“We’ve got to look after each other”
Singer Mahalia Barnes has a big voice – and she is using it offstage to speak out for social change
Spurred on by dad Jimmy’s childhood hardships, singer Mahalia Barnes is using her public voice to action social change and reduce homelessness.
Mahalia Barnes may boast the lineage of Australian rock royalty thanks to her father Jimmy, but despite an upbringing amid the trappings of privilege and prosperity, the 35-year-old singer says she has always been aware of how easily it can all vanish. “My father grew up with extreme poverty and didn’t always have a safe environment to sleep in,” she tells Stellar. “Quite often, as a nine-year-old boy, he’d sleep out in the field across the road from the house that he was living in – because it felt safer.”
His stories of the bad old days, along with her own observations, made signing up as an ambassador for Mission Australia’s Sleepout fundraising campaign – which is marking its 30th year – a no-brainer. “I know far too many people who have already experienced homelessness, extreme poverty or have been at risk of homelessness, so it is a very important subject for me personally,” Barnes says. “I also believe we have got to start looking after each other any way that we can. The reality is that thousands and thousands of people don’t have a fixed address. That’s not OK; we can’t have families sleeping in their cars. This is one of the luckiest countries in the world, with
amazing opportunity and amazing access to healthcare… it is crazy that people are right on the brink of being pushed into homelessness.”
Barnes counts herself lucky that she’s able to make a living from music. She and her husband, musician Ben Rodgers, play together in Mahalia Barnes + The Soul Mates; they released their latest album earlier this year and regularly travel the world playing shows. The pair recently shifted their family – they have daughters, Ruby, eight, and Rosetta, almost two – from an inner-city suburb of Sydney to NSW’S bucolic Southern Highlands, where they both grew up.
Barnes says they are embracing more space and the country life, which means they now raise chickens. “It’s so beautiful,” Barnes tells Stellar of their new life. “The main reason we moved back is because both of our parents live [there]. The stability for the kids – and having that sort of connection – has been a big help and really important.”
All that strong family support and a thriving career aside, Barnes is mindful that the very nature of making a living as an artist gives her a special insight into life’s more precarious corners. “I still have weeks where I don’t know when my next gig is and I don’t know when I’ll be getting paid next. I’m not in a position of risk right now, but I know a lot of people who are. And all it would take would be one major setback – whether it was a health-related issue or not enough work coming in – and they would be sleeping on people’s couches for a while. And where does that lead to?” she asks. “I think we really understand, as artists, what it’s like to be in a vulnerable position. And the nature of what we do is emotionally connected. Secondly, if you do have a public profile and a public voice that can be heard, I believe you have a responsibility to use it.”
Along with her Mission Australia commitments, Barnes is also involved in the NOW Australia organisation, fighting sexual harassment, abuse and intimidation in the workplace. “My parents are incredibly generous, and they are very empathetic people. My dad has been through a lot in his life. People see his incredible successes, but he’s worked really hard for that and he’s also been through a lot of trauma in the process, from early childhood dealing with domestic violence, sexual assault, family violence and extreme poverty. They would go to school with no food and they would put cardboard in the bottom of their shoes to block the holes so their feet wouldn’t get too wet.”
Jimmy Barnes was born in Scotland, and her mother Jane is from Thailand. So for a firstgeneration Barnes of mixed race, the things she has seen and heard – including racist remarks directed at her online – have informed her passionate advocacy for inclusion and diversity. “At the end of the day, we are all human beings. Everybody has their differences,but I’m a big believer that differences make us stronger. And differences should be celebrated. Both of my parents are immigrants who have a lot to offer – and have offered a lot to our society. They deserve no less than any other Australian.”
Just as her parents taught her the value of empathy, Barnes says she is trying to raise her two girls to know how to walk in someone else’s shoes. When the family was in Philadelphia for work over winter a few years back, Ruby used her Christmas money to buy local homeless people,who were facing freezing weather, coffee and food – and insisted on giving her leftovers away. “She would ask, ‘Why do they have to sleep there?’ I believe that children have empathy built in,” Barnes says. “I think that as we get older we tend to turn a blind eye to our own empathy. It’s important that we recognise there are not many people out there who inherently hate or don’t care for other people. It’s just something we’ve got to nurture. I personally can’t imagine not caring about those causes. I can’t even imagine not acting and not speaking out. I’ve got a loud voice and I’m not afraid to use it.” For more details on Mission Australia’s Sleepout campaign and Homelessness Week (August 6–12), visit act.missionaustralia.com.au.
“I can’t imagine not speaking out. I’ve got a loud voice and I’m not afraid to use it”