Creative chemistry

Photo: Naledi Mthembu
Photo: KawKawKins
Photo: Renati Waaka
Photo: RNZ / Rachel Thomas

By Callum Turnbull

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Last year, the “team of five million” catchphrase fostered a joint initiative among kiwis. A year later, with only Australian neighbours to converse with, what does collaboration look like to our musicians still stuck here?

As New Zealand Music Month’s 21st Birthday celebrations end, Callum Turnbull talks to a couple of rising Wellington stars about community, the studio, and what collaboration looks like when the rest of the world is stuck at home. 

On a crisp afternoon at Swimsuit café, Paige Fraser and Tinomuda Siziba are buzzing with creative chemistry. Respectively, they fill the roles of director and flagship artist of their Kāpiti music label, Neighbourhood Collective.

Born in Auckland, Paige spent her early career working as a bartender and manager, making connections and absorbing insights about the music industry. Her current role uses that knowledge to develop platforms and opportunities for upcoming and established artists in the Wellington region. She wants to do things a bit differently. Creating safer atmospheres for artists is just one of her aims, and carving out a lane for their label in the music scene is another.

Tinomuda (known as Waguan), was born in Zimbabwe, and raised in the capital. Part of a rising wave of Afro-Kiwi performers, Waguan has an assured vibrancy of personality that flows through his music. He’s been working hard for the past two years to carve a path of his own in the growing rap scene.

His work paid off late last year when fellow rap musician JessB headhunted him for a coveted Red Bull studio session. “It was one of the first genuine swoop-ins that I’ve experienced in the industry, where someone you don’t know has just walked into your life and said, ‘I want to take you to a bigger platform. Why? Because you’re just doing it right.’” The opportunity helped build the young artist’s confidence, and his visibility with other artists in the scene. “She let me see things from her seat for a second. I learned what it looks like to make music at that level, working with people at that level.”

For JessB, “that level” is the new normal, having risen to global and domestic virality since 2019. Her recent collaboration with US-based rap stars Saweetie and Doja Cat is just the latest of her global achievements. Simultaneously, her formation of supergroup Blk City – made up of fellow Afro-Kiwis Mo Muse, Abdul Kay, Blaze the Emperor, and Raiza Biza – exemplifies the introspective approach some kiwi artists have had to take to collaboration since lockdown.

“Lockdown has done wonders for us underdog newcomers on the scene, because everyone’s locked in here with us,” explains Waguan. “It made everyone more visible to bigger acts within New Zealand, and because we’re the only country that is open, the platform for us as artists has become wider. Our music is now like a worldwide product just because the other factories are shut.”

Paige says that lockdown made collaboration inevitable. “You are on social media a lot, so you found who you could relate to and who was in a similar lane. If you joined forces, what could you actually create?” she explains. “As long as your ethos and your message collaborate well, then you’re building something else, which is a force to be reckoned with.”

That force can extend beyond the studio. Waguan helped organise the Wellington Black Lives Matter rally last June, gathering an estimated 20,000 Wellingtonians to Civic Square, for the capital’s largest protest in a decade. “Those 20,000 people are my heartbeat, firstly. I can name at least a third of those people.” It was monumental for everyone involved, and its organisation provided a crucial lesson in working with people for Waguan.  “I was a one-man show before that, but I learned the power of collaboration, just by seeing what’s capable with other people.”

The energy built in such moments circles back to the label in more ways than one. Waguan and Paige both look for a common direction with artists in the studio, “You’ve got to care about all these issues, whether it be BLM or sexual violence, you’ve got to care.” Beyond this prerequisite, their inbox is always open, and collaboration is “uninhibited” for Waguan in 2021.

Tonight will see Neighbourhood Collective host Drum n Bass festival Euphoria, their third in hometown Kāpiti. It’s part of an ongoing mission to develop the region for young people, as well as bringing their own community closer. “We just want to show people in our section that you can just do this. If you see something you like, if you see an end result, you can get that.”

As the afternoon closes in, friends, collaborators and haters pass by the cafe. Photographer Renati Waaka, who worked with Waguan on a previous story, stops to say hi as he waits for his coffee.

“Everything’s a recipe for a dish, right?” says Waguan. “Gather the ingredients and put them in the right environment. It all glues together and you’ve got your end product, man.”


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