Dawn Raid co-founders Andy Murnane and Tanielu Leaosavai’i. (Photo: Matter Entertainment)

Oscar Kightley’s long-awaited documentary Dawn Raid, about the rise and fall of New Zealand’s first hip-hop label — from where else but South Auckland? — has been winning audiences and critics alike since its release in January. Litia Tuiburelevu reflects on the story behind the film.

 

It feels a bit silly to get excited about a film just because it tells a Pasifika story and is directed by a Pasifika director. But there it is.

Of course, there are many other reasons to enjoy Oscar Kightley’s first outing as a director, not least that it’s a good insight into a seminal moment in Aotearoa’s pop culture history. It also has a thumping soundtrack, which saturates the audience in nostalgia for hip-hop’s glory days.

The film chronicles the golden years of the South Auckland label, which at its apex in the early 2000s had a stable of renowned artists including Adeaze, Aaradhna and Savage, a nationwide Boost mobile tour sponsored by Telecom, and a foot in the US market.

But then it crumbled under financial mismanagement, overzealous IRD investigations, and murky legal troubles.

It’s an inspiring story of youthful ambition, but also a cautionary tale of flying too close to the sun.

It would be wrong to describe Dawn Raid Entertainment’s triumphs as simply a New Zealand success story. That’s true, but it was really a success for South Auckland: a business born from struggle and moulded by community.

Aaradhna. (Photo: Matter Entertainment)

The Dawn Raid story began in South Auckland, at a 1997 business course at the Manukau Institute of Technology in Ōtara.

That’s where Tanielu (Danny or Brotha D) Leaosavai’i and Andy Murnane met and bonded over a mutual love of all things rap, hip-hop and R&B.

Andy was a cocky 20-something Pālagi who’d dreamed of making a million dollars by the time he was 21. He’d grown up in South Auckland, where he’d developed an affinity for Polynesian culture.

Danny was a musically gifted Sāmoan who was at a turning point in his life. His brother, Jon, had just been sentenced to life imprisonment after a murderous gang-related brawl, and Danny knew he didn’t want to go down the same path.

What might have seemed an unlikely pairing turned into a successful business partnership — at least for a time. Rich in street smarts, Danny and Andy knew Southside was stacked with untapped musical talent, and saw a profitable business opportunity in representing local artists, their sights set on breaking into the US market.

It wasn’t entirely new territory for Danny, having been part of the successful early 1990s rap quintet Lost Tribe. He and Andy believed similar acts could flourish under an independent label with a truly urban Pasifika ethos, using the capital raised from selling T-shirts at the Ōtara Market and earnings from hip-hop club nights at a local bar.

The 1990s rap and hip-hop scene was dominated by the likes of Tupac, Biggie Smalls, Lil Kim, Snoop Dogg, Dr Dre and other influential Black artists whose verses transcended geographical lines to find increasing popularity in Aotearoa. Brotha D and Andy knew our Polynesian youth could replicate that swagger but add their own unique cultural flair.

The film makes clear, though, how deeply indebted the Aotearoa hip-hop scene is to Black culture. (I’ll leave the discussion of appreciation versus appropriation for another day.)

Savage (Demetrius C. Savelio). (Photo: supplied)

Dawn Raid’s first “win” was the release of the seminal Southside Story (2000) compilation album introducing soulful wunderkinds Adeaze, K.A.O.S, 4 Corners and Native Sons. Interest from the major record labels soon flowed, and it wasn’t long before they signed rap group Deceptikonz (which included talents Mareko and Savage) into the Dawn Raid fold.

Savage (Demetrius C. Savelio) soon emerged as a singular talent poised for superstardom, with his smash-hit debut album Moonshine, and track “Swing” — released in 2005 but finding success two years later thanks to its inclusion in Judd Apatow’s rom-com Knocked Up, becoming an anthem for white girls on American college campuses and spawning viral dance remakes on YouTube.

I was too young back then to really understand Dawn Raid Entertainment’s cultural impact. As a bratty primary schooler, my experience was limited to watching Savage music videos on C4 after school and seeing cousins wear the iconic Dawn Raid logo T-shirts at family gatherings. (Those shirts are now a historically significant item held in Te Papa museum’s permanent Pasifika collection.)

Andy and Brotha D were acutely aware of their underdog status. The entertainment industry, despite loving to capitalise on brown talent, seldom invites those bodies to take a seat at the decision-making table.

The choice to call themselves Dawn Raid — a direct reference to the New Zealand police’s political violence when they raided Pacific Islanders in their homes looking for overstayers — is a trauma firmly etched in the community’s collective memory. Deploying it as their business name was an act of reclamation, a proverbial middle finger to the system that so often thrusts ugly stereotypes on South Auckland’s Pasifika community, and a declaration that their label would run against the status quo.

I appreciated the film’s emphasis on the label’s contribution to the wider culture, beyond just the music scene. For example, the polycultural mecca they created in the heart of Papatoetoe included a music studio, clothing store, barber shop and charitable trust to nurture aspiring young artists. As I watched, it was easy to ignore the undercurrent of anxiety that suggested that, at some point soon, this house of cards must topple.

As the label ascended to staggering heights, so too did their debt. Red flags were raised when, in one scene, Andy Murnane recounts receiving simultaneous deals from Universal and Sony, and signing with Sony without reading the contractual fine print. The lawyer in me recoiled, knowing the repercussions such actions would have.

Poor investment decisions and financial mismanagement culminated in a near $500,000 IRD bill and, eventually, liquidation. Although the film uses humour to recount the founders’ business blunders, it comes off slightly blasé at times, potentially downplaying the real consequences those decisions had, especially on the artists.

Brothers Nainz and Viiz Tupai of Adeaze. (Photo: Matter Entertainment)

Which brings me to Adeaze: brothers Nainz and Viiz Tupai. The two are universally beloved musical talents and a significant part of both the film and the label’s legacy. However, after the film’s nationwide release, Nainz took to Instagram to express his hurt at how the film failed to show the “whole truth” about him and his brother, despite pouring their hearts out in hours of interviews.

Nainz says he is now “fighting a personal battle” with the film, feeling re-traumatised by the entire experience (you can read the full statement here). As an adoring fan of Adeaze’s music, I was disappointed to learn that their truth wasn’t fully aired, leaving a question mark over how other artists on the Dawn Raid label might feel about the film.

Although I watched Dawn Raid a week before Nainz’s post, I did wonder during the screening why more time wasn’t afforded to the artists’ experiences of the label’s undoing. The film goes into some detail about how money was squandered on bloated music video budgets and international tours, but the full spectrum of the label’s financial mismanagement and its ensuing consequences remains murky.

In light of Nainz’s post, some on PolyTwitter and other social media platforms have critiqued the film’s lack of objectivity, being biased towards its co-founders’ narratives, and accusing the pair of using the film as a means to redeem their business wrongs.

I don’t subscribe to the idea, though, that film, even documentaries, must strive for absolute objectivity. Objectivity is an illusory pursuit founded on colonial ideals of empirical rationality and neutrality. None of our stories exist in a vacuum. They all sit on the spectrum of subjectivity.

Understanding these respective standpoints opens nuanced avenues of critique, to ask whose narratives does this story privilege? Why? Whose stories aren’t? Why not? How can we make space for all “truths” to be safely aired?

History isn’t a neat package with no sharp edges poking out. Controversy often follows legacy, especially in the entertainment business.

It’s fair to say that Brotha D’s and Andy Murnane’s narrative dominates the film, presented as the definitive, universally agreed upon inside story about Dawn Raid’s rise and fall. But Nainz’s post erodes that notion entirely, forever tainting the film with a dose of scepticism for those who’ve seen it.

As our local music industry undergoes a long overdue reckoning, the legacy of Dawn Raid Entertainment serves as a timely reminder that our ambition mustn’t get lost in the allure of money and fame.

Accountability for each other is an act of aroha, to truly protect our artistic legacies and entrepreneurship. The new crop of Pasifika artists on the scene — SWIDT, Diggy Dupe, Melodownz, Neko, Church & AP to name a few — are a testament to the path Dawn Raid Entertainment paved.

As the credits rolled, I wondered how it would be if Dawn Raid’s momentum hadn’t been prematurely severed, and they were still operating sustainably in the heart of South Auckland rather than as a memory immortalised on screen.

Oscar Kightley, who directed Dawn Raid, with Tanielu Leaosavai’i (aka Brotha D). (Photo: Matter Entertainment)

Litia Tuiburelevu (Fijian, Tongan, Pākehā) was born and raised in Auckland. She graduated in 2018 with a BA/LLB (Hons) and is a professional teaching fellow at the University of Auckland’s Faculty of Law, overseeing the Pacific law students’ academic programme. She teaches an elective course titled “Pacific Peoples and the Law: Critical Perspectives” and is also interested in film and photography.

© E-Tangata, 2020

Thank you for reading E-Tangata. If you like our focus on Māori and Pasifika stories, interviews, and commentary, we need your help. Our content takes skill, long hours and hard work. But we're a small team and not-for-profit, so we need the support of our readers to keep going.

If you support our kaupapa and want to see us continue, please consider making a one-off donation or contributing $5 or $10 a month.