Overdue magazine and WHHM present: Bella Shanti Interview (New Zealand)
(Teremoana Rapley is a New Zealand vocalist whose career began at the tender age of 14 when she joined Upper Hutt Posse in 1987. She has contributed vocals to many New Zealand releases, and pursued her own solo material as well. Her partner is rapper King Kapisi.)
I must have met her when she was around 15 in the late 90’s.
This was a time of change for many people from our generation.
A group of Auckland rappers and deejays gathered at my home on the regular. Many musicians stopped in over the years and our home became lovingly also known as MRHQ (Maori Revolutionary Headquarters).
She was sometimes there at our MRHQ family gatherings with her Mum and Step-Dad. She was a quiet, softly spoken girl. She usually had her long hair down, hiding half of her face and only spoke when she had something that needed to be heard.
Skip forward a decade or so, to March 2011. My husband and I catch her at the Kings Arms Tavern in Auckland, NZ helping to raise funds for the Mana Maoli Collective based in Hawaii. Homegirl is onstage spitting freestyle with ease and connection. I am smiling from ear to ear. Later that year, a crew she is part of, Shine Forum, drop their EP at a local club. At the launch they have a full-band set up and they ooze that same purity and clarity of mind over beats our generation had when we all got our ish together for a minute. Shine Forum were representing Kaupapa Driven Rhymes Uplifted aka KDRU.
So it was to no surprise that at 4am after a legendary Upper Hutt Posse gig in Auckland City, NZ. This emcee cruises into the bar after finishing up playing at another spot. I am genuinely happy to see her just so I can say to her, thank you. My heart was uplifted by the two times I had seen her perform. Her long hair may still cover half of her face but she still only speaks when she has something that needs to be heard.
As far back as she can remember she has always lived between the big city hustle of Auckland and the golden sand coastline of the Bay of Plenty. She would spend summer holidays with her grandmother who lived by the ocean, and was also the local Public Health Nurse servicing areas such as Waimana, Ruatoki and Taneatua. She would also make frequent visits with her Step-Father to his papa kāinga, Te Urewera. This young girl of Chinese and European descent was immersed in two worlds. The western world and the world of Ngai Tūhoe.
OVERDUE/WORLD HIP HOP MARKET (OV/WHHM): Describe the scene at the time when you first started rapping?
BELLA SHANTI: I just happened to be around a lot of local rap that was coming out at the time.
I started writing songs to guitar when I was around 13. It was completely different to what I am doing now, but that was when I started getting into singing songs and writing rhymes. I kind of went through a phase when I was a teenager and started listening to drum n bass and learning to deejay using turntables. Around 18 I started getting back to writing rhymes. I had a couple of friends who were into rapping. Bjorn from OpenSouls, when they were first starting out and doing gigs around town. I was lucky to be around that. Ladi had moved up (to Auckland) and was doing Verse II. So I was listening to those fellas and jamming out. I guess that is what pushed me to start getting into rhymes again. I was listening to a lot of American rap but being exposed to local cats was inspiring at the time. I was fortunate in that respect.
The scene at the time was really polarized. There were two scenes co-existing simultaneously. The one that I was exposed to was based on live bands. And it was based around freestyle sets and soul based Hip-Hop music. At the same time there was a lot of straight rapping and some kind of gangsta styles going on but that was more suburb based. It wasn’t really what was happening in the clubs in central Auckland at the time. I was not really exposed to that scene until much later. It was also the time when labels were starting to get things organized. Some of the artists who were part of the formation of Breakin’WreckWordz like R.E.S were there too. There was also a lot of cross over of styles.
OV/WHHM: Compare the scene from then to now.
BELLA SHANTI: I guess there was a lot less people jamming and even fewer recording and dropping tracks. There is so much more music now and that’s cool. Back then, it was interesting because there was a lot of little bright eyed individuals in the crowd who later went on to become really incredibly talented artists in their own right. So it was an exciting time back then because everyone was forming what their steez were. What that comes down to for me is that there were key people that were doing stuff then who were instrumental in forming the artists we hear now. The scene is open to a lot more people and there is room for more different styles and expression. I was closed off from a lot of what was happening back then in the suburbs ‘cos I was a city kid, no vehicle (laughs). And the music that was coming out the suburbs had a different kaupapa and flava from what was happening in the city. So back then I was living a very sheltered life (laugh) whereas now I am all over the place doing gigs.
OV/WHHM: Tell us about Shine Forum
BELLA SHANTI: I was a solo emcee for ages dropping rhymes over instrumentals on vinyl. Some people got me involved with their projects like Kolab, getting me to do a warm up for their live shows or freestyle in their set. They even got me into the studio to drop a rhyme with Bjorn on the first album they dropped. People like that encouraged me to do what I was doing.
I actually started going out with this dude, Damien. He was in a group called Forenziks with his brother and MC Switch who is in Sunshine Sound System. It was at a time when Switch had moved down to Queenstown so Forenziks weren’t really doing much. After about a year Damien and I started rapping together and then we started Shine Forum. We are no longer together as a couple but we are still together as a group. We released an EP and still working on tracks for the group as well as solo projects.
OV/WHHM: Did you feel there was a need for Shine Forum at the time?
BELLA SHANTI: It came together randomly and naturally. But there was also a concept based on a need that we saw. The need was as I saw it, to be expressing some concepts you would find more in conscious Hip-Hop but maybe expressing it over more commercial or gangsta sounding beats, depending on what the flava of the gig was at the time. So we thought we would make these really on to it messages that would was accessible to these people.
What we figured out was that the people that needed to hear these messages were listening to more commercial music whereas I came up listening to Talib Kweli, Dead Prez, The Roots and those kinds of artists. I was fed a lot of conscious messages through their music. But what I noticed is that other people who listened to that type of music were already conscious, they were already on that tip and that’s why they were drawn to it. Whereas the people who could have benefited from listening to these positive messages were more often than not listening to commercial music which didn’t contain these messages. That was something I was seeing this as incongruous as existing. The message was there but they weren’t getting through to the target audience so to speak.
OV/WHHM: Explain the name Shine forum.
BALLA SHANTI: The idea of that was wherever we went, we were trying to create a space where anyone could step up and be a part of what we were doing and contribute to it. So there were these rules around it where we would not turn any gig down no matter where it was or who it was for. As a result we found ourselves performing alongside groups who were very different from us. And that forced us to be non-judgmental towards music that we are brought into contact with. At the end of the day I guess it was a matter of where is it that we are going to end up with our music, who is going to listen to it. If we tried to decide who we play to because their music is different from ours we are only limiting ourselves and the effect our music and the messages could have. In fact it is a practice of Tino Rangatiratanga. Because we want to have it for ourselves so its not fair of us to not allow our music to have it for itself and stand alone outside of what we need it for. I mean if our music can have its own self-determination and decide whose ear it gets in to.
When you express anything with realness and authenticity it will cause anybody else around you who has had a similar experience or can relate to it will cause this feeling to well up in them and that’s what the Shine is. It’s about the artist making the people around them shine. So whether you are the person delivering the message or the listener and translating that into thought and understanding from your own point of view. This is a forum involving everyone there.
OV/WHHM: If you were approached by an upcoming female emcee what advice would you give her?
BELLA SHANTI: Well first of all don’t look at yourself as being a female emcee. Look at yourself as an emcee. The reason is that if you are not very good and you really look and promote yourself as being a female emcee you may find that people will cut you some slack and offer you opportunities that you may not have earned in terms of your skill purely because you are a female emcee. That won’t be satisfying for you, believe me. And the other thing is if you are really good, then people likewise will always put that down to you being a female. At the end of the day you don’t want to only be compared to females, you want to be compared to everyone, because you need to stand alone as an artist whether you are female or male. So just don’t let yourself get pigeon holed like that. And remind yourself everyday.
I AM A FEMALE AND I AM AN EMCEE,
OV/WHHM: How did you become known as Bella Shanti?
BELLA SHANTI: I didn’t really have an emcee name, I just went by Shanti. Around 2008 I met a couple of female artists who became really good friends, MC Karmin and Jayda Jones. They started calling me Bella Shanti, it was a name given to me.
OV/WHHM: What are your Future Plans?
BELLA SHANTI: Shine Forum is working on an album. Mr Ce and I are also working on solo stuff. I am also going to release around seven tracks that are finished or almost finished. Then I am going to release a whole lot of tracks under a new persona and doing more gigs. Stay tuned.