Her fans call her Monstar. When Monica Weightman steps up to the microphone, she and her guitar connect with everyone in the room. Her easy manner and rich, expressive voice pull people in as she talks and sings about things familiar. Through tunes and beats, sad or joyful, we’re swept up by a range of emotions connected to a personal relationship or a fight for justice. For Monica, music is about the human condition.
I first saw Monica perform at Solidarity Salon, home of Radical Women and the Freedom Socialist Party in Brunswick. It was a fundraising event organised by the 2004 International Women’s Day Collective. A year later, Monica sang again at the Salon, this time for an event put on by the Indigenous Social Justice Association supporting a 20-year campaign to expose the murder of Douglas Scott in Darwin’s Berrimah prison. Each time, she had everyone tapping their feet and reflecting about the change that’s so urgently needed.
Touring with Brian Cadd and The Seekers, performing on stage in cities and rural towns around the country or supporting grassroots campaigns, Monica Weightman is at home with her special talent and invincible spirit.
Says Monica, “I come from a musical family, so music was a part of growing up. I was playing the guitar before I was four. Music is a healer. I come from a complicated place, and music has always given me enjoyment and peace.”
Lost Generation. Monica grew up in Townsville, Queensland, not knowing her Aboriginality and being subjected to racist abuse without understanding why. In 1988 she moved to Melbourne, where she worked with a band and then started writing.
Her 2004 CD, Lost Generation, came out of her search for her Indigenous roots. She learned that her father’s people come from Thursday Island. During the World War II Battle of the Coral Sea in 1942, her family was removed with others to Aboriginal tent camps in Cairns and then to Townsville, where her grandmother died a month later. In grief, her grandfather burned all of her photographs. Monica never knew her. But she did know her white step-grandmother. She also knew her own Italian and Scottish lineage through her mother and a collection of family photos. Monica’s Islander father, the second of six children, holds the names of all the men before him — and therefore Monica’s Aboriginal line.
Monica explains, “This is what the lost generation is about: the lack of identity and strength; it’s also about reclaiming that identity. Finding my past has affected me as a woman. I can now stand up and be counted with an identity, and this has given me strength. Many of us are coming home, and this is something to be celebrated.”
Monica takes her music into the prisons, where young Indigenous people end up at a rate 15 times higher than their non-Indigenous counterparts. She works with inmates in the women’s prison at Melbourne’s Deer Park and young people in the juvenile justice system. “To be supported and taught about humanity by the people inside humbles me. My songs are more poignant as a result. I know struggle myself. But the difference between me and the person inside is that they snapped or got caught. I’ve known outrage and fear, and I know the bullshit that gets so intense that it leads some women to kill. My objective is to channel the feelings through lyrics and have fun, because fun can bring some peace. ”
Monica also works in a program for young women dealing with drug, family and abuse issues: “I give them some tools and opportunities to feel that there’s something better. It’s not about escape, it’s about learning how to make things different.”
“Children are starving while business is booming”
“It ain’t pretty living down in world city
So much fear and gluttony
So much fear and death and poverty”
Monica’s most recent songs are about human rights and globalisation. She says: “I’m frightened for the future. John Howard is the visible front for the invisible and powerful who have a profit-driven agenda. This country is moving into a dictator state. Freedom of speech is being taken away. A peace activist was deported! There’s no treaty with Indigenous nations, and the forum for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is gone. Aboriginal people — the traditional owners of this country — are named in the sedition laws. Any of us who speaks out can be rounded up. Howard is trying to immobilise us with fear — attacking our wages, stereotyping Muslims as terrorists and making us live in a society where we don’t feel safe.”
Transforming individual responses into collective power. “My songs come out of what is going on around me. As an artist, my thoughts ferment and then come out through music. The words are grounded in feelings. I’ll work on how a word sounds on a certain note or chord, and this sets the feel of the whole song.
“You never know when you’ve touched someone, but when you do, it’s awesome. Music has a way of getting through, by the way a chord sets a hue or tone. It expresses the unexpressible.”
Monica plays with the Charcoal Club, formed by Richard Frankland, Aboriginal social justice activist, playwright, singer and songwriter. The group, which describes itself as being for Burnt Out Blacks and Singed Whites, is the artistic example of the dynamism of alliance building between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people.
Says Monica: “I love working with the Charcoal Club, the family of the club and the humanitarian voice of Richard Frankland. In our performances, I’ve seen people cry in front of me over the racism we sing about. Crying is realising that these issues are about human beings and how they affect us all. It’s unifying and consolidating. Others in that room have travelled a similar journey, and the same emotions connect us. People are ready to come together in the fight for freedom. So when there’s a tear in someone’s eyes, there’s a connection. Music has an energy that unites us all. It turns the feeling of powerlessness into power.
“My music is hopeful. Art is a way to deliver messages, and mine is that we have to stand up and make our voices really loud. My latest CD, Calm Before the Storm, is about the misery and challenges we share and how we get to the point where we have to nurse our wounds. Like the warrior, the person who wants to make a difference has to first make sense of what they’ve been through. They can then move on, using all they’ve learned as tools for making life as they want it to be.
“I do give what I can, which is music and songs. I can guide people in that way. That’s why I do it.”