As part of impactmania’s Women of Impact series, we are traveling to New Zealand in November 2019. A number of the women from the program will meet their peers for cultural exchange and to create economic opportunities and partnerships. The U.S. Consulate in Auckland, New Zealand is supporting 12 interviews and a special welcome reception at the U.S. Consul General’s residence. You are invited to meet and connect with the women from the program at the Women of Impact event, November 8, 2019, in Auckland, New Zealand.
At the age of 14, Teremoana Rapley joined the hip-hop group Upper Hutt Posse. This made her the only local born female rapper in Aotearoa (New Zealand) during the 1980s. After years traveling internationally with the group, she joined Moana and the Moahunters. The musician, writer, and mother dedicated decades at The Māori Television Service producing 1,457 programs for indigenous communities and was responsible for 3000 production credits. She held roles as director, camera operator, editor, scriptwriter, production manager, and (executive) producer.
In November 2018, Teremoana was inducted into the Aotearoa Music Hall of Fame with the politically-conscious rap group she started her career with, Upper Hutt Posse. Today she is the Social Innovation Specialist Advisor for Civic Responsiveness in the Chief Planning Office for local government. And after 30 years in the music industry releasing her debut solo album in 2020.
BY PAKSY PLACKIS-CHENG
I read somewhere that as a woman, you can expect to have at least 7 careers, but you have had more than 30 different jobs. Then, women have so many pulls: work, family, and community. How have you navigated the many different roles and responsibilities?
I have managed to end up with a whole bunch of skills and experience due to the fact I had to look after myself from quite a young age.
I was nine when I began looking after my newborn baby sister. I learned how to make a bottle, and by the time I was ten, I was able to make a full meal. That responsibility is ingrained and is intrinsic. For me, it was a normal part of my life. It was not a poor child living in poverty or a deficit type of life. It was just life. I was loved and I had battles like any teenage person would.
You were around 14 years old when you started your music career, singing in a band that took off. How would you prepare a 14-year old for something like this?
When my youngest child was 14, I was like, “Yo, I moved out of home at this age.” He was getting ready for school and putting on a school uniform and said, “That’s nice, Mom.” [Laughs.]
My children cannot even comprehend. When I talk about my upbringing, I think of it as an experience. It is not negative or positive. It just is what it is. When I think about the experiences that I tried to create for my children, they were as far away as possible from my childhood.
What did you learn from being so young, performing and traveling?
I was good at compartmentalizing. That made me very good at multitasking.
What are you passionate about and are still trying to accomplish?
Earlier this year I went for a three-week indigenous writing residency around spoken word and poetry. It was the first time in 25 years that I actually went away by myself.
I applied for this residency because it was in Canada. I thought, no one would know who I am so far away from Aotearoa..I walked into our first group session and there were three people from Aotearoa and they all knew who I was.
It is the first time I had by myself without my children, without my partner, not having to worry about anything. I said to them it is about self-ness. We are focusing on ourselves. I said, “Let’s think about it as a way that we are actually focusing us on ourselves for once and it’s not about being selfish because that doesn’t sound right.” We talked about it being self-ness, focusing on ourselves to be better for everyone around us.
I had to learn how to focus on me. With everything I have done, I have not actually focused on myself. I have not put myself first in those situations.
I thought about the time I spent at Māori Television. I worked like a crazy person when I was there because it was the only way we were going to get our stories out there. We could only change the stories by creating the stories ourselves.
How to manage the 1,457 half hour television programs so that people are able to access those stories? There was a full focus to what we were doing was we made the programming. .
What made you leave? Television would be the best platform for you to share the stories and help bring it to people, right?
Absolutely! I spent ten years at Māori Television. I spent ten years prior to that in the television scene.
I reckon that is a good amount of time to be in that area. I was working more like a machine.
In the time I was there, I was part of 300 programs—a lot of programming! The other producer and I were the most prolific producers in that space. We were on a mission. It was down to how many hours we had to meet for all the funding we received.
What are we still not seeing regarding stories?
A real connection to community.
I spent time in one of the most politically-conscious hip hop groups in this country to joining an all-female group that had the same remit, but with fluorescent colors and skirts.
I worked in television on a program that was about empowering brown youth: encouraging them to be proud of who they are and giving them permission more than anything else to embrace their identity. The fact that programming like this was even necessary is ridiculous, but it was part of the journey. It all pointed toward my current job in local council, which is around social innovation.
It is about bringing real economic, social, and political change to people with high social needs. While that can sound like an ad campaign for a political journey, what we are able to do and what I am able to do is disrupt system from the inside.
My boss trusted I would make sound decisions in the work I do. I have worked within communities for a few decades. The television programs have been all indigenous programming and community projects, with music and community projects and events.
For me to work in this area makes sense. I come from that community. That is where my family lives. It makes sense for me to have a seat at the table and to bring the community with me to the table.
I do not see my role with the council as any different than serving our communities. Community service is our job, and my 9,000 colleagues and I should be focused on providing services to people…That is what I believe and that is what I think; that is what I do, that is how I behave, and my manager allows me to do that. I am grateful for the opportunity.
You are needed to represent the community by bringing issues to the table. Most of the people who want to support community may look at it like producing another “program.” With a program, often we feel better about ourselves, but at the end of the day, nothing really changes. What are some of the ingredients you have seen drive a second order change?
The problem I see in the world, and not just the area I work in, is the disconnect between people to themselves, to each other, to the land, to the ocean, to the sky. My job is to make those connections.
It is putting humanity at the center of the work you do and every single step you take.
Just by being me, I do my best to try to influence people to think differently, to behave differently, and to treat other people differently. I wear brightly colored “Island dresses.” They are called “Island dresses” because Island women typically wear them. They are not necessarily seen in council buildings or in chambers. And I wear sneakers because they are comfortable.
People are so confused. They are like, “She looks young, but has lots of grey hair. She is dressed like an old woman, but is in sneakers. What’s happening?”
Even with 9,000 people [in council], I have noticed that a lot of people notice me. “You are the lady who wears the bright dresses!” There are other women who would dress like that, but they have been told they cannot. For me, it is bringing myself into my work.
Talking about transitions and transformations. An average woman has multiple roles during a 24 hour time period. We are struggling to be on time and on point everywhere, keeping all the plates in the air.
Yes, absolutely. There have been a couple of times when I was forced to look at what I was doing and what was happening around me. The most important example is when I found out my biological father is Jamaican.
I spent my whole life thinking this Pākehā man, this white man who brought me up, was my biological father. Then just before I turned 40, my Mum became ill. I asked her, and she finally told me.
I remember getting off the phone and saying to my husband, “My father is Jamaican.” He was like, “Yeah, that makes sense.” [Laughs.]
I had to actually stand in front of a mirror and look at myself. I had never actually seen myself. Whenever I would get make-up done at TV, sitting in the chair, I would not look in the mirror. I would get my make-up done and then I would be on TV.
My mom gave me the name of my father. I found him. When I told him about my mother, he knew. He explained what happened. He had been around to the family home.
I spent my entire life growing up, not having anyone around who looked like me. It was a profound experience for me. To be with people who look like me, who would get the same ashy skin if they did not moisturize, who had this uncontrollable hair. My siblings all had straight hair.
I remember my mother telling me, if you just comb through your hair with coconut oil, your hair will go straight, every time. [Laughs]
She clearly had no idea what she was talking about. And in the meantime, you’re thinking, what is wrong with me?
Yeah, I was like, maybe if you use an iron and coconut oil? No, that burns your face, okay?
It was those moments of realization, the things that I had gone through in my life where I just compartmentalized. You do this, you compartmentalize; you do that, you compartmentalize. When I got hit with: “You’re Jamaican.” There is no compartment here.
I have to unpack a whole lot of stuff to understand who I am.
There had been things throughout my whole life that I experienced. I remember the first time I went to New York and saw other people with the same complexion as me. I remember people calling me “sister.” I never had that type of treatment back here.
I am the only child in all of the school photos with an Afro. There might be a Samoan kid in there, maybe a Māori kid, but definitely not Cook Island Jamaican kid.
What does that new identity do to you? You have started unpacking your life. How did this knowledge transform you?
I am still unpacking and that is why there are so many more things to learn. My behavior around putting everything in other people first does come from a practice of my upbringing of serving.
I started thinking about the way that my mother brought me up. And the stories that started coming out when my mom passed away.
My mother was raised as a house-girl for my grandfather’s second wife. He had a couple of other families on the side. For this particular family, my mother was the person who was to serve this wife and the children who are my aunties and uncles.
When my step-grandmother was sick, none of her children were to be seen. Because she had to be bathed and everything. It was only my mom caring for her.
When my mother arrived here from another town, she could not get a job because her English was not very good when she arrived. My father worked for the City Council, but could only get her a job cleaning the public toilets.
She would sit in the office all day and come out and clean the toilets on the male and the female side. She was still able to save money to bring over her siblings. The same siblings that treated her like a slave. She still paid for them to come over to New Zealand and help set them up. Because that is the normal thing for our families to do.
For me, it is in my DNA. I did not know these things, but I could easily carry these things from the lessons that my mom gave me.
When I say when I am trying to stop the cycle, it is deep. I want my children to be able. I want them to be critical thinkers. I want them to be able to make the right decisions. The youngest one just turned 19 last Monday.
There is research suggesting trauma passes across generations. What are some of the steps for people to begin to heal from something like that?
First of all is getting to know yourself. I don’t think people think enough about knowing who they are. Especially in the world of social media, it requires being self-aware without a facade or a filter.
There is so much disconnection. Here, this is in my kitchen, the disruptor system. [Laughs.] This is what I am working on.
You are saying, self is the most important part to work on. Because we can’t do anything in the community if we are not balanced ourselves.
Yes, and you cannot expect to help anybody else, if you are not balanced. When I go out into the community, I have to make sure that my own backyard is sorted.
It is about how I feel when I am with people. I put together a diagram about how people should be working when they step into the community. It is about putting humans at the center of it.
We have gone really far from putting people at the core of things, usually the people are surrounding a certain goal. The goal is usually monetary or some other objective. People are seen as a resource to reach some goal.
Yes. Nowadays there are a lot of people using words like co-design. I remember when I did my first co-design master class. It was a three-day workshop, and I sort of slipped away. I had to find another Pacific person saying, “Isn’t this just what we do normally, or?” “That’s what it is?” I was like, okay! I’m doing okay.
[Laughter] If this is your brand new formula, I’m ahead! This is what we do normally and naturally!
Let’s talk about your art, because you are coming out with a new album. Congratulations!
Thank you. I have a friend who has set up a record deal for me with a company that is based in Miami and Jamaica.
Back to your roots, are we?
Yes. All I have to do is finish the album! I have been trying to do it for the past 32 years. I am doing the Festival of Arts in Hawaii in June next year. Releasing the music is really heavy stuff. I pulled out of it on purpose because I felt that my children were way more important. My husband deals with releasing the album.
How is this album different from all your other work?
I have never released an album. I have released lots of songs with lots of different people. But I have not actually released a solo album. This will actually be my debut album. It’s a culmination of over 30 years worth of work.
I have over 200 songs. Part of the residency was to cut it down to 10 to 12 tracks, but I ended up writing a new song on the first night I was there!
Since then I have written probably another five songs, so the songs keep getting rotated around. I am going to make a video for each track and I am working on a theater show—show with a digital tricks in it and an acoustic version of a show.
I cannot believe you are coming out with your debut solo album. It was about time!
See, I’m putting Self-ness, Self-ness! [Laughs.]
We always ask who’s impacted your personal DNA. Who helped formed you as an artist?
It has to be my mom and my three dads. Yes, I actually have three dads.
My father who I thought was my biological father. Then there is my biological father that I met in my 40s. Then my younger brother and my sister’s father who was a white English guy who came to New Zealand on a boat with his family.
Even though my Jamaican father was not here, I am a carbon copy of him. He loves music, and he loves to dance to music. I love music. I love to dance to music. I am that freak on the dance floor by themselves. [Laughs.]
My white English stepfather, the father of my younger brother and sister, he loved reggae music. He introduced me to Bob Marley, and he listened to black soul music as well. Then my Pākehā father, who brought me up, was into 50s and 60s tracks, songs like The Pub with No Beer.
I listened to a whole bunch of folky and rocky music. My mother had Charley Pride and all of the party songs. That makes up my entire reference world of my music influences.
What is one thing that you tell your kids?
I call my children and husband beautiful and we definitely say, “I love you” at least once a day.
I used the word beautiful when they were younger when they were driving me batshit crazy. I was trying not to use abusive language like calling them an egg roll! That could be quite hurtful. I changed it to beautiful.
They went from egg roll to beautiful??
Yep, and so, that’s what it is. When I’m angry it’s—beautiful! When I’m happy—I love you, beautiful! That way, it’s a positive thing, and you’ll sing beautiful to them.
People are beautiful. [Laughs.]
Meet Women of Impact New Zealand in Auckland, November 8th, 2019.
impactmania’s Women of Impact program has been awarded with the U.S. Embassy Public Diplomacy grant. The grant supports 12 interviews with women in New Zealand who drive cultural, social, and economic impact. The Program also includes a week-long visit to New Zealand to connect and collaborate with those interviewed by impactmania.
For more information: [email protected].