Going back to Samoa was no hip-hop holiday for rap artist Tha Feelstyle. RUSSELL BAILLIE went along for the ride
It's not long after dawn on a Friday in Apia. Kas Futialo, now better known under his nom du hip-hop, Tha Feelstyle, is paying his respects to his late mother.
Hers is one grave of many among those spread across the Samoan capital's main cemetery. Her burial place is plain but it's coming in for some special attention this morning.
As Futialo stands before it in his Sunday best, he is being filmed for the video for his track Su'amalie/Ain't Mad At You.
The resulting near-still shot lasts just a few seconds in the clip - a heartstring-pulling blip among the infectious energy of the bilingual song. But of all the shots that director Chris Graham has grabbed on the run in the three-day shoot, this looks to be the toughest on Futialo.
With the shot in the can the crew pack up the gear. Futialo lingers at the grave, pulling weeds from its edges.
Then it's back into the van, into another change of clothes and off to another location, another set-up, another performance in front of the camera.
Making the video for Su'amalie/Ain't Mad At You in Samoa was Futialo's idea. He was insistent about filming there when his debut album Break It To Pieces recorded with studio partner Andy Morton - was picked up by Auckland's Festival Mushroom Records and they identified it as a potential hit.
Because, to Futialo, it just made sense. The song's chorus might have the quality of a playground chant but there's a serious personal story behind it, and much of the rest of the album.
When he was 10 years old Futialo, who was already being raised by aunts and uncles, was sent to live with more extended family in Wellington. The family at home wanted him to get a better education in New Zealand. He didn't want to go. But now he's reconciled himself to how life turned out.
"Yes, I was really mad for leaving," he says after the shoot is over. "As kids, you haven't got a say in anything. I was thinking from a child's point of view - that's why those kids are singing 'I ain't mad at you'."
"We always had this theory that you have to leave Samoa to get a better education.
"But I've seen people here who barely have nothing and they're still happy. The kids are happy. Everything is still simple because they have nothing else to compare it to.
"I guess it's different for me. I've seen both worlds. I know what is on the other side of the horizon.
"But for me to carry on in New Zealand, or anywhere else in the world, I have to close off some of the open books here back in Samoa."
This is his first time back. He lost touch with his family in the islands in the intervening 20 years. So when he and the video crew arrived, Futialo didn't know his maternal grandfather, the head of the village of Saelimoa where he had spent much of his early childhood, had died 18 months before.
Still, the family that remain at the village welcome him with open arms when he, Morton and the crew turn up unannounced on the previous day.
Actually they embrace him more than once - they're roped in on the video version of the homecoming, seemingly unfazed about having a long-lost relative and a bunch of overheated, clock-watching palagi with cameras turning up to make a hip-hop clip on their doorsteps.
It takes some mild diplomatic manoeuvres to get them to join in.
It helps that Futialo remains a fluent Samoan speaker - "At home we were just encouraged to speak English. But my way of being rebellious was to keep my language". His father Levi, a local taxi-driver, is roped in to act as navigator and go-between.
As the afternoon turns to evening, the pounding intro bars of the track are filmed with the multi-generational extended clan going wild on cue again and again as Futialo turns into Tha Feelstyle and raps straight down the barrel.
Later that night Futialo ponders the craziness of the first day's shoot.
"When they understood who I was, they embraced me. But it was hard, eh? It was very hard for me to perform. These people don't even know what I do and here I am, I have to switch it on. And for me I have to switch myself on and show I know what I'm doing. All the time I was going, 'Make it work, Kas'.
"My grandfather's brother, my old man, the older ones were sitting there going, 'We don't know what he does'. It was a performance I had to give to show I wasn't bluffing. I wasn't just there with the fancy clothes.
"It was like an out-of-body experience or something."
If it was hip-hop that got Futialo home, then he's worked a long time for it.
Balancing it with his other artistic outlet, painting, he's been rapping since the late 80s.
"It was all about missing home. Because all I had was tapes from the islands and most of it was just chanting - they are very similar the traditional music of chanting and beats. So when hip-hop came along I thought, 'I can get into this'.
"It's one of those things you chip away at it, you sharpen it up - and you end up in Samoa shooting a video for a Samoan track."
An early claim to fame was that he beat pioneering outfit Upper Hutt Posse at an early MC battle in Taita.
Back then he went under the moniker RIQ, before joining an ever-mutating bunch of capital city crews - Noise in Effect, Rough Opinion, the Overstayers (with mates DJ Raw and King Kapisi) by which time he took Conscious Navigator as a stage name. Then he switched it to Field Style Orator which eventually morphed into Tha Feelstyle.
He shifted to Auckland to help with King Kapisi's debut album and was guesting on a number of tracks for other artists and remixes being done by Morton. The producer-musician-DJ is one of New Zea-
land music's more valuable backroom players with his work extending from producing Che-Fu's debut album to playing keyboards in Dimmer.
Futialo's own album has been two to three years in the making. It would seem his career might be working on island time.
"I was always helping others first before I decided to take this seriously. I think that is why I decided to move up to Auckland. I wanted to get a good shot at it - just push painting aside for a second and see how many songs I can turn out."
Morton: "I have always found with Kas he always has the patience to wait until it's the right time to do something. Even if it takes 15 years."
Break It To Pieces sounds like it's been time well spent. It's a kaleidoscopic deep'n'funky affair of impressive local guest list including Dimmer's Shayne Carter, the Deceptikonz' Savage, Rhombus' Ahemn Mahal, jazz man Mark De Clive-Lowe and Camillia Temple (recorded before she was famous as NZ Idol's bronze medal winner).
It's a good time to be releasing hip-hop albums in New Zealand, and Samoan ties don't seem to hurt, either. Though, unlike many of his contemporaries, Futialo raps in Samoan as well as English.
"I find in Samoan I have a whole lot of options because they have never been used before. In English you could easily use a phrase that someone has used before. But in the Samoan language, I am the king of the forest."
Morton is cautious about whether the album will break big.
"It's like house prices are going up, and you know you've got a really cool house. You think this could work out but maybe it's not popular with the masses but we know we've made an important album."
Futialo: "Maybe this album won't make sense now but maybe in six years time it will start to sink in with the new generation of islanders or the Samoan kids born in New Zealand."
Well, plenty of Samoan kids already seem to like that Ain't Mad At You song. A few hours after visiting the cemetery, Futialo and crew are at the Vaimea Primary School where he went before being sent to New Zealand.
Futialo and Graham have arranged with the principal to borrow some kids to "sing" in the video. First up, it's a gaggle of 10-year-old girls to replicate the chorus. With an animated Morton manning a ghetto blaster and an imposing woman teacher - "Girls, smile when you sing because if you don't you will look ugly" - acting as choirmaster they have the tune, complete with pointing actions, down in minutes.
They are shot chasing the retreating camera across the schoolground where the rest of the kids are tossing around rugby balls during a sports day. (Memo NZRFU: go recruit now).
It might look like giggly pandemonium from the outside but it looks darn cute on the monitor.
"The kids when they listen to this type of music they've heard of Eminem but they heard this in their language so it's easy for them to understand. They pick it up really quick," says Futialo, happy to be out of shot for once.
Flashback to the day before. Rapper and the crew have driven across from the Apia side of Upolo to the village of Sataoa on the southern coast. We pull up to be greeted by more relatives. Futialo points out a fale (thatched hut) which looks too small for anyone to live in.
It's his birthplace.
He's come a long way to see this.
"It is a long way. At the same time I feel like Alex Haley coming back to trace his roots. I always knew these people existed. I knew where to find them but I needed to find a starting point."
WHO: Tha Feelstyle, Samoan-born, Wellington-raised, Auckland-based hip-hop artist
ALSO KNOWN AS: Kas Futialo
ALSO KNOWN AS: RIQ, Conscious Navigator, Field Style Orator
ALBUM: Break It To Pieces (FMR)