When I walk through the car park entrance to the radio station on Saturday afternoons, I hope she will be there again, sitting on the bench.
That first time, she sat at the bottom of the stairs, a half-smoked rollie between her fingers as we were arriving for our show. I smiled, then pressed the buzzer for the on-air announcer to let us in. Our sistar on the stairs asked for a light. Tab held out hers and the young tidda lit her cigarette. The door opened and we went in the building.
Later, when we went out for a smoke after our shift, she was gone.
4ZZZ is situated on an island of tar between Barry Parade and St Pauls Terrace in Fortitude Valley. The three-storey community radio station is protected by a loud multi-coloured third eye mural on the front of the building. Once Communist Party headquarters, Z sits on a prime bit of inner-city real estate, dwarfed by three garish sky scrapers on Barry Parade. On hot afternoons, the car park at the back of the building on St Pauls Terrace is often packed with young people at small but loud underage gigs. The station gives a voice to those at the margins, those not heard elsewhere. For forty plus years, the Z call to action has been Educate, Agitate, Organise.
Sometimes, in the early hours of the morning, people walking past the car park entrance hear the speaker rigged up on the side of the storage shed and wander in.
Beside the staircase that leads to the office space, there’s a door on ground level leading to the studios and music library. It has always been a safe space for homeless people to sleep until the breakfast shift.
Now, each time I go to the station, I look for the tidda. I hope that she will be sitting on the bench next to the big ashtray with her rollies. Our exchange was unspoken, but I will recognise her lopsided grin and petite frame, there or someplace else.
Tabatha, my Bidjara Sistar, has wisdom curls, though she is the younger of us two. Tab is in her mid-forties, a single mum with three kids. She sings and is studying Aboriginal health. We share similar interests: music, culture and politics. There is repetition in our family stories: love and care, state intervention, dislocation and all the things they talk about on the news, repeated over and over again in government reports and never comprehensively addressed.
There are big differences as well: the time we’ve shared on our country with elders, with extended family. What our families told us of our history, and what they knew, is very different. I was raised not knowing I was Aboriginal.
To find out that the life you have experienced happened because of lies and deception, to know that your relatives never had that kind of opportunity, makes you question the way you see the world. It shifts the way you accept history, who you are, where you belong and what responsibilities you have – to truth-tell, to call out shame, to name fear.
It has changed what I see, what I hear, and how I describe it. It has changed the emphasis I place on the specifics of my life and my experiences. Privilege costs those less fortunate. But you can actively choose to lift others up in action and speech.
Every Saturday at one, we are fiercer, braver, stronger. We fade down the Go-betweens track the show before us, ‘Brisbane-line’, has used as their outro. We play soundbites of our SoulJah Sistars: Nina Simone, Betty Davis, Marlena Shaw, Koko Taylor, Rosetta Tharpe, Aunty Ruby, Aunty Wilma Redding, Aunty Ila Watson, Aunty Mary Graham, Rita Marley, Maya Angelou, Angela Davis, Toni Morrison and Rosa Parks. Women who shape the world as we see it.
Downstairs Kiesha answers calls, sells merchandise, updates the membership database and does our social media. She’s our younger Sistar.
This day, I pick up the studio phone as soon as Tab fades up the first track following the program intro.
‘Kiesha, is it busy?’
‘Not right now.’
‘You want to order us some Chinese?’
‘Me and Tab will go get it after the show.’
As the track fades out, Tab moves the sliders on panel for the microphones.
‘That was Camille Yarbough, singing All Hid,’ I always back-announce to give listeners context. ‘We’re the SoulJah Sistars on the Zeds. We’re talking about Rosa Parks this week.’
‘Rosa Parks was the African American tidda who refused to move down the back of the bus and the incident galvanised the civil rights movement,’ Tab says.
‘What does Rosa’s story say to you?’ I ask her.
‘She took a stand with no expectation things would change. She was no mild-mannered Sistar, like people thought. She was an activist. Before that day she had been kicked off the bus by the same driver. She knew she would be arrested.’
‘I so agree. What is exceptional is she was so courageous, not expecting a good outcome.’ I glance up at the studio clock and back at Tab. The program is an hour long so there is not a lot of time to talk.
Tab presses play on the computer, then fades up the track. ‘Now this is a Sistar closer to home.’
It’s important to give people the sweet with the bitter. We offer them voices grounded in this place, local and honest: Christine Anu singing with Paul Kelly on ‘Last Train’, Casey Donovon singing ‘True Colours’, Wildflower singing ‘Galiwin’ku’.
Researching the program, I’d read about the photos of Rosa on the bus and of her finger-printing, which were staged by law enforcement and the media after the event. Rosa was deliberately made to look something she wasn’t – meek.
I’ve been thinking about how we present experience for the purposes of truth-telling.
Truth-telling is needed for healing. It’s empowering, too – to know that Rosa was a political woman driven to change the world for the better. That she lived the slogan that we and the rest of the 4ZZZ community strive to live by: Educate, Agitate, Organise.
After the music, we talk about segregation here before the referendum in 1967. The Care and Protection Acts that dictated where Aboriginal people could live and work, who we could marry.
To move and work where we wanted, people had to apply for an Exemption Certificate – and it came with conditions. It was self-imposed assimilation. We had to give up connection to kin and country. We could not go back to the mission, or return to see family. We had to pretend to be white. Invisible regulations severed people from blood and culture.
The forced labour of our women, trained to be domestic help while in state care, the Stolen Wages, these all happened in very recent history – in our mothers’, aunties’, grandmothers’ lifetimes. In some places, they are still happening, like with the intervention and Work for the Dole programs.
Now segregation exists in ‘the gap’ seen in incarceration, life expectancy, educational outcomes, suicide, addiction and housing; these are things experienced far more and far differently by Indigenous Australians.
Before colonisation people had the knowledge and understandings to have a quality of life that has since been taken from them wherever possible. For many thousands of years, we were able to live off the land well.
‘One hurts all hurt,’ Tab says. ‘Lives circle one another in routines for days, months, years, decades, centuries, millennia, weaving a basket that might hold us in truth or deception.’
‘Our last track is Auntie Ruby Hunter singing “Down City Streets”.’
The program outro is a short grab from an interview with Nina Simone. A male journalist asks, ‘What does it mean to be free for you?’
Nina answers, ‘It means the same to me as it means to you. To be free is to feel no fear.’
Tab and I are smiling, laughing at the dog lifting its leg on the side of the building. We’re striding in time with one another, past a busker in front of the rail station, around the corner we turn right onto Wickham Terrace to grab lunch. We head back up Brunswick Street with our take-away.
Waiting for the walk signal at the traffic lights at the five-way intersection, across the road on the tar island, we see trouble.
There’s a parked paddy wagon. Six cops are standing around.
We cross over. We can see a Sistar on the ground.
‘Maybe we should go in the building via Barry Parade,’ Tab says, just above a whisper.
‘No. Let’s go in via the car park.’ They should know there are witnesses. But because of years of this shit, Tab knows that it’s best to keep out of harm’s way.
It’s a difference in our life experience. Black tea and white tea. But tea is tea, Tab says later.
As we walk past, we both see it’s the tidda who was in the car park a few weeks before. The sky inverts as if it were a boulder pressing down from above, as recognition flows between the three of us. The air is thick with silent humiliation. Tidda, Tab and I are covered in it. We don’t make eye contact. We don’t stop.
A female copper is pulling on a purple latex glove. Another cop opens the back of the paddy wagon.
I do not want to make this young woman feel any worse, but worry I already have. I need to listen harder to hear the wisdom of experience.
We walk into the Z’s car park, the high from doing a program gone. Six police officers; it was unsafe to intervene, to ask questions.
Every Saturday now, I park my car and walk down St Pauls Terrace and I look for the tidda before crossing the road. I hope to see her, sitting or sleeping in the sheltered area, out the front of an office, hidden by bushes from the gaze of motorists, from the hands of the police. When I walk through the car park entrance to Z, I hope she will be sitting on the bench.