9 Mar 2019

Live Session: Emily Muli and band

From RNZ Music, 3:10 pm on 9 March 2019

Tongan R'n'B soul singer Emily Muli has just released her debut song 'Rhythm and Truth'. In her young life she’s rubbed shoulders with the British royal family, and gone viral on YouTube. She spoke to Yadana Saw about her success, and the 1970s immigration raids that left a mark on local Pacific communities - including her own family.

The  23-year-old South Aucklander wants to clear up some misunderstandings about young Pasifika people and why they seem so shy.

“When a person older than me is talking to me I look down. I can’t make eye contact. It’s not because I’m being rude. It’s because I have respect,” explains Emily Muli.

“It’s in our culture to be quite be reserved. In Tongan culture one of our cultural values is faka’apa’apa which means humility and respect.”

For an up-and-coming musician like Emily that poses a clash between the world she wants to work in and the background she proudly comes from.

As a 14-year-old, Emily posted videos of her playing guitar and singing covers. The target audience was the best friend she used to jam with, who had moved away to Australia.

Her first video was a cover of Usher. “It was real cringe if you look back on it," she says.

“A couple of videos later I put up a cover of Ne-Yo’s ‘One in a Million’ and I was literally sitting on top of scaffolding with my guitar with really short shorts. My Mum hates looking at the video,” Emily laughs.

What happened overnight completely surprised her. Emily’s video went viral.

“I started getting tens of thousands of views whereas my previous video has only hit a thousand, and now that video sits at three million [views].

“I didn’t know what to do and I was only 16. None of my family were in the music industry and we didn’t have any idea.”

“I didn’t know how to deal with a lot of the comments [on YouTube]. But also it made me grow up quite a lot.”

“The 24-year-old me will tell the 16-year-old me to cover up with a lavalava,” Emily laughs.

She takes her cultural values seriously. Mostly out of respect and admiration of her grandmother who, like many of Aotearoa’s large Pacific diaspora, left her home in search of a better life in Auckland.

Emily retells a story of her Nana arriving in 1970s New Zealand during the particularly torrid time when immigration authorities staged random searches in homes and workplaces to arrest Pacific “overstayers”.

Ask any New Zealander of a certain age and they will know what “dawn raid” means. It’s imprinted in the Pasifika-tinged music of this country. Samoan rapper King Kapisi reclaimed the term overstayer with his clothing label. South Auckland record label Dawn Raid released records as exactly that.

For Emily, her debut single 'Rhythm and Truth' pays tribute to the strength of her grandmother, who told her the story of her near-arrest in that time of fractious race relations.  

Emily explains that her grandmother’s lighter skin and attentive workmate saved the Tongan migrant from being rounded up, during the random raid at the factory she worked at.

“My grandmother had to line up with the other staff. She’d changed her name to what she thought was a generic palagi name which was totally not her name.

"So when they were calling out Betty Williams she had totally forgotten that she changed her name and the lady behind her had to say ‘that’s you’."

Emily reflects on how different her own life is against the hardship her older family members faced.

“I can’t imagine living at that time. Giving up and risking everything just to provide a future for your family.”

Similarly could Emily’s grandmother ever imagine that her mokopuna would ever meet the Duchess of Sussex Meghan Markle?

“My Nana just went hard-out telling everyone,” laughs Emily as she recalls being at the royal reception for the Duke and Duchess, “We got to meet Megan, she’s so down to earth, so lovely."

“But I was really proud, so proud to see so many Pacific young people in that space.”

Music details

Artist: Emily Muli
Song: Rhythm and Truth
Composer: Muli
Album: RNZ Recording
Label: RNZ Recording