Hip-hop artist Sampa the Great called out the lack of diversity of the Australian music industry in general – and of the Australian Recording Industry Association (Aria) board in particular – during a highlight performance at the 2020 Aria awards, the industry’s biggest yearly event, which was broadcast on Wednesday night.
Tame Impala were the night’s big winners, taking home five trophies for their fourth album, The Slow Rush. But Sampa the Great, the next most successful, gave the night’s most talked about performance.
The vocalist – real name Sampa Tembo – won best female artist, best hip-hop release and best independent release for her first studio album, The Return. Her electrifying Aria performance of Final Form was filmed in Botswana, where she’s currently based, and opened with a few new lines: “Is it free, this industry, for people like me? Diversity, equity – in your Aria boards?” she rapped. “When we win awards, they toss us in the ad breaks of course.”
Tembo was ostensibly referring to the 2019 Arias, when she became the first woman of colour to win for best hip-hop. She called it “bittersweet” in a speech that didn’t make the 2019 broadcast: “I hope the Australian music industry starts to reflect what our community looks like,” she said at the time.
Accepting the Aria for best hip-hop artist on Wednesday, Tembo said the category meant a lot to her: “Hip-hop has been redefined in the last five, 10 years in Australia. Young black artists, young people of colour, keep doing what you’re doing, keep bringing the stories to the forefront, because now we get to see a side of Australia that was never shown.
“I’m sending all my love to black women in hip-hop. It often feels isolated and masculine. You can step into any genre, and be you. You can define genres.”
— Dom Alessio (@domalessio) November 25, 2020
Held at the mostly empty Star Casino in Sydney, host Delta Goodrem had a tough task: to keep the energy up in a cavernous room, while throwing to mostly pre-recorded performances (including Billie Eilish, Sia and Sam Smith) and presenters (such as Robbie Williams, Mick Fleetwood and Kylie Minogue).
The most moving moment came from Indigenous Australian singer and community leader Archie Roach, who was inducted into the Aria hall of fame after four decades in the industry.
Roach, who has chronic lung disease, was breathing through a nasal cannula as he delivered a heartfelt performance of Took the Children Away, while seated on stage in a small theatre in his hometown of Warrnambool.
He was accompanied by a full band, backing singers and Paul Kelly, who co-produced Roach’s first album, Charcoal Lane – the 30th anniversary of which was celebrated this year.
Took the Children Away galvanised the Australian public when it was released in 1990, telling Roach’s story of being forcibly removed from his parents as it shone a light on the Stolen Generations.
“Having the strength to share his story, Uncle Arch gave us all strength too. Strength to be artists,” Indigenous hip-hop artist Briggs said, introducing Roach’s performance. “We stand on the shoulder of giants … and Uncle Arch is our champion.”
Kelly cried during Roach’s acceptance speech, in which Roach thanked him for being there from the beginning. (“I don’t mean when man finally walked on both legs – ‘and they called him Paul Kelly’,” he joked. “But from the beginning of my music recording career.”)
“They’re still as lethal looking as they ever were,” Roach said, regarding his new Aria trophy. “I’d hate to trip and fall on one. Thank you.”
Roach took home two more awards, for best male artist and best adult contemporary release for his album Tell Me Why, an accompaniment to his autobiography of the same name.
Tame Impala – the globally acclaimed project of Perth’s Kevin Parker – won five of their seven nominated categories, including album of the year, best group and best rock album. This takes the act’s total Aria tally to 13.
“Even if we only feel like a group properly when we’re playing live, when we’re playing live, I’m so proud of us,” said Parker, flanked by live band members Jay Watson and Cam Avery in a stream from a bar in Perth.
Later in the night, he accepted best rock album from Mick Fleetwood, who also appeared via video. “Playing rock and roll is a crazy thing in 2020,” Parker said. “It’s an interesting beast.”
The 2020 Arias was certainly surreal. The boozy, glamorous ceremony was replaced with a virtual one, with most winning artists broadcasted from small parties and living rooms around the world.
And instead of being shuttled into a media room, journalists covering the awards were invited to an online Zoom webinar hosted by Robbie Buck, who interviewed whichever winners logged on.
For those watching, the broadcast on Nine began with a rousing celebration of the Australian music industry as it pulls itself through a year of trauma, from rallying at fundraisers for victims of the bushfires to surviving the shutdown of the pandemic.
It ended with a tribute to Helen Reddy, the Australian singer of feminist anthem I Am Woman who died earlier this year. Amy Shark, Christine Anu, Delta Goodrem, Kate Ceberano, Marcia Hines and Tones and I were among those who performed on stage, or joined via video.
Former Australian prime minister Julia Gillard introduced the performance, remembering first seeing Reddy perform as a young woman, and later at a rally – much older and just as inspiring.
“The power of purpose comes both with the vitality of youth and the experience of age,” Gillard said. “I want to acknowledge the strong women who have come before me, who stand beside me, and the ones I look forward to meeting … I hope they can have the freedom to take their place, to own their voice and to write their story without limits.”
Lime Cordiale, the Sydney brothers who led the nominations this year and won Triple J’s Australian album of the year last week, won just one of their eight categories, for breakthrough artist. Amy Shark won best pop release for Everybody Rise, a live performance of which opened the show; she was also publicly voted best live act.
Miiesha won in the soul/R&B category for Nyaaringu; TikTok sensation Dom Dolla won best dance release for San Frandisco; and Fanny Lumsden, the husband and wife duo who were nominated for seven Australian country music awards last week, won best country album for Fallow.
Aria awards – full winners list
Album of the year: Tame Impala – The Slow Rush
Best male artist: Archie Roach – Tell Me Why
Best female artist: Sampa the Great – The Return
Best dance release: Dom Dolla – San Frandisco
Best group: Tame Impala
Breakthrough artist: Lime Cordiale – 14 Steps to a Better You
Best pop release: Amy Shark – Everybody Rise
Best hip-hop release: Sampa the Great – The Return
Best soul/R&B release: Miiesha – Nyaaringu
Best independent release: Sampa the Great – The Return
Best rock album: Tame Impala – The Slow Rush
Best adult contemporary album: Archie Roach – Tell Me Why
Best country album: Fanny Lumsden – Fallow
Best hard rock/heavy metal album: King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard – Chunky Shrapnel
Best blues & roots album: The Teskey Brothers – Live at the Forum
Best children’s album: Teeny Tiny Stevies – Thoughtful Songs for Little People
Best comedy release: Anne Edmonds – What’s Wrong With You?
Best classical album: Richard Tognetti and Erin Helyard – Beethoven and Mozart Violin Sonatas
Best jazz album: Paul Kelly and Paul Grabowsky – Please Leave Your Light On
Best original soundtrack or musical theatre cast album: Chelsea Cullen – I Am Woman (OST)
Best world music album: Joseph Tawadros – Live at the Sydney Opera House
Best cover art: Adam Dal Pozzo, Megan Washington and Michelle Pitiris – Washington’s Batflowers
Engineer of the year: Kevin Parker – Tame Impala’s The Slow Rush
Producer of the year: Kevin Parker – Tame Impala’s The Slow Rush
Best video: Guy Sebastian – Standing With You
Best live act: Amy Shark
Song of the year: 5 Seconds of Summer – Teeth
Best international artist: Harry Styles – Fine Line
Music teacher award: Sarah Donnelly, from Wilcannia Central School