music sector in both New Zealand and Canada. (The First Nations people of Canada have a very close relationship with Australian First Nations people.)

I would love for Darwin and the NIMAs to be a huge First Nations gathering space, once we are able to all gather together. For us to all come together and not just make it a national event, but an international event. That’s not something that really seems out of reach, once we are able to travel.

We’ve already got those connections, and I think that to be able to all travel to Larrakia country – to be able to share culture, to collaborate, to yarn, to chat, to discuss – that’s what really excites me. It’s the potential of how we as First Nations people can come together not only nationally but internationally as well.

Five Things I Know Ben Graetz NIMAs
Ben Graetz. Credit: Press

3. First Nations artists are storytellers and activists both

As a nation, we are still suffering from the effects of colonisation, and First Nations creatives are going to find it difficult because of the colonial structures and processes that are in place. But I think that is shifting, which is great. There is much more of an interest in our stories and history and the truth-telling of this country.

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For me, musicians are our biggest activists in a way, and are now some of our most important storytellers because of their lyrics, our stories. People like Briggs, the music and the collaborations that he has created. His activism through his music is so incredible. Uncle Archie Roach, Baker Boy, all of them.

If you were born Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, you were born political. We are always going to be political. The journey for us is always going to be a little bit harder. But, we come from 80,000 years of resilience, so we’re not going to let it derail us or stop us.

I think our musicians would struggle at times but they find solace in what they do. That’s why they do what they do – because it keeps them strong and connected to culture, ensuring that their culture is continuing, and our stories are being heard.

4. First Nations personnel are crucial to a self-determined event

In addition to me, Nina Fitzgerald is joining NIMAs as a creative associate, Romana Paulson will be a project and stage manager and we’ve also been working with Cian McCue, who is a graphic designer.

The aim for me is to engage as many First Nations people as we can with the awards, to make it a really self-determined event and for us to own it. I’m always really conscious of if we are engaging people, trying to find First Nations people first to be able to fill those roles. And then looking wider after that. I feel this mindset is relevant to many other sectors as well.

In the last couple of years the awards have moved towards a more self-determined practice, allowing First Nations people to have creative control of the awards which is a really positive step towards an event by First Nations people, for First Nations people. For me, it’s always about questioning the current practices in place and going, “well, how can we do that differently? How can we engage other First Nations people?”

It’s not just about the artist or the creative roles. It’s also about the people behind the scenes: production crew, the people who make the awards, the administrators. It’s all of those other roles that really shift it and create a perspective from a First Nations lens.

“Musicians are our biggest activists in a way, and are now some of our most important storytellers”

5. Music plays a key role in healing and uniting community

What’s so important about these awards, whether it’s in person or done virtually, is that it allows our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community to connect and inspire hope, and it gives them something to look forward to. Music plays such an important role in healing, but also in telling stories and bringing our community together.

I plan on bringing this idea through the creative curation of the show and also by using host Steven Oliver as a vessel. We also have some really special moments in the show that will speak to this.

I think that our country needs to go through a healing – that also happens to be the NAIDOC Week theme this year, ‘healing country’ – and that healing is a really important way for us to move forward not only as First Nations people, but as a wider community as well.

One of the big things I learned from running a virtual event is that it allowed access for all of our community to be able to share how special the NIMAs are. Now, we just need to refine it. But gathering, sharing and healing as a community will always play an important role in what the awards are.

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