Ethnic People in Commerce
Yesterday, I spoke at the EPICNZ Conference In Auckland, NZ. I co-presented with a panel of local entrepreneurs, Dr Sharad Paul, Emeline Afeaki-Malife'o (Affirming Works, Tupu'anga Coffee, Fale Kofi, Community Cafe) Sen Kong (Zealong Tea) and moderator Sina Wendt-Moore. The focus was 'Leveraging Cultural Diversity'.
I could have spoken about the myriad of roles I have had and how I accomplished the things in my life. But I thought instead I would challenge the audience with 'questioning their perception' of how they see the world. I also read a speech like a child in school, fast, so to awaken them. This is not a drill. Maybe it worked, maybe it didn't.
If you do not understand what leveraging cultural diversity is, you will not be able to implement it into your business practice. As businesses move to a more 'conscious-awareness' space, so too, does your mind state. You cannot have one without the other. Your attempts at doing so will fall short. Implementing cultural diversity for the benefit of your business (customers) and hopefully your employees, is not a light and easy to use tool. A majority of the work is in your intentions.
I'm a gonna leave my speech here so you can take it in, slowly. Read between the lines.
Girls can do anything!
That was the famous 80’s slogan aimed at I imagine all ‘girls’ to get out there and reach for the stars, because anything is possible.
By the age of 4, I knew that I loved to read and sing. Much to my parents dismay, I was always asking them to read to me until I learnt how to read not long after starting pre-school. And I would sing them and myself to sleep every night without fail.
Not long after, my parents divorced. I went from a white-picket fenced home to growing up in what sometimes could best be described by referencing the movie ‘Once were Warriors’.
I grew up in a state housing home, with my Cook Island mother and her English boyfriend. I could cook an entire meal, wash and iron clothes, worked a part time job at our local dairy for food for my family, caught fish off our local wharf, planted and harvested our vegetable garden in the front and back yard with my Mum, and baby-sat my younger siblings all by the age of 10.
So, I guess, for me, I thought at the time. I do lots of things. Not ever giving ‘it’ a second thought.
When I reached intermediate, if I weren’t playing sports, I would be reading.
In one of the little township’s I grew up in, there was a local library that I would visit when it was too cold to play outdoors. There was also a stationary store that had the latest teen adventure books. I would stand for 15 to 20 minutes each day reading the books, not understanding that these books were for sale and not for reading chapters at a time, for free.
By the time I reached 14, and the third year of my high school education. I had moved nine times and lived with several family members. Because I had an Afro and dark skin, I tended to stand out wherever I went. At the time, I hadn’t realised my mere presence could cause such a commotion.
Over the years, I had been called a number of interesting names and received a variety of looks from strangers. I could only assume this was mostly due to the fact I had a large upward growth of hair on top of my head that would not heed to a brush, a comb or a hat. My hair had a mind of it’s own. Not once did I think that ‘their’ perception of my skin colour was the reason that provoked reaction.
One day at school a friend who knew I could rap and sing approached me. She mentioned her sister’s boyfriend was in a rap band and they were looking for a female rapper-singer. Having no inhibitions at the time, I went along after school that day, auditioned – which consisted of me listening to the band rapping about historical and current New Zealand resistance fighters, with a chorus that demanded the listener, like Uncle Bob, to stand up for their rights. My teenage mind only had one thing on it, I was going to hold a microphone in my hand, cue: hairbrush like Michael Jackson, and sing about love and fun things. Um… No.
My time in this band was at the very best awkward. I was the only female around besides, their mothers, their sisters, the groupies and girlfriends. I was the youngest member by four years. I had no peers to share stories with. The band was a group of politically conscious lads and little ole me, with a message, we all believed people needed to hear.
In 1990, I was ‘re-discovered’ by lawyer/singer Moana Maniapoto and her manager, Willie Jackson after a national tour in 1989 with the likes of Herbs, Billy TK, Bunny Walters and the late Josie Rika.
I switched code you could say for a minute, where the kaupapa or objective of the music remained aligned with those from my previous band, but swapping out the sideways cap, basketball sneakers, hoody and anger with fluorescent clothing and synchronised dance steps singing that indeed woman run the world. We just need the rest of the world to acknowledge and understand this. A message delivered with a smile.
For me, it is true, that, to take advantage of potential opportunities, you have to be in the right place at the right time. Most of my professional life played out just like that. But I always strived to better understand the technical side of any work I undertook.
At the age of 17 I was afforded the opportunity to tour Australia after travelling up and down New Zealand several times in a gas station pie smelling van with a group of males.
I travelled to New York, Los Angeles and Detroit with music as the instigator and had dinner with a man whom I was later to understand was the most powerful and feared black man on the planet at the time. He was quite lovely actually.
By the age of 20, I had bought my first house and given birth to my first child.
Not long after, I was offered a job as a television reporter for a children’s show, which launched my image into mainstream television beyond what little presence local rap music had attained at that point in time, upon mainstream audiences eyes and ears. I continued to make music and perform as well as present television.
After five years on people’s TV screens I realised I preferred to be behind the camera.
I understood the impact advertising and self-imagery had on my own psyche, let alone the non-assuming audience I would frequently speak to while doing my weekly grocery shopping. I wanted to tell our own stories, not be the story.
I am self-taught on all sides of music production by reading books and speaking to studio engineers. Interestingly, engineers seemed confused when they would respond to my questions, as they would reply to my partner standing next to me, not actually to me.
There were not any female artists making digital music back then. The early 90’s Auckland music studio scene was inhabited by predominately, geeky pale-skinned males who rarely spoke to women, or saw the sun.
I recall a photo shoot while I was releasing music through BMG an Auckland based German record company. The A & R person left me with the photographer after ensuring I had all my outfits, saying she would come back in an hour or so. The photographer was having issues with not being able to capture my true image. My styling at the time was, strictly, work overalls, work boots, a bikini top, and a work vest. I wore my hair in Bantu knots.
By the time A & R came back to the shoot, my overalls were dropped to my hips and I was holding my breasts in my hands. She absolutely lost it. Told me to put my clothes on, while screaming at the photographer, saying he would never work for them again.
She apologised to me once we were driving in her car at 80km an hour in a 50 km zone.
Furiously, and unconsciously babbling away about her inhibitions. She didn’t know that I had modelled before becoming a solo artist and that my very first photo-shoot at 15 was me standing half-naked with body paint for an international company’s print ad campaign. I was not fazed at all by the photographer’s proposition to capturing my image.
On the drive home, I realised I was still dealing with other people’s perceptions of me.
Over time, I took control of my entire image and laid it out exactly as it was and still is – I am not a ‘perfect’ product.
Don't get me wrong, I understand market segmentation, demographics, psychographics and target markets. But when it comes to me, the artist, I am not interested in marketing myself as something I am not.
I am a daughter, a sister, a mother, a wife and a grandmother.
I constantly gather an arsenal of tools, not just towards work, but also life. Equipping myself for what I require at the time and then filing the information away until I need to pull it out to assist me in whatever situation I come across. I was and still am, an information, hands-on experience and knowledge seeking sponge.
My efficient approach to work and business may make people feel uncomfortable, sometimes incompetent, but that is only because I haven’t learnt ‘how’ to behave, I am just, me.
I was brought up believing I was half Cook Island and half European. It wasn’t until four years ago, that I discovered, my biological father is Jamaican, hence the frizzy hair and dark skin.
Most people see me, how they see themselves in the world. I saw myself as, just me.
I had no issue with ticking the European and Cook Island box in ‘State your Ethnicity’ applications and forms. This is what my mother told me, this is the man who raised me and who I love dearly.
But all my friends and acquaintances found it difficult to hide the surprise when I would introduce my European father to them. It was even more a shock for my European father when I took him out for lunch to let him know that I had found my biological father, living in Seattle, Washington. It appeared that my mother and the rest of the world knew, but my father and I didn’t.
After 39 years of not really looking at myself in the mirror. For the first time, I saw what other people saw. A dark skinned, afro-hair, Cook Island and Jamaican woman.
After decades of superficially squeezing into other peoples expectations, all of this afro-ness was unleashed through tears and emotionally charged inner conversations.
Meeting my late Jamaican father for the first time in 2013 one-wintery Seattle night wearing only a dress and jandals. As soon as I walked in the door of his home, I knew, I too was home.
Out of all his children, my new siblings, I look like him the most. In fact, any person who saw a photo of my father and I sitting next to each other instantly called us twins. I spent the previous 39 years growing up with no one who looked like me. And now, all those aspects in my life I couldn't explain, the things that made me different and possibly unique from my family and friends was answered in a small moment of utter complete clarity.
I believe that I am the total sum of my experiences. My upbringing, my ability to live frugally, to problem solve quickly and calmly, to foresee how an event or programme or reaction will play out before it happens, I respect my elders who deserve to be respected and speak my mind, when I see rationale thinking sinking into the domain of ineptitude. I have a listening ear, and through raising four boys, nurturing by nature, but simultaneously quick on the uptake of being lead towards the road of deception. In fact my children are aware, if mum is smiling, run.
I have achieved more things in 43 years of existence, then most people achieve in their lifetime. Keeping in mind, I was told I was some one else for 39 years, but never let other peoples perceptions of myself, hold me back from whatever I set my mind to do.
Kia orana, my name is Teremoana Rapley, I am a woman, and I can do anything.
L-R: Sen Kong (Zealong Tea), Emeline Afeaki-Maliefe'o (Tupu'anga Coffee), Dr Sharad Paul, Sina Wendt-Moore.