Ten years ago, Smashproof released ‘Brother’, the song that swiftly became the longest running number one by a New Zealand act. Jogai Bhatt talks to the band about the impact of the song then, and what it means to them today.
I remember it like it was only ten years ago. I’d recently made the shift from year 7 to year 8 in a seamless and dignified manner. My soul brother and local legend Drew Neemia was in the midst of making a similar move, in a professional capacity – rebranding for an older crowd and leaving behind the childish antics of Sticky TV to host C4’s popular music show Vodafone Select Live.
This era of New Zealand music – and particularly New Zealand music on television – is as clear to me as ever. Recording ‘Think Twice‘ off a flip phone; pretending emotional NZ Post ads didn’t get to me; waiting for my sweet ghetto flower to bloom. There were some solid moments. But none were so beautiful, so poignant, so impactful to me as Smashproof’s breakthrough hit ‘Brother’.
The track, which featured Gin Wigmore singing the hook, charted at number one for 11 consecutive weeks in 2009, and stayed on the charts for 29 weeks. ‘Brother’ still holds record for the longest-running number one by any New Zealand act, and it’s a record that probably won’t ever be broken.
But ‘Brother’ wasn’t just important for its chart dominance or reach. The track was groundbreaking for the story depicted on screen – a re-enactment of the moment South Aucklander Pihema Cameron was caught tagging, shortly before he was stabbed by Bruce Emery.
‘Brother’ shined a light on issues of discrimination, privilege, justice and the often warped portrayal of South Auckland in the media. Ten years after the mammoth track debuted and effectively transformed the landscape of New Zealand music on screen, I hung out with the group at their recording studio in Eden Terrace to talk about how the track came together, and what it means to them today.
‘Brother’ kind of paints a portrait of life in South Auckland. Cast your minds back – what was happening in your community at the time?
Tyree: I think it was 2008 when we wrote that, eh. At that time, I was living in Australia, and, man, I missed home so much. I don’t know if you’ve ever lived in Australia, but when you live in Australia, and something’s happening in New Zealand, the news loves making it out to be a big thing. One thing that was really prevalent in my mind was when I heard that Pihema Cameron got stabbed.
We started making up the formula to write ‘Brother’, and it was probably the only time we ever sat down and said, ‘Okay, we’re going to make a song about this, we want to talk about this.’ We really thought about, ‘How are we going to do this? What are we going to talk about?’ And for my verse, I really wanted to talk about what I was hearing while I was staying in Australia. It was that particular incident, as well as the dairy owner that got stabbed on Finlayson [Avenue]. It was seventeen dollars, man. He got stabbed and he died. For seventeen dollars. Just hearing those things, I really wanted to incorporate them into my verse.
Sid: For me, I’ve got my elbow on the window. I’m just out there. We’re all from South Auckland so I’m wondering why all this shit’s happened. Not just like the dramas, the gangs, all the violence and everything, I’m not just wondering why that’s happening. I’m wondering why a lot of my people get locked up for something so stupid.
I’m also wondering why the police brutality that happens in my neighborhood often happens. I’m trying to figure out why – why are they getting let off for something that they’re doing, where if my people in my community did it they’d get locked up straight away? There’s no accountability for shit that they do. But for my people, fuck, for even a lesser crime, they get put into jail. That’s basically what my verse is about.
The double standard.
Sid: Pretty much, yeah, that’s what it is.
Deach: My verse was different. I just saw it from the approach of little wannabe gangsters, just trying to idolise all these other gangsters. Obviously we all grew up in the hood, but we overcame that. We looked past that. So in my verse I was just saying, you know, there is a life over following these guys. There’s education, there’s everything else.
What was it about the story of Pihema Cameron that compelled you guys to write this song?
Tyree: There’s a lot to it, you know. There’s the justice system, the fact that the penalty he got – Bruce Emery was his name – it was just a slap on the hand, you know what I mean? I don’t want to get into the whole racial thing–
Sid: But you have to, because you can’t stray away from the fact that he’s a white guy. And like, we got love for white people. It’s not like we don’t like white people or that everyone white is a white supremacist. It’s not like that. It’s just we can tell that a lot of things are different for people of color.
For people like for him, he’s a businessman, you know. Pākehā. Stabbed somebody from the neighbourhood who’s Māori. In a lot of peoples eyes it was like, [Pihema’s] not going to amount to anything. So okay, cool, we’ll give you home detention. Whereas if it was the other way around, and he was the business owner, had his business going, and someone like Pihema Cameron, who everyone thinks is going nowhere, stabs him, kills him, what do you think Pihema Cameron would have got? As opposed to what he did get, you know?
Deach: And I think it was really important for us to write it because of that. Just bringing it to everyone’s attention because it’s just one of the many cases like that. It’s good for people to be aware for those kind of situations but, will it change? I don’t know.
Sid: It won’t change for ages. It’s not like I’m having a go, but, you’ve got people of colour such as yourself. You got a country where you’re not born here, so it makes it harder for us to get further in that race. But for people like Bruce Emery, who’s Pāhekā, he’s already got white dominance above everybody else.
And that’s what we see on the daily, every single minute of the day, wherever we go. [Tyree] said he didn’t want to go into a race thing but that’s what it is. That’s exactly what it is. And I think people of colour know exactly what I mean. Because we know that white people – and I love white people – but they’re never ever gonna go through the same circumstances as us when we’re going into a cafe where it’s predominantly white, and getting looked at. Like, ‘What are you doing here? You should go to the bakery.’ This is how we get looked at. It’s an injustice for me, for you, for Ty, for Deach, for our families.
When the music video came out, I think that provoked a bit of debate at the time. Is that fair to say?
Sid: From who?
Some people had thought the video was a little bit controversial.
Sid: What people?
Sid: See that’s what I mean. They don’t want to hear the truth. It’s racism but it’s swept under the rug. Why don’t we all just let it go? You wouldn’t ever hear that from them if one of us killed their family members, you know. You will never hear them go, nah let’s just let it go.
Do you think much has changed in the past 10 years?
Sid: I don’t think so in terms of the racism thing, nah it hasn’t.
Did you guys expect the song to make the kind of impact that it did?
Deach: Definitely not. You know, we always sort of shoot for the stars with every song we write and we’ve got so many songs that we thought would blow up. Because that was our whole attitude as teenagers writing music like, ‘this is a hit, this is a hit’.
But yeah, never in a million years did I think that it would turn out to do what it did. I think having Gin Wigmore also opened ears to a lot of mainstream audiences.
Tyree: Definitely crossed us over.
Deach: If it was one of us singing the hook I don’t think it would’ve got that far. It was a smart decision that one of our bosses made.
Sid: [Gin’s] an awesome artist, she’s fuckin’ mean. We appreciate her jumping on the song.
Deach: Her voice is so unique. Shout out to Gin Wigmore, man.
What’s next for you guys? I heard you playing some music before.
Deach: Well, it’s been 10 years so I guess it’s a 10 year anniversary album. We’re writing music. We’re gonna release some music real soon. Stay tuned for an album coming out this year.