During several pop culture evolutions in Aotearoa, Teremoana Rapley has been in the mix (if not the magic ingredient) for over three decades. For many girls growing up in the South Pacific looking for themselves, the innovative Rapley was considered the original (and arguably only visible) wahine MC for a long time. A solo artist and contributor to multiple groundbreaking projects (Upper Hutt Posse, Moana & The Moa Hunters, Dam Native, Che Fu, King Kapisi to name only a few) Rapley now returns to music after 20 years, independently releasing ‘What’s Going On’ from her forthcoming album ‘Daughter of a House Girl’. We talk about remaining a sovereign storyteller across mediums, the selective hearing of empire and how Rapley expresses herself within the intersection of the Pasifika Black experience.
I felt the lyrics of your new track as a plea, an outburst I been wanting to have myself.
They tend not to be outbursts anymore because I’m a bit older and wiser! I think of my earlier tracks that I would have released. For instance, the B-side of ‘Four Women’ (1996) was a track called ‘OPC’ about other people’s culture, which was about cultural misappropriation. So that was probably an outburst! But for this… it’s a track that we decided would be the first track off the album.
So after a 20 year hiatus, what is What’s Going On about? And why now?
In 2019, I went to Europe. Barcelona, Amsterdam and then Banff in Canada. It was my first trip by myself in over 25 years. I’ve always had an interest in knowledge of self and knew I could visit the Embassy of the Free Mind, at the Ritman Library in Amsterdam. The trip was planned, but what I received from the journey wasn’t….
When I visited the library, Dr. Cis van Heertum conducted a rare book tour for me especially. It was awe-inspiring. I was so spiritually drained when we finished, I needed to unwind for a couple of days. It’s here that I started to understand how our indigenous ‘thought’ is spread throughout the world as ‘paganistic and evil’ when considered under the capitalist religious construct. I’d previously thought religion was the issue. But when we discussed how definitions were ‘swapped’ for the advancement of a worldwide hierarchical control system, many things began to fall into place.
The idea that we are interconnected is not new. We’ve always known this and in pre-colonial times, we consistently practiced this. If you take a look back throughout His-story in specific books, you will find our presence, our whakaaro. From both modern and ancient texts, Dr. van Heertum translated indigenous thought to me. For instance, our ritual practice when we ‘sing’ before we do anything. Get up in the morning, go to sleep at night, prepare for a journey, for visitors, for collecting kai and so on. The right mind, heart and balance needs to occur. This is carried out by performing the correct frequencies and vibrations. I saw the texts and images in these books, books printed on one of their country’s first printing presses and in over seven different languages.
The collection was based on Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica, that is, Christian Hermetics Gnosis. While based on the bible, this was not the interpretation spread throughout our Pacific colonies. The goal of the London Missionary Society was more than spiritual control. It was asset-based focused — capitalism. This was about disempowerment, capitalism evolved into the neoliberalism resultant that we experience today in 2020.
I had been alone in these thoughts for over two decades. I had never stopped writing, creating. I just didn’t release music, because the industry as it is, is another form of colonisation. Colonisation of my artistic creation, release, and therefore my being. Who wants to be part of that?!
I have a creator-colleague in France who is Māori. We connect on this kōrero all the time, but after I visited the library we started a two year plan to finally expose my music alongside their work. We’ve had to make revisions because we didn’t realise people would start to awaken from their closed-minded slumber so quickly! This has been beautiful to witness and by ‘this’ I mean, other people (besides Black People) protesting that our lives matter. This is a true consciousness. People can now see us, what we have had to carry or keep silent on. But to walk together shoulder to shoulder… to rally against a system designed to destroy us… that is real power.
Watch full lyrics video version HERE it’s worth it
Tell us about the music video.
I created, directed and edited the music video concept. The location was originally a farmhouse built in 1863 by a Scottish family with connections to India. This family ‘owned’ over 500-acres with the house as the centre of ‘their’ land. It’s up the road from where we live. After visiting Europe (especially buildings designed by Catalonian Antoni Gaudi in Spain) I came home looking more closely at the history and symbolism of our architecture. Starting local made sense.
Each person in the video plays a character. The Thinker is in the library reading a 1907 book titled Te Tohunga by Wilhelm Dittmer, a book from my collection. The Servant Leader is in the kitchen. She stares down the lens specifically on the lyrics ‘had about enough of this senseless dying’. She is female-energy incarnate, she is nature and nurture, your worried sister, your aunty, your lover… she is who she needs to be. Maui-Pōtiki is in the Well Room. He cares about the worries of the world, and uses his frequency. He has on headphones, to bring joy through dance and movement to people around him (but lets them figure it out for themselves). The Conscious Introvert is in the ballroom. They stare at the camera on the lyrics ‘desensitizing’ from being so digitally connected right now, but still walking in the dark. My character is The Healer, casting spells with my words. Using my 46-year old tinana (ūkaipo) to physically attract attention to the frequencies presented in song. Yes, I know my ū are the centre of attention! (Laughs). She is both sexual and sensual. Female, motherhood, sisterhood, unapologetic feminine divine. Before the first verse, I hold my hands in the shape of what Rasta practitioners recognise as the star of David (in front of my solar-plexus, to the sacral and finally to the root chakra). I wear a six-pointed star, and to me this represents the female and male essence required for human life.
I walk out of the nursery, where all ten children of the Kerr-Taylor family were raised. I appear for the first time as the Daughter of a House Girl. We don’t look like we belong in this location. So ask yourself, why? Everything is a matter of perception…. until you understand and hold truth in your hands.
Since we’re talking about the conceptual side, can we unpack the name of the upcoming album?
The name comes from the fact that my late mother was a house-girl. The understanding that came from her siblings telling me about her life. Looking at family photos from when she was younger, trying to piece together stories that I’d heard her tell other people. Then sometimes, she would just drop stories on me.
For example, she told me how she drank while she carried me, because she didn’t want to be pregnant. Later in life I discovered that I have an allergy to specific alcohol, alcohol she drank when carrying me. I wasn’t angry, I felt her mamae.
She didn’t speak much about her upbringing often, but when she did, her childhood reflected the reprehensible concoction of religion, colonisation and power. The lines between the dreams of my tīpuna and serving a foreign God have blurred to the point where 1) we accept deplorable behaviour as Cook Islands ‘culture’ when it is clearly introduced lateral violence and 2) in 2018 Cook Islands people had the highest client interaction per ethnicity per capita, with Oranga Tamariki (appropriated Māori name for the NZ Ministry for Children). There is a historical connection.
There is a line from a song I wrote called ‘Run’. I sing about being a mother in a breakdown and I sing lyrics about my Mum. ‘But she lived in a place of depression / passed down from generation, to generation / and you need to know / you are not alone’. After losing both parents, reflecting on my mother’s life, I came to the understanding that I am the daughter of a house girl. I call my album ‘Daughter of a House Girl’ to honour my mum.
You dip in and out of the music machine. Is it good to have that creative freedom and have security and sovereignty outside of the art form?
I’ve been a storyteller for a while now, I’ve worked in indigenous broadcasting for the past 25 years. I like to think that I’m quite good at telling other people’s stories. The issue for me is focusing on myself. I tend to focus on other people and what other people need. I tend to put myself last so that, in itself is a lesson — to focus on me.
I knew that as soon as I got a mortgage when I was 20 that I needed to get a real job. Music wasn’t going to cut it. I mean, I recall being in the Posse (Upper Hutt Posse) and being paid about $120 over a five year period. $120 over a five year period…. that…. did… did I stutter? (Laughs) So I knew that. I didn’t think that music was a place where you made money, that was the funny thing. But I set up a studio in the 90s — a home studio. I was doing a few commercial ads, making ends meet. I was definitely busy and looking for alternative ways of making money. But television seemed like a natural thing for me even though I don’t like to be the center of attention, that is something that people misconstrue about people that are on television, right? They assume that we’re extroverts but I am the very…. I’m the opposite of that! So yeah, it’s been good to have the security for me and the control over my own music, what I do and how I do it.
Teremoana with Upper Hutt Posse, 15 years old
What I love about your body of work/ discography / “career” whatever we wanna call it — is that you’ve achieved these insane things, but you casually share them in a matter-of-fact way. It reminds us artists that come after you that legacy is what you make it. So while flexes, co-signs and associations are nice… they shouldn’t be what your idea of artistry and success should hinge on right?
I couldn’t agree with you more on that one. Because if you just focus on the end product, things like getting on the charts, the things that sorta go hand-in-hand with ‘being famous’… if we only focus on that, what are your monitoring indicators? What are the things that you have got around you (or even in your mind) that tell you you’ve reached success in that space? And when you’re working in a space where you are forever having to give up your energy to provide people an insight into your life (much like social media, a ‘version’ of your life) because that’ll help sell records, where do you draw the line? Where do you decide that you’re not going to expose this part, but you will expose this aspect about yourself? What will people know about you or not know about you? Where do you draw the line in that space?
And I think that when your barometer is based around the commodification of your art form…. there’s only really one sort of way that you can go. Until you are able to be present and understand the real value of what you offer to the world, you won’t go beyond being a commodity. As a musician, an artist, as a creative…that’s the one thing that I’ve definitely learned. I didn’t do all those things to leave a legacy of work or anything like that. Because most people don’t know a lot of the things that I have done. They’re generally not public unless I talk about it. My body of work comes from the fact that I’m a Mum. And I have been a Mum for 26 years, and I got a mortgage when I just got out of being a teenager. So, my responsibility that I felt on my shoulders that I needed to carry, to be accountable for and to my family… those are the things that have developed my career, or whatever you want to call it!
Whenever NZ music history gets brought up and celebrated, this is so centred around men. Yet there is the indisputable fact with you… when we watch Upper Hutt Posse, Dam Native, Moana and the Moa Hunters, DLT, Che Fu, King Kapisi, soooo many movements and icons…. you are there like a fixture, this enduring ‘tekoteko at the marae’ of rap. What do you make of that shape shifting/under-stated legacy?
For a time, in retrospect, there was a space that I was in, where I had all the right ears and the right eyes on me…. able to make decisions that would help support me in my career, to help me stay within a certain level within the industry.
I understand that once I didn’t hit that ‘standard’ for those people making those decisions, that negotiated my position within the public view. And so in general, male His-Story is told. And our female Her-story is put to the side. Mary Magdalene is a perfect example right? So I’m not surprised by it. I’m not offended by it really because… it’s a historical archaic practice. Each of those people that you mentioned would acknowledge me in those spaces anyway so we know what the truth is, regardless of other versions of history. That’s what I mentioned in ‘What’s Going On’, the fact that our histories are rewritten. I don’t understand why people just don’t talk to the source.
When we worked together on the Equalise My Vocals project, you dropped the mind-blowing story of how you flew to LA to meet with Public Enemy’s management, but your flight got diverted. What do you make of things like fate in such a pick-a-path situation like that?
(Laughs) Right. And that wasn’t the only one, the other one was when Madonna’s manager was here. I don’t know ….there’s been a few opportunities where these things have happened and I’ve been at the centre of this kind of attention — being an artist and stuff. I’d have people getting things for me and saying I don’t have to lift a finger…. but because I’m the daughter of a house girl, I just go and do things myself anyway. And that’s more my comfort space, actually doing things myself and serving other people. That’s what I liked and was brought up to do, so when I was younger and those tables were turned it wasn’t actually a comfortable space for me. There are just things that happen in your life that are the way that they’re supposed to be. I was in these spaces for a minute and I didn’t like it. I’m good where I am. It wasn’t actually until my 30s that I understood the whole experience. I miss a lot.
Like I realised you could actually go out to a bar and just look at a person in a certain way and then the two of you could go home together… I didn’t even understand that concept! Because I had never done anything like that before in my life (laughs). I’m a full on geek and I’d try not to make eye contact with people. And because I’d been on television, my natural reaction was just to smile at people. That could probably mean something else to those cats, I realise that now! But not back then (laughs). It was more ‘normal’ natural adult behaviour… those were the things I feel I missed out on. I don’t think I had a narrow view, but I’m quite obsessive about specific things. Other things don’t get nurtured in my behaviour or in my observation, because I don’t have any use for it.
So you’ve always experienced ‘successful artist’ in a different way.
To be able to have a meaningful conversation with one person, I’ve done that a few times in the span of my so-called ‘career’. The last person that I met recently used my song ‘Beautiful People’ to get herself through sixth form. She ended up writing a PowerPoint presentation about it, what it meant to her and how it got her through (high school) to university. The themes that she pulled out of the song were really deep and she basically said that’s what saved her. Now that’s just one person. And that’s what you’re talking about.
If we look at how much money, actual cash money has been spent on this single, sound engineer, the video clip sure, it’s probably about three grand four grand all up. But in terms of experience, it’s over a 30 year period that I put that work together. That could only happen at this time and in this space. It could only happen after the experiences that I’ve had. What was the end product of long creation processes was that video, and that song. That couldn’t have been done any other way.
Now when you’re forced to sit and write — and I’ve had to do that before — you are forced to listen to music that is hot in some other country on someone else’s chart, you’re forced to write to it and you’re just like…. this is rubbish! The subjects that you’re encouraged to write about… nothing agrees with your soul and you’re just like, I don’t want to do this! And you asked me about sovereignty and being able to do whatever I want to do. To a certain extent when it’s come to my creation process, all of my subjects (which aren’t subjects, they’re just how I feel) I don’t sit there and go “I’m gonna write about poverty or cultural amnesia or genocide”. I feel something. Then I can write about it.
‘Beautiful People’ (1995) a breakthrough solo track Teremoana also self-produced
We should actually acknowledge the reason that pick-a-path flight was diverted… that was the night that the Rodney King LA riots broke out in 1992. So here we are in 2020, where the racist police state is having an overdue reckoning in the US and there’s a Black-led revolution happening worldwide. You’re living in the intersections of the Māori, Pasifika and Black experience here – and you’ve always talked about these ideas in your music. So how do you think Aotearoa can best seize and support this radical shift?
How do I think an entire country can express our solidarity and our sovereignty right now? We need those who are not Māori, Pasifika or Black, to stand next to us.
To stand for those of us who are tired. To uplift us and to use what is within their own control and power to share with us. To carry the message of us finally being seen. To say, enough is enough.
We must be innovative with how we spread these messages of light, love, strength and action. Let your heart, your whatumanawa, guide you – not ego. Kaupapa up, ego down. Everything is interconnected.
There is also the acknowledgement that generally the world has operated in a state of ‘scarcity’ in order to uplift the rules of engagement to support an economic system of ‘capitalism’, that happened to be coupled with an alternative version of ‘religion’, known as spirituality prior to the ‘swap’. This system has operated for over 500 years, there is a lot to undo!
I heard a cool radio special about your genealogy and the search for your Caribbean roots. So you connect to Rarotonga, Aitutaki and Mangaia on your mother’s side, and Jamaica, Cuba and Suriname on your father’s side. You even whakapapa to the Hendrix bloodline?
So my late father’s name is actually Fellie Hendricks, he passed away a few years ago. I’ve got 6 maybe 7 siblings on my Hendricks side. Three of them are part Cook Island and three of them have one Mum. The three that are Cook Island, all have different mums and I’m one of them. The story that my sister told me is that there were two Hendricks brothers who came from Holland on merchant ships. One apparently married a great great great great grandmother who was Ethiopian. And that they came through Suriname to Jamaica. Jimi Hendrix is descended from one brother, and my family line is from the other brother. I also have a great grandfather, who had a business set up in Cuba via Jamaica. So, apparently, all Hendricks (various spellings) throughout the Caribbean are related to these two brothers.
I’ve been looking for genealogy stuff since I found out about being a Hendricks. It’s really hard to find anything specific (laughs). Mostly because the surname changes, but I did do a genealogy DNA test, and my whakapapa goes back to Iberia which is Spain, Portugal, Nigeria, about 30%. Sierra Leone, Kenya, Indigenous Amazonian. On my Kuki (slang for Cook Island) side it doesn’t say “Polynesian” but it did say Papua and Melanesian. Chinese and Vietnamese is about 27% and Thai and Cambodian is about 11%. Interesting right? I went from thinking through my father (who bought me up) that I was half Papa’a/half Kuki. But just before I turned 40 I found out my biological father was Jamaican. So you can imagine my surprise. And yes I have looked in the mirror since then, like you’re right… I do look Black! (Laughs)
It makes so much sense now. But, yeah, it’s a trip. I’m still searching for my roots… still searching for my roots.
Teremoana shooting a video in Tahiti
You have a long career running parallel to your music working in screen, what have been some of the highlights for you working in that medium?
You know what, I didn’t actually realize that I was a storyteller when I worked in television. I just thought I told people’s stories but ta-da, I was a storyteller. That’s probably one of the biggest highlights for me, when I think about the lives that I had interacted with, all the people I met. I prefer to actually be behind the camera, asking questions and then be able to curate the story as it’s told – without having to see my mug on the screen, or even hearing my voice actually!
But I’ve always had a mind that was hungry for knowledge and information. Hence why I’m able to pick up lots of different things. It’s why I was able to figure out how to design a website and am a self-taught editor, learned how to work a four track Fostex tape recorder back in the day, bussing and bouncing the tracks. It was just a natural progression to move into a mixing desk, then a studio computer set-up with digital recording. All these things go hand in hand, it made sense. Then to be able to pick up a camera, lead to me being able to shoot video, then sitting in the studio and engineering the tracks. Those are just the things that you gotta do, so I’ve just picked them up as I’ve gone along. It just made sense to be able to do it… because you need to get it done. So yeah, being that kind of storyteller. That was a highlight in television.
Teremoana at the Indigenous Storytellers and Spoken Word Residency in Banff last year
Do you think the destabilisation of traditional business-models and creative economies (including music) makes this a good time to be an artist or a broken time?
I think it’s a good time. I think if we have an opportunity to, let’s busta-bus. What I know is coming back into the space again, is that there’s actually not enough distribution platforms or platforms for you to hear music. If you do get access to those platforms (and I’m talking about mainstream platforms because that’s how you reach the masses right) the negotiation that has to go on, the compromise to get into these spaces, they’re not really attainable for a majority of musicians or artists. It works in a very elitist way and that’s what it’s all based on right?
Our music industry slash sector slash economy is based on a neoliberal capitalist system that turns what we naturally have into a commodity. It throws this into a completely Western construct, a paradigm that goes against everything that we are! (Laughs) As creatives who express themselves through oratory means, through visual means…. that is a connection that we have. Yeah for some it might be (formally) trained, but there was something inside of you that had this indefinable connection to the art form. Well that gets put into a system that wants to separate you from it. “You are just this thing that we’re going to package up. You’re going to go do this, this and this”. An artist doesn’t really have an opportunity to make decisions once they get into that system. You’ve just got to roll with whatever way you’re told to go. And that’s the power dynamic that I think needs to change. Change lies in the value dynamic of what we do and how we are actually seen as creatives. My tree hugging hippie thoughts might mess up our current system and the way it operates. But you know what? I feel it needs that. It might mean that you’re not going to make a gazillion dollars from every song that you sell. But you might get a gazillion people actually listening to your music. Not just because it’s been pumped into the brain cells over and over again. But you’ll just have a wider reach of your music getting to more people. Whatever that looks like and whatever way that runs. As you know, I’m still working on those details!
But if you follow the line: you start school, you get encouraged to do music as a way to express yourself, you might be in a competition like Pasifika Beats, maybe you win it. You get a manager, you apply for funding from NZ On Air to help support you with your song. You’re trying to learn things, you still might want to go to university and study too. I’ve seen this pathway. You get to a point (like all commodities) where it has a shelf life. And then you either decide to kill it, or you pivot and turn it into something else. BUT what if the one thing you wanted to do, for your entire life, was just make music? Why would you have to pivot into something else if you really love only making music? So that’s the other side of it. I’ve done the ‘pivoting’ several times, but I was always that way inclined. Some artists don’t want to pivot and then this industry says to them “you know what we’re done with you, get”. These people who can’t pivot, they’re just like “what do I do now?” and that’s what concerns me.
Teremoana in the landmark work ‘Daughter of a High Chief’ by artist Shigeyuki Kihara 2003
We just use musicians and artists for whatever we want them to be and then we just… discard them like they’re nothing. And I feel mamae for the artists that go through that phase, or are going through that. They lose their confidence in what they want to do and how they share their gifts in this now slightly tetchy judgmental world. A world that will only see grey hair in their beard, or how wide they are now. We are in a system that consistently perpetuates this over and over again. And so stepping away from the industry for 20 years and coming back into it, I was like, y’all motherfuckers did nothing to change this space!? (Laughs). You just said let’s keep rolling with this? So while I’m wanting to release music out into the ether, I realise there’s still so much work to be done. The reason why I make music is because I have to do it. I share my music because like I said, it’s for that one person who said that I saved her life. Who do you know, who has a gift like that, that shouldn’t use it if they could? And so while I’ve done other things to carry my family, that ‘other gift’ thing…. that ‘music thing’…. that’s the thing that I only do, because I have to do it. The system messes with our connection to other humans, (corrupts) how we share our gifts. That commodification of a feeling, or emotion, or chemical reaction is the thing that’s actually messing it up for us. So I’ve got some work to do.
It’s a good time to disrupt if you want a shorter answer sis! (Laughs)
You are a proud grandmother – do your moko ground your artistry these days or give you a relief from it?
My moko unfortunately live in Australia and they are as awesome as you can expect a six and a four year old to be on FaceTime. So, I get to speak to them but I miss them so much! I don’t have any fear that my artistry is not grounded though… but it’s ‘goals’ for me to be able to spend more time with them.
Finally…. is it true that you were a maths whiz growing up??
I started intermediate quite young cos I jumped a class or two and I started high school when I was 11. So when I left at 14, I’d already sat my exams. But when I was around 9 or 10, there was an Australasian mathematics competition. And I came second, runner-up in it. So I used to just have this very weird knack for numbers. I was just really into them, I’m not sure why. My father worked in the finance department at the local council, so maybe that’s what it was? (Laughs) But I just remember finding a lot of joy in numbers because they made sense… and they were logical when you added them together. I was able to do things like spell words. I was very into words too, but I wasn’t into pronouncing them. It’s just the way that I comprehend things. But yeah numbers were my thing, and then… they weren’t. It used to be something that I used to practice all the time for fun…. but I haven’t done it for awhile!
Photo credit Greg Riwai