First & Forever Festival review: a day of celebration, commemoration and culture

At Hanging Rock, an all-star selection of First Nations artists paid tribute to trailblazers while providing an exciting glimpse of the future

Aboriginal and Torres Straits Islander readers are advised that this story contains the name and image of people who have died.

The First & Forever Festival promised to celebrate Blak excellence, and it delivered on all fronts. The daylong event took place November 27 at the iconic Hanging Rock with the full approval of the land’s traditional owners: the Dja Dja Wurrung, Taungurung and Wurundjeri people. The picturesque setting provided a fitting backdrop for an event that will leave an indelible mark on everyone in attendance. Across the day, more than 20 First Nations artists celebrated and collaborated on the Uncle Archie stage (named after the late Archie Roach), and it’s hard to decide exactly who had more fun: the packed crowd or the artists. Hosts Karla Ranby and Tyrone Pynor also brought the energy in set intervals, adding to the sense of celebration.

Ziggy Ramo at First & Forever Festival
Ziggy Ramo at First & Forever Festival. Credit: Mushroom Creative House

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How do you fit more than 20 wildly talented artists into one day of programming? The answer was rapid-fire sets intertwined with countless collaborations. JK-47, Kobie Dee and Budjerah teamed up for a soulful cover of 2Pac’s ‘Changes’ (JK-47 first performed the track as part of triple j’s ‘Like A Version’ segment), while Barkaa appeared during Electric Fields’ pulsating set to perform ‘Fight For Me’, a poignant and powerful song that calls for the protection of First Nations children. Barkaa also appeared alongside Kobie Dee, JK-47, Birdz and Dobby to perform ‘King Brown’, her cheeky song that’s ‘dedicated’ to a toxic ex. Much like at Listen Out, Barkaa proved herself one of the day’s MVPs.

Barkaa at First & Forever Festival
Barkaa leading ‘King Brown’ at First & Forever Festival. Credit: Mushroom Creative House

The centrepiece of the day was the tribute to the late Uncle Archie Roach and Aunty Ruby Hunter, both artists and storytellers that inspired the artists on stage. Jess Hitchcock and Kardajala Kirridarra’s stirring rendition of Hunter’s ‘A Change Gonna Come’ was a highlight, while Paul Kelly and Fred Leone appeared to perform ‘Charcoal Lane’, the title track from Roach’s seminal 1990 album. Not one to draw attention to himself, Kelly instead told a story about the first time he heard ‘Charcoal Lane’: sitting around Archie Roach and Ruby Hunter’s table in Reservoir.

Emma Donovan and Paul Kelly at First & Forever Festival
Emma Donovan and Paul Kelly at First & Forever Festival. Credit: Mushroom Creative House

Briggs (who, along with input from Paul Kelly, curated the line-up) also appeared with Jess Hitchcock and Emma Donovan to perform ‘The Children Came Back’, a sequel to Archie Roach’s ‘Took The Children Away’. Another song from ‘Charcoal Lane’, it told the story of the Stolen Generation and made many Australians aware of the systemic injustices that First Nations people were subject to (and continue to face). ‘The Children Came Back’, in contrast, is upbeat, and references influential Indigenous figures like Gavin Wanganeen and Cathy Freeman. It was a fitting conclusion to the tribute and Briggs, who looked right at home in front of the adoring crowd, was clearly taking in the moment.

Briggs at First & Forever Festival
Briggs at First & Forever Festival. Credit: Mushroom Creative House

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Transitioning into the evening sets, it was hard to believe the day was only half over given the countless memorable moments that had already transpired. The crowd was mesmerised the moment Thelma Plum took to the stage, filling the air of The Gathering Place with her soaring vocals during ‘Homecoming Queen’ and ‘Better In Blak’.

Thelma Plum at First & Forever Festival
Thelma Plum at First & Forever Festival. Credit: Mushroom Creative House

Jessica Mauboy’s career-defining set proved yet again why she’s one of Australia’s most beloved pop artists. Newer singles ‘Automatic’ and ‘Glow’ sat snugly alongside classics like ‘Pop A Bottle’ and ‘Running Back’. Tasman Keith appeared to perform ‘Heaven With U’ alongside Mauboy, a highlight from his debut album ‘A Colour Undone’.

Tasman Keith at First & Forever Festival
Tasman Keith at First & Forever Festival. Credit: Mushroom Creative House

As the night began to draw to a close, there were two sets left in store, both by artists fresh off success at this year’s ARIA Awards. Yolngu multi-hyphenate Baker Boy is a festival headliner-in-waiting, and the now five-time ARIA Award winner’s cover of Blur’s ‘Song 2’ (once again, first heard on ‘Like A Version’) had the whole crowd singing. Complete with a live band and backing dancers/vocalists, ‘Gela’ highlight ‘Funk Wit Us’ went down a treat, while set closer ‘Marryuna’ made it nigh impossible to stand still. Dancing is a must when Baker Boy’s on stage.

Baker Boy at First & Forever Festival
Baker Boy at First & Forever Festival. Credit: Mushroom Creative House

Two years ago, the world was introduced to North-East Arnhem Land’s King Stingray with their raucous debut single ‘Hey Wanhaka’. The band that features descendants of the iconic Yothu Yindi wrapped up First & Forever Festival with a short but blistering set featuring ‘Sweet Arnhem Land’, ‘Get Me Out’ and more. The set came hot on the heels of their Michael Gudinski Breakthrough Artist award at the ARIAs; it was fitting timing given that First & Forever stemmed from a conversation that the late Mushroom Group founder had with Briggs.

King Stingray at First & Forever Festival
King Stingray leading the grand finale of First & Forever Festival. Credit: Mushroom Creative House

Reflecting on the significance of First & Forever Festival, the phrase “you can’t be what you can’t see” comes to mind: it is by no means a stretch to believe that future First Nations musicians were in the crowd today, realising what futures are possible. It seems likely that the festival will return next year, and rightly so – this is the type of event that this country needs.

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