When Childish Gambino’s song This s America was first released in 2018, its elaborately choreographed and racially loaded film clip inspired a storm of speculation as people tried to decode what likely became the most talked-about music video of all time. Which of the dance moves were based on Jim Crow caricatures? Is the shooting of the gospel choir a rejection of spiritual upliftment? Is the last shot a reference to Get Out? And just what did the galloping horse mean?
Then remakes began to stream in from around the world. This Is Iraq, This Is Sierra Leone, This Is Nigeria, This Is Barbados, This Is Malaysia: all tackling racial injustice, human rights abuses, political hypocrisy and greed through dance and song.
Now Marrugeku, Australia’s leading First Nations dance company, has put together This Is Australia: a searing indictment of the country’s treatment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, refugees and migrants.
Like Childish Gambino’s video, Marrugeku’s take is packed with references familiar to Australians with one eye on the news – a man with a spit hood over his head, an overly-familiar white reporter, refugees holding signs, heavily armed police. The song, lead by Noongar rapper Beni Bjah, opens: “We just want a barbie / Crack a can or two / Put upon your thongs / Aussie day is due / Oh, lest we forget / The footy’s on tonight / Can’t you just get over it / You know she’ll be right.”
“It’s is a different process to writing an original song, to having a blank canvas,” Bjah says. “But having Childish Gambino’s version to go off actually helped – This Is America had already inspired me so much, all these ideas just popped in my head. We could have probably written three or four songs.”
Marrugeku’s co-artistic directors Dalisa Pigram and Rachael Swain had the idea years ago, while brainstorming a work that would tackle First Nations incarceration rates and Australia’s treatment of refugees. That work would become Marrugeku’s latest show, Jurrungu Ngan-ga (Straight Talk), which heads to Adelaide Festival in March.
At the time, then prime minister Scott Morrison was announcing a $7m plan for a “re-enactment” of James Cook’s journey on the HMS Endeavour that would circumnavigate Australia, despite the fact that Cook never did that. (It was later scrapped due to the pandemic.) When Black Lives Matter protests began a few months later after the murder of George Floyd in the US, suddenly Australia was engaged in a national debate around toppling statues celebrating figures such as Cook.
“We were thinking, how do we respond to all of this?” says Pigram. “And this was it. [Marrugeku] worked on the choreography, while Beni crafted up those amazing lyrics that hit hard in the heart.”
Glover’s opening dance, as a twitching caricature, inspired Pigram to think of an Australian equivalent. “We were trying to think of the kind of stereotypical dance that people imagine Aboriginal people doing – the kangaroo, and shaking shoulders,” she says. “[Dancer] Luke Currie-Richardson is doing it with style, but it is kind of cheeky.”
Halfway through, the song is interrupted by a wailing cry, sung by Marrugeku’s Emmanuel James Brown, over a shot of a triumphant Cook figure standing on a boat. This is a grieving response to the valourisation of Australia’s colonisers – a reminder of the pain they left behind, Pigram says: “We talk about melting statues down, when these statues are melting people down.”
The project sat in stasis during the pandemic, until stars aligned: Marrugeku was touring Jurrungu Ngan-ga around the Kimberley just as the Western Australia border re-opened and all the company’s dancers were in the same space for the first time in a long time.
Marrugeku and Bjah reunited on a sweltering day at Fitzroy Crossing, on Bunuba country, to record the video. Childish Gambino’s clip features several long, meticulously choreographed takes, and Marrugeku filmed roughly seven takes of every shot. “Multiple takes for anything a couple of minutes long is a lot work,” Bjah says. “But the dancers were so on point, they brought me up to their level. I felt the pressure because I didn’t want to make them keep running through it on a hot day.”
While Marrugeku’s shows like Jurrungu Ngan-ga earn rave reviews from those with the opportunity to see them, Pigram and Bjah hope people around the world who can’t will watch This Is Australia, and better understand the unique challenges facing Australia’s First Nations peoples, migrants and refugees.
“When we make a show for a theatre, we’re making the show that some people can never access – people who are incarcerated, on prison islands, in detention centres,” Pigram says. “So this is how we get to them, and to people all across the world.”
“Australia has a fear of the unknown,” Bjah says. “What we don’t understand, we want to lock up or send home. And we’re the most multicultural country in the world.”