Aroha Bridge writer and director Coco Solid talks about the new characters on the show, the ‘psychic vat of reality’ that birthed them, and her Ihumātao call-out of PM Jacinda Ardern.
In season two of locally made cartoon series Aroha Bridge, 10-year old wunderkind pop star Angeline announces on television: “I’m Māori so obviously I wish I could go back to the 1800s. It’s a Māori thing, we just love living in the past.”
You can’t help but wonder: who the hell has the raho to say something like that?
Coco Solid (Ngāpuhi/Sāmoa), that’s who, a writer/rapper/multi-media artist whose work is unashamedly centred on Māori and Pacific stories, but whose quick wit and tendency to communicate on many different levels at once often leaves people reeling.
Originally a comic strip about twins Kōwhai and Monty Hook called Hook Ups, drawn by Coco Solid in weekly music magazine Volume, it morphed into a 10-part web series named Aroha Bridge (because, you know, porn issues) which debuted on the NZ Herald website in 2013. Coco stepped away from drawing, leaving it up to Wellington animators Skyranch (including music video director Simon Ward and Luke ‘Disasteradio’ Rowell) and took charge of writing and directing instead. She roped in the voice talents of Madeleine Sami, Frankie Stevens, Matai Smith and other friends and family to create the world of Aroha Bridge, an eclectic, multicultural landscape where the jokes are hearty, plentiful and occasionally, the tiniest bit uncomfortable.
She has described the town of Aroha Bridge as a snapshot of where she grew up, the Māngere Bridge of her childhood before gentrification took hold with bits of Porirua and Waikato thrown in, but it’s recognisable as just about any suburb in New Zealand. The dairy is the ‘town centre’ and the teenagers are bored. But Kōwhai and Monty Hook (voiced by Coco and Rizvan Tu’itahi), biracial twins dreaming of rock star fame and fortune (albeit in quite different ways), are not your average teenagers. Nor are any of the other characters, including the new (secretly very famous) faces of season three.
Leonie Hayden: Tell me about the new characters.
Coco Solid: I think of it as tricking out a vehicle, and you just add better mods. So there’s a Sāmoan/Tongan mayor [Oscar Kightley], whose got an amazing model minority complex. And Whaea Bubbles [Rachel House], who’s based on a whaea of mine. But she’s a Frankenstein of everybody’s whaea.
Is your Whaea Bubbles still with us?
No, she passed away. She was called Bub. I’ve since found out everyone’s got an Aunty Bub, and they all think I’m talking about their one. In a way I am!
There’s Tapi, who’s played by Julian Dennison. I wanted to have a real hearty character that’s real raw, that counteracts the urban Māori stuff. The real humbling person in your whānau or your community. I loved writing that character.
Everyone’s been mad developed.
You’re really good at avoiding stereotypes but still creating characters that are crazy relatable. Is that intentional, or does it just turn out that way?
It’s really important to me. When I was growing up, I just saw the same archetypes tumble drying all the time. And none of them spoke to me in a visceral or affectionate way. Once I got into storytelling and started prioritising Māori and Pacific stories, I was like, I’m gonna create something that is an actual shard of reality. There’s a real warmth and familiarity from the audience when you do that, and they also feel respected and that you’re not insulting their intelligence. That’s another rule of mine, don’t underestimate your audience, especially your Māori audience. Oh my god.
Series one and two, did you get any negativity from Māori or Pacific audiences?
Not at all. I think because I kept the spectrum respected and for every example of one type of character you would have their polar opposite somewhere else. Everyone felt seen I think, and if they felt uncomfortable with one character, there was another that would comfort them.
Mum and Dad Hook are good examples of that, the Pākehā mum who loves te ao Māori and the Māori dad who’s… you know… racist.
Yeah! They’re both trying to be each other. When people are talking about the Treaty and the bicultural nature of the nation, they’re talking about Māori and Māori culture versus Pākehā and Pākehā culture, but there’s a lot of wanting to trade places, fetishisation going on as well. I don’t have a Pākehā mum but Madeleine Sami does, and Morgan Waru, our producer does and they talked about how their mums are way more tūturu than their dads. I have a lot of fun writing that character cos I don’t know her very well but I know a lot of well-meaning Pākehā people.
You’ve got to have a real affection for each character and empathy for where they’re coming from, even when you’re doing really cheap moments and roasting someone, you need to be able to say ‘I know this person, I can’t disrespect them’. You can be playful with them but you have to understand that it’s all coming from a psychic vat of reality.
You want to do it in a way that makes people feel empowered, entertained, but also a little bit confronted. Just a little bit.
It’s a slow burn for a lot of people. They have a chortle and then later they’re like, ‘Oh my god, the Treaty hasn’t been honoured!’ That’s my dream. [laughs] That people feel the subtext later. Comedy and animation are the biggest mask for that, there’s so much freedom.
You’ve got so much amazing new voice talent, Rachel House, Julian Dennison. He’s a fancy Hollywood guy now. Do you have to go through the Hollywood agent, or is it down home, kūmara-vine styles?
It’s pretty down home. Julian was actually a fan of the webseries.
He’s a day one!
Yeah. He told one of the producers some ideas and they were cool. I got in the booth with him and so many of his ad-libs got in there. As a director I’m pretty loose, maybe it’s the rapper thing, I dunno. But I have the rock solid script and then I’m like, ‘Do what you want’ and it’s always better. Everyone ad-libs their asses off, there’s so much spontaneous stuff in the final cut. Again, that’s what makes it warm, real. Because you’re trusting the voice actor with so much as well. Everyone was really up for it.
Oscar, when I told him about the Sāmoan/Tongan mayor he made up this greeting, ‘Talo e lelei’ [laughs]. There’s just thousands of moments like that where I’m like, man. I couldn’t have written that.
There’s a lot of jokes about the activism space, land, sovereignty. You’ve got Uncle Noogy, the Polynesian Panther who refuses to speak the language of the coloniser. But you support activism kaupapa hard, and you went in on the PM with that tweet about her silence on Ihumātao. What are your thoughts about what’s happening?
Look man, I have never been one to align myself with politicians beyond showmanship and entertainment purposes. I do not identify with them or trust them in general.
I am a big fan of holding them accountable to the trust and the support they are given by marginalised people, which I think this current government was. Politicians put KPIs and deliverables on human beings and to a degree they’re always going to have limitations to what they say they can do. But if you’re going to take some kind of stance and speak at Waitangi about Māori sovereignty and collaboration then you should not be silent about what appears to be one of the biggest land confiscations of the 21st century.
You can’t passively sit back and say ‘it’s above me now, it’s out of our hands’. You’re the prime minister, my g.
It’s the same side-eye we give Helen Clark when her legacy is being praised, with the foreshore and seabed. Why are we always used as a resource to get these people into positions of power? It’s the apathy and the pseudo-powerlessness that I resent. Turning a blind eye to what is obviously a crucial issue for Māori. It hurts me and it makes me really, really, really angry. I do go there in the show [episode six ‘The Wall’], and as a creator I was like, ‘oosh, is this gonna land me in a dark spot, is this dangerous what I’m trying to say?’ Any reservations and fears I had have all completely evaporated in the past few days. I’m glad that I went there and I’m glad that I got to the heart of what I really wanted to say. I’ve never been more relieved to be kaupapa-driven in my life!
Aroha Bridge season three starts 8pm Thursday 25 July on Māori Television and 9pm OnDemand, more at arohabridge.com.