Team Talk: Chatting with imugi 이무기 and Whaea & The Rumble

imugi 이무기 are a poppin’ two-piece band comprising sunkissed producer Carl Ruwhiu and smooth singer/songwriter Yery Cho. High school friends and bedroom artists, the duo released their first single in 2014. Their debut EP, Vacasian, was self-released just under a year ago. Travelling across synth-pop, R&B, funk and spoken word and embracing themes of biculturalism and empowerment, the EP is a conversation with oneself.

Whaea & The Rumble, consisting of Piripi Mackie (Whaea Ahikā), Siobhan Leilani (Bad Timing, NahBo), and Geneva Alexander-Marsters (SoccerPractise), are a performance group incorporating industrial rhythms and Te Reo Rangatira as a means to express identity and self-discovery. With a distinct indigenous and takatāpui focus, Whaea & The Rumble respond to past and present in order to build a future for a historically silenced voice.

 

“We can be visible and we can be strong, and we can also be vulnerable, and it’s not a problem. It’s going to be fabulous — and scary sometimes.”

 
       imugi (by @wingscollective)                          Whaea & The Rumble

It’s a relatively busy night at Aroy Thai, and we’re sitting down with musicians Yery Cho of imugi 이무기 and Piripi Mackie and Geneva Alexander-Marsters of Whaea & The Rumble. They’ve met before, and what we’d tentatively called an “interview” becomes a free-flowing discussion about music, culture, resistance and community.

Both bands formed casually, with friends Yery and Carl fusing their talents after discovering they had each been making music in private. Geneva, Piripi and Siobhan, meanwhile, were at a gig in The King’s Arms when they started talking to one another in the crowd. “We were like, ‘We should be in a band!’” Geneva remembers, laughing. “‘We should be in a band and we should learn more about being Māori!’ Then when I was leaving I was like, ‘Piripi, what do you want to play in this band?’ And Piripi was like, ‘Poi.’”

Even after imugi 이무기’s first song “Dizzy” enjoyed a positive reception, Yery recalls how nerve-wracking it was at first to be onstage. This was especially when performing in predominantly white spaces; spaces where, as a woman of colour new to the music scene, she felt tokenised or dismissed. She and Carl soon grew more comfortable with carving out a platform for their voices to be heard, which Yery describes now as a “power move”. “You’re onstage and if the audience is mostly white dudes you can collectively cuss everyone out and everyone’s loving it because they’re drunk!” For imugi 이무기, not being too serious is key. Whaea & The Rumble are similar, exploring ideas of culture and self-discovery against a backdrop of club-friendly beats. The three share a relaxed creative process, meeting often to write and chat even when they aren’t necessarily looking to gig. This sense of community forms the backbone of the group. As Geneva tells us: “When you’re onstage, that’s your team, so you gotta trust each other.”

Trust and support may be particularly important for bands like imugi 이무기 and Whaea, whose members belong to marginalised groups. Their emphasis on elevating immigrant, indigenous and takatāpui (Māori and LGBT+) perspectives stem partly from personal experiences of alienation. Growing up with a name that teachers routinely mispronounced, Piripi simply went by “P” at high school before embracing the name in its full form. “Then I guess I kind of … came out as Māori?”

Yery also reflects on the internalised racism she and many friends grappled with in adolescence, when they wished to be white. Geneva is regularly asked where she’s from, requiring her to explain that she’s Ngāti Kahungunu ki Wairoa and has had a Māori education. “But the whole point of being Māori is being connected to your iwi and I’m not. I am, and I’m not. So it’s like I’m actually not from Auckland but I am from Auckland. I call that the grey space. People don’t expect you to have dual cultures and they think that you’re just one thing or another thing.” It’s not just culture that contributes to a complex and often misunderstood identity. Siobhan and Piripi are both takatāpui, which Piripi feels strongly about incorporating into Whaea’s music. “We’re definitely underrepresented people, but we’re trying to do our bit for our people.”

But doing your bit can be draining. 2018 saw a heightened level of social progress on one hand and backlash on the other. Personal struggles became political, stirring anger from people on all ends of the spectrum on issues from the Me Too Movement to immigration. But one thing is clear: Minority groups are speaking back louder than ever, despite how much society might prefer they didn’t. As Yery points out, many in more privileged circles claim that “fighting fire with fire” won’t make change for the oppressed. The implication is that minorities should fight for their rights in a way less threatening to social structures, ensuring a certain “compliance” — which, according to Geneva, means “allowing this shit to just keep coming in waves”. “We’re not going to move forward if we’re all this quiet and complacent and in the corner,” says Piripi. Marginalised communities must strive for meaningful change, which involves not accepting the commodified portrayals of “diversity” promoted by large companies. After several corporate sponsors pulled out of the Auckland Pride Parade following its ban on uniformed officers, supporters turned to crowdfunding: Power to the people, our interviewees agree. We need to keep resisting.

Music is the perfect medium for that resistance. After all, art is political, and musicians have always rallied people against the norm. For Yery, it’s partly about rebelling against stereotypes of East Asian women as “cute” and subservient. “People read you as this small, passive thing. You take these internalised things that people project onto you as you’re growing up and then you’re like, ‘Wait, I’m not that’ and your higher self steps up.” It took a while to be that free, she says, but it’s ultimately such a powerful source of confidence.

Confidence is key to resistance — sometimes just being visible is resistance enough. Whaea & The Rumble recognise this, presenting themselves as an indigenous group and celebrating that through lyrics entirely in Te Reo. This is the celebration that’s often lacking in discussions about indigeneity. On a trip to Australia, Geneva wondered about the line speakers often began with when talking about the land. “They’re like, ‘We acknowledge the people of [this land]…’ It’s this kind of welcome, this performative line where only a handful of people mean it or do their own twist on it, and maybe even mention the actual people of that land,” she says. “There’s no celebration of the present like, ‘Yes! They’re still here. They’re here in this room, they’re in the river, they’re walking around, isn’t it awesome?’”

In the end, the theme that emerges and re-emerges throughout our conversation is community. Yery is grateful for the support imugi 이무기 has received from A Label Called Success, as well as musicians like Dbldbl, COOL TAN, and other creatives she’s lucky to associate with. “You don’t feel like you’re doing it by yourself anymore because you’re watching all these other people who are just thriving. It’s inspiring because we all just feed off each other’s positivity.”

We discuss the fact that there aren’t enough spaces for community to just be. Safe yet stimulating spaces for artists from marginalised groups to heal, express themselves authentically and grow together. Spaces for creativity and empathy where the focus is on positive shared interests. Whether it’s due to the impact of consumerism or the divided socio-political climate, so much of how we form our identity hinges on what we don’t love. What we hate, what we are not about, what we stand against — we advertise these things in order to find like-minded people, with the result that conversations grow relentlessly negative, circular, exhausting. We need more spaces that encourage creating something anew, daring to be positive in a world intent on tearing you down. “Spaces where no one’s talking over each other but you’re all together and you’re all listening.”

Luckily, there are a number of organisations aiming to create those spaces. Yery tells of how volunteering with Shakti — a refuge for migrant and refugee women of Asian, African, and Middle Eastern descent — encouraged her to put in practice the feminist theory she learned from social media. “You know all the discourse but you don’t know how to utilise that in real life, take all this theory that you’ve read and contribute to bringing other people up. Shakti Youth has been so good about that. We’ll have workshops encouraging young women of colour to be fearless and put themselves in leadership positions, and giving them opportunities.”

Similarly, Geneva has been a mentor at Girls Rock Camp, a holiday programme empowering youth through music. It focuses on building confidence in female, transgender and intersex youth between 12 and 17 years old, who meet, form bands, and perform an original song for friends and family. “It’s insane what they come up with. There’s a bunch of us who have kind of come up in our way and we’re like, ‘Man, I wish that we had this.’” As a mentor, though, she’s happy just to watch these teenagers come out of their shell. On the first day at the camp this year, the band Geneva was mentoring started talking about anarchy and fuck the patriarchy. “I was just writing it on the board like, ‘Does anyone know what anarchy is?’ and the drummer’s like, ‘I don’t know what anarchy is!’ and then they explained it to her and she was like, ‘Well… I don’t know about anarchy, but I do think we should save the world.’”

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What world-saving plans do imugi 이무기 and Whaea & The Rumble have for the new year? Imugi 이무기 have been working with A Label Called Success. They’ve got two projects in the works and a music video on the way, along with their debut Laneway performance in January 2019. Whaea & The Rumble are currently writing an album and are about to start producing it.

 

Interview by Anuja Mitra and Janna Tay

Find imugi 이무기 on Facebook, Soundcloud, and Bandcamp.

Find Whaea & The Rumble on Facebook and Instagram.