Nancy Bates – A Review

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By Tabitha Lean

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A commentary no one asked me for, but I couldn’t not write it….

By Tabitha Lean

You know when you go to a gig and every single song seems to be sung just for you? Yeah, me too, and that’s exactly how I felt during Nancy Bates’ show at the Guitar Festival. 

I should start this piece by declaring something. Nancy is a friend of mine, she is my sista, black fulla way, and someone I have always admired. But let me tell you a little bit about my friend. Nancy is a Barkindji woman, an accomplished singer and song writer, and has toured with Uncle Archie Roach both nationally and internationally, bringing her gorgeous tones and stage brilliance to audiences everywhere. Nancy was also the 2020 Mental Health Week Ambassador, sharing her piece, ‘My Song’ – an intimate story of challenge, fear and hope.

The Nancy I want you to know, however, is the Nancy who has weaponised every bit of her privilege and used her own survival to liberate the hearts and minds of people on the inside. She literally gathers up all her light and takes it into one of the darkest places I have ever known – she’s like an angel dancing in the depths of hell, but an angel who brings two buckets of water with her to alleviate the pain of those burning alive.

I know this of Nancy. I know this because I was in prison: I have the burnt feet from the dance of the devil’s playground. 

I hated prison, of course, who doesn’t? I hated its austerity, its institutional bleakness. I hated the isolation, and I hated the violence. I missed my family. I missed my home. I missed my people (ironic given the prison was full of my people). And my first Reconciliation Week inside, a week usually filled with activities on the outside, became just another week. I mean what does reconciliation even mean when you are in prison managed by the same system that not only locks up every one of your brothers, sisters and kin, but brutalises and kills them?

So, on this day smack in the middle of the week, the prison hosted a “Reconciliation barbeque”. They were unveiling a small gathering place in the prison yard, which the women had mosaicked with beautiful stepping stones, and the garden crew had planted trees for future shade. I mean I was skeptical about this “gathering space”, I really hate it when colonial institutions take our culture and cut its corners off to adorn their violent spaces…but a bbq in prison? Hell yeah, I went for the food!

I walked up the hill and gathered with all the other girls – both black and white, we were all invited. I stood with my sistas at a picnic table, the only space under the shade. There was the usual banal speeches by correctional service bureaucrats patting themselves on the back for their initiative, all the while subtly suggesting that the Black women should be grateful that they had “catered for us”. It was hot, I was thirsty, and we could smell the sausages, so our tummies were grumbling. And then like the figurative parting of the red seas, my sista Nancy stepped forward. She had her guitar in one hand and a proper black fulla smile. And it sounds cliched and corny (so indulge me here) but it was like time stood still. Nancy’s songs transported me beyond the razor wire, and I felt for the first time, like my soul was free. We sang along to the songs we knew, laughed at the song about moonyas and gudlas (head lice), and I closed my eyes and imagined I was around the campfire with my old people. It was bliss, the only moment of peace I had experienced in the entire ten months I had been there.

You see, this is Nancy’s gift. Nancy knows the pain of separation. She knows the pain of violence, of illness, and the strength in survival. She gathers up all her own ashes and makes sweet music out of them.  And then Nancy takes that beauty into prisons, and even more powerfully, she holds the beauty of the women inside and shares it with the outside. Nancy humanises our suffering, makes those of us who are invisible, visible, harnesses our power and celebrates it.

Singing a song that Nancy had written with the girls in the Adelaide Women’s prison, she talks about the strength of those inside. She shares with us the power of women knowing what love should not be and articulating what it can be. Nancy finishes the song with tears in her eyes and asks everyone to send their applause to every woman and girl locked in a cage. She talks quietly about abolishing prisons and the need for society to be better. Her unassuming and quietly confident way makes the preeminent demand of our black movement sound like the only common-sense option you could imagine.

On Saturday, sitting in the Emma and Ivy Café, I was again transported, but this time for another reason. I was there with my new love, and it seemed that every song Nancy sang, was just for us. So self-indulgent, right? But truly, she made every lyric relevant and all I could do was reach across the table and hold my partner’s hand, which he returned with a knowing squeeze. Nancy has this transformative power because she is real and she is a survivor, and both are rare these days. She has lived all the words to all of her songs, and she has birthed them from the bottom of her heart and deep within her soul.

So, to my sista Nancy, I say thank you. Thank you for your authenticity, your brilliance, your passion and your beauty. Thank you for liberating me that dark day inside, thank you for bringing your light to those dim spaces, and thank you for making my love and I feel so connected and so seen in the middle of a bustling gig. Your gift is one that must have come from the ancestors because only our people’s dreaming is that pure and beautiful. 

3 Comments

  1. Ellen on 23/02/2021 at 2:18 pm

    This was beautiful to read Tabitha.

  2. Mina Marlene on 23/02/2021 at 11:57 pm

    Amazying said about you’re Spiritual cultural Sista

  3. Robert Pekin on 24/02/2021 at 8:42 am

    Inspiring, thanks for sharing

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