Ancestress Teila Watson 2 Pic Ailsa Walsh

Ancestress Teila Watson

Taking place in Sydney’s Opera House last Saturday, The Australia Council’s 10th National Indigenous Arts Awards honoured the work of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists. For Queensland-born singer-songwriter Ancestress Teila Watson, the evening saw her receive The Dreaming Award – a prize that bestows mentorship and $20,000 upon an 18-26-year-old Indigenous artist, in order to help them create a major body of work. Teila’s expansive output covers themes from climate change to land rights, and we caught up with her to find out all about her music, her background and what the win means to her.

Tell us a little about your upbringing and how’s it reflected in your work?

Like a lot of Murris and other First Nations people, I have a very big, very politically engaged and creative family. Even living in a city, Mum and Dad [Dr Ross Watson, political activist and founder of Black Nations newspaper] made sure we spent a lot of time outside and in bushland, where my Dad used to teach us about country. We always had a fire in the backyard, and we would sit around it and listen to the old fullas tell stories about our granny’s country on the Dawson River. We would often visit up there too, which was really important – my biggest influences would be my elders and my country. Land and politics are the main themes in my work, and I owe that to my old people and the way Mum and Dad raised us.

What does it mean to you to win The Dreaming Award?

It means just that – an opportunity to fulfil my dream. I’ve really been working on this album my whole life, in terms of building my knowledge and skills. So having the opportunity to put it together and bring it to life is really exciting. It’s going to allow me to add to a really important world conversation about sovereignty and land rights. Global warming and climate change are such big issues and so I’m hoping I can show that First Nations people have a lot more knowledge and power than we’re given merit for.

Why is it important for you to cover issues like climate change, the current situation of First Nations people and forms of social governance in your music?

Mainly because we live in a country that’s essentially under occupation, under an imposed colonial form of governance, and a government that supports the industries that are killing our planet. Again, I’ve grown up with really strong elders, and they made sure I grew up in a Murri way. From a Murri perspective, it’s just the right thing to do. To ignore these issues I think would be not only irresponsible – I also don’t know if I could do justice to my upbringing, and the knowledge I’ve had handed down to me, if I didn’t use this platform to share what I’ve been given by my family and the wider First Nations community. I feel that I have an obligation to my family, my people and my country, and I’m really lucky I’ve found ways to use my passion for music to help fulfil that.

Tell us about your musical style?

I think my music is similar to a lot of First Nations artists – especially artists like my niece, Kaiyu Bayles, and my good friends MC Triks, Lorna Munro, Provocalz and others whose lyrics are politically on point. A lot of the older First Nations artists have the same themes – my difference is that I’m sort of in between acoustic, hip-hop and RnB, and lately leaning towards pop. I’m very committed to my focus on land and  I try not to swing too far from that. In a broader sense that’s not something you usually hear on mainstream radio – which is something I want to challenge.