Apart from having one of the most catchy names in Kiwi hip hop, Raiza Biza is one of the most considered and stylish rappers we’ve got. Increasingly dividing his time between his family home in Hamilton and Auckland, the last 18 months have seen him release three full albums via Bandcamp. Sam Carswell caught up with him to ask about AmmoNation and his predilection for keeping it free.
It speaks volumes of the man and his music that, since coming home from interviewing Raiza Biza, all I’ve wanted to do is make tracks. I’ve been listening to his music all day, and am starting to see exactly where the glowing review of his jazz-laced ‘Dream Something’ album from the African hip hop blog was coming from.
This Hamilton musician’s mindset and passion for what he does is infectious. The more we talked, the more he struck me as someone who remains completely unfazed by trends, popularity or outside opinions. He comes off as someone who keeps relentlessly true to himself, and in hip hop especially, that’s no small challenge
It’s easy to attribute such individuality to his roots. Raised in various African countries before emigrating to NZ at 13, many of Raiza’s lyrics reflect on how that move affected his sense of self.
“I feel like when I was younger I was writing a lot from the perspective of an African kid in a new country. Now I’m writing more from the perspective of, say, a Kiwi who has roots in another country – and he’s trying to figure out how that all ties in.”
Initially he felt this lack of a singular national identity was holding him back, but found that through talking about it in his music he could connect with both himself and his audience.
“To tell you the truth, without music, I think I’d be quite a lost person. I’d be kind’a stranded in between two worlds. Having the opportunity to write about so many things that happened in my life, I’m able to put it down on paper and look at it like, ‘Oh wow, that’s actually how I feel’. A lot of the time you don’t know how you feel until you put it down… But as I try to iron things out and make sense of things, it’s made for good records and it makes for an interesting journey to observe.”
Raiza started rapping at 11 years old, but the first stems of inspiration came after being given a Tupac cassette at nine.
“When I got over my initial shock, like, ‘Oh my god, this guy’s swearing so much and talking about guns and stuff’, when I got past that, a lot of Tupac’s stuff is actually quite poetic and quite socially aware. He was talking about a lot of things that were going on in post-apartheid South Africa… so I was intrigued. It’s an interesting art form… Then I got a Bone Thugs’ tape, and I started to slant my hat a bit, and my jeans dropped a little bit,” he laughs.
He’s been influenced heavily by the underground hip hop scene of the ’90s, as well as various other genres outside of hip hop. Names such as Mos Def, Talib Kweli and Nas come up in conversation, the kind of influences not just evident in the music, but in his whole approach to it. Raiza Biza’s three recent albums are free to download, with the physical copies priced so as to just break even with the costs of production and shipping.
“In all of the artists that I admire – painters, poets and whatnot – there’s always been this kind of notion of the money violating the creativity… I’ve always been intrigued by the ‘broke artists’. The struggling, ‘tortured soul’, you know?” he laughs. “It makes for better music.”
In Raiza’s case it certainly has. In a similar way to Young, Gifted and Broke-mates HomeBrew, many of his fans have offered to pay for the music download – a gesture which, contrary to thousands of emerging artists, Raiza doesn’t accept.
“A lot of people ask me, ‘Man, I really want to support your stuff, can I buy something?’ Well, feel free to buy a physical copy, but if you really want to support me, just download it for free and wait until I release my ‘masterpiece’ [he laughs again]… then buy six copies of that.”
At the moment, it’s looking like an official debut album (as opposed to his excellent free debut ‘Dream Something’) should be released mid-next year. As to its masterpiece status, we’ll have to wait and see.
I ask what it was like starting out amongst the hip hop scene in NZ, and he tells me stories about how he would spend money on gas to drive from Hamilton up to Auckland to play half-empty shows for free or, eventually, a couple of beers. Soul destroying surely, but it has paid off.
“It was very difficult, but I look back on those days – which were like, last year [ more laughter] – with fond memories, because that’s what taught me how to perform. You do a hundred shows to hardly anyone and you’re going to be okay when you come to actually doing a show with some people in it.”
As well as that, performing so regularly and in so many different places across both islands has helped him get to know the whole of the nation’s hip hop scene.
“I’m still really progressing at a grassroots level… but even where I’m at, I know so many people, who know so many people, so we all kind of end up knowing each other. The scene is so small and I think that’s what it comes down to, just being a cool person and being humble, and not being a douche bag, basically,” he laughs. “The scene is just too small for that.”
Through his last two releases, ‘Summer’ and ‘Winter Solace’, Raiza’s been brought into the Young, Gifted and Broke fold and also started his own crew – AmmoNation. For him, it’s a way of helping other emerging artists that didn’t exist when he was starting out.
“When I came to NZ… there was no musician, no public figure, who could go, ‘I went through that, and I’m okay’, you know?”
With AmmoNation Raiza is helping younger, newer artists find their place in the scene.
“They’re a collection of young creatives who I saw had a lot of potential, and I had access to a lot of resources that I think I can help them with. I take them into the crew and give them advice and help them structure their releases etcetera, etcetera… So that, [a mentor figure in the underground] is definitely someone I’d like to be. I find it really rewarding to see my friends and my fellow artists progress and build their careers.”
In terms of his own, Raiza’s certainly not doing too badly. He has a quickly growing core fan base who are, to say the least, passionate about his music, and plays packed shows across the nation. That drive for success that pushed him in starting out still remains, but his definition of success has changed.
“I’m not really too concerned about breaking out of the ‘underground mould’, or whatever. My biggest goal is to make timeless music that will still be relevant when I’m gone. That’s the biggest goal. Whether it’s a free album or whether it’s an album released commercially, I want to make timeless music.”