Acacia Woods is a youth open mic night in the East side of Christchurch that is giving rangatahi a space to create, perform, and connect with their community. Started this year by local DJ and radio host Aisha Ah Mu, it's held once a month at youth space White Elephant Trust. Gemma Syme attends the early August event.
The acts tonight present a mix of rapping and singing. Eleven year old twins Tane and Aka duet on 'Tiaho Mai Ra' and then perform one of their Uncle's songs. Tane jumps back on stage later to do a solo performance of the soulful ballad "A Change Is Gonna Come". They already have agile, expressive voices, and while they're a little bashful on stage, the pair clearly love performing there.
15 year old first timer Konker gets up to do a rap that he's written about his friend who committed suicide earlier that week. He gets a powerful round of applause from the audience.
Other groups of rangatahi get up on stage to sing popular songs, and adults take turns to do their thing too, rapping, singing, scratching, telling stories. One even whips out a cartwheel before performing.
Aisha says that it's not just about youth connecting with youth, it's also about youth connecting with adults so that they know who they are looking after and know who they should be looking out for.
"Connection is a big part of safety in this community - as long as everybody stays connected, so wherever they go, they should know someone and have love for someone."
Aisha Ah Mu grew up in this neighborhood, and says that attending youth hip hop events when she was younger gave her the inspiration and confidence to do it herself.
"You could see b-boys and b-girls, people writing raps, doing cyphers, and that was the thing that showed me that like - oh, if that guy from up the street can do it, maybe I can do it too."
She went on to study DJing at Whitirea in Wellington, but recently returned home and saw the need for a space for youth and youth-positive development events.
"To me, it is the most important thing. If they don't have space to be themselves, or grow strong, how can we expect them to do anything? How can we expect them to look after us when we get old?" she says with a wry smile.
"The community is yearning for it. They're waiting for something to happen - something positive to take their kids to, something free, and cool to be around."
She says that before the Canterbury earthquakes there was lots on offer for youth, but that places closed down and a lot of the instigators moved away.
"It left a huge gap. When I was growing up there used to be a little cafe you could hang out in, all the churches had youth centres, there's none of that now. There's just a whole bunch of kids hanging out on the streets, which is such a waste of time!"
Acacia Woods is up and running with its regulars, and set to grow. Aisha hopes eventually one day that she will be able to facilitate a recording studio for youth. Somewhere they can go to practice, hang out, do homework and record.
At the end of the night, after the food has been chowed down and the performances are over, the kids all run on stage to try out scratching on the DJ gear. Those who were too shy at first are now leaning over the DJ controller and trying out the gear. The music plays on and the chatter continues until people slowly peel off into the night.