Twelve Questions
Jennifer Dann poses 12 questions to well-known faces

Twelve Questions with Tigilau Ness

By Jennifer Dann

Musician Tigilau Ness won this year's Vodafone NZ Music Awards roots reggae award. The 61-year-old father of singer Che Fu is a political activist and Polynesian Panther who spent nine months in prison for rioting during the Springbok Tour.
Tigilau Ness says his third album, Blackbirder Dread, is still a call for action. "It's important to show solidarity with oppressed everywhere." Photo / Doug Sherring
Tigilau Ness says his third album, Blackbirder Dread, is still a call for action. "It's important to show solidarity with oppressed everywhere." Photo / Doug Sherring

1 You grew up in Ponsonby in the 1960s. What was your childhood like?

Dad was Niuean from that hard working, hard drinking generation that came here to meet the labour shortage. He died in my arms when I was 6 of what our people called the 'sugar sickness'.

It wasn't well known how to treat diabetes back then. So Mum was a widow raising me and my two sisters. Growing up in Ponsonby you had the choice of either joining a gang or getting beaten.

Mum kept us inside reading books. She was a staunch Christian who taught us to read and write from the Niue bible.

2 How did you first become radicalised?

When I was expelled from Mt Albert Grammar School for not cutting my afro. I had been Dux of Newton Primary and Kowhai Intermediate and excelled academically.

I tried to tell the headmaster that its part of Niuean culture for the eldest boy to grow their hair long but he wouldn't accept it so I stormed out with tears in my eyes. I knew I'd thrown away my education but I was angry too.

There were white surfies from Piha with shoulder length hair and nothing was said to them. Outside there was a group of university students with placards chanting 'racist school'.

They'd heard what was happening and rushed there in support. I started reading books like Malcolm X.

3 Why did you join the Polynesian Panthers?

To help my people. The media called us a gang but we were a politically-motivated, activist community group.

We'd buy vegetables from the markets and distribute them cheaply to people in Ponsonby. We held rent strikes against slum landlords that refused to fix broken pipes and toilets in rat infested houses while charging exorbitant rent.

Education is one of the best ways to get out of the cycle of poverty. I translated Marx's works into Niuean for the People's Voice communist newspaper which we handed out at pubs across Auckland.

David Lange wrote us a legal aid booklet.

4 How did you respond to the Dawn Raids?

We were incensed. Pregnant women were being hauled into central police station in their pyjamas with children to be fed.

All the people who saw that it was wrong - us, ACORD (the Auckland Committee on Racism and Discrimination), the People's Union and HART, got together and dawn raided the politicians.

We went to (a minister's) house in Howick and woke him and his family up with spotlights and loud hailers: "Bring out your passport."

One of politician said, "How can they do this at this untimely hour of the morning?" and we said, "Exactly!"

5 Why were you involved in the Maori Land March and Bastion Point protest?

Through my former wife, Miriama Rauhihi. She was the Panthers' first paid community worker.

We had three children, the oldest is Che Fu. Bastion Point was peaceful resistance. Things became more physical in the fight against apartheid.

Once police started arming themselves and batoning people during the Springbok Tour, protesters had to wear helmets and padding.

The word went out that all those prepared to go to prison should join a group called 'Patu' - the war club, so I did and I fought the police. I was helmeted and padded up and had a 'Stop the Tour' shield.

It's all caught on camera in Merata Mita's film Patu. We tried to break into Eden Park but the police did their baton charge and everybody turned and ran. There were thousands of people running up Dominion Rd.

I happened to be running next to the King Cobra leader and he's looking at me like, "You got us into this, now get us out". So I turned around and he and the rest of the KCs turned around and we charged back down at the police. I realised afterwards that's a counter attack.

The police saw these crazies running at them with bricks and stones and they turned and ran.

6 Only five of the Springbok protesters were jailed. Did you feel unfairly singled out?

No. We felt a kinship with Nelson Mandela and wanted him to know other people on the planet were prepared to be locked up in support. Bishop Tutu came over and made such a great oratory plea for clemency the judge let everybody off but by then we'd already been charged and convicted.

7 You spent nine months in prison. What was that like?

I saw ugly, brutal things in Mt Eden. I was lucky to have a protector, a Polynesian Panther who looked after the five of us. I'd wake up and he'd be at the foot of my bed, guarding me.

The wardens would leave people's cell doors unlocked so that others could deal to them. Gangs ran the prison and the wardens were afraid. They'd do deals with the leaders to protect themselves.

One wealthy guy had a candle-lit dinner with guests in there. The wardens were paid to look the other way. After we got out it was like a dark veil seemed to have come over us.

Because the stigma I couldn't get a job. My marriage ended. It took me ten years to get my music going again. People were afraid of being associated with me because that was the start of police surveillance in this country.

8 When did you become a Rastafarian?

In prison. I had time to read a lot. Malcolm X had said, "I don't believe in no blonde haired blue eyed white devil" but when Bob Marley came along he reiterated what the Bible and my mum had told me. It was like coming home.

Marxism says religion is the opiate of the people - well damn the people need something to believe in. Any faith is fine but you gotta believe in something.

9 Did you meet Bob Marley when he came to Auckland in 1979 to play at Western Springs?

No but the Wailers came over for an umu at my house in Grey Lynn. Bob was still sick back at the motel. That's when I found out Rastafarians are vegan.

My son Che and his mum got to spend a day with the band and go up on stage. What Che remembers most was seeing the Black Power and Mongrel Mob dancing side by side with no aggro.

10 You've just won a Vodafone NZ Music Award for Best Roots Album beating Fat Freddy's Drop and Rob Ruha. Is your third album 'Blackbirder Dread' still a call for action?

Yes, it has to be. It's important to show solidarity with oppressed everywhere. I'd been working on the songs for over two years but I recorded the album in about two weeks with a new line-up of guys from Three Houses Down at Neil Finn's Roundhead Studios.

Reggae will branch out all over the place but as Bunny Wailer says, it all comes back to the roots.

11 How was your recent trip to the USA for the Black Panther's 50th Anniversary?

Great! I got to meet all of my heroes from the 70s. They've mellowed now, a lot teach at universities, but we have a saying "Once a Panther always a Panther".

The theme was 'Where to from here?' and the reply was "We keep on building". It was just before the US election but the attitude was that the problems will escalate either way. We started a new chapter in Oakland, California.

12 Are the Polynesian Panthers still active in Auckland?

Yes, we go into schools regularly to teach kids about our own history. I talk to anthropology students at Auckland University.

I've spent the last six years mentoring young South Auckland fathers who are involved with CYFS and have to do a course to get their children back.

They come as angry young men with no idea of all of parenting but this 14 week course called Mellow Dads really does make a difference and children's lived have been saved.

- NZ Herald

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