For her third album, Native Tongue, Australian Wiradjuri Filipino artist Mojo Juju looked into her family’s ancestry to explain her present. She speaks with Yadana Saw about putting a mirror to Australia’s complicated past.
“There are so many different stories about who we are and where we are from - particularly in a country like Australia where the culture has been whitewashed or all but eradicated in some places,” she says.
“My father is from the Philippines but my mother is also mixed race - she’s Wiradjuri which is one of the indigenous nations in Australia and also Anglo-Saxon...”
But front and centre of Mojo's album Native Tongue is the story of her grandmother, who had grown up “kinda suspecting” that the Wiradjuri man her family knew was her father. It was only on Mojo's great-grandmother's death bed that she confirmed her daughter's paternity.
She says it was only after both of Mojo’s great-grandparents had passed away that her grandmother was embraced by her family and able to “reclaim her identity as a Wiradjuri woman”.
“By writing these songs [I’m] trying to gain some insight into why those things were done and why those choices were made. And to honour my grandmother because she is one of the most important people to me in my life who has taught me who I am and who I want to be. There’s such a deep sense of hurt and resentment she carries because she didn’t connect with her roots.
“For me, writing the songs was to bring a process of healing to those traumas that are associated with that.”
In the title track 'Native Tongue', which has netted Mojo three ARIA nominations and the ire of conservative commentator Andrew Bolt (more on that later), Mojo is grappling with her own severed roots.
The opening line and chorus are 'I don't speak my Father's native tongue/I was born under a southern sun/I don't know where I belong'.
“My Dad speaks Tagalog, Ilonggo, Spanish and English. We grew up only speaking English.”
“There’s a feeling of grief associated with the disconnect from culture by not speaking those languages. Language is interconnected with your roots, and carrying on the traditions of your ancestors.”
The song has also become one of the touchstones in a debate around Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s summer playlist.
If you love and care about Australian music consider this. Scott Morrison released a play list on Spotify today. 146 songs, 92 artists, 11 hours of music. Guess how many Australian bands?#auspol #music #saveozmusic #laborloveslivemusic— Tony Burke (@Tony_Burke) November 5, 2018
It led to Mojo Juju penning an open letter to Andrew Bolt after the conservative commentator baulked at the suggestion that the PM listen to her song, writing “Seriously? Morrison is meant to bop in his car to a song complaining about being an Aboriginal who 'doesn’t speak my father’s tongue'?”
Bolt also asked, “Is music listening a political activity or an aesthetic one? Should we listen out of pity or for our pleasure?”
Mojo patiently and coolly lays out her explanation: “Obviously, we listen to music for pleasure and it is an aesthetic choice, but music’s always, always held a mirror to society, it’s always commented on society, it’s a time capsule of what is going on politically, and what affects the people."
"I think that shows how out of touch they are with what’s going on in the world right now. What do they want? Do they want to relive their glory days, homogenise music; white males are the only voices that they wanna listen to? You know the narrative is no longer centered around those people."