The most senior member of Dr G Yunupingu’s close family and the managing director of his record label have spoken candidly about why the famous musician spent some of his final days sleeping out in the open on a Darwin beach.
The 46-year-old died in hospital on July 25 from kidney and liver failure.
He toured the world, playing for the Queen and Barack Obama and had triple-platinum albums.
But to his family he did not appear to be well off and they are now questioning what happened to his money.
“People were watching him nationally and internationally. We couldn’t even see a mention, what he earns, what he was earning from the work he was doing,” his uncle Djungatjunga Yunupingu said.
Dr G Yunupingu had serious health problems in the years before his death. (ABC News: Felicity James)
Djungatjunga Yunupingu flew into Darwin from Elcho Island to lead the family’s tributes at the public memorial service this week.
“I raised him. I knew he was going to be famous,” he told the ABC.
“He wasn’t a political man. But he told the world to bring people together, to unite, to walk hand in hand. And to be proud of Australia.”
Djungatjunga Yunupingu spoke to the ABC at the beach camp where Dr G Yunupingu stayed regularly with other family members. Dr G Yunupingu’s aunt Wendy Yunupingu and cousins Brendan Gurruwiwi and Terrence Gaykamangu sat with him while he spoke.
Djungatjunga Yunupingu said it was natural for him to stay on the beach with family.
“We are Yolngu people who live along the coast. We can see the sea, the waves, the wind. We can feel that we are home,” he said.
“The casuarina tree, the spark of the fire, was an inspiration to him. The sound of the north wind was an instrument to him.”
Dr G Yunupingu’s uncle Djungatjunga Yunupingu (C), with Brendan Gurruwiwi and Terrence Gaykamangu, said the singer often stayed with family. (ABC News: Jane Bardon)
But he said he regrets that when Dr G Yunupingu came to stay with family he was often surrounded by drinkers.
“I say to myself, why did I raise this boy and put him into the shoes of someone who was leading him to this?”
While Dr G Yunupingu was in Darwin he also stayed at the houses of different family members.
Djungatjunga Yunupingu said he was generous to his family, but did not have his own home.
“He didn’t even have a small business, with his work, with his sweat,” he said.
He said he has not asked Dr G Yunupingu’s record label Skinnyfish Music about it.
“Because they came and were adopted by us and there were no further questions,” he said.
Label director ‘was in awe’ of Yunupingu’s talent
The managing director of Skinnyfish Music Mark Grose first met Dr G Yunupingu on Elcho Island in the 1990s.
They became friends after Dr G Yunupingu formed the Saltwater Band, and then later went solo under the Skinnyfish label in 1999.
“He was amazing. Someone who plays a musical instrument upside down and is self taught, and plays not just the guitar but keyboards, piano, was a beautiful yadaki [didgeridoo] player, played drums really beautifully. I was in awe,” he said.
Mr Grose said the musician did not make millions, but was “comfortable”.
“He made a comfortable living. He drew a wage from his income and he supported quite a few family members from that income,” he said.
Mr Grose said the record label helped the blind singer to manage his money, because of the claim on him from his cultural responsibilities to share with family.
“The obligation to share is significant. In the early days G had something like $10,000 on a Friday, and on Monday he rang me and said: I’ve got no money left,” he said.
He said it was necessary to keep money in reserve.
“We made sure that he had enough money in the bank to take care of his personal wishes,” he said.
“But we would keep a little bit of that back to make sure that when he needed charters [flights] from Elcho to Gove for instance and later on when he got quite ill, we had to pay significant hospital bills at the Darwin Private Hospital.”
The music manager said royalties will continue to be made and paid.
“There will be royalties probably forever. We haven’t spoken to anyone about that yet. But there is a will and that will be sorted out in the coming months,” Mr Grose said.
Yunupingu felt ‘disillusioned’ about living in Darwin
Mr Grose said Dr G Yunupingu did not have his own house in Darwin out of choice.
“We talked about it early on. He thought about it for a while. We thought it would be a good option to have an investment property in Darwin. But in the end he decided not to,” he said.
He said Dr G Yunupingu’s plan had been to stay in Darwin short term, and then return to Elcho Island.
“Essentially he had to undertake dialysis for three months to stabilise his treatment and then the plan was for him to go back to Galiwinku to continue treatment,” he said.
Mark Grose says the record label helped Dr G Yunupingu manage his financial responsibilities. (ABC News: Jane Bardon)
Mr Grose said the singer also stayed at the homes of various relatives in Darwin, but felt stressed by people calling to see him constantly, even if sometimes it was just to say hello.
“He got a little bit disillusioned about living here and he wanted to go home,” he said.
Mr Grose said he was even more concerned when Dr G Yunupingu stayed on the beach.
“That’s a well-known Yolngu camping and drinking spot,” he said.
“It always worried me because anything can happen in those places.
“And in the early days he would drink, but when he got sick he stopped drinking.
“I always worried that no-one would look after him. And a couple of times he would ring and say: can you get me home.
“But it was natural for him to want to be, and sit with his family.”
‘He’s opened up hearts and minds’
Mr Grose said Dr G Yunupingu did not tell him that he had decided to stop dialysis.
“On every dialysis day we would send a taxi, and it’s the same driver who knew him well,” he said.
“He didn’t say to me he wanted to stop dialysis, but with G always his actions were much more powerful than his words.
“By not doing dialysis and missing eight sessions of it, it was really clear to me what choice he was making.
“There were some issues in his life that were pulling him down a bit.
“I think, in the end, he’s just gone: well, what’s the future?”
Vaughan Williams said Dr G Yunupingu willingly left the beach for hospital. (ABC News: Jane Bardon)
Dr G Yunupingu was taken to hospital from the beach on July 20 by Vaughan Williams from the Larrakia Nation Indigenous homeless service, after being asked by the renal unit to find him.
Mr Williams, who had known the singer for 30 years, said: “He didn’t give any indication whatsoever that he had some intention of just lying on the beach and passing away there.
“We talked to him on the beach and then he just said: Let’s go.”
Despite the circumstances of his death, Djungatjunga Yunupingu said he hopes his nephew’s career will be an inspiration to other young people.
“We do hope and wish for young people under the leadership of the Gumatj, [clan] and the Yunupingus to come forward, and take his shoes,” he said.
“That is the message that Dr G Yunupingu and Dr M gave: come and let’s walk together.”
Mr Grose said Dr G Yunupingu invited everyone to appreciate Aboriginal culture.
“He’s opened up the hearts and minds of a lot of people who have never had the time to look at the beauty of Indigenous culture, to say there’s something beautiful about it, and not just beautiful, but it belongs to all of us, and that was his message.”