DIASPORA: Meer makes waves for Arab women in rap music

Culture, Interview, Music

Rapper Meer is a young woman living in Australasia. Having just moved to Sydney from Auckland to be with the love of her life she says she appreciates a man who respects a woman going after her potential. “I want to make a mark as an Arab woman – I want people to know what an Arab is. I want Middle Eastern to be a part of the selection when you choose where you’re from,” she says.

Born in Dubai, she came to New Zealand when she was five years old. Having always used writing as an important outlet, especially when it comes to her mental health and positive well being, she says eventually making a rap song became an obvious choice. “The first time I went up on that stage I couldn’t explain it, it was something magical, that feeling I got, I couldn’t get anywhere else and I was addicted.”

Although her lyrical content can get quite heavy theme-wise she says “I want people to scream my name on that stage I want people to know my lyrics, I  want to touch people in ways that they have never..that sounds weird…I want to affect people emotionally through my music, in ways they’ve never been before.”

‘You messing with a bad bitch’ goes the hook of her most recent video release Pomegranate. But, she says “I’m not really an intense person – I’m such a kid – the person you see on stage is someone who feels powerful and wants to prove it but the person I am when I get off stage is powerful and I don’t have to prove it. Even though there’s a lot of intense content, people might think it’s too much.. Do you think?”

INDIGENOUS FOCUS: A Dancing Earth

Culture, Feature

Quetzal Guerrero sits at the back of the Wellington Opera House in New Zealand. He’s just come off stage with Dancing Earth – a contemporary indigenous dance company directed by Rulan Tangen [right of photo] who holds the belief that “to dance is to live, to live is to dance.” Rulan’s work is known for honoring key aspects of Native American culture. Concepts like matriarchal leadership, dance as ritual for transformation and healing as well as the process of decolonizing the body.

In this interview with SERUM we talk to Guerrero about connecting with Rulan and how his passion for movement and dance began with Hip Hop and break dancing. He also explains that in 1980’s America, hip hop provided a sense of identity for indigenous youth who were going through a loss of their own cultural identity. At the time their elders were making fundamental moves at the United Nations to even be regarded as human beings with human rights at all. I talk to Guerrero about his journey as a classically trained violinist, being the son of a political muralist and activist and growing up first nations in Phoenix.

“My father comes from the Coconino and Yaqui tribes of the South-West. He raised us with a lot of consciousness about the real history of the United States and what went down when it came to colonisation so we had awareness about our identity and who we are – we were taught not to be ashamed of being who we are and to embrace our culture and our roots. So I was always fascinated about Native American art, music and history. I’ve always loved studying as a kid and learning about it and I think that’s what also intrigued me about working with this company – because it’s contemporary and nothing like this really existed – this is one of the first Native American dance companies..We’re telling the story about who we are as Native Americans but expressing it through dance.”

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Dancing Earth’s performance piece – among many other cultural groups from around the world, I noticed evoked a sense of deep pain, Quetzal elaborates: “The Native American community, we’re still healing from the devastation that comes with colonization – talk about genocide. Tens of millions of Native Americans were murdered, killed and wiped out by colonization so there is a huge scar, a big wound that has been slowly healing in the Native American identity and part of that healing is coming to terms with today. Letting go of the past and seeing that as a blessing in disguise – in the sense that we’re still here, we’re still present and we need to be aware of that and open to accepting today – the future and making something of it.
“A lot of colonised cultures are really affected by the new culture and social oppression that comes along with that so they suffer from a lot of debilitating social diseases like alcoholism, drug use, abuse – they suffer from a lot of these things cause they feel they’ve lost a lot of who they are and accessibility to identifying your culture isn’t there anymore so I think that’s why things like Hip Hop culture come into play.”

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“For some it was more a means of escape and an identity. Hip Hop claimed a spot in people’s hearts because they could claim it as theirs’ in a time when how they felt, looked, thought and lived as indigenous people put their self-worth in question.”

Growing up, he remembers dressing way more gothic than the other kids; with leather studded jackets and mohawke hairstyles as opposed to the classic Puma suedes with a cheese cutter bboy look. “We were all brown, but we were all diverse.”

Remembered in many bboy circles for his alternative dress style Quetzal says winning second place in a battle judged by bboy legends like Ivan the Terrible and Style Elements Crew; receiving approval from people like this he says ‘validated’ their place in the bboy scene, making it all good to remain ‘alternative’ in terms of dance style and dress.

SERUM: Do you feel as someone that’s had that experience growing up indigeanous, with hip hop as an outlet, that there will be positive change for indigenous youth in the future?
QUETZAL: Oh yeah, definitely with the new generation of kids who aren’t tied to all that pain and trauma and who are able to access information so much more now and have more avenues to find themselves you know – it’s not so black and white as it used to be, it’s a lot more grey and you have a lot more ability to search and to find out who you are and what you’re into and really discover all the different aspects of life. When you were on the reservation 20 years ago you had nothing but at least now with the internet you can watch and see and learn by example – see things that can inspire you and take you out of that dark place you know.
He says “There are so many parallels with the Māoris here and with Native Americans in the United States first and foremost the respect of the earth and natural resources of the earth – and to know we are not owners of this land, we are shepherds of this land and we’re guardians of this land. I think every indigenous culture understands that because you have to have that mentality if you wanna be able to live for 1000 years. If you want to be able to survive you have to have respect for the earth because if not you’re essentially shooting yourself in the foot and I think this capitalist consumer culture that has been affecting all of the developing nations right now is very disruptive in the sense that it’s destroying everything that is good and wholesome in this world and that’s going to be able to last for lifetimes, that’s the biggest thing I noticed”.

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“It’s also the sense of family and welcoming. We’ve been staying at two different maraes since we’ve been here and to see that sense of family, tribe and love and heart for one another it’s really prevalent,” he says drawing parallels between Māori and First Nation ways of living.

In 2007 the Human Rights Council adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, it is a document which emphasizes the rights of indigenous peoples to maintain and strengthen their own institutions, cultures and traditions and to pursue their development in keeping with their own needs and aspirations. It establishes an important standard for eliminating human rights violations against indigenous peoples worldwide and for combating discrimination and marginalization. Although not legally binding, it’s a document that took over 30 years to develop and have validated by the United Nations.
Interestingly, the Declaration was adopted by an overwhelming majority of the General Assembly, with 143 countries voting in support, 4 voting against (Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States) and 11 abstaining (Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Burundi, Colombia, Georgia, Kenya, Nigeria, Russian Federation, Samoa, Ukraine).
Although New Zealand initially opposed this declaration, 11 years later at the UN General Assembly in September 2018 Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern acknowledged the vital contribution indigenous values offer the globe and humanity, as did Mr. Grand Chief Wilton Littlechild, Cree Chief, Canada who spoke at the 2017 UN Press Conference.

In her 2018 speech Prime Minister Ardern points out as Mr. Littlechild did, the crucial urgency in addressing climate change and embracing indigeanous values like kaitiakitanga – a Māori concept of guardianship.
“For those of us who live in the South Pacific, rising sea levels presents the single biggest threat to security in our region the impacts of climate change are not academic or even arguable – they are watching the sea levels rise, the extreme weather events increase and the impact on their water supply and food crops.”

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She said in New Zealand, “We will not issue any further offshore oil and gas exploration permits and have rolled out an initiative to plant a billion trees over the next 10 years”. She acknowledged these plans among others are ambitious – but the threat climate change poses demands it.
“We have a duty of care – for us that has meant action to address degradation like setting standards to make our rivers swimmable.. The race to grow our economies and increased wealth makes us all the poorer if it comes at the cost of our environment. In New Zealand we’re determined to prove it doesn’t have to be this way.”
In 2017 Mr. Grand Chief Wilton Littlechild, Cree Chief, Canada spoke at the UN Press Conference – commemorating a decade since the Declaration was adopted by the UN:
“An elder asked the delegation of around 181 States ‘Which one of you is going to argue for my brother the fish? Who among you is going to argue for my brother the bird that flies or the four-leggeds that die so we can live? Who among you is going to argue for clean air and clean water?’
“That day marks the start of consciousness at the UN about environmental protection – the very thing that we’re faced with today with climate change discussions – that started with indigenous elders raising the issue.”

New Zealand has also been at the forefront of progression for indigenous rights historically. Chief Littlechild continued “If you remember in 1923 and 1925 when two indigenous leaders tried to get a voice at the United Nations – Chief Deskaheh in 1923 and then Ratana – a spiritual leader from the Māori – they couldn’t get into the League Of Nations as it was then known. From that time 1923 – 1977 there was no voice for indigenous people – no voice to be heard internationally.
“For me now it’s been 40 years since I’ve been on this journey. I also remember the day when we were actually – for the first time – we were recognized as human beings it was eight years of debate on whether or not indigenous peoples are human beings.”

He also points out the important contribution indigeanous peoples have offered the world; to operate holistically, acknowledging the importance of spirituality:
“A couple of very significant contributions indigenous peoples made during this history of debate at the UN – the longest debated declaration in UN history. Twenty seven years it took – so I remember for example being asked [by his elders] to go to the chairperson to ask if we could open the meeting with a prayer and to be told Mr. Littlechild ‘You know we don’t pray at the United Nations’ and I said well it’s not really a prayer it’s an invocation – we offer thanksgiving to creator for blessing us with a beautiful day like today”. Eventually she said yes. “To make a long story short the outcome of that was the the recognition of spiritual right’s. That there’s such a thing not only of economic, social and cultural rights or civil and political rights but also spiritual rights, it was our elders that offered that to humankind.”
Watch 1 hour press conference:

CINEMA: Crazy (Not So Rich) Asians

Culture, Feature

Man, diversity is trending like a motherfucker, and although it’s something many of us MTV kids have been waiting for, since time; making sure it isn’t a passing trend is the new mission for all involved in this movement. It’s hard not to question why the inclusion of those who tick the ‘other’ box is suddenly being embraced by mainstream outlets. By now people of colour are already tired of standing up when they say, sitting down when ‘they’ say and dropping everything, when THEY say.

In a time when I thought my well of ideas would burst open and I’d have a million articles to write and express my inner most deepest feelings, instead I froze up. I observed the platforms that were being ‘given’ and ‘provided’ and couldn’t find my voice even when I tried. Over the past few years I watched the #poc #woc #blacklivesmatter #staywoke #metoo narratives unfold online and felt even more confused than before, but I put it down to writers block and kept living.

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Director Jon M. Chu’s film Crazy Rich Asians just became the highest grossing romantic comedy in a decade. Reaching $165.7 million as of this weekend. Starring Michelle Yeoh, Akwafina, Ken Jeong and Nico Santos the movie overflows with decadence, luxury, fine things and fun amidst the strict, non-tolerant to anything other than just do what you know you’re supposed to be doing (become a lawyer, doctor…Prime Minister would be good) world that goes hand-in-hand with cultures who’ve kept their traditions despite westernized influences and dilution. Chu’s screenplay takes you to ‘exotic’ Malaysia and Singapore, and if you’re from those lands (as I am) the mere sight of the pasarmalam (night market) or the use of the word ‘Alamak’ (Oh My God) on a cell phone projects you into a ridiculous deep nostalgia you can’t help but zone in on. Even though your mate from Zimbabwe is next to you balling her eyes out at the unjust heartbreak portrayed on the screen, you forget to ask her if she’s OK (not cool Aleyna) because you’re momentarily homesick and lamenting over the fact that had you not come to New Zealand, become really westernised and chose to disobey your parents at every turn, this could have been your life, once, too.

The beauty of this movie is that it is a romcom – the type of movie which I do and can safely appreciate with my mum – it won’t cause us to talk about our world views or politics or sociology. It is the type of movie where we both simply agree – he’s cute, she’s pretty, that bad guy is actually an asshole and the grandma should keep her 2 cents before she exposes the truth and debunks the entire climax which alludes to fairy tales being a real-life realistic goal to strive for. In romcoms, I don’t remind my mother that I’m radical and potentially a dud child, and she doesn’t remind me that she’s old school. It works.

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“You’re what’s considered Eurasian” she explained to me around the age of 10. “How?” I wondered… You’re Indian and dad’s Chinese and Filipino. I’d watched movies with Spanish content and appreciated the expression and how the language made you feel like you’re allowed to yell at your lover even when you just want them to pass the salt. I’d watched ‘Real Women Have Curves’ featuring America Ferrera and felt less ugly, embarrassed or bad, my 5ft curvy body couldn’t fit anything even at Glassons. I realised tall Caucasian figures were the basis for the pattern making – another Kiwi experience I’d made a conscious-thought-out-decision not to take personally. The term Euroasian sounded too close to European to me and growing up in New Zealand looking Māori or Polynesian made me feel like I wasn’t Euro anything, I simply wasn’t interested in the Euro part – especially after experiencing racism for my skin colour.  I have lived this way since I came into consciousness – dating a white boy once and dumping him immediately for calling Kanye West a racist because he rapped ‘A white man gets paid off of all of that’.

ME: You can’t say he isn’t right Tom!

Tom wasn’t having it and neither was I. My mum’s one chance to welcome home a white boy was obliterated in that moment and my ‘activist’ ‘radical’ sensibilities were birthed and cemented into time.

I identified myself in the female protagonist played by Constance Wu. She was raised in America and free to follow her passions – naive to the benefits of strict traditions. When her mother tells her ‘But you were raised here’ I recognised a strong, very defining statement, of the reality that once you leave your homeland a part of it lets you go too. It sounds sad but one thing having a Kiwi identity affords you is the liberty to not have to conform, to follow your dreams and become an artist if you want to. You’re free from traditional expectation. The catch is, when you’re away for too long, expectation is all you want. ‘One tight slap’ on the face and a good scolding from your Aunty for leaving a wet towel on the bed (culturally insensitive) doesn’t seem so bad when you’re homesick.  

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In my experience coming from a Euroasian family who immigrated elsewhere, I have access to the traditions but am not obligated to follow them. In my case my parents only spoke English to me, something I was deeply sad about for years. For them we didn’t need Tamil, Malay, Hokkien, Cantonese or Mandarin in New Zealand. ‘Better you go learn French’ my Grandma would casually say to me at the age of 14.  “So I could speak to who?!” I’d balk back. At that time I was not concerned with the array of cute boys who could (and would) speak French in my life. Survival as a little brown female in a Western world was my primary concern, it would be a long time after that in which I’d care about boys.

I was one of those girls who didn’t have to go to temple with the rest of the family because the ceremonies would be long and I’d get bored – my mum assumed. This meant I missed out on weddings and funerals. Chinese New Year was the best though, because in Malaysia there’s this tradition called angpow, where if you’re a child, upon arrival you receive a red envelope filled with money. This part of our culture was one my parents happily let us participate in (maybe it was their version of a DIY economics class). As the visiting foreigners my brother and I would tour the city driving from cousins’ house to aunt’s to great-great-grand-mothers “of your uncle’s second wife’s sister” collecting red envelopes, allowing aunties to feed us and pinch our cheeks – so long as they gave us envelopes.

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My parents immigrated to New Zealand because dad couldn’t handle the fact that the jungle laid land he grew up in and loved so much had given way to a concrete jungle and capitalist priorities. Mum felt the country was becoming corrupt and so we moved to NZ where my younger brother and I enjoyed the fact that we could say ‘fuck’ freely – simply telling our mates our parents were taking us to Whakatāne to holiday. At the time, this felt awesome, now, I understand it’d quite likely be considered culturally insensitive.

What’s interesting in Jon Chu’s narrative is the empowerment it leaves women, particularly Asian women. Whether the character be a single mother who ran to America to raise an illegitimate daughter or an heiress with a shopping problem and unfaithful husband, the movie celebrates the strength of women. It reflects the fact that in many societies across the world it is a woman’s love, strength and patience, resilience and care that should be celebrated and not ignored or taken for granted. In Jon Chu’s film it’s these traits of being a traditional woman that become vital fibers in the fabric that hold a family and sometimes an empire together. Bring on the sequel and the “tsunami” Michelle Yeoh proposed in a NY Screen Times panel discussion where she explains if roles for Asians aren’t created then “We can’t work because of you”.  

 Yeoh is a Malaysian actress who has a net worth of $40 million and a lead role in the American TV series Star Trek. She also says she hopes “It doesn’t matter what race you are I hope that very soon we don’t see us as actors, or filmmakers, as colour, or whatever it is – but storytellers with stories that needs to be told in the right way and represent what we are and who we are”.

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Some criticism of the movie is that although it hosts an all-Asian cast and makes progress for Asian cinema, Alice Truong writes for Quartzy:  ‘It only depicts ethnic Chinese people, who make up a portion of the city-state’s population. The lack of South Asians or anyone with dark skin has the internet suggesting new names for the movie: Crazy Rich East Asians and Crazy Rich East Light-Skinned Asians.”

CULTURE: Makanaka Tuwe writes Are We There Yet?

Culture, Feature

Makanaka Tuwe is a recent masters graduate from Unitec Institute of Technology. Last year she self-published her first book titled Questionable Intimacy – a collection of poems, narrative essays and gentle reminders about womanhood, self-love and self-care. She is a Storyteller, Indigenous researcher & Good vibe generator. In this article she writes about being a womanist and how and why she came to that line of thought and action. She addresses the 125th anniversary of New Zealand granting women the right to vote for the first time ever in the world aka World Suffrage Day; asking if feminism is to be for all women, if we are talking about equality then are we really there yet? She talks about social activist Tarana Burke who originally started the Me Too movement and challenges white women to actively share their platforms rather than just talk about it.