“No bullsh*t. No fabricating of conditions. Just genuinely raw accounts of upbringing originating from where he resides.”
That’s how a music writer with ‘What’s Good NZ’ described Rizvan Tu'itahi in this 2014 review, which gave a nod to Tu'itahi’s 1993 autobiographical collection “Lost In Translation”. To celebrate New Zealand’s Tongan language week, Radio NZ recently featured a great interview with Tu'itahi - who is also a Graphic Designer, Producer and Actor - in which they explored some of his history, the inspiration and evolution of his artistry, and why speaking in his indigenous language is important.
Tu'itahi spent most of his early years in Tonga’s capital Nuku'alofa; Tongan was his first language. As a child, his introduction to music came through the Tongan songs his parents sang to him; and living next door to the local hospital morgue for many years meant the sounds of village singing could be heard almost every night, when a patient had passed away. He told Radio NZ’s Indira Stewart that his father, a well-travelled man of the Baha'i faith, also exposed young Rizvan to a range of musical influences: everything from Persian styles to RnB and the Blues was played in the family home.
In this 2013 interview with AyebroNZ, Tu'itahi described his early love for reggae artists like Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Lucky Dube; and his introduction to rap through MC Hammer via a visiting cousin with a ghetto blaster. Years later, when Tu'itahi moved to New Zealand, cousins once again acted as the gateway to beats - introducing him to Naughty by Nature’s O.P.P. Through music video programs, Tu'itahi was exposed to artists like Snoop Dogg, Kriss Kross and Cyprus Hill; and became fascinated with what to him was an entire new culture that he wanted to be part of. It wasn’t long before he was making his own beats.
Beyond being influenced by a diverse array of soundscapes and his love for hip hop culture, Tu'itahi enjoys the challenge of rapping in two languages. On his track ‘Phoenix’ [check it out below], for example, which was released in 2012, he incorporates common, everyday Tongan sentences and names that evoke Tongan village life. As central as food is to Tongan culture, Tu'itahi of course references culturally specific Tongan dishes too - like There's Lu Sipi and Faikakai:
"There's Lu Sipi, which is like taro leaves mixed with coconut cream and other different varieties of meat,"
"Otai, which is my favourite, which is like a watermelon fruit drink which you can mix with other fruits,"
"Faikakai - which is kind of like this Tongan dessert, kind of like doughboys."
For Tu'itahi, the importance of speaking both Tongan and English in his tracks is two fold: firstly, it is a way to show Tongans and the world a contemporary way to keep language alive, especially if living away from the island one is from and absorbing other cultural influences; and secondly, it is a way of connecting with third culture kids who are growing up in-between the culture(s) of their parents and the cultures they became immersed in when their families - or they - emigrated.
Tu'itahi says that for him, the most important thing is to connect with third culture youth so that they don’t feel left out: “you can be from both worlds”, he says, “and if you want you can speak the language but it doesn’t mean you’re less or more of a Tongan if you know the language.” That said, with few occasions to speak Tongan in his everyday life, Tu'itahi is also facing the loss of his language skills if he does not make the effort to practice Tongan; this is an added incentive for him to incorporate it into his creative expression.
“Using it in the music kind of makes it cool to the listeners, but it also reminds me that I need to keep practicing, I need to hold on to it”, he told Radio NZ. “To promote it through music is a way of keeping it relevant to the youth. The youth are the future, so if you don’t connect with the youth now, it’s gonna be lost.”
WATCH Rizvan Tu'itahi’s TRACK ‘PHOENIX’
WATCH Rizvan Tu'itahi’s TRACK ‘LOST IN TRANSLATION’ feat. Spell
WATCH Rizvan Tu'itahi PERFORM ‘WHO’S WORK IS THIS’
Another bilingual indigenous Pacific rapper is Tha Feelstyle (aka Kas Futialo) - award-winning hip hop artist who spits bars in English as well as his Samoan language; watch his track ‘Suamalie/Aint Mad At You’ below.
Do you have a favourite Pacific MC rapping in their native tongue, or about culture? Share your music recommendations in the comments
Words by Pauline Vetuna.
Image 1 & 2: Capture of Rizvan Tu'itahi performing 'Phoenix' in the Radio NZ studio.
Image 3 & 4: Stills from official clip for Rizvan Tu'itahi's 'Phoenix'.
Image 5 & 6: Stills from official clip for Rizvan Tu'itahi's 'North Side of the City' ft. Sir T.