The last five years have seen Israel Starr develop into one of the leading lights within Aotearoa’s reggae scene. Gareth Shute caught up with him to discuss his new single with Reality Chant, ‘Future Navigator,’ and the astounding popularity of local reggae music.
Israel Starr has the kind of grassroots support within the reggae community that allows him to tour towns that your average rock band would never dream of visiting. At the end of the month, he’ll be playing Wyong in Australia before starting a November tour that runs through Hastings, Porirua, Rotorua and Gisborne before finally hitting the main centres.
His online success has been just impressive, racking up millions of streams both with his own track ‘Long White Cloud’ with Awa from Nesian Mystik (which received radio play in Hawaii and has been streamed on Spotify 1.2 million times) and via features with artists like Sons of Zion (their early collab ‘Stuck On Stupid’ has now surpassed 4 million streams). He also has family connections to some of the earliest pioneers in local reggae, so it seemed like a good time to get his perspective on the state of the scene and have him introduce his new single.
The Spinoff: Your dad is Mighty Asterix (who fronted the hit single ‘One Love’ from DLT’s breakthrough album, The True School) and you have an uncle who was in Herbs. Did that family background influence your decision to become a musician?
Israel Starr: I had no choice! I was surrounded by music from day one. My uncle Tony Fonoti was in Herbs and sang on amazing tracks like ‘French Letter’ and ‘Dragons and Demons’ while dad was in the Twelve Tribes so I grew up around guys like Che Fu and Chong Nee. I couldn’t have escaped music if I tried. All I’m trying to do is just carry on the legacy that they started and hopefully pass it on to the next generation.
I always remember your dad appearing on the DLT video for ‘One Love’ with his impressively long dreadlocks. Were you ever tempted to follow suit?
I had dreadlocks when I was little actually, but because I played league up until I started playing music seriously about six years ago I was always clean-cut. With dreads, it’s not just a fashion thing. You go on a spiritual journey when you grow your dreads and you have to be ready for it and worthy of it. Having said that, I’ve actually started growing dreads – trying to, anyway!
Rastafarianism started in Jamaica in the 1930s and originally seemed to be driven by ex-slaves trying to create a relationship with Africa, but more importantly, it developed a new reading of the Bible that saw it as the story of an oppressed people trying to find peace. Given that it emerged from such a specific background, why do you think Rastafarianism has been such a big force in Aotearoa over the last forty years?
Obviously, Bob Marley played a big part in that. Not only here in the Pacific, but globally people who have been oppressed have clung onto the message he was sharing because there’s not much other music out there that deals with conscious subjects on a consistent basis.
It’s funny because in Aotearoa a lot of similar beliefs and traditions date back to before Rastafari was even around. Te Kooti and Rua Kenana took the Nazarite vow to not cut your hair, which obviously gives you dreads and they took that vow in the late 1800s. So we had that spirit here already, it just came directly out of the Bible. For me, Rastafari is not a religion as such, it’s a culture – for me being from the Twelve Tribes, we hold Jesus in high regard alongside Rastafari Selassie I.
I think it’s played a role in today’s society in picking up the flag off the ground and holding it high again. You think back to the 1970s and people like Tigi Ness – Che’s dad, who was a Polynesian Panther and Twelve Tribes member. It was a special time in history from the 60s through to the 80s, where people were becoming more conscious of their roots and fighting for their rights. My mum wasn’t allowed to speak Māori when she grew up and now it’s everywhere. So I think Rastafari was wind in the sails of Aotearoa and Pacific people who were struggling to gain their mana back.
Local reggae has been around since that time, but in the 2000s it seemed to gain a new head of steam following the success of Fat Freddy’s Drop and The Black Seeds. At the time it seemed like it would be just a local phenomenon but in the last ten years reggae/dub artists from New Zealand have been finding remarkable overseas success. Even recently, with Sammy J going via Hawaii to find an audience in the US…
Just last week, Fat Freddy’s did three shows in Europe in front of 6000-plus people. Before that, Katchafire did a forty-date tour of the US and sold out half of those shows. It’s amazing. Reggae has been here since the seventies though it did have a bit of a drop in the late nineties, but that Katchafire album, Revival, really did help spark a revival. They really put it in the path of a lot of young people in New Zealand, so big ups to Katchafire, Fat Freddy’s, Black Seeds, and Salmonella Dub because it really opened the door for us. It means someone like Sammy J can tour the US as he did at the end of last year and sell out a show in Las Vegas. This is the dream that rock stars like Shihad had, but they couldn’t even get 50 people to a gig and now we’re going over, through Hawaii, and selling these places out. It’s really cool.
At the same time, we’ve got these massive reggae festivals at home and it’s definitely the biggest genre if you look at the chart history or Spotify statistics etc, but its huge popularity doesn’t seem to be reflected in the amount of press coverage or radio play it gets.
You’re totally right bro. I’ve made it my mission to address that issue and say ‘look here you gatekeepers, get out of our way or I’m kicking the door in’. You’re right, reggae is literally the biggest genre in New Zealand, statistics-wise or in terms of the number of people that come to shows. Fat Freddy’s and Katchafire are some of the biggest bands to have ever come out of New Zealand.
It’s a two-edged sword. People in the industry had this view of reggae as just being successful because of its association with summer festivals, but they’re so far removed from it. Someone like myself can tour all year round and make a living of it. I pay all my bills and still have enough to have a little fun and I’m only half-famous. The reason I can do that is because I can travel one hour from one venue to another then play the next night and get 200 people there because the community will come out to support it. They call it the “Katchafire model” because they did the hard mahi and played everywhere when they first started – they played fifty metres down the road from my house at the rugby club! Now we’re able to reap the rewards of that.
On one hand, it does suck that it doesn’t always get the mainstream recognition it deserves, but it’s also good for reggae because it stops it becoming too commercialised, which allows it to hold onto its conscious roots. That won’t go down so well on radio. Instead, acts like Katchafire and Fat Freddy’s have been found success independently and it’s really worked out for them.
I always wonder if there’s a bit of racism involved in that as well…
There is, but I don’t hold that against anybody in particular. A lot of the gatekeepers in the industry, they haven’t grown up in reggae and they don’t understand it, even if they like the odd song here and there. It’s not their fault, I blame the structure more than the person.
Your new music video for ‘Future Navigator’ is really striking – it really draws a spiritual feel out of the landscape of the South Island and almost makes it appear like an alien world in a science fiction film. The dubbed-out production on the track is really great too.
I’ve known Messenjah [Gabriel Calcott] from Reality Chant for a long while now because he’s jammed with my dad’s band in the past. I can’t speak highly enough of him – he’s one of the best producers in New Zealand and has worked with a lot of international acts too like Luciano and Lutan Fyah – these names might not resonate with you, but globally these artists headline big festivals around the world.
What is the song ‘Future Navigator’ about?
I wrote the song with my dad last year. We were at a party for my thirtieth and jamming on guitar with Dean Hapeta and his brother Matt from Upper Hutt Posse. I always record all my jams because that’s where a lot of my songs come from. I found a melody and almost got into a bit of a spiritual zone – in Rastafari, we refer to it as ‘Selassie on the typewriter.’ A few weeks later I listened to the demo and started writing over it. The song evolved by itself and became about how we have to look backward to know our future.
A lot of governments these days impose a climate of fear on the people, so I’m saying – don’t fear the atomic bomb, don’t fear when the US looks like starting a war with Korea and so on. We’ve been told what is come in ancient scriptures and in the stars, so we know eventually everything will be alright.