The Indigenous Australian songwriter and activist Archie Roach has been praised as a “courageous” and “powerful” truth-teller, as leading figures in politics and the arts mourn his passing.
Roach died aged 66, after a long illness, surrounded by his family and loved ones at Warrnambool Base Hospital.
“We are heartbroken to announce the passing of Gunditjmara (Kirrae Whurrong/Djab Wurrung), Bundjalung Senior Elder, songman and storyteller Archie Roach,” his family announced late on Saturday.
Roach’s death has prompted an outpouring of praise for the activist and musician, who focussed the nation’s attention on the horrors of the stolen generations with his song Took the Children Away.
The Olympian Cathy Freeman described Roach as a “champion of First Nations people and all humanity”.
“I will remember (Uncle) Archie Roach as such a courageous story teller and remarkable musician,” she said. “You’ll never be forgotten.”
The Australian music legend Paul Kelly, who had worked with Roach from the early days of his music career, wrote simply:
“Archie Roach. Big tree down. Weeping in the forest.”
Billy Bragg, who also worked with Roach, said his death was a loss “to all of us who believe that music can be used as a tool to seek justice”.
“Sorry to hear of the death of the great Indigenous Australian songwriter and activist Archie Roach,” the British musician and activist said.
“His passing is not just a loss to Australia, but also to all of us who believe that music can be used as a tool to seek justice.”
Linda Burney, the minister for Indigenous Australians, said Roach was “one of our nation’s greatest songmen and truth-tellers” and a “giant of the Australian music industry and of our mob”.
“For many Australians, Archie was their first exposure to the horrors of the Stolen Generations.
“His voice, his music and his story came out of trauma and pain.
“His powerful songs also brought people together. They provided strength and still serve as a source of healing – putting into words what was unspeakable.
“We are all so sad about his passing.”
The Greens senator Lidia Thorpe spoke of the important role Roach played in bringing healing and peace to Indigenous communities.
“Uncle Archie, thank you for validating the trauma felt in our communities since colonisation,” she said. “Your music brought us healing and peace. May our ancestors protect and guide you.”
The First Peoples’ Assembly of Victoria, the state’s democratic voice for Indigenous Australians, said there were not “adequate words to sum up the loss… to the community, to the nation or indeed the world”.
Roach suffered a stroke and battled lung cancer following the death of his wife Ruby in 2010. He continued to perform even after having a lung removed.
Roach’s debut album Charcoal Lane, released in 1990, and the track Took the Children Away helped to define his career. He went on to release nine studio albums, as well as a film soundtrack, compilations, and live albums. His album in November 2019, Tell Me Why, became his first to reach the national top 10.
The Gunditjmara-Bundjalung elder’s death was confirmed by his sons Amos and Eban Roach.
“We are so proud of everything our dad achieved in his remarkable life,” the pair said.
“He was a healer and unifying force. His music brought people together.”
On Saturday night, the prime minister Anthony Albanese said the nation was mourning the loss of a “brilliant talent, a powerful and prolific national truth teller”.
“Archie’s music drew from a well of trauma and pain, but it flowed with a beauty and a resonance that moved us all,” Albanese said in a social media post.
“We grieve for his death, we honour his life and we hold to the hope that his words, his music and his indomitable spirit will live on to guide us and inspire us.”