In the days since his death, those affected by Archie Roach are opening up about the legacy he leaves behind

Opera singer

From the top of Arnhem Land, where musicians are inspired by his timeless lyrics, to the streets of Melbourne’s Fitzroy, where fans leave floral tributes on the steps of Charcoal Lane, it seems like no place in the country got hit by Archie Roach.

His sons, Amos and Eban, said Archie died surrounded by family and loved ones at Warrnambool Base Hospital in Victoria.

Archie’s family has granted permission to use his name, likeness and music.

However, the love felt for Archie extends far beyond this hospital ward, far beyond state lines and color lines to every corner of the country we call the Australia.

Archie leaves behind a legacy of tireless work towards reconciliation and an inspired new generation to carry on his message of healing into the future.

As Australia comes to terms with the loss of one of its greatest storytellers, those affected by Archie are opening up about what he meant to them.

Tributes were paid outside the indigenous social enterprise Charcoal Lane in Melbourne, which shares its name with the singer’s debut album.(ABC News: Barrie Pullen)

“He kept on fighting, he kept on fighting, he kept on believing”

Goanna frontman Shane Howard, a longtime friend of Archie and his wife, Ruby Hunter, was heartbroken at the death of a man he considered a brother.

It’s very raw. It’s very real. It’s a lot to lose, but I think Ruby could call it home,” Howard said.

The couple toured Australia, the UK and Ireland with Black Arm Band and saw each other days before Archie’s death.

Archie Roach and Shane Howard.
Archie Roach and Shane Howard toured the world together as part of the musical theater group Black Arm Band.(Facebook: Shane Howard—Goanna)

Remembering his friend as a “deeply cultural being”, Howard says Australians mourning Archie’s passing should continue the work of reconciliation the Gunditjmara (Kirrae Whurrong/Djab Wurrung) singer has been striving towards for a large part of his life.

“His ability to keep forgiveness front and center – after all that’s happened to him and all that’s happened to First Nations people here in this country – his ability to continue to believe that we can reconcile this nation, that we can become a just people and a just nation,” he said.

It comes as the discussion swirls around enshrining an indigenous voice in parliament in the Constitution, an issue that Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has pledged to address as soon as possible.

“Archie’s passing reminds us that we need to redouble our efforts, and the best way to honor him is to honor those things,” Howard said.

“There’s still so much wrong and Archie knew it, but he kept fighting, he kept fighting, he kept believing.”

“He took the words we couldn’t say”

Beyond his legacy as one of Australia’s most acclaimed songwriters, Archie’s passing has special significance for the Stolen Generations.

Born in Mooroopna, Victoria, Archie was just three years old when he was forcibly removed from his family.

Ian Hamm, Yorta Yorta man and Stolen Generations survivor, said he was shaken after hearing the news of Archie’s death.

“When I heard it was like a gray shadow had fallen over me,” Mr Hamm said.

“Archie was a special person in his ability to convey stories and songs and bring to life what it means to be just an ordinary Native American.”

For Mr. Hamm, Archie’s music provided an outlet for indescribable pain and a way to make sense of his own traumatic experiences.

“He took the words we couldn’t say and he turned them into songs so our voices could be heard,” he said.

“When we were unable to articulate what it meant on a truly human level, the song ‘They Took The Children Away’ said it all for us.”

Mr Hamm said Archie’s strength and courage to share his own story was crucial in bringing about initiatives such as the Stolen Generations Redress programme.

“I don’t think we will see him again and I can only hope that we will never forget that we were blessed to be honored by his presence,” he said.

A man wearing a scarf and glasses with his arms crossed
Daniel James says he had the great privilege of interviewing Archie Roach many times.(ABC News: Simon Winter)

Writer and broadcaster Daniel James has interviewed Archie on several occasions and described the singer as a “powerful yet humble presence”.

“He was someone [who] was not a voice of his generation, he was a voice for generations,” James said.

James said Archie was integral to starting a conversation about truth in Australia.

“It seems counterintuitive, but there was nothing performative about his music,” he said.

“He was someone [who] was singing into a vacuum before there was an audience ready to hear what he had to say.

“And then, finally, that void was filled with an audience, then, finally, that audience was filled with love. Love for him, love for his music.”

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“We want to do it the same way our uncle Archie did”

For Aboriginal musicians such as Victor Rostron, Archie’s storytelling served as inspiration.

“We are here in Garma because we have seen our elders tell stories, sing songs, with their hearts,” he said.

“His music tells us a story that comes from his heart.”

Based in Maningrida in the northeast of Arnhem Land, Rostron plays in indigenous rock band Wildfire Munwurrk and wants to emulate the power of Arnhem music.

“He was our mentor, and we want to do it the way our uncle Archie was, really strong and powerful,” he said.

A man standing in the bush looking up to the sky
Victor Rostron says Archie is an inspiration to Indigenous musicians across the country.(ABC News: Gary-Jon Lysaght)

Rostron said Archie’s signature song, “Took the Children Away”, carries an important message not just for Australians, but for those around the world.

“My boys and I will miss him,” he said.

“His music really means something, and we don’t want his music to end, we want his music to be a memory for him and stay there forever.”

“A song can be medicine to heal”

For opera singer Deborah Cheetham, the loss of Archie represents the loss of a pillar of the Australian community.

“Today our world has changed forever. Our job becomes so much harder because Uncle Archie was so supportive of the spirit of our nation,” Cheetham said.

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Opera singer Deborah Cheetham says Archie Roach brought people together through song.

Cheetham said Archie’s deep connection to music helped his message break down racial barriers and unite the country.

“His understanding, deep in his DNA, that a song is so much more than just a song,” she said.

“A song can be medicine to heal the many wounds that have been inflicted not only on the indigenous peoples of this country, but [also] on every Australian.

“It is often said that we stand on the shoulders of giants,” Cheetham said.

“The whole of Australia can say she stood on the shoulder of a giant in Uncle Archie.”