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:

A GAME OF SKATE with Too’OnPoint

Culture, Interview

One brief decider using paper, scissors, rock, then twin brother Shingi Murare kicks off a ‘Game of Skate’ match versus his brother Muche, the pair known as Too’OnPoint  meet me at their local park in Flatbush, Barry Curtis Park. 

ALEYNA: So you guys grew up around here? I’m filming you.

SHINGI: Oh shit, yeah we did, we grew up like…. we’d skate 20 minutes down the road before they built this, everyday after school. Weekends I’d be here  first thing in the morning. It’s still probably one of the best skate parks in Auckland, but we didn’t have that much back then…Til we begged the council.

ALEYNA: Who’s we?

SHINGI: Like a lot of us, like the local skate shop as well

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ALEYNA: Which is?

SHINGI: Boardertown, my brother works there. So even though I got into music and shit, skating’s still …before I wanted to be a musician I wanted to be a proskateboarder. I was really passionate about it, now it’s just fun like what you do for exercise and to have fun, before, I took it too seriously.

MUCHE: And then it’s not fun.

ALEYNA: When did you come across the show Epicl’y Latered and what did you like about it?

SHINGI: It would’ve been almost 10 years ago now we would’ve still been in intermediate school just learning how to skate then the show Epicl’y Latered was something new and refreshing. You got a peek into their personal lives as well as an in depth interview on skate culture. It put a personal attachment to my favourite skateboarders which intern motivates you to scare you even harder it’s almost like a musician watching their favourite musicians biography you know.

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ALEYNA: So where are you guys from?

MUCHE: Harare, Zimbabwe

ALEYNA: And how old were you when you came here?

MUCHE: Bout 2002, I was seven.

ALEYNA: So you went to school out here?

MUCHE: Yeah, Elm Park Primary.

 

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ALEYNA: Wait where are we?

SHINGI: We’re in Flatbush but we grew up round the east like Pakuranga

ALEYNA: So first memories of skating, how did it start?

MUCHE: Just seeing my mates back in intermediate and my friends would skate and I’d just watch clips of them doing like kick flips and shit skating and be like bro how do you do that.

SHINGI: I got me a little $10 skateboard from the Warehouse and shit, it could barely ride.

ALEYNA: So you loved it that much that  just put up with that? What was the first board you bought?

SHINGI: Yeah for a little bit and then I got like a proper skate board, I think my first one was a Flip, Geoff Rowley.

MUCHE: I think the first board I bought was a Zero cause I loved Chris Cole.

SHINGI: I was real poor and shit so I couldn’t afford to buy a board and shit for over $100, so I’d always cop second hand skateboards…once in a blue moon I’d buy a board.

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ALEYNA: So is this your stomping ground?

MUCHE: Yeah

 

SHINGI: Oi legit, we were probably the reason why they built this park…

ALEYNA: What’s that story?

MUCHE: Um so if you go back maybe a kilometre that way we used to be fucking little shits always just going there  skating up, the shop owners would complain and shit , we’d skate all the local schools, they’d always complain there was like 20 of us and we’d always just go and skate together so they got pretty pissed off about that after a while.

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SHINGI: We even did a petition and they put like 700k into it or something.

MUCHE:  There was like, One News or something came out here when it was still getting built and they got us all to come through and ask, ‘Oh what do you guys think about this park?’ But bro we needed this to be honest like where else were we gonna skate? You’re [the council] not providing facilities for the youth to go kick it at type thing.

SHINGI: And the public transport system is so trash.

MUCHE: It’s hard to get to other parks.

SHINGI: To get to skatepark would take you half a day.

MUCHE: But now it’s like legit, this place is probably a home for a lot of people who have grown up around here, it’s needed.

ALEYNA: So skating, as brothers that’s something that you’ve always done together?

MUCHE: Yeah and my other brother, he’s better than us, he’s fuckin good (laughs).

SHINGI: Yeah he’s fucking good aye, so good.

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ALEYNA: What is it you love about skating, is it like something you can do as a family, as brothers like isn’t some of this shit scary?

SHINGI: It is but it’s fun like ..the risk.

MUCHE: The way I see it it’s like confidence building , if I was gonna go do that 10 right, like that I’ve never done in my life but if I was going to go do it I would probably run up like five times and then come to a point where you’re like I’m actually going to do it this time and that’s when the adrenaline kicks in before you do it and then once you do it, it’s like ‘Oh my god it wasn’t that hard’ and then you go try it again you know but like getting over that mental barrier of  it’s ‘just a 10 stair’ or  ‘it’s just an olly’ type thing gets me, I dunno. Sometime you could be out there trying a trick for a whole fucking day and you’re not going to get it, but you’re still, every time you fall down and fuck yourself up you’re going to get back up and try again you know.

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SHINGI: Cause you want it that bad…

MUCHE: And then you get it one time and then that one time made up for the whole day’s worth of work  you know so yeah it’s a good feeling,

ALEYNA: So do you guys reckon  that define loving something or just your drive and character?

SHINGI: Definitely defines loving something.

MUCHE: Loving something because fuck, you got to put up with the bad times you know what I mean just for those small moments of hope but it’s worth it in the end.

SHINGI: It’s the feeling of achievement that’s so satisfying even if you do something one day you’ll be like fuck ok, if I can do that then the possibilities are just endless

MUCHE: It just makes you like, I’m going to take it to the next level.

ALEYNA: Do you help each other train or learn?

MUCHE: Game of Skate, we should play a gam of skate now…

SHINGI: It’s like what’s that game on the basketball court…Donkey.

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Nicki Minaj — You thought the Google thing was bad?

Culture, Feature, Music

‘I Get Crazy’ by Nicki Minaj featuring Wayne was my introduction to Onika Maraj. I subscribed immediately. Although she was a new name to me in 2009, she had been going hard in the US for years. And then her Sucka Free mixtape came out and the reference to Lil Kim was there, from the start. “We did that pose to make a statement,” Nicki explained to Jabari Johnson in 2008. 

I subscribed to her flow and her balls, which allowed her to say whatever she felt like in her verses. Her flow was fierce and her bars held your attention; not just with words but flava too — there was no air of ‘token female rapper’ on her. As plain as that sounds in 2014 with the likes of Azealia Banks, Dej Loaf, Chelsea Reject and others today – back then – it was the beginning of a new trajectory in the realms of rap and women. There had been hardcore female rappers before her, but there was something about Nicki that pushed the envelope further and offered a fresh sound; eagerly, I anticipated the release of Pink Friday… The 2008 interview with Jabari Johnson did it for me:

JJ: Do you think it’s harder as a female rapper to achieve?

NM: Yessssss, why you think there’s only been a handful of females in the game the last 15 years. It’s hard because you get judged by the industry and you get judged by consumers, hard, bodied. Like females, we have this crab in the bucket thing, like we never wanna see another female get somewhere, so it’s very hard, because you get critiqued by the girls, boxed in by the dudes…

…Its’ very hard I write my own shit, that’s another thing, people, a lot of the times I work with people and they’re like, ‘Oh you need a ghost writer’? Like, boo, I do this, please don’t get it twisted, don’t get it confused. When I’m in the studio with Wayne, when I’m in the studio with whoever, I fuck with the best of them, come on, Jadakiss, come on, I write my own shit…People say, why you feel the need to say that all the time, I say it because there’s not a day that go by, where people don’t ask me, ‘You write your own raps?‘ and I got to say. ‘Yes fuckface, I do.’

 

Review: Oddisee — Live At San Fran Bath House, Wellington

Gigs, Music, Review

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Photo courtesy of Mickey Poppy-Lees

It’s another Saturday night at San Francisco Bath House. Many gigs have been at Bodega of late, and it’s nice to be back at San Fran on Cuba Street. Local DJs Jay Knight and Dam G have warmed up the crowd nicely. Raiza Biza’s on next —  he’s bringing the heat for the main man tonight, Washington DC—Mello Music Group artist, Oddisee.

Delivering a set that was laid back, smooth, jazzy. Raiza, despite all these slow-type adjectives orchestrated a slow, controlled crescendo that peaked with his song ‘Sleepless City’ —  a chill track with the ability to amp you up at the same time — it’s an infectious juxtaposition.  When Jay Knight drops Raiza’s ‘Girl With No Name’, we’re left sailing the night on an ocean of lyrical jazz whispers where the stars litter the sky and the black horizon has no end. Raiza became my new favourite conductor that night. “I can’t stop staring at him” I tell my friend Hari.

Not nearly as entranced as I was, she replies, “He’s real good girl — definitely a good rapper.” Then something clicks in her thinking and it’s like she just discovered an inner truth about me that I’ve always been secretly aware of.  Pointing and laughing  with delight she’s just snapped me out; she’s inside my inside space, grinning with her Scarlett Johansson mouth. She turns and looks back at Raiza. I’ve been caught. Luckily, someone with love for me done it. As the whole audience stand nestled in the palm of Raiza’s hand I wonder, when did he get this good? He was only down here for Kev Brown a few months ago, but he’s way more relaxed this show around, and he has this kind of grace as he paces the stage with his six-foot-something stature. Stalking it like a lion in a cage we paid to see, I marvel at the animal. Hariata’s smiling at me again. I can’t help it. Wait didn’t he call an album Caged Lion a few years back? I’ll check when I get home —  as anti-social as it is to be staring at my phone in the club, I have to write this all down now. The writer in me refuses to forget a single moment. If I don’t write it now, the moment will pass. I’ll be sober. It wont be the same.

“Does he have CD’s?” asked my friend we call the Nanna Gangsta. “Yeah man all his music is online.”

Dam G comes on and plays an old school track that can’t match the heights Raiza set, it’s dull in comparison and so is the next one….. Until it isn’t, G Unit’s Hate It Or Love It creeps in, Mary J backing in first, suddenly you’re jamming. Then, Let’s Stay Together by Al Green. The DJ’s got you where he wants you. Dam G is the kind of conductor that lets the music speak for him where he wont. He is that DJ you’re not entirely sure where to place, until he’s deep into a set, dropping evocative 90’s bangers, reminding you of a much freer time in life.

As Oddisee walks on stage without any fuss. He’s tall, graceful, non-assuming. A muslim man, whose father is from Sudan; his stature embodies the elements of  what I know Arabic to be — an elegant language written in the Quaran. What I know of Islam is that it’s a philosophical way of existing — all these elements comes out in his verses. When he opens his mouth he is clearly American but where he isn’t stereotypically American, exudes from is body language. He is graceful, majestic, his aura is warm. There’s something about Oddisee that is royal.

Photo courtesy of Mickey Poppy-Lees

Photo courtesy of Mickey Poppy-Lees

He’d been given the highest-level welcome our home crowd had to give. We the audience were warmed up and ready. Special effects smoke surrounds him. ‘RESPECT,’ he says. As the bass dropped, it vibrated through bones with a staunch feeling akin to a soul-clap.

Oddisee: ‘Wellington, what’s good?’

Audience: “Rawwrrr, yeaahhhh [whistles]”. We’re good to go.

Oddisee: “Oohh, ohhoohoo, oh, oh, ohhhhh…. Is y’all ready to rock?”. This guy is a rockstar. His shine illuminates San Fran.

Deep into his set, featuring songs from his new joint Tangible Dream and last year’s epic release People Hear What They See, he’s got the whole club at church, and as he sails through his tracks, no one wants him to leave. He drops a personal favourite, ‘You Know Who You Are’ off People Hear What They See. Now we’re in the belly of the beast… Rocking and rolling with the rockstar.

“In any event just make sure that you know who you are”. 

Then he spits an acapella, which in one blow, assassinates any other I’ve heard done live to date. It involves the crowd, bounces us — commands us up, then smooths us back down. It goes for bars. We begin to realise he’s letting us down gently. He’s going to leave soon, he indicates as nicely as he can.

There’s an encore.  “Oddisee! Oddisee! Oddisee!”

He comes back — but just like everything, there will be an end. And just as we’re absolutely marveled, he thanks us and leaves just as quietly as he came. The whole show hosted by Hadyn Middleton of Madcap Touring was one of the biggest waves I have seen all year; it came crashing down from such a height, rolled on the stage, broke and then dissolved back into the night.