Thelma Plum is a Gamilaraay singer-songwriter with her finger on the pulse. 2019 was the year of Thelma, her debut album Better in Blak was released after a break from music since her two EP’s released in 2013 and 2014 respectively. She wowed audiences with catchy pop melodies filled with strength and honesty earning herself six ARIA nominations and a number four spot on the charts.
For Thelma, song writing comes hand in hand with social justice especially when it comes to her experience as an Aboriginal woman in Australia. Better in Blak is a celebration of her multifaceted identity, Thelma sharing snapshots of her life in song including Homecoming Queen, on the difficulties of growing up in a world without representation in mainstream media and Woke Blokes on the double standard of ‘woke’ culture.
Her titular single Better in Blak focuses on a time when Thelma was the target of online abuse due to an alleged dispute with a member of a prominent Sydney band. Instead of taking the option to “curl up in a ball and quit music forever”, Thelma decided to write about the event, taking back her power.
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The song begins “Do you know what it feels like? To get calls in the middle of the night? Saying you’re not worth it, you deserve it. Go on, have another drink”.
Better in Blak is a reclamation and celebration of her heritage. Thelma talks about the pride she feels in her identity, not allowing mainstream media or anyone else to erase her indigenous heritage or pull her down, saying “I wrote ‘Better in Blak’ about my experiences with people trying to take the colour from the conversation. My colour is an important part of who I am, and over the last couple of years I’ve had people try and tell me ‘it’s not about colour’ when obviously to me it is”. The song’s chorus chants “you took the colour from me, but I look better in black”.
Thelma’s honest and expressive song writing has struck a chord with Australian audiences earning her a spot on the shortlist for the Australian Music Prize (previous winners include Sampa The Great, A.B. Original and Courtney Barnett) and the number 9 spot on the Triple J Hottest 100 the highest an indigenous artist has ever reached.
This ranking is highlighting a change in the Australian music scene becoming a more diverse and inclusive space especially for women.
For the first time ever a woman took out the top spot in the Triple J Hottest 100, with a record number of over three million votes cast across the world. The phenomenal teen pop star Billie Eilish with her hit bad guy. As well a record number of women in the top ten (eight including featured artists) and a great improvement on the number of songs with women or non-binary artists from 33 to 43.
This countdown has done better but haven’t we still got further to go? I think Billie said it best.
The music industry continues to preference men in both inclusion and financial compensation. An Instagram account @lineupswithoutmales emphasises this, posting photos of Australian and New Zealand festival line-ups without the men showing the large gaps that occur especially headliners and larger stages.
We have a big way to go but with great female leaders the Australian music scene is moving in the right direction. Thelma is joined by Stella Donnelly, Sampa the Great and Julia Jacklin all with albums out in the last year that targeted the discrimination and structures of mainstream culture. For many women, non-binary and artists of colour, the personal is political and when it comes to song writing and creative expression social justice can’t help but seep in.
The future of the Australian music scene is looking bright with progressive women making steps to talk about big ideas and big changes that need to be made. We’re just lucky to have artists like Thelma Plum at the helm.
When asked about how she felt being the highest ranked indigenous artist on the Triple J Hottest 100, Thelma said “to be honest I hope I don’t keep that [record] for a long time”.
And I think she might just be right.
Listen to Thelma’s album now on Spotify or Apple Music.
Rosie is a full-time masters student, and part time dumpling enthusiast. Her loves include second hand bookstores, her growing cactus collection and intersectional feminism.