The importance of being Randa
Five years ago, Mainard Larkin - artist name Randa - was a schoolgirl. Now they are a rapper.
Does that sentence sound wrong? Did I make a mistake? It's not and I didn't. The fact is, 'he' and 'she' don't fit everybody, Randa is one of those somebodies, and 'they' is the best the English language has to offer right now.
But for clarity's sake, we'll stick with 'he', the pronoun Randa prefers if forced to choose.
Onwards: In 2012, then 19-year-old Randa played his first live show. By the end of that year he was opening for Grimes, one of the most acclaimed alternative acts on the planet. His originality and obvious talent now have critics pegging him as one to watch.
Randa lives with his parents in the suburbs: Mairangi Bay on Auckland's North Shore. He's scraping a living working in coffee vans at events for his friend's mum. That's far from his worst job, though.
For eight months, the 21-year-old did data entry in Sydney. Later, back in Auckland, he worked on a production line making window locks. He is at that point many talented young people find themselves at: wondering how they might find a way to keep pursuing their dream.
"My goal is definitely to try to make a living soonish. That would be the ultimate, being stable, being able to buy groceries, but also doing what I love."
Randa identifies as 'trans male', something he finally came to terms with about 18 months ago, having spent most of his life feeling like a boy.
"Gender is a hard thing," he says. "You can avoid talking about your sexuality at times - [but] sometimes you can't. With the pronouns and the way it's connected to life, it's one of those things that you can't get away with not talking about. It just pops up."
Although he says gender is a big part of his music, he doesn't want to become known as 'trans-rapper Randa'.
He doesn't feel that label will lead to a greater acceptance or understanding of what it means to be trans.
"I feel like it will be more helpful to others in the long run if I don't make my name as a trans person, because that's not going to normalise it as much as me being known for something else, like music," he says.
"I think a lot of that will come down to decision-making. I'm sure if I did things for the wrong reasons, I could become [a novelty], but I think it's importantI just stay true to being a human and remembering that it's just about being a person."
The other side of the gender equation is that it's an important part of Randa's experience of life and a big influence on the way he makes music, so it would be wrong to ignore it.
But part of the reason it's such a huge influence on his music is that society makes it hard for him to ignore it. So it's complicated.
"I remember being 10 and wishing I was a boy, but when you are 10 that doesn't make sense and you don't want to talk about it because it's kind ofembarrassing. You don't have the words, I guess, and you feel like you're doing something wrong: like, why am I this way?"
Randa started making tracks in his bedroom four years ago, aged 18. He was inspired by American rapper Kreayshawn, who used MacBook and Garageband software to make her music and garner online fame.
He had been heavily into rap at high school and started freestyling at 16, drawn to the rhythm, the breakdancing, the creativity of the vocals.
"All the parts: it just felt like something I could connect with... You know when you just feel like you're meant to do something?"
Many of his early tracks reference cultural touchpoints that have influenced his life - like The Simpsons or The Cosby Show - but twist them, providing telling insights.
In Ralph The Radical he takes the idiotic Simpsons' character Ralph Wiggum and demonstrates, in one densely rapped minute, how Ralph is not just an idiot but a multi-layered idiot:
"Redefining magical, these acts need no Adderalls - to get hyper, set fires - I am freaking radical ... Perplex the audience - check my pants for ornaments / the academics rep performances below the ordinates /haters say I'm bad at school, Clancy says I'm practical /ignorance is bliss, nose stuffed sniffing this daffodil."
It's thoughtful, it's entertaining and it's funny.
"I think it was Donald Glover [aka Childish Gambino] who said rappers are comedians' cousins," he says.
"That stuck out to me because I've always been into intelligent comedy and wit."
In 2012, Randa started studying electronic music at the Music and Audio Institute of New Zealand. That was when he really began pushing hard: recording music, getting it on SoundCloud and Bandcamp, seeking out gigs.
He made a list of venues at which he might play his first gig. Wellington's Mighty Mighty was the only place to reply to his proposal. At the show, Randa gave away 10 CDs.
After they'd all been given out, a woman approached and said: "I want to buy one off you." None were left, so Randa said, "You can download it online for free," to which the woman replied, "I want to pay you."
But there was nothing to sell. A first sale went begging. Three months later, Randa returned to Mighty Mighty and could feel people were beginning to catch on. His music had been picked up by Wellington's RadioActive and airplay on bFM, George FM and KiwiFM soon followed.
People had heard the music, seen the clips online. In February 2013, he got NZ On Air funding to make a music video for his track 'Frankenstein', which blew upon YouTube and Vimeo, getting tens of thousands of views when Vimeo made it a staff pick.
Gigs began to flow. Grimes' management asked him to open; the BigDay Out asked him to perform.
This month, Randa will release his first commercially available EP, Rangers. Moments like these are important in deciding whether he will continue working in coffee vans to support his artistic needs, or whether he can turn his success into something that will help him buy groceries.
When prompted about what he would do if things didn't work out with the music career, he projects forward into a hypothetical future inspired by 2009 film Paul Blart: Mall Cop.
"I think I've just watched too many movies about dudes who live in New Jersey, like 40-year-old dudes, like Mall Cop, and maybe deep down, I'm like, 'What if I'm 40? What if I'm a mall cop one day and I'm still living in Mairangi Bay?'"
It seems to be the mall cop part that bothers him. He would be pretty comfortable living in Mairangi Bay. He never talks about world domination.
His goals, beyond making enough money to buy groceries, are just "to make cool art" and to share it with as many people as possible.
With Rangers, Randa has moved beyond the dense American pop culture references and is dealing with other issues - often more personal ones, like identity.
"I'm just trying to present ideas," he says. "It's okay to be who you are. You can be different - there doesn't have to be a stigma."
- See larzranda13.com