Some of Aotearoa's biggest hip hop artists are giving back to their communities, using music to connect with at-risk youths, juvenile offenders, or those struggling with mental health. Tony Stamp visits community centres and mental health spaces, to talk to the men behind the movement.
Church and AP burst onto Aotearoa’s hip hop scene in 2018 with their single ‘Ready Or Not’. Picked up by Mai FM before it had even been released, it quickly became the country’s most Shazamed song, and was soon playlisted by the UK’s BBC One. This all happened while the pair were still at high school.
The song wasn’t recorded in a professional studio, but a community centre in Auckland’s Mt Roskill.
In 2016 the pair were attending a community programme run by Te Karanga Trust, where hip hop musicians including Tom Scott, Melodownz, and David Dallas lent advice on how to write tracks, with facilities on hand to record the results.
A few years later 'Ready Or Not' is approaching five million streams on Spotify, and Church (real name Elijah Manu) is back at the Puketapapa Creative Lab, the space in Wesley Community Centre where ‘Ready Or Not’ was recorded. This time though, he’s here as a facilitator, providing mentorship to a new crop of aspiring hip hop musicians.
The Wednesday night class is open to anyone who’s keen to attend, and typically sees around 10 to 20 young men keen to learn from more established names. The session starts with a group discussion, where topics include the high and low points of everyone’s week.
“In a lot of ways it’s like therapy for the people that come through,” Church tells me.
“I find this is one of the healthiest spaces to speak your mind. One of the safest spaces,” he says, adding “You’re able to express yourself freely.”
“In these communities a lot of us have never experienced any type of therapy in a typical western way.”
William Mark Brown is the manager of Te Karanga Charitable Trust. He says participants generally don’t expect the session to get as personal as it does.
“As young men, they don’t expect to expose vulnerability, or talk about the stuff they’re struggling with, and actually externalise those feelings and turn them into something creative.”
Church sums up the aim of the programme: “One of the most important things is community. Just to know that there is a community for you. You exist inside a bigger picture.
“If we all have the same common goals then we can help each other out.”
Bronson Price, who makes hip hop as Melodownz, once mentored at Te Karanga, and went on to take a role at Youthline. He now works for Toi Ora Trust, a mental health art space in Grey Lynn.
“The role on my contract is Creative Practitioner,” he tells me, explaining “at the moment I’m the music recording tutor.
“When I was younger I went through a few things, and [looking back] I feel like ‘I wish I’d had someone to help me out’. And now it’s my turn to give back.”
Members at Toi Ora can access a library of musical instruments and create any type of music they want, from hip hop to folk.
“It’s a beautiful place to work,” says Melo, “And a safe environment for people who are struggling with mental health.
“Hip hop comes from struggle. It comes from a place where people are vulnerable, and the way they’re expressing themselves is getting that off their chest. With mentoring or doing community work it’s the same kind of vibe.
“People are struggling and going through trauma, and this is a platform where I can help them to heal. Everyone’s here for the same purpose: to have fun, to heal through music, and to learn.”
For one third of hip hop act Team Dynamite, looking after his community’s most vulnerable is something Tony Sihamau (AKA Tony Teez) has made a full time job. He works for Youthline, helping young people who might be looking to leave school, or need to go on the benefit, or find emergency housing.
“You’ve got to build that trust in order for these young people to know that you’re going to do well by them,” he tells me, “And if you don’t have that you’re talking to a brick wall.
“Sometimes building that rapport isn’t easy. It takes time. You don’t know how many adults have let them down, or not turned up for them, and I don't want to be another one of those people. And I won’t be.”
Balancing a job at Youthline with being a musician isn’t just a matter of investing time, either. There’s also an emotional investment.
“You need to practice boundaries, and learn to clock off,” Tony says. “It’s not easy, and with some cases it’s impossible, but over time you learn how to park things.
“We work with some of the most vulnerable young people in New Zealand. Some of the cases can be very tough [to let go]. So having processes is important.”
It’s a similar struggle faced by Rizván Tu'itahi. The Tongan-born MC has been a steady presence in the Auckland hip hop scene, both in front of the mic and behind the scenes. In fact he recorded one of Melodownz’ first EPs.
Now he’s working at Korowai Manaaki, a youth justice residence, where he runs two-week courses helping juvenile offenders choose beats, and draw on personal experiences to write raps.
“Sometimes I feel like I’m a father figure to some of these younger guys,” he tells me, “When they’re looking for advice, or you can tell they want to share something but they don’t want to say it in front of the bros.
“I’m there to tell them, ‘You don’t have to be tough. Just talk about it.' It doesn’t make you less strong if you open up about something.”
Rizván says that like the sessions Church runs for Te Karanga, making music is a way to get the young men to open up. He says when the writing gets them to a point of self-reflection, “that’s when the healing happens.”
“When they start sharing I know they’re comfortable, and sometimes it takes the whole two weeks for them to open up and share what they’ve written. One of my main objectives is to break down those barriers and bring their guard down. The rap is just a vehicle.
“If they’re able to write about their criminal activities, then they can process and reflect on some of these things.
“When you get through to them, they start sharing things about their life, what’s happened to them or what they’ve been going through. When you break through it’s all worth it.
“If the music doesn’t work, I don’t know what will with some of these kids.”