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Kiwi-Rwandan rapper Raiza Biza on why he’s proud to rep Hamilton

Raiza Biza’s first full length album since 2012 is on the horizon. He talks to Simon Day about the local hip hop community, growing up black in New Zealand, and his upcoming all-ages gig – which we’re giving away tickets to.

It’s been a complicated journey for Raiza Biza. His family left Rwanda when his mother was six months pregnant. He was born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (known then as Zaire) where he lived for two years before moving to Zambia. The family then moved to South Africa; they stayed there until he was 13. Looking for safety and opportunity, their final move was to New Zealand. From Gisborne, the family finally settled in Hamilton.

That constant movement has shaped his music; it draws on his culture, and his experience growing up as a young African in New Zealand. His smooth flow is a tribute to the classic hip hop that raised him, his storytelling informed by his unique experience of being a New Zealander. While his career has drawn him around the world, he keeps coming back to Hamilton, a city he is proud to rep.

Next month Raiza Biza performs at all ages show Seamless. The Spinoff has 20 tickets to give away to the gig featuring Theia, Raiza Biza, Merk, Daffodils, Hans, and Lexxa on 18 August at The Tuning Fork in Auckland. See the end of this article for details.

Your new album is “dangerously close”, you’ve said. How close?

I am looking at a September release. Just going back and forth as far as collaborations go. This album is more sonically different than a lot of my other work. I’m working exclusively with Parisian producer Tito Fiasco on the entire project, which is the first time I’ve worked with just one producer for an album.

The New Zealand hip-hop scene is built on community. You’re a member of AmmoNation and YGB, you’ve had the chance to work with David Dallas and artists like Yoko-Zuna. How important are those opportunities to collaborate and to work within a community?

The New Zealand hip-hop scene, and even the New Zealand music scene as a whole, is very small. And because of that, everyone eventually meets everyone. So if you are a genuine person, and you have a real interest in connecting with like minds, these connections happen organically.

I think because the scene is this small, these connections are very important. In bigger scenes, there is a more competitive edge, but I think because of the size of the scene here, we’ve had to work together to get New Zealand music further internationally, as a collective. And it’s the reason why the scene is so strong despite size.

How did that community help your rise as an artist?

Early on in my career, my affiliation with YGB was pivotal because I had direct access to artists who had already achieved some of the things that I was aiming for. So the advice I received around that time was very valuable. And I think that type of information base is something that every young artist needs to try and develop.

What was life like growing up in New Zealand as someone who looks different to everyone else? I saw you called Jimi Jackson out for his racism.

I did? I don’t remember exactly what I said, but yeah some of the black face stuff made me uncomfortable. Growing up in New Zealand, looking different was an interesting process. I grew up being an outsider everywhere I went, so being different was nothing new to me. But it became very clear how much effect television and media had on the New Zealand perspective of what an African is. Many people thought that everyone in Africa was starving, that we don’t have cities and skyscrapers. But this came from ignorance, as opposed to racism. The racism I have faced in New Zealand is nothing compared to the racism that the Māori population have faced. In many ways, I feel that I’ve been treated better.

I saw your tweets about the Land Wars exhibition at the Hamilton museum. How does your experience as a Rwandan and your country’s more recent history inform your understanding of New Zealand’s colonial history? Do you think New Zealanders sometimes forget where we came from?

Colonialism is something that every person of colour knows something about. One of the first things that a colonial regime does when taking power, is find ways to minimise the native sense of identity. I think that is the most dangerous and damaging thing in the long term. The effort to eliminate the Māori language is something that was very deliberate, so it wouldn’t be fair to say that New Zealanders tend to forget where they came from. I just think that’s the way the system was designed.

I also saw your tweet on International Women’s Day, and ‘Strong Woman’ is an intimate tribute to the women in your life and the world. Is feminism an important part of your music?

As a black man, as an African man in today’s society, I know how it feels to be marginalised. So I relate a lot to the collective struggle that women face every day. And I also think that it’s my social responsibility to speak for any group of people treated as an underclass. So no, I wouldn’t say that feminism is an important part of my music, but speaking on any injustices or social imbalances is very much so.

You’ve had the chance to collaborate with some high profile international artists, and legends of the industry like Mike Elizondo and Oddisee. What is that experience like and what have they taught you?

Working with Mike Elizondo was a surreal experience. The first CD I ever purchased was Dr. Dre’s 2001, an album which has Mike all over it, so it really felt like things came full circle. Oddisee is more of a mentor to me. Something you realise quickly is that some of the most respected and accomplished musicians in the world are usually some of the most humble.

You’re constantly travelling, having toured Europe recently, and about to head to China. How important is it for you to see the rest of the world and for that to inform your music?

I love travelling. I spent a lot of my young life moving to different countries and cities, which gave me this perspective of an observer. A lot of the music I make comes from an observational angle, so when I am in one place for too long, I stagnate. My ambition has always been to be an international touring artist so I put a lot of effort into expanding my networks and trying to get my music to as many different countries as I can.

How are audiences in Europe different to New Zealand?

I feel that Europe audiences are very musically inquisitive. I had large amounts of people coming to the shows because they saw the poster and were curious, so they googled my music and became fans. It seems like they actively search out music that they enjoy. And it’s the same thing with shows, if they hear a song and like it, they dance.

New Zealand audiences are a bit more reserved, and often have specific taste. In saying that, every city is different so it’s hard to generalise. I just make sure that I am as prepared as possible and try to play my best show each time. I’ve yet to play an all ages gig so I will let you know soon about how that goes.

You’re proud to rep Hamilton. What is the rest of New Zealand missing when they give Hamilton so much shit? Is it really the city of the future?

Hamilton is an interesting case study. It’s one of those places where you have to know at least one or two people. If you see the city unguided, there is not much here. But beneath the surface, there is a lot going on. A lot of great artists have come out of Hamilton, the likes of Katchafire, Kimbra, KVKA, The Datsuns, and many more. Considering how small Hamilton, it’s really an incubator for talent. It’s a shame that so many dope acts leave once they gain traction. But I am an exception to that. Myself and AmmoNation are working on creating a more amalgamated scene out here that showcases how much talent is out here.

Is it harder to build a musical career if you aren’t in Auckland or Wellington?

I don’t think so, not with the internet. Auckland is only an hour and a half away, and if you are dedicated enough, you can still get to studio sessions and shows in Auckland without too much effort. In fact, I think that sometimes living in Auckland or Wellington can be less productive because of the sheer amount of events and things to do.

What artists from Hamilton are we sleeping on?

Damn, where do I start? I’m not sure if they are still as slept on but artist like Blaze the Emperor, Jane Deezy, Stuss, Bobbymajor are the ones I’m keeping an eye on, but there are many more emerging all the time.

You’ve also had the chance to work with up and coming new artists. How important is it to hand down your knowledge?

It’s very important to pass on knowledge. It’s something that we are taught in my culture, and it balances karma. I think that will always be part of who I am as a person, and if I can help someone get closer to their goals, it means I’m contributing in a positive way.

How is that linked to doing an all ages show?

The youth are the most important demographic we have, so it’s a shame I have not had a chance to do an all ages show before. But I hope that I can inspire some young people who are interested in music, but have not had the confidence to pursue it.


The Spinoff’s music content is brought to you by our friends at SparkSeamless (also supported by Spark) is on at The Tuning Fork, Friday 18 August. Buy tickets here or email us at info@thespinoff.co.nz and the first ten to ask nicely will receive a free double pass.

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