Yunupingu’s breakthrough came with his debut 2008 album, released locally by Skinnyfish Music and MGM. Sung entirely in his native Yolngu language, the recording soared to No. 3 on the ARIA Albums Chart after his stunning performance at the 2008 ARIA Awards, where he collected a pair of trophies, for best world album and best independent release, adding to the one he earned with Yothu Yindi in 1992.
The album went triple-platinum in Australia (210,000 units) and the singer would go on to win a hattrick of categories at the annual AIR Awards.
Word of his unique voice quickly spread around the world and his debut charted in multiple other countries including the U.K., where it’s silver certified (200,000 units). Yunupingu’s followup LPs, Rrakala and The Gospel Album, also cracked the top 5 (both peaked at No. 3) in his homeland and in 2012 he was awarded an honorary degree of Doctor of Music by the University of Sydney.
As his star star rose, Yunupingu, who spoke little English, won admiration from the likes of Elton John, Stevie Wonder and will.i.am and performed for Queen Elizabeth II and Barack Obama. In 2015, Quincy Jones introduced Yunupingu to American audiences ahead of his first-ever solo tour of the country. The singer, enthused Jones, had “one of the most unusual and emotional and musical voices that I've ever heard.”
Yunupingu’s record label, Skinnyfish Music, described him as “one of the most important figures in Australian music history” and the Australian voice of a generation.
“Today we mourn the loss of a great Australian,” reads a message issued Wednesday (July 26) from the Darwin-based label. “Dr G. Yunupingu also gave back to his community as the driving force behind the G. Yunupingu Foundation, creating opportunities for young people across the Northern Territory. His legacy as a musician and community leader will continue as his life’s work continues its positive impact on Elcho Island, The Northern Territory, Australia and the world.” The label's chief Mark Grose called the artist a "national treasure."
Australia’s prime minister Malcolm Turnbull led tributes. “Dr G Yunupingu was a remarkable Australian sharing Yolngu language with the world through music. Prayers for Galiwin'ku & family & friends,” he tweeted.
Midnight Oil frontman and former federal government minister Peter Garrett paid his respects to a “truly great musician” while former prime minister Kevin Rudd noted on Twitter: “The premature passing of a good man, the son of a great people and a voice which could evoke an extraordinary magic.” Indigenous pop singer Jessica Mauboy and rapper Briggs, half of Australian Music Prize winners A.B. Original, also remembered the artist, whose family is expected to be offered a state funeral.
Yunupingu battled with liver and kidney disease after contracting Hepatitis B as a child.