Teremoana Rapley has been in the music business a long time — first as a teenage rapper in the hip-hop band Upper Hutt Posse, and then singing vocals in te reo for Moana and the Moahunters. Now, she’s about to launch her first album (Daughter of a Housegirl) and her first solo exhibition at Tautai gallery in Auckland.
Here she is talking to Dale — but first, here’s an introduction from Moana Maniapoto, who’s known her for more than 30 years:
Stunning looks, shy and bursting with talent. Queen of Rap. An original. Mother and grandmother. Artistic all-rounder.
Teremoana Rapley (along with Mina Ripia) was a Moahunter in my first band. Good looking. Talented. Professional on and off stage. Graceful. Unlike some entertainers, never needing to be pulled up for being drunk or late or throwing hissy fits.
Tere was always in huge demand. Not surprising. The burgeoning hip-hop scene wasn’t exactly packed with female rappers. She not only sounded good, her rhymes were great and she looked the part. She was the feminine counterpoint to the male power of Upper Hutt Posse.
I can’t remember how she ended up with us. I can’t recall if that was Willie Jackson’s idea (he was my partner and manager at the time) or whether it came from Murray Cammick of Southside Records, but we started building on songs I’d recorded with Dalvanius.
In 1990, the Nation of Islam had booked our band Moana & the Moahunters to play at the annual Saviours Day event in the US. Public Enemy were in the lineup. But then I discovered that I was about to give birth around the same time, so we offered the gig to Upper Hutt Posse.
Willie went with them, and when he came back from the States, he said: “That girl needs to come and live with us. Those boys aren’t looking after her properly.”
She was still in her teens. So, she came. That was kind of how things rolled at our place. There were always musicians parking up at our whare in Ōtāhuhu as they found their feet in Auckland.
Tere’s rap on “AEIOU” (1991) was seminal. Great lyric and delivery. She picked up Most Promising Female Vocalist in 1992.
In 1993, we played in New Orleans as guests of the Neville Brothers, who spoiled us rotten. Tere and her exotic looks fitted in with the big crew of rappers and brass band members who were part of the Neville whānau. The boys were eyeing up this gorgeous girl from Aotearoa, but she was oblivious.
She was constantly trying to create her own music and work on her own album, while the rest of us were dragging the poor girl off into our own projects. Over the years, she performed with Dam Native, MC OJ & the Rhythm Slave and then King Kapisi. She released a single “Beautiful People” in 1995 and picked up Best Female Artist that year.
Then she was pulled into television, fronting What Now and Mai Time. She turned her creative talents to presenting, directing and producing, and then spent some 10 years at Māori Television. Occasionally, we’d bang into her and her husband Bill Urale, otherwise known as King Kapisi.
There’ve been many awards and accolades over the years. Tere’s been inducted into the Aotearoa Music Hall of Fame, and received the Legacy Award with Upper Hutt Posse in 2018. And she’s twice received the Taite Music Prize (for classic album), as part of Upper Hutt Posse in 2016, and then with the Moahunters in 2019.
Last year, Tere became a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to music and television. Fair enough. But I’m picking that her personal highlight will be the long awaited release of her debut album Daughter of a Housegirl.
That, I expect, will be the realisation of the dream that this original creative native has been working towards ever since I first met her more than 30 years ago.
Dale: Kia orana, Teremoana. We can start with a Cook Islands greeting because that’s part of your whakapapa, isn’t it?
Teremoana: That’s right — although my whakapapa isn’t straightforward. But then whose whakapapa is?
Let me see. Nō Rarotonga, Aitutaki, Mangaia toku māmā. Nō Cuba, Jamaica me Suriname toku pāpā.
I was brought up by my Pākehā father (Bryan Rapley) who‘s from Waipukurau via England, and then I found my Jamaican birth father when I turned 40.
On my Cook Islands side, my grandfather’s name is Benioni so I whakapapa to that name. My Jamaican family name is Hendricks. Rapley is my Pākehā father’s name that I carry as well.
Do you have brothers and sisters, too?
On my Jamaican side, I’m the youngest. I have three older sisters and two older brothers. On my Cook Islands side, I’m the middle child with three sisters and a brother.
And then, on my Pākehā side, I’ve got a younger brother and two sisters. Is that all sides covered? How many siblings is that? And we’re discovering more Jamaican siblings as we go. We even found another one here in Tāmaki Makaurau.
It was interesting that you were 40 before you met up with your birth dad. How did that come about? Did you go seeking him, or was he seeking you?
I’ve travelled around the world, and people have said to me: “Where are you from?” And I’d say: “Oh, my father’s Pākehā and my mother is from the Cook Islands.” And every time, people would say: “Oh no, dear. You’re from Africa.” And I’d go: “No, I’m not.”
When I was 25, I went to Rarotonga for a gig, and when I flew back, a random-as dude (who worked for the police in New Zealand) told me my father was from the Caribbean, and his name was Slim.
So, I asked my mum: “Hey, who’s this guy called Slim?” And in typical Island style, she said: “Did he put food on your table?”
I said: “No,” because I didn’t’ remember meeting a local Slim. But what Mum was saying, in effect, was: “Yes, he’s your biological father, but he’s not your real father. The guy who raised you is your father.” I figured that out later.
That’s the only information I had for 15 years, until a guy came up to me after I’d been on a radio show with Dubhead at BFM in Auckland, and he said: “I found your sister. This is her name.” I messaged her on Facebook and said: “I think we might share the same father.” And that’s how I found him.
My mum died in 2015, but before she passed, I asked her: “Hey, is this dude my dad?” And she said: “Yes.”
A year later, I got to meet him. He lived in Seattle and was a shipping engineer. He spoke Cook Island with a Jamaican accent. It was the first time I was with someone who looked and behaved like me. He’s since passed away, unfortunately, so I only got to know him over a really short period of time.
Let’s also pay tribute to Mr Rapley.
But you were still just a kid when you left home.
Well, Dale, people talk about me being 14 years old and already in the music industry, and making my way in the world. But no one asks the reason for that. Why did I leave home so young?
The truth is that my mother was a functioning alcoholic. I grew up in a very violent household. And I left home quite suddenly. The boys in the band and I were driving from Wellington to Auckland, and we stopped at my house in Epuni, in Lower Hutt. I ran inside, grabbed a blanket and a pillow and some clothes, ran downstairs and said to Mum: “I’m going to Auckland.”
That’s how I left home. My mum didn’t even say anything. She was like: “Uh, okay.” She was smoking her Winfield 25s in the lounge, watching rugby league. There was no discussion. There wasn’t: “I’m going to be a rapper.” I just left because I didn’t need to be there anymore.
Upper Hutt Posse was the band you were with then — and they were ground breakers, weren’t they? Did they introduce you to hip-hop? You must’ve liked what those guys were trying to do?
I was rapping and breaking before I joined up with Upper Hutt Posse, but then I heard that the boys were looking for a female rapper singer and that I should check them out.
So, I did. Bennett Pomana lived around the corner from my high school. I walked around after school and sat in the garage. They were practising “E Tū”. Word (Te Kupu) gave me some lyrics to rap, which I fumbled through. But I just kept coming back after school. And then I was in the band!
As hip-hop was growing and forming, so was I.
And, early on, you were writing, too. Not just singing and rapping.
I’ve been writing since I was seven. If there’s anyone who was an influence back then, it would’ve been Bob Marley. I remember crying when he passed. I didn’t even know about my Jamaican side, but there was just something about him. These days, it’s books that give me my inspiration. I have four or five books on the go at any time.
I don’t do fiction. It’s all non-fiction. I use Netflix for fiction, and just blob out.
I work for a cultural economic agency now — Auckland Unlimited. I’ve worked in that space for a wee while. Before I started work there, I read Capital in the Twenty-First Century, by Thomas Piketty.
He’s a French economist who’s looking at the state of the economy worldwide and at economic inequality. It’s not a book I’m gonna recommend for people to read, but it gave me a good grounding in that space.
The reason I read so much is that I see broken systems everywhere, and for me to understand things better, I need to understand that system and how it’s come about. Its history is important. Whakapapa always is.
Let’s talk now about ego, because many performers seem to need a lot of validation, whether that’s in sport or the arts or music. The pattern often is to make it in the big time for a while but then to fade away.
Many have a hard time coping without the accolades and the spotlight. You had that attention early in life, but you’ve also been comfortable working creatively without the spotlight.
The spotlight is rubbish, full stop. I shifted from being a vocalist for Upper Hutt Posse into the background with the Moahunters — and I had a record label that was driving me around and people taking me out to lunch and all that sort of stuff.
I knew these people before that, and they were suddenly very different once I got into this celebrity and spotlight space. And I thought: “I haven’t changed. I’m just the same.”
The biggest change that I see with people over the years is drugs. You know, people get into the limelight and then they get on to the buzz of the drugs — and they just lose their minds. I see it all the time. Whether it’s sport or music or acting. I’ve seen them go through that. And that’s why I say that the limelight is rubbish.
Maybe it’s necessary for the industry and for the ecosystem that it supports. But I’m not interested in that. I’m about human beings and relationships and treating people the way that I’d like to be treated. That’s how I live my life. I’m about sending out vibrations that are positive.
What would you say about the way being a mum has affected the way you view the world?
It definitely grounded me. And I’m really glad that I had my first son when I was 20.
You have five kids?
Four. The oldest is 29 this year and the youngest is 20. And there are three grandchildren. They go from five to eight.
Wikipedia calls you a singer. Did you know that?
I tried to change it.
It’s a bit of a short description, bearing in mind your interest and work in many fields. But can you change Wikipedia?
I’ve changed it a couple of times. Actually, I put all of my skillsets in there one time but then someone changed it back again.
You call yourself a Black Moana Sovereign Storyteller. How do you get that in to Wikipedia?
I just have to keep on saying it over and over again, and have it in articles like this one. I just gotta keep talking. And if you google that term, it will come up with my name.
I imagine that you developed a lot of your skills as a teenager. First with the Upper Hutt Posse and then with Moana and the Moahunters.
Well, the way I’ve grown up made me a really savvy person by the time I got into my 20s. In fact, I was able to buy my first house at 20.
There were lots of things that were happening in the six years after I left home. Like I travelled to New Orleans with the Moahunters — and I went to Detroit, New York and LA with the Posse. And I was just 16, 17.
I’d left home at 14, and when I was 15, I was living with Moana (Maniapoto) and Willie (Jackson). They knew that I lived with the boys of the Posse in town and they offered me a room. I cleaned their house, and in return I didn’t have to pay rent, and I had a roof over my head and kai in the cupboard and I was safe.
And by the time I was 20, I was ready to buy a house and have a baby, which is what I did. It was just like: “Okay, what’s the next thing?” Of course, I’ve expanded. But, yeah, it’s been interesting.
And those experiences have made me a resilient, resourceful, multitalented, multifunctional chameleon of sorts, because that’s what I’ve had to do to survive.
And what about your plans?
My way hasn’t been “This is what I’m gonna do” or “This is what I’m setting out to do” — like, “I’m going to be a famous singer”. There was none of that, Dale.
It was just that there were these situations I got into — and this is the way that I managed it. That’s how I still operate today. Which is why, if you ask me about an album or an exhibition, I honestly don’t know until it’s there.
You were working in a politically and culturally-charged music environment, weren’t you? I mean, Upper Hutt Posse most definitely and Moana pushed contemporary reo Māori and also looked at injustice and racial issues through her music. So, these were heavy times.
Well, I became a Black Moana Sovereign Storyteller and that was a result of those influences over the years and also spending time with Moana and being there in her lounge when she was talking with Jane Kelsey and other influential women.
Watching Moana doing designs, too. There was a design that she did of the Treaty of Waitangi. It was like a poster that people could have in their homes. I think it was for the Law Society. Moana was designing that on the dining table. And I remember the meetings of all these people coming over home.
That was part of my upbringing — and those people have had a massive influence on me. I love Eva Rickard. When I moved to town, I lived next to Pauline Kingi. There have always been strong women around me.
Also, I have a connection and affiliations to te ao Māori because, before I knew that I was Jamaican, my mum wanted me to be Pākehā . . . well, as much as possible seeing that I look like this. She tried to make sure that I didn’t speak Cook Island, whereas, up to about the age of four, that’s all I knew. So, I was talking broken English when I started at school.
From kindergarten on, I associated with anyone who was brown — and anyone who was brown around me at that time was Māori. I just gravitated towards anything like that. Which is why I was like the leader in the kapa haka group at intermediate school.
I gravitated towards things Māori for a long time. Even in the public eye, people didn’t know that I wasn’t Māori from Aotearoa. They just assumed that I was Māori. And I spoke te reo Māori as best as I could.
Let’s turn to your writing for a moment. Are there any lyrics, yours or those of other song writers, that have stuck with you, and that you still love?
Nah. Straight off the bat, I can say no. Just like I can’t tell you who my favourite artist is. Or my favourite song. My brain doesn’t work like that, Dale.
Instead, I read all the time. And what happens is that, I get information in my brain and then, if I don’t need it anymore, I just let it go.
There was a time when I learned how to upholster a couch. I needed to make money, so I did a set design for a television programme. I got a book out of the library and learned how to do it. And I did the whole job for about $400 and got $2,500 for it.
It took a bit of time of reading a book and figuring it out — and getting the staple gun and stuff. But that’s how I went about it.
I take it that it’s wrong to corral you or think of you just as “hip-hop Teremoana”?
Yeah, it is.
But we should acknowledge the massive influences of hip-hop on our Māori and Pasifika kids, even though there’ve been negative as well as uplifting lyrics.
What sort of societal change do you think that the music, the dancing and the art, has had on our rangatahi here in Aotearoa?
Well, if we’re talking about our brown rangatahi — Māori, Cook Island, Pacific, Indian — I think it’s been positive. It’s given them an opportunity to see themselves on the screens and to hear their voice.
With Dam Native and UHP, and others in my generation that I came through with, we went to marae, we ran our workshops, we encouraged rangatahi to connect with our people. Not as a way to promote our latest single, but just to hang out with them. That’s what we were doing. We were rediscovering ourselves with others. Remember, we were urban kids.
We were also doing this commercial stuff and releasing and playing in this Auckland industry game because that’s all we knew. We were just kids, right? You release songs, you get on the radio, and that’s the game you play. And we thought that was the only one.
When I got into my mid-20s, I realised that that game was stupid. It was down to who you knew, and not down to the quality of what you create, because it ends up just being a product.
And I was like: “No, I’m not a product.”
And the reason why I’m so anti that is because my tīpuna on my African side were listed as assets, as chattels, on asset registers. That’s what my ancestors were registered as.
I am not a product and I’m not an asset.
That’s why I reject it utterly and completely. I knew it in my bones to reject it when I was younger, and I don’t like it now.
I make music, music is part of me, there is no separation from self.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
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