We speak with the 2019 Arts Foundation Laureate receiving the award for mixed media.
How would you describe yourself as an artist?
No matter what medium I'm working in, I'm just storytelling. There’s the 'artist, writer, musician' trifecta, but I find artist keeps it broad and mysterious for me.
What does a typical day look like for you?
I don't see myself as a hyper-vigilant or a hyper-organised person by any means, and I think when people see how many mediums I get stuck into, they wonder how it works.
I see being an artist as a real privilege. I don't come from an artistic family or from a family of privilege, so it doesn't matter how old I get, or how long I've been doing it, I'll always think I'm lucky. It's a spoiled brat lifestyle. I never take it for granted. I always find it exciting, better than any other life path I could have taken. It blows my mind sometimes.
I will have days around the writing table with different writers trying to work on insane storylines. Then I might go and create animation and choose outfits for a cartoon character. Then I might have to go and repetitively proof some music, send in an overdue script, or add music or visuals to a project. This is all underpinned by my kaupapa and my advocacy. I spent most of the weekend out at Ihumātao, and I find that's sustaining and fortifying of my spirit as well. I don’t have a typical day or routine, I think I just know how to spend my energy.
Moving through the world, I try and give the best side of myself. I want to make a contribution and offer new ways of seeing. I had to work out where I find myself thriving and inspiring others the most, where my sense of self is strongest and most potent and I just work in those areas, which just so happen to be in the creative medium. I feel I'm in my element, doing what I was put here to do.
Have you said no to a few things?
After doing my time and learning my boundaries, I’ve realised the more you say no to things that don’t allow you to give the best of yourself, the more you open yourself up to more opportunities that do. A succinct way of putting that is, if it's not a fuck yes then it's a fuck no.
In ‘Aroha Bridge’ you’ve created a mirror for New Zealand. The Woke Girls made me squirm.
It's a coping mechanism. I'm always out in the world getting overwhelmed and on a bad day quite triggered by how things are. But I find that if I can transform how I feel into something that could potentially enlighten or entertain, then it ends up being positive alchemy for me.
Those Woke Girls characters are symbolic. You see that archetype a lot in my line of work. You can feel a lot of elitism in the arts and it can feel quite stagnant. I find the only way I can counteract it is with art itself. I'm able to communicate my ideas without making myself feel like I'm labouring, and I get to say my piece on my terms, Aroha Bridge is a prime example.
Māori and Pacifica people, LGBTQI people, women, trans and non-binary people are often punished for speaking out, told, “don't be too much, keep it level". I have always been determined to speak truth to power, even if that cost me – even when it's embarrassing and isolating. The righteous is always the best way they say, but they don’t mention it might be a bit cold for a while.
I'm big on taking risks, gambling with my life a bit! Down to the DIY ethos in underground music. I work in my own system outside of the more industrial aspects of the industry. It can make you look weird for a while, but it has been the right decision. Once people realised I had autonomy, that I didn't have to get anything signed off with anyone else, I'm able to work. Even now I'm in more institutional mediums like TV and film, there's still trust there. My voice isn’t so radical, it seems to be more accepted as maybe not being crazy after all.
Right now it's a paradigm shift for the dominant cultures. The dominant forces like white supremacy and patriarchy and all of those bangers. But it's nothing new to marginalised voices. I think about projects like Equalise My Vocals, where we were trying to be a catalyst for more conversations about gender and racial inequality and local music. Then these conversations became in vogue and equality and gender centric workshops within music brands are quite normal now. The big woke psychic shifts need to be happening and they need to be led by the people who've been excluded.
I said these things in LA at Ableton Software Conference. It was interesting to see the backlash from people saying, "Why are you trying to politicise the software and music industry, we don't need to think about race and gender when we're just trying to make a beat man".
You have to understand what it's like to be on the outside of those systems to speak on them. That's why we have a lot of indigenous conversation happening right now. A lot of conflicts and a lot of grief is being expressed after centuries of oppression here in Aotearoa, in Hawaii, in Australia and all over the world. And if we’re really in the shadow of climate collapse, indigenous knowledge needs to be prioritised and to lead. Because indigenous people are the ones who people turn to when they don't know what they should do about the land and their lack of connection to it.
I know my responsibilities. It's a playful tension and I can approach it with a tongue-in-cheek flippant attitude, like I don't really care about those expectations of me. But in a flash I can also switch, be grave and take my responsibility as a brown woman quite seriously. It depends what we're dialoguing about. Some things are a visceral passion and the message comes out of me before I even understand it. It is involuntary sometimes. You're creating work and you don't get the purpose of it until it's done. Putting out Aroha Bridge the exact week Ihumātao was happening, there was nothing more surreal.
Looking at your work, it seems you don't seek the glamorous side of our industry.
I always want to share my platform with people, I find it's a lonely vocation if you don't. I don't want to be held up as a golden individual. I want to be seen as part of a fabric. In terms of my glamour allergy, I don't have it in me to be able to pull off that high-status thing with a straight face, I'm just not that kind of personality. Anytime I've believed my own hype I've instantly regretted it. If you stay grounded and deep in your kaupapa that is far more abundant than a void-like need to be admired. I would rather be held in affection by my community from time to time.
I've been an artist all my adult life. I never thought that I would be able to have privileges like this, I never saw these things coming. And so I'm grateful that it took a bit longer for recognition to come to me because I now know that my success is the success of the collective and vice versa. My victory belongs to everyone.
I wasn't always this grounded in my work, I was young when I was playing in bands and I was a party animal and wanted to have fun. Being an artist seemed like the biggest life hack ever. I definitely don't want to depict myself as this really thoughtful person from birth. I'm like anybody else who had an ego and wanted to have a bright life. I was cunning and a hustler. I didn't come from much, but I saw my way with language as the way out for myself.
Any integrity that I've accrued over the last couple of decades is from growth within my mediums. I’m the epitome of self-taught and street-mentored. I fumbled my way through. Now that I have these bigger platforms, I'm like, phew, lucky I'm a bit more grounded now. If I had this attention and these opportunities five or ten years ago, it would have been a bit more Rock-and-Roll. Now I'm a bit more earnest about it.
Were there some major pivotal moments for you in your career?
I remember touring the world when I was 24 and it really blew my mind that I was able to travel and get paid to rap. People from different countries would come out and pack out the show. I was blown away by how that whole operation worked and I was the nucleus of it. I remember being mind-blown that art and being myself could get me that far.
I've had my surprise accomplishments as well. Getting my Masters in Creative Writing was a big plot-twist for me. Getting a Fulbright Scholarship was life-changing. And this Laureate Award is a surreal experience. All these things happened quite recently for me. Despite being in my late 30s it's like this whole new coming of age. Seeing stuff that I've done as a screenwriter having quite a big impact on audiences is all new to me, but it feels like a real calling and like I’ve finally found my note.
I also like residences and having my shows in art galleries, and whether that be the museum in Seoul or the Fresh Gallery in Otara, it's all precious to me. I'm honoured and in awe whenever I have opportunities to share, because you never know who's going to see your work and be radicalised by it. Art can totally flip your wig. It’s always a psychic lottery when you're putting new ideas out into the world. Who is going to take this and be changed by it? Who's is going to be moved enough to make beautiful decisions because of a challenge that I've put down for them?
What films have you have been working on?
I'm part of Piki Films, a Māori Pasifika film collective, a bunch of writers who cross-contaminate each other's work. I made a contribution to Hunt for the Wilderpeople and The Breaker Upperers and a couple of other projects still in the pipeline. The rest has been on TV.
In September I'm going to Germany to the Goethe-Institut and they’re taking me to this Art Biennale. It's strange to be able to be in that international contemporary art context and then come back to Aotearoa and go to the flea markets, hold my fat baby nephew, chill with my tāne in Onehunga. I love these paradoxes and these big mood switches, because to me that's what being an artist is like.
Where are you going next?
I really don't know what's going to happen. When Matariki pops off, I'm like, okay what are we up to this year? And I have to understand that I don't know what's going to happen. One thing I can rely on is that I will commit to make good work, to advocate via my work and use my work to do something new and exciting. I will ground myself in aroha and mana and that usually gets me through the discombobulation when I'm really mind blown or gassing myself up too much.
Last year we were in the studio making a beat with Susan Rogers who was Prince's sound engineer, then I got on a plane and went into my Fulbright in Hawaii. This is a big leap from my origins. But this is what you sign up for when you make a commitment to the work, put the work first and try to be an agent of change, but also just an agent of the mahi. I know what my purpose is whenever a challenge is presented to me, It took a long time for me to understand that, but I think my intuition is pretty good these days.
What is art? And why does it matter?
Art is being in service of something bigger than myself and using my creativity to deliver that. Nothing matters, I'm just doing what I know and what I love to do and it just so happens that it's artistic.
Have you always been a writer?
I got a typewriter for my sixth birthday. My family never really understood it, but they were always big enablers. I think I was always a bit out the gate. Writing was at the core of everything I wanted to do, then music stormed in and took over, but when I look back at my music, it's oratory, it's still writing at its core.
And have you had any mentors or influences?
I've had dozens of amazing mentors. People who have steered me in the right direction at the right time. I count people who were harmful for my trajectory or threw me off my game, as valuable as well because they taught me what I shouldn't put up with. I think everybody is of equal value to me weaponising and enriching what I bring to the world. Shout out to everyone really.
What does the Laureate award mean to you, and what impact does it have on you?
This kind of recognition and approval is surreal for me, it's like a fever dream. It feels so strange to get your place affirmed in the local canon when I'm so used to being an outsider. It’s been a big awkward transition for me to accept that maybe there are more eyes and ears on what I say, and you can't get bigger proof than this award. How people see you is not how you see yourself, that’s a wacky lesson to be learning.
I think it's really cool for my fan base to see my trajectory now, and say "I was there from day one!" I will still be working towards the same goals.
You have a strong focus on your wider community and you mentor others.
That's not a conscious thing anymore. It's just a normal part of how I work. Collaboration and bringing people the gifts and opportunities that art allows – that's my love language. I don't look at it like a traditional alpha-mentor, taking in the creative troubled children, every artist I work with is my equal. It doesn't matter what stage they're at, when we’re creating, everybody has something that the other person can't contribute. I naturally pull people towards me, because I'm always creating, working at a high but accesible level, and I have high standards for myself, a point-of-difference whenever I'm working. The people around me end up doing that as well, and we always end up building some something special.
And what would you say to some artist that are coming up or the younger generation? It seems like you have tapped into your superpower. How can they tap into their superpower too - what do you do?
Resist the poisoned chalice as much as possible and try to recognise when you have the power to be an agent for change. Give yourself permission to do it. Almost seek failure and really relish the wipeouts and the bad decisions as much as ticker-tape parades that you get from this kind of work. They all have this really magical and informative value in the end. It helps you to relate and empathise with other people.
I just want to stay grounded, and the temptations of being someone I'm not constantly poke me. The world’s constantly asking us to change and not to be ourselves, and I think every time I choose to be myself, it's not always easy, but the moments I'm proudest of are always when I stick to my guns and keep working for the bigger picture. I usually advocate for 'do it in your style'.
There is so much industry anxiety around keeping up with how everyone else is doing. Trying to keep the same business template and business model and what success actually looks like. But at the end of the day, you're stuck with yourself and the gratification of this award wouldn’t mean anything if I wasn’t working towards a bigger purpose and a more holistic practice. That's what I'm really really thankful to have found, and thankful to be recognised for.