As strange as it was to be interviewing someone with the exact same name as me, spelt exactly the same, Michael Hohnen and I had a lot more to talk about other than how we were related. Hohnen, co-director of Darwin-based record label Skinnyfish, manager of Gurrumul, and a key figure in the Indigenous Australian music community, can now add National Finalist Australian Of The Year 2013 to his resume – and for very good reason, as I learned while talking to him.
Speaking about his reaction when news of the nomination first broke, Hohnen recalls, “It was very strange, Mark [Grose, co-founder] and I are nominated and got the NT gong as a couple, we’ve spent most of our time putting in a lot of effort for other people or on behalf of other people so when the nomination came for us, it was quite unnerving. We had to start talking about ourselves. I think you put so much effort in, sometimes you get caught in the thick of things and you’re not really thinking, ‘Is this working?’ or ‘Is it really worthwhile?’ So having that formal recognition, it’s changed it, for me – and also a lot of other people.”
The nomination is one of the most formal pats on the back in Australia and will now draw a lot more attention to the men behind the scenes of Skinnyfish and, as foreign as it may feel, Hohnen explained the benefits. “This brings a lot of legitimacy and credibility. Like, a little while ago we got an incredible and bizarre mention in a street press where they included us in the top 50 powerful people in the Australian music industry. You would not believe how much that changed the industry’s behaviour towards us; as random as that was, it helped open up a lot of conversations. I think this platform will work in a similar way. I think this will sustain and draw a lot more ears to listen to our ideas.”
The treatment of Indigenous Australians has a lot of room to improve. Very recently, Gurrumul himself hit headlines when, after a gig, he was denied a taxi on account of his race. Hohnen remembered the situation, adding, “Yeah, that was a difficult one. I don’t think any situation can ever be perfect, or will ever be perfect. I have fantasies of things happening in Australia, such as a much warmer embrace of the Indigenous, where this culture is seen as more of an asset, something we can benefit from… There is a long way to go but there is also a lot the government can do to help out.”
The Australian Of The Year awards will take place on Australia Day. This recognition is sure to be a pivotal moment for the future of not just Indigenous Australian artists but for Australians as a community. Michael Hohnen is currently in town with Gurrumul, who will be performing at Festival Of The Voice on 26th January.