Musician, rapper, writer and artist, Fulbright scholar and activist Coco Solid (Ngāpuhi/Samoan) is performing a one-off show at Rhythm & Alps on New Year's Eve. She has a kōrero with Talia Marshall (Ngāti Kuia, Ngāti Rārua, Rangitāne ō Wairau, Ngāti Takihiku) about performing, her Taika Waititi project, and not getting sucked into the matrix.
I don't really get intimidated by many people but even before I met Coco Solid I was a bit in awe. It didn't help that on the way to meet her, my son read out bits of her bio from the backseat of the car, including the fact she is a Capricorn, the no-nonsense, hardworking goat. But it gave me some cosmic context because she has packed in a LOT of mahi into her creative life and I felt scrambled trying to decide which of her talents I should have a kōrero with her about since she is not only a Fulbright scholar and New Zealand Arts Foundation Laureate but a musician and screenwriter/director as well. She also shares art, audio and journalism at KuiniQontrol.com and is the creator of cult cartoon series Aroha Bridge. Besides, it's such a social cliche to find strong, impressive indigenous women intimidating, it gets in the way of learning and I was about to get schooled.
I stopped at the dairy and bought three packets of chocolate biscuits because what self-respecting Māori turns up at a door without kai? And she was gentle and welcoming and maybe a bit shy herself when I arrived, which was a nice surprise. When I asked her about being a Capricorn and all the work she does with others, she laughed and said for Capricorns mahi is love. Plus, she has a lot of Aquarius in her astrological chart, which explains, if you can tolerate astrological explanations of a person's character, why she's so eclectic in her tastes.
And because mahi is love for Coco, we talked about the new talent she is boosting using her record label, with bright young stars like Brown Boy Magik, Samara Alofa and Kotiro under her wing. Her face lit up when I mentioned them but she clarified that sees herself as a novice rather than an expert mentor and this is a conscious position that equalises the tuakana/teina relationship into something less hierarchical than a bossy big sister. Instead of being top-heavy and linear, her relationships with these artists form a feedback loop. It seemed a savvy position to take in an industry that constantly refreshes itself with new blood. By keeping herself humble to those she works with, by admitting that they give her as much as she gives them, it allows her to stay fresh rather than vampiric. It is the kind of paradigm shift that people outside the mainstream have to offer if only our institutions were better tuned to listening. Even something underground like the alternative music scene can become stiff as a business shirt when white dudes have all the say with their droning sad-boy guitars.
And despite her work with Equalise My Vocals, a project that sought to address some of the issues endemic to the masc-dominated music scene, she told me she doesn't see herself as a community organiser, that she can only really speak for herself as she moves through these spaces, it's just that sometimes speaking up might make a difference for others. And I could feel her community around her then, because real organisers don't talk themselves up, they just do. This is what happens, I guess, if the kūmara doesn't crow about its sweetness, which is my favourite whakatauki. And that as much as we can claim to only speak from the I, the indigenous I is a collective consciousness we owe our singular selves to.
This New Year's, Coco will be taking the crew south with her to perform at Rhythm & Alps in Wānaka and will not seem out-of-place with all those kids off their tits in the blistering Central Otago sun. She seems a funny mixture of wise and youthful, an introvert and an extrovert, oscillating between the two to produce her mahi. And having a good time on stage connecting with the audience can be such a buzz. The kind of buzz that feeds an artist like Coco and allows her to go deeper into slow burn projects that she keeps on the down low until they come to fruition. She is currently writing a Māori science fiction series for Taika Waititi's Piki Films, which is another example of those who have experienced success being willing to share it and pass the opportunities on. It's a much better look to share resources instead of hog them, it's a shame that more people with power don't realise this.
I'm far, far too old and musty for any of that music festival carry-on and was more interested in her writing. On the way to her place in the car I'd quizzed my son about what trap rap is and how it mixed with some of her electro-pop, he told me I sounded geriatric, which cemented my desire to ask about her writing work instead. Coco shyly confessed that she has a book coming out next year with Penguin Random House, a hybrid blend of essays and poetry woven into a fictional narrative about three girlfriends surviving in the tropical chaos of Auckland as the streets gentrify around them. The mistakes she learned when in her 20s, those precarious moments she describes as "raw, hard and embarrassing", as she was trying to hustle a living as an artist have composted down enough to feed the book she has been writing for three years. I keep trying to catch her way of talking, but I am not doing it justice here. Coco speaks in startling and surprising images, describing the shifting cultural landscapes of Auckland as quicksand, and potentially that perilous. Gentrification is another word for colonisation, really, and Coco says her friendships sustained her in the chaos, they were a life raft. Coming from tiny gothic Dunedin, I love Auckland, I find it big, brassy and glamorous in its diversity but I observe to her that it must be a terrible city to be poor in, which is partly why these human connections have kept her afloat.
We talked about the risks involved in putting yourself out there in personal essays, especially if the bruises are still showing. But also how the process of moving through the questions and ideas involved in writing an essay can bring up things for the writer they didn't know they needed to share. Those moments when you realise the writing has taken you somewhere you didn't realise you were going to go. I expressed some disenchantment with the politics of the #metoo movement and she reframed this to me as "me au hoki" because most things sound better in reo and I got it then, that exposing our vulnerabilities allows others to feel more comfortable and seen in their skin.
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But these are hectic times driven by a do or die energy and social media just amplifies the fever. I observed that she had been less active on Twitter over the last year and she admitted that these days she prefers Instagram, because it allows her to communicate the parts of herself she chooses to share. She laughed when I asked her if she misses all the likes, since she's a pro at gamifying social media and she was at pains to point out that she is no angel, and could be sharing all over the place next week if she feels like it. I told her that I admired her ability to keep herself safe and she admitted it is something she has worked hard on. She doesn't proselytise but is a pretty good example of how to use social media without letting it use you up, or letting others have an unwanted psychic stake in you. She confessed she finds it hard enough to live in her own head let alone feeling like she is living in everyone else's too.
Twitter can be like crack to writers but she also conceded that learning to be that concise and sharp with its limited character format has honed some of her skills. The challenge then becomes to not let half-cooked funny gags leak out before they are fully done for the sake of a dopamine hit that is satisfying in the short-term but also means you are giving away your best lines for free. She mused that what can seem like a happy accident, that effortless quality the best art seems to have is really the result of a lot of hard work. This made a lot of sense to me and I sat there nodding my big vain, oversharing Leo head. I am always giving away too much for free and her words did not stop me from getting into a terrible Twitter spat the next day with a newly elected MP who struck me as insufferable and arrogant but I have seen what the future could be like if I followed her example and learned to be more contained.
Coco also manages to use words like holistic and kinaesthetic without sounding like a daft hippie. She said that essays are a good way to work through a cosmic suspicion- and I turned over the perfection of that sentiment in the galaxy of my mind. She is proof that big words like sovereignty are there for the taking, whatever medium and industry we move in because the stuff we create belongs to the maker first before it belongs to the world.
Coco does not pretend to speak for anyone except herself and what she says is imbued with the mana of her mixed Ngāpuhi and Samoan roots, it's as compelling as the pictures of her tipuna she sometimes shares on Instagram, because connection is a basic human instinct that she increasingly tries to foster without giving too much of herself away. And it's precisely because she doesn't pretend to speak for anyone else that it has the paradoxical effect of making others feel seen and heard. She laughed about our social media discussion and said that this will sound cornball but you don't want to be sucked into the matrix. Instead of worrying about letting other people muddy her wairua, she has all this water to share and it's clean.
The kids will be able to catch her onstage this summer but I was happy just to leave slightly tipsy with the grace of her words.
- Talia Marshall