Some of our strongest solo hip hop acts have formed a supergroup: BLKCITY. Jonique Purcell talks to its five members about changing the landscape.
Within recent years the names Raiza Biza, JessB, Abdul Kay, Blaze The Emperor and Mo Muse have become synonymous with Aotearoa’s simmering hip hop scene. Last year, after recording Raiza Biza’s ‘Funds Pt. II’ remix together, they performed live together for the first time. It was then, during JessB’s end-of-2019 Northern Bass set, that the rappers realised that the energy and music they had created deserved more than just one track.
In July the group shared high-energy track ‘Flying’ for the first time under the name BLKCITY, collecting almost 400,000 streams to date. They followed with ‘Salsa’ in December. Less than a year after their first official release, and with only two singles out, they’ve landed on several tastemaker playlists, including Spotify’s Beats n’ Bars.
Since then, the group of Black New Zealanders have been gassing through their summer festival run while also creating together as often as they can. They’re at the beginning of the second day of a BLKCITY writers’ camp when I meet them, a gentle roar of laughter coming from a large holiday home sitting at the edge of Beach Haven on Auckland’s North Shore.
We sat down to discuss how ideas become reality, why BLKCITY is necessary and what we can expect from their debut album.
The Spinoff: How did BLKCITY come about?
Raiza Biza: I don’t know how it actually started but I know when the idea began. I had a track on my album Bygones called ‘Funds’. I thought it would be dope to have a rap posse cut and it just so happened the people I reached out to came back with a fire remix. I remember thinking back then how interesting it was – that’s when the idea was born but no decisions were made at the time and nothing was really set in stone.
At what point did the idea transition into reality?
Abdul Kay: It was Northern Bass. We really felt the dynamic on stage because none of us recorded ‘Funds Pt. II’ together. Mo and I did our [verses] together, Jess did it by herself at Red Bull [Studios], Raiza was with Joe [Blaze The Emperor] but there was never a time with all of us in one space. So when it came to Northern, I felt something there. It was that real chemistry.
Why do you think BLKCITY is so necessary in Aotearoa?
Mo Muse: Anything that is the first of its kind is necessary, right? It makes everything else a little more achievable. It’s necessary from the aspect that you can come together collectively as rappers and make music together and have that collaboration. On the other hand, it’s necessary for representation in music and entertainment.
You’re all solo artists with contrasting styles to each other and yet the music you make together always works. What is different about how you approach BLKCITY in comparison to your individual projects?
JessB: What we found thus far is we’ve made music together that is generally quite fun, ’cause we’re approaching it in a way where the beat is going, someone is laying down a verse and getting hyped about it and you’re writing at the same time too so you’re going to get hype as well.
Raiza: We’re also making music that we wouldn’t normally make.
Mo: It allows an environment where you take more risks. As solo artists there’s always the struggle of self doubt and not knowing if a song is going to be good enough but those thought patterns dissolve here.
Abdul: It’s like less fear is in the air. I don’t know if I would do a ‘Flying’ or ‘Salsa’ hook for my solo stuff, because it’s a simple hook. If I am left on my verse, I know there are four other rappers who can add to it to save it and the same way with them. If you drop an awkward verse on your own shit, who is going to balance it out? It’s less scary with a group.
You’re all shaping an aesthetic for Black New Zealand. How does knowing that you have that much influence impact your decision-making?
Mo: We’re conscious of the fact that we do not put that pressure on ourselves. Our very existence is going to do that anyway so the best thing we can do is have fun and make sure we’re really just making the best quality of music that we can.
Blaze: We don’t try to project a certain angle. I mean, we’re Black in New Zealand and making music. However people decide to grab that and package it in their own minds, it’s up to the individual.
Raiza: We’re not role models, we’re prototypes.
Everyone has a part to play in contributing to the evolving Black community in Aotearoa. Who are some other dope people doing the same?
Raiza: There’s really a long history of Black people in New Zealand. I know of families who have been here since the 1980s.
Mo: That’s exactly it. I want people to understand what they have in their head about what the identity of a New Zealander is – it’s so myopic and narrow. There’s Black people that’ve been here and these people are the fabric of society. As we become more visible, particularly in the music realm, I think people will slowly be hip to the fact that there is a presence of Black people here.
Jess: The visibility of Black culture in New Zealand is still so new and everybody is still bubbling under the surface. Like even us, we’re not mainstream household names. Israel Adesanya is the only household name of a Black person. We’re still creating the framework for what Black culture in Aotearoa is. We won’t know what it’s going to look like, not for another 10 years. Sports, music and the arts all contribute to the overall collective Black culture.
You’re currently working on an album. What can we expect?
Jess: We’re going to try and keep it as diverse as we can without sounding boxed in. Showcasing a lot of our own different styles so all those bits and pieces put together make something new.
Mo Muse: The only thing we can guarantee is high energy!
Blaze: Definitely some African flavour as well.
Who are some of the producers providing the sounds of your album?
Blaze: It’s predominantly Who Shot Scott. He’s the man behind our singles ‘Flying’ and ‘Funds Pt. II’.
Mo: That guy is a prodigy! It’s getting to the point where he might be the executive producer. We also started working alongside Icey Zyl who is incredible and of course my guy Muesli Beats, he produced ‘Salsa’.
What do you ultimately want to achieve as BLKCITY?
Mo: We know that the next generation is going to be talented, maybe even better than us. So it’s about laying down pathways for the future.
Raiza: I think we’re all aware of the trap of being put into a specific box because of our experience as solo artists. They’ll class us as role models and put us on a pedestal. I don’t think we want that. It’s just us doing what we’ve been doing. We don’t even know what the results are going to be yet. In 10 years we’ll know what it was but I think that we’re being conscious of staying in the moment and not getting ahead of ourselves.
So there’s a lot of practising present moment awareness.
Raiza: Yeah! Right now there’s probably some kid in high school who heard something and thought I want to pursue music. That might be the impact. Maybe we’re meant to inspire someone who becomes the person to change this whole thing up.
Jess: We’re here to have our moment though. Amongst all of this future generation stuff, which is really cool and important, we’re young and want to get it for ourselves too. It all goes back to the importance of just doing “us”. We do the things we want to do and make the things we want to make. Everything else will fall into place as it’s meant to happen because we are putting ourselves in the position.
This article, like BLKCITY’s upcoming album, was made with the support of NZ on Air.
Subscribe to The Bulletin to get all the day’s key news stories in five minutes – delivered every weekday at 7.30am.