Hip hop don't stop for Zulus
Say hip hop, and images of gangster wannabes smoking blunts, dripping in gold, guns and women are likely conjured up.
But for a small community of people trying to promote original hip hop culture, it is about something different - love, peace and unity. Tessa Johnstone talks to the crew behind the New Zealand chapter of a global movement - Aotearoa Zulu Nation.
Auckland, New Zealand - 1984.
Sara Tamati is visiting from Christchurch and at her Nana's insistence watching her uncles do the windmill on their living room floor.
''I was blown away. I was like, 'woah, what is this?' It was the dynamism, and it was the spur of the moment thing. I was like, 'where did this come from? Youse were just my uncles and now you've pulled out this lino from nowhere and you're spinning all over the ground'.
''She was disappointed to find out that the dancers she saw breaking alongside Lionel Richie at the closing ceremony of the Summer Olympics later that year weren't her uncles, but regardless, her love of hip hop was borne.
Around the same time, a young Sen Thong was growing up in a council flat in Mt Victoria, Wellington with his Mum.
''We didn't have a car, so we couldn't travel to any other Cambodians. It was my Mum and I, we were like the only Cambodians in the city.''
Isolated from his culture, he always drifted towards another, says Sen.
It was about 1996 when he discovered Wellington's hip hop scene, stumbling across a group of people freestyling in the kitchen at a party on Courtenay Place.
''I realised there was all these people in Wellington into hip hop, all really different looking people.
''Knowing there was the existence of this community that was thriving, was like, wow, it was seeing something for the first time, alive. It was so dynamic.''
Sen and Sara - Khmer1 and Spex1 respectively - have started a New Zealand chapter of Universal Zulu Nation, and are doing what they can to promote hip hop culture as it existed in New York in the early 70s.
Sen explains that both hip hop and Zulu Nation sprang out of the gang-ruled New York boroughs, which White Flight had left looking like a war zone and its communities with little hope.
In December 1971, rival gang leaders came together to discuss an unprecedented truce, prompted by the murder of one of their nominated peacemakers.
It took three hours of tense negotiation, but the Hoe Avenue Peace Meeting resulted in a gang truce which lasted almost a decade.
Afrika Bambaataa, just a teenager but already a top-ranking member of one of New York's largest and most ruthless gangs, The Black Spades, was there.
It was the beginning of a new way of thinking for Bambaataa.
He turned his back on the violence, and starting talking peace, solidarity, empowerment, knowledge.
The truce meant people could now travel between previously staunchly defended territory and talk with each other, allowing creativity to flow.
In November 1973, Bambaataa founded The Organisation, later to become Zulu Nation and then, as it spread across the world, Universal Zulu Nation.
''The gangs were still very prominent, but you've got another organisation popping up that looks like a gang, but their philosophy is about peace and unity,'' says Sen.
''It was not necessarily a hip hop based group but the people [Bambaataa] started enlisting would become the legends and pioneers of hip hop.''
Bambaataa met DJ Kool Herc, and together they started hosting legendary block parties which brought together artists, dancers, DJs and MCs with others in the community.
''[Bambaataa] was known as Master of Records,'' says Sen. ''He had the reputation of having the deepest crates, the most music, and you would not expect what he played, and it would make you move in a way, and party in a way you had never partied before.
''It was the beginning of hip hop culture, and Zulu Nation members were at the epicentre of it.
''I'd probably be dead if it wasn't for getting straight into hip hop culture, and making a culture out of it, and bringing a lot of my people from that type of way,'' Bambaataa told a journalist in 2008.
''Cos I never had a problem in pooling a large army or crowd. So when we shifted right into the DJ thing I already had a packed house.''
BACK TO THE SOURCE
Aotearoa Zulu Nation was started 38 years later, in November 2011, and for Sen and Sara it was a way to connect New Zealand hip hop back to its source.
''We had inherited a culture, and developed our own angle and take on it, and being as far removed as we were from it, injected our own personal and ethnic cultures,'' says Sen.
The group's members try to live by Zulu Nation principles - the manifesto can seem long and garbled to outsiders, but includes belief in freedom, justice, peace, unity, work, positivity, equality and knowledge.
As the Aotearoa chapter website states: ''Zulu Nation members discourage divisions and want to see peace and unity on Earth with all races. Without these we all face social, economic, physical, and spiritual destruction.''
Some of Bambaataa's teachings can seem a little out there, but as Sen says, even if you don't adhere to all his beliefs, he is at least a man who has never stopped thinking critically and for that he should be admired.
Zulu Nation chapters throughout the world have different means of trying to bring about peace and unity, with many focusing on charity work such as food and clothing drives.
But for Aotearoa Zulus, hip hop is how they connect to others.
''I think hip hop culture is our best tool, because all of us are really good at it,'' says Sara, a youth worker by trade.
Young people are a big focus for the Chapter.
In her job at Wellington City Mission, Sara uses hip hop day to day to teach basic life skills such as respect, communication, commitment and a love of knowledge.
Chapter members hold youth workshops around Wellington region which, through hip hop, aim to give kids confidence and skills.
They are also often seen out on Wellington streets, commissioned by businesses to get graffiti art up on walls which, ironically, deters tagging.
There is an emphasis on learning from each other, and the group have organised respected hip hop names such as Mr Wiggles (Rock Steady Crew) to come out to New Zealand for performances and workshops as well as regularly organising local gigs.
Being a part of something, connecting with others, is a big driver for many in the hip hop community.
''You can't do hip hop by yourself in your room - well, you can, but it gets really boring, really quick,'' says Sara.
Rhyming, dancing, making art, geeking out about the newest piece hip hop knowledge you have dug out - all of it is better done with others.
''To me, as part of a Samoan family, it is not any different. It is not any different from how we operate as people of colour in Aotearoa. We are communal.
''I have never had my own pairs of shoes except for when I came into hip hop. But now I have to share them with my husband. We have a really good understanding in Aotearoa of community, and of being brown and proud.''
MORE THAN ONE BATTLE
While both Sara and Sen are certain of hip hop's value to their own lives and community, confronting the public's perceptions of it is a constant struggle.
''There's two battles - one is to promote the culture, and the other is to refute what's seen by the mainstream as hip hop culture,'' says Sen.
The blunt-smoking, bling-dripping gang bangers and booty-shaking women are stereotypes despised by many in the hip hop community - images perpetuated by a profit-driven music industry, says Sara.
''It's intentional, because it continues a certain type of industry - someone gets paid for these stereotypes to be out there.
''It's not us though. If it was we wouldn't be living above a window-framing shop, we'd live in a big mansion.''
Sara knows firsthand the damage the negative perception of hip hop culture can have.
In 2004, Sara and her Mum Fuarosa Tamati were the recipients of a grant which allowed them to travel to the United States to trace the roots of New Zealand hip hop and its influence on Pacific youth development.
They came back to a storm of controversy about the so-called '$26,000 hip hop tour', which for political commentators became the go-to example of government extravagance.
The group within the Department of Labour which gave the grant, the Community Employment Group, was disestablished and Sara and her mother were left shell-shocked by the negative media attention.
She took a step back from the work, but her faith in hip hop never wavered.
Part of what she loves about it, says Sara, is that anyone, no matter what gender, age, ethnicity, can be a master.
''You've got kids now and they're 15 and they're old school. They've been in it longer than a 30-year-old. They've got more skill, more knowledge about an element. They can be a master at 15 ... 'cause it's the time you come in and the amount of information you learn.''
As a woman in hip hop, she also feels empowered.
''To stand at that level and feel like I can be supported in that is something I really appreciate about Zulu nation. People say hip hop's not for women, we're only objectified, but I am only in hip hop because I was supported through Zulu nation.''
She describes the global hip hop community as her ''encyclopaedia'' - whether it is veggie gardening or music she wants advice on, the hip hop community's worldview is one she trusts.
Sara says the Aotearoa chapter has a lot of experiences to offer back to a community which is founded on ideas of empowerment.
''Like Samoan pride, being proud to be Maori - I felt we had something to give, rather than just to connect or take from. There's something we can offer in the way we have kept our cultures but still connected into society.''
Although the organisation is founded on ideas of black empowerment, Sen and Sara are quick to point out that it doesn't discriminate - all are welcome regardless of gender, ethnicity, age, or faith.
The New Zealand chapter is registered as a charitable trust, it is headed by a Chapter Leader - Sen - its members have committee meetings and strict guidelines to follow.
The pair are vague about what those rules are, but Sen says it is just enough structure to stop it from lawless, and Sara says they are just guidelines for being a ''good human being''.
There are even disciplinary procedures, though both Sen and Sara are reluctant to give details other than to say a member is expected not bring the Chapter in to disrepute.
Membership is not a matter of filing out a form, either - one has to prove their commitment to the principles before joining.
Their resemblance to a gang is not lost on Sen and Sara - it sprang from a gang, and is deliberate in its use of the same chain of command and language.
''Gangs start because there is a broken society,'' says Sara.
''People want to belong and be a part of something, so they come together and form a gang.''
Zulu Nation and hip hop fulfil the same needs, only the goal is to build people up rather than pull them down, says Sara.
''We're getting people who are coming out of jail and disconnected from normal society or culture , and end up going into hip hop culture, and part of that it through Zulu. They come broken. The idea for us is to build empowerment in people.''
Sen says while they cannot control how people view Zulu Nation, he asks that people could keep an open mind and allow them to grow.
''We want to be positive within community and show them how hip hop can be a positive culture that contributes to people being active and living well within society, and to grow society."
Hip hop is an inherited culture, says Sen, but allows them to tell others of their own stories.
''It should be seen as an instrument rather than a result. It's a voice for the voiceless, it's accessible - people just have to connect with each other.''
Afrika Bambaataa plays Auckland on May 9 and Wellington on May 10.
The Dominion Post