A yarn with local musician Nathan May reveals how his recent single tackles explorations of family, reconciliation and cultural dispossession with a sense of hope.
‘It’s Gotta Start Somewhere’ is a call for reciprocal kindness
It’s apparent listening to “It’s Gotta Start Somewhere” that Nathan May’s grandmother’s journey heavily inspired the release.
May says he was compelled to tell the story as a way to unpack his family history, which sits simultaneously outside and within dominant narratives of First Nations cultural dispossession.
“My great-grandfather was a white man who came from overseas. He met my grandmother who was born in Tennant Creek and basically, he didn’t allow her to pass language and culture down to their kids, one of whom was my grandmother,” May says.
“As much as there are all these highlighted issues, there’s also things that people don’t know about that have happened to a lot of Aboriginal peoples. It didn’t have to be kids being taken away, it was more enclosed in the house, dispossession within the family unit. It wasn’t a missionary or the government, this was one man that did it… and he’s family.
“That’s something I wanted to do, was bring awareness to these complexities. You know, I don’t blame him – it is what it is. You can’t go back and fix it, but there’s an opportunity for me to start my own journey and learn my own culture and language. This song has a bit of that.”
May is a proud descendant of the Arabana, Yawuru and Marridjabin peoples. He grew up in the Northern Territory and now resides on Kaurna Yerta. An enthusiastically prolific musician and community-minded artist, he’s travelled to many communities to teach music and to champion hope to younger generations.
“It’s Gotta Start Somewhere” is the first single from his forthcoming debut album, which May hopes will be released next year. The song demonstrates how comfortable the musician is becoming within himself – it has a self-assured sincerity that is refreshing, inspiring and often rare in the post-modern musical world.
“I feel like, with this song, I didn’t want to put too many metaphors in it – let’s just say it how it is,” he says. “We wrote this song before the referendum talk [began] and I feel it’s a good way to look at the Voice to Parliament. We gotta start somewhere to see how we can grow and heal.
“I just want to sing truth. I think that’s why this song is having such an effect, because it’s my truth and it was written with that in mind.”
May was one of the First Nations musicians who performed on March 26, when a state-level voice to parliament was voted through by the South Australian House of Assembly.
Singing on the steps of the SA Parliament building, he was reminded of the bigger purpose behind his art.
“To play on that day, in general, was an honour, and it was amazing really, to be a part of such a historic day for Aboriginal people here in South Australia,” he says.
“It was something I’ll remember and hopefully something I can tell my grandchildren about – playing on the steps of Parliament. I feel like in life I just want to be able to help and music is a powerful thing. Having some music on that day was something special that I could contribute to. That’s kind of my life motto, to help and bring people together.”
May’s musical roots, and his desire to create community through song, stretch back into his very early childhood.
“I still remember it, jumping up on stage with my uncle and his band. I used to play the drums and he used to have a cover band. I think that would’ve been ’97 or ’98, when I was about three years of age. I used to have footage, but it’s lost on a VHS somewhere that got thrown away, but I still remember it pretty well.
“Growing up with my extended family who were in the church, it was a heavy musical influence.”
The church – for May, as it is for many Aboriginal people – is a double-edged colonial sword. Among many institutions that took away and repressed so much culture, it was one of the few that also gave something back, if only to bump up the numbers of its own “flock”. In some instances, attempts to attract more attendees through channels like music had the effect of preserving some elements of Aboriginal language and culture.
Now, in his art and outside of it, May is bringing together the love of music originally fostered by the church with his desire to champion his own cultural identity. Hearing traditional language in the many art forms of different First Nations practitioners is becoming a comforting norm, and May has explored his connections to Aranda language in “It’s Gotta Start Somewhere”.
“Ngapartji-Ngapartji, as a concept, has spread through many language groups but I know it as an Aranda word and its meaning is that of ‘helping people in return’. You give and then receive,” he says.
“My uncle used to say it to me when I first moved here [to Adelaide] and I just loved the word, how it was said, and I knew I had to use it in a song one day. You give and you get. It just fit perfectly for this. Basically, we based the sentiment of the song around that phrase.”
May’s music and his generous ideas are sorely needed in these divisive times. His poignantly sincere voice and songs like “It’s Gotta Start Somewhere”, which pierce straight to the heart, are keys that can help unlock a more hopeful mindset.
Kyron Weetra is a proud Nharangga/Saxon clan man. He is one of the first recipients of the Arts SA and InReview First Nations Arts Writing Mentorship. Kyron is working with experienced writer, visual artist and curator Troy-Anthony Baylis – who is a descendant of the Jawoyn people from the Northern Territory and is also of Irish ancestry – to write a series of articles for publication in InReview.