NewTracks New Artist: Queen Shirl’e

NewTracks New Artist: Queen Shirl’e

While ‘new’ isn’t quite the right word to describe Tāmaki Makaurau emcee Shirl’e Fruean, aka Queen Shirl’e, she is likely new to many people outside of her south Auckland community, where she is indeed rather well-known and involved with local music as a mentor and artist. Her empowering late 2023 single Stronger, a collab with Lavina Williams, featured on NZ On Air Music‘s NewTracks compilation in November. 

What’s your name, where are you from and what instruments do you play?

My name is Shirl’e Fruean, my artist name is Queen Shirl’e. I was born in Pago Pago, American Samoa, raised as a child in Faleula, Upolu Samoa. In 1986, I migrated to Aotearoa, and south Auckland became my home till this day.

In my youth, I picked up the guitar when one of my church youth leaders, Leone Tuisaula, gifted me one for my birthday. I used to play and sing in front of our church and just jam with other youth all thanks to my mentor Leone. She was an amazing singer and her sister used to play the piano for our choir too, I was inspired by their musical talents too.

I also teamed up with my friend Niko and we formed a garage band. Though he’s now a former Niu FM radio host, back then we were neighbours sharing a passion for music. The band introduced me to the bass guitar, and I quickly fell in love with playing it. Our repertoire included covers from artists like Oasis, Guns N’ Roses, Smashing Pumpkins, and Catatonia. When I tell people I was in a garage rock band they get surprised that I had a taste for rock music, but those artists’ music resonated with me at the time. These days, I get more joy from watching others play and my primary instrument has become my voice.

Was any high school or other music training especially important?

Music and sports definitely saved me from my troubles in the streets. Staying creative was my sanctuary. I gravitated toward joining the school choir and participating in musical productions during intermediate, which played a crucial role in helping me comprehend more about music and finding my voice on stage.

Winning a free recording session at OMAC (Otara Music & Arts Centre) through a school talent quest was a pivotal moment. In intermediate, my best friend Lavina Williams, who was also in my class, showcased her incredible singing talent and guitar skills. We knew she was destined for stardom, and I became an instant fan. Despite being a troubled youth and often distracted, missing out on opportunities, I developed a deep love for learning and education after leaving school, and regretted not staying in school.

Lavina consistently stood out in talent quests, earning numerous music trophies and making a lasting impression on everyone. She played a key role in forming the girl group Mavelle, which became a chart-topping sensation in the ’90s, touring and performing internationally while still in school. I was their biggest fan, often found in the hall watching their rehearsals or prepping for assembly showcases. In my adult years, embracing motherhood reignited my passion for education. I initially enrolled at PIPA, the Pacific Institute of Performing Arts, and later spent two years at Unitec in film school.

One day, while driving around in Māngere I encountered a group of youth asking for cigarettes and alcohol. That moment was a turning point for me, and I felt compelled to make a positive impact on their lives. I saw the talent among these youth, many of whom were skilled dancers and rappers, and came up with a plan to divert them from the streets. I encouraged them to join my musical rap journey, leading to the inception of after-school programmes in south Auckland.

The knowledge gained from PIPA and Unitec inspired me to initiate these youth programmes too. The majority of these first participants graduated, showcasing their talents in front of their families and community, and some even returned to formal education. One student evolved into a Māori TV presenter and now stands as an award-winning makeup artist in film and television.

Motivated by these experiences, I pursued further studies, obtaining a diploma in education and various certificates, including bartending, hospitality, NZ food safety, hairdressing, and even parenting. Education has become my central focus, and I am a dedicated advocate for youth, urging them to stay in school or engage in courses and programmes for continuous learning and growth in their chosen fields.

Any other projects  that we might know you from?

Recently, I won a community leadership award at the Pacific People’s Awards which was sponsored by the Ministry For Pacific Peoples. I’m deeply honoured, and I am incredibly blessed to be acknowledged for the hard work I’ve put into helping our community over the years. However, I had to remind myself that I’m not here for fame, I’m here for my community. From advocating against gun violence and alcohol harm on a few media platforms such as the breakfast show and Tagata Pasifika, then re-launching the Queen Shirl’e Academy with our ‘Bring The Noise’ music and artist development youth programme at OMAC and Māngere Art Centre which was such a huge success.

We also showcased our first academy youth documentary called Threads Of Unity, which premiered at Te Oro Music & Art Centre, OMAC & Māngere Arts Centre. We also initiated the first community youth podcast programmes in South and East Auckland, with over 50 episodes on Spotify under Youth In The Booth. Go check it out, and give us your feedback!

I love giving back to the community and working with the youth, it keeps me grounded and because there is a vital need to help and do something creatively positive for the next generation in these spaces.

You might have also caught my anthem Vacay featured on the film Inky Pinky Ponky. Our song showcases La Coco and Raggadat Cris and the dope beat by PMN programme manager bossman Lui Vilisoni, all incredible musicians. We wrote the song just before Covid, planning to shoot the video together. However, challenges arose – Raggadat Cris was in Australia, La Coco moved to Auckland city, and I was still down south. Despite the obstacles brought by Covid, we made it happen, fueled by our excitement for the collaboration, utilising technology and maintaining good communication. The song is still getting some good responses!

What’s the background of how Queen Shirl’e came to be?

I grew up immersed in music and cultural dance as a kid in Samoa. My great-grandmother, Lakena Fruean, would take me to Church College where I first stepped onto the stage in church productions. School was rich in cultural dance, and life’s rhythm was woven with melodies. When I moved to New Zealand in 1986 I lived with my Auimatagi grandparents in Māngere. I stayed home for a whole year and remember watching RTR Countdown on VHS that my family had. I spent most of my days watching artists like Ardijah, The Herbs, Dave Dobbyn and Annie Crummer, When The Cat’s Away. I became a huge fan of NZ artists. All my uncles were athletes, but it was my uncle Clay, the musical soul of the family, who inspired me. I wanted to be like him, to perform and dive into the world of music.

One day my older sister Nazareen came home with this friendship book loaded with pics of Salt’N’Pepa, MC Lyte, Tone Loc, and Run DMC among other legendary artists, and I was intrigued. I thought they looked cool, and I wanted to know more about their music. Back then, I was also watching flicks like Beat Street and Style Wars, getting into breakdance thanks to my breaking peeps in college. That’s when I knew I had mad love and passion for hip hop. Years later, I was inspired and helped organise three NZ Hip Hop Summits and open up the stage for new emerging artists to showcase their talents. Felt like I was at the peak of it all, for real. It’s been a crazy ride, but it’s also the illest thing that ever happened to me, apart from being a mum.

My teacher Mr McKinley used to call me ‘Motor Mouth’ in class because I never stopped chatting! Turns out rap was my calling, and I knew it was destiny from that point on. The name Queen Shirl’e was given to me by one of my best mates, Sonia McClutchie, who passed away in 2020. She was my biggest supporter and we even wrote a couple of songs together. She came up with the name Queen Shirl’e because she would say I was the number one Queen Hustler from 275 Māngere! And I stuck with it.

I also was going through a spiritual transition in life around then and was ordained a Spiritual Queen in the LDS temple in Hamilton, that validated the name Queen for me, nothing about trying to be the Queen of rap or Queen of anything, it’s spiritual for me.

How has your music evolved from your beginnings in songwriting to now?

My journey in music has been a process of self-discovery. With each song, I pour more of my heart and soul into my lyrics. Collaborating with Lavina on this new song brought a new depth to my writing, as we shared our stories and experiences, enriching the narrative of our friendship and music journey. There are moments when I revisit my older songs, and I cringe a bit, wishing I had done or written certain things differently, but that’s part of the journey, it is what it is.

Aside from this release, what’s been the big highlight to date?

One of the most memorable moments was probably opening up for the Big Daddy Kane concert in Auckland! I vividly remember that night, I was the only female emcee on the lineup and felt a bit scared. However, once I hit that stage, I loved every moment. I wanted to represent the ladies in hip hop here in Aotearoa and show Kane that we deserve respect too. Us ladies are just as vital in hip hop as the dudes. When Kane jumped on stage, he called every emcee in the room to join him in a freestyle cypher. I watched as a few artists got up. Tihei was one of them, an incredible freestyler who messaged me earlier asking for a ticket. He also joined me during my set and delivered an amazing verse during my South Side Killa song, alongside Bkidd, another dope artist who I wanted to put on. Big Daddy Kane asked, “Where are all the emcees of Aotearoa at?”

What was crazy was that I saw some pioneers in the audience, some well-known names, but they didn’t go up. In that moment, I felt my body leaping towards the stage, I had no control over myself. It was as if the hip hop gods had taken over my body. I just remember standing on stage, and then Big Daddy Kane said, “That’s it.” Only four of us ended up in the cypher. All I know is that I got a few high fives on stage and a big hug from Big Daddy Kane. We all did great up there! He was so impressed. I left that night not wanting to wash my shirt or hand.

It was an amazing confirmation that I could do this, I was made for this rap game, and I’m never gonna stop! Ermehn and his beautiful wife came up to me after and gave me mad props, they both said they were proud of me for representing the Southside ladies in hip hop and I did good. That made me feel so proud. RIP to the bro Erhmen who sadly passed away so suddenly this year.

What makes Stronger stand out for you as a single?

Stronger echoes the spirit of resilience. It’s not just a song, it’s a journey and exactly what we are going through in life as Pasifika women in music from South Auckland. The raw emotion, the unyielding beats – it’s a testament to the strength within us all & the years of friendship and bond Lavina and I have beyond music.

What is the story behind Stronger?

It comes straight from the battles we’ve fought. It’s a shoutout to every soul who faced hardship and came out unbroken. It’s our anthem, reminding everyone that we’re toughened by the fire, unshakable and unbeatable.

Inspiration struck me during a moment of clarity while I was grappling with issues in the original version of the song I was working on. Lavina listened to it and said, “Nah, we need to start fresh, infuse more soul, and share our own experiences.” In that instant, I sensed that something extraordinary would emerge from this collaboration. The name for the song served as a reminder of the power within both of us and our community. Evolving over time, it mirrors my experiences and challenges, transforming into a symbol of resilience, strength, and the unbreakable bond between Lavina and me.

What’s your favourite moment, musical or lyrical, of the track?

“You could try to break me at each mile, but I’ll get stronger every time.” When Lavina shared that she crafted these lyrics for the hook based on my journey, it resonated deeply. Few know me as she does, she understands the pain and struggles that define my reality. These words uplift me from despair and heartaches, serving as a constant reminder that I’ll only grow stronger with each battle I face.

Who did you record the single with? 

Lavina introduced me to her amazing producer, Jacob Rush from BigPop Studio. When I arrived she was already in the booth, she sounded amazing. We both started rewriting things and creating it on the spot as we went. It was amazing. the whole process was so exciting, it was so dope, because I’ve always wanted to collaborate with my day one in this way. The whole process was like a dream come true, and Jacob, wow, he is truly phenomenal.

We went through this huge process because a few unforeseen things occurred during the process, so I re-recorded certain parts, and Jacob was just amazing and made this whole process smooth. Putting together the music video with the legendary Shae Sterling, who’s worked with amazing artists like LAB, Stan Walker, even legends like Snoop Dogg and T-Boz from TLC, and tons of other dope artists. I hit him up a day before the shoot, told him I had to drop some dead weight from the track because they were messing around. He’s like, “You gotta write a verse real quick ’cause we’re shooting tomorrow.” Dude had a packed schedule, filming the LAB video that week, so no days off for him. I scrambled to find a studio that was free that day, penned a new verse on the spot. Man, it was a grind, but I got it done. Showed up the next day with the fresh verse and he’s like, “Yo, this is fire!” Big shoutout to Lavina for her support, and my mentor and close friend Petrina Togi-Sa’ena, the producer of the Pacific Music Awards, who also gave me so much love and supportive advice. Had the best crew around me, and that’s how we made it happen.

Even though some folks tried to sabotage our song, the more I vibed to the track, the more I felt empowered to cut off people from my life who were negative. It’s all about backing up the talk with the action. We came to work.

What would you like listeners to take away from this song?

I want them to feel their power. Stronger isn’t just a song about me and Lavina, it’s a mirror reflecting all our strengths. I want people to carry this anthem within, reminding them that they can overcome anything life throws at them.

How do you generally work out what song would make a good single?

It’s all about the energy. When a track gives you chills, when it resonates deep within your soul, that’s when you know it’s a single. It’s about connecting with listeners on a deep level, making them feel the heartbeat of our stories.

Who else is in your team?

Petrina, who has been supporting Pasifika artists for decades has been an amazing mentor. Also being a member of MMF I was able to reach out to a few mentors like Katie Thompson who is like a country singer but such an icon, she gave me so much great advice. DRM have been so supportive. Even though we have been doing this music thing for a long time, there is always something new you learn from every release. I believe in the power of mentorship, so I’m excited to hear some different perspectives and how we can do things differently because it’s all about being unique and authentic.

Are there any other musical endeavours you’re working on we should keep an eye out for?

Yes, I’ll be MCing the Pacific Music Awards and OMAC end-of-year concert in December. After hosting last year, Petrina asked me to host again, and this time we’re providing a platform for emerging artists from my Queen Shirl’e Academy to perform. It’s a significant opportunity for our academy artists. Additionally I’m organising and launching new youth podcast programmes across south and east Auckland through the Queen Shirl’e Academy. 

Can you please name three other local tunes that would fit well on a playlist alongside your song.

  • Leah Faatuai: Cloud 9
  • Tha Movement: Tin City
  • Tree: Afio Ane Loa

Was there an NZOA criterion you struggled with in the application? 

You know, I think for me it’s the whole process. It can be daunting because you have to switch out and copy and paste stuff in, and get the facts. Sometimes you feel like it’s a lot of work to do, and you’re not good enough for these applications. But after filling it out, you realise how proud you are of your journey and how far you’ve come. If you feel like you’re not where you want to be, then this should motivate you to go harder and push yourself, so you can be satisfied with yourself and the work you’re putting out there.

Any musical blogs, Youtube channels or podcasts you’re super into?

I’m currently vibing with Youth In The Booth podcast on Spotify, The Sophia Monologue podcast, Shae Sterling’s Lost NightClubs series on YouTube, and I get into a bit of Love & Hip Hop.’You gotta have balance, aye.

And any final words?

I’d like to share a piece of advice for aspiring artists: Choose to collaborate with individuals who are committed to putting in the work. Don’t waste your time on those who aren’t willing to contribute or have a sense of entitlement. The journey in the music industry can sometimes be lonely, and collaborations might be challenging, especially when finances are involved. Sign up for the various free music industry support services available to assist you along your path. Not everyone will have the privilege of being signed to a major record label, but if you genuinely want to build a career in music, you have to put in the effort.