back to top

Here's How David Bowie Fought For Indigenous Rights

"Let's Dance" video a protest against inequality.

Posted on

David Bowie was mesmerised by the Australian outback, but beyond the natural beauty of the bush, he was also deeply disturbed by the racism directed at Australia's Indigenous people.

View this video on YouTube

youtube.com

"As much as I love this country ... it's probably one of the most racially intolerant in the world, well in line with South Africa," Bowie said in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine in 1983. "I mean, in the north, there's unbelievable intolerance."

"The Aborigines can't even buy their drinks in the same bars, they have to go round the back and get them through what's called a 'dog hatch.' And then they're forbidden from drinking them on the same side of the street as the bar; they have to go to the other side of the road."

There was little media attention given to the rampant discrimination Indigenous Australians endured on a daily basis in the early '80s.

David Bowie and Joelene King on the set of "Let's Dance"

The visionary singer and actor, who died on Tuesday at 69 after an 18-month battle with cancer, felt compelled to expose the mistreatment of Aboriginal Australians to the world through the video for his 1983 hit "Let's Dance".

"There is also a right way of looking at things: there's a lot of injustice. So let's, you know, say something about it. However naff it comes off," he told Rolling Stone.

"I thought, 'Let's try to use the video format as a platform for some kind of social observation, and not just waste it on trotting out and trying to enhance the public image of the singer involved.' I mean, these are little movies, and some movies can have a point, so why not try to make some point. This stuff goes out all over the world; it's played on all kinds of programs. I mean – you get free point time!"

The "Let's Dance" video featured several Indigenous people, with Aboriginal dancers Terry Roberts and Joelene King playing the protagonists.

"It showed the rest of the world that there are Indigenous people in Australia and we are not this textbook carbon copy of someone standing there with a spear. That there are modern Aboriginals," King says in Let's Dance: Bowie Down Under, a documentary about the making of the video which will screen as part of Sydney's Flickerfest.

"I just didn’t think that it would have a lot of influence on other people too, Aboriginal people too, and I am very proud of that, too."

The video jumps from a small outback pub to the rugged bush to the city of Sydney. At its heart, the story is of the dispossession of Indigenous people from their traditional lifestyle and the continuing oppression they face.

Bowie was renowned for his commitment to civil rights and advocated on behalf of minority groups throughout his career. In 1983, while promoting the Let's Dance album, Bowie questioned why MTV wasn't playing more African-American artists.

"I'm just floored by the fact that there are so few black artists featured on it, and why is that?" Bowie asked a reporter from MTV.

Let's Dance was Bowie's 15th studio album and remains his bestselling album.

The Sydney Festival will pay tribute to the visionary on Wednesday night.

The free event in Sydney's Hyde Park will include DJs playing Bowie's greatest hits, and fans are being urged to dress up in their best Ziggy Stardust attire to pay homage to the icon.

Formerly with BuzzFeed News, Allan Clarke is a NITV reporter based in Sydney.

Contact Allan Clarke at arielle.benedek+AC@buzzfeed.com.

Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.