TARANAKI AH YOUNG-GRACE:
Taranaki Leilani Gutua’iloualofa Ah Young-Grace is a disabled, neurodivergent, multidisciplinary maker based in te Whanganui-ā-Tara. Currently, they work primarily as a musician under the moniker, NahBo, where they write and produce neo-soul/indie-rap tunes to push their decolonial message.
Their work responds to living under a colonial-capitalist state while pushing to dream beyond that to a decolonised, Oceanic future.
Above our Utu whare, perched on the side of the hill, sits our painting studio. Taranaki Ah Young-Grace(they/them) climbs up our little fairy path, bordered by rākau, kawakawa, and rosemary. The kihikihi thrummed in the trees around us, occasionally interrupted by the screech of a Kāka or Tuī song. We seat ourselves around the studio, Maia and Kauri on the bed, Naki at the desk with myself on the floor. The late afternoon sun filled the room with a heavy heat, only made bearable by the breeze drifting through the open door. All around the room sit half done paintings, faces of Māori wāhine and queer tangata watching over us.
Our space was opened with a karakia, the air cleared of previous thoughts, energy dedicated to our wānanga. As always, whakapapa is at the root of all things, so whakapapa is where we start.
Naki laughs, “Pepeha vibes, āe? I guess… I am Taranaki Leilani Gutua’iloualofa Ah Young-Grace but everyone calls me Naki. Whakapapa to Ngāti Ruanui, Ngāti Tūwharetoa, Ngāti Porou through my Dad. Also through my Dad is a bit of Pākeha ancestry, Scottish, Irish, German, and French. On Mum’s side I’m Samoan and Chinese. That’s kinda the pepeha vibes, right?”
The studio fills with shared whakapapa, mutual understanding of where we come from and what makes us who we are.
“And what is it you make?” Kauri asks, eyes warm and smiling.
“Mostly I make music but I’ve done a lot of stuff.” Naki laughs. “I’ve done illustration and design stuff, making jewellery, but usually music…. Perhaps not anymore. Once I release this album I might just yeet myself out of the industry.”
A chorus of “oooooh’s” at the tea. They smile, face cheeky as the trills of a small manu sing through the open window.
“What kept you doing music for so long?” The question feels like it’s floating through the room, buoyant on the heat.
“Well, one,” Naki begins, all matter-of-fact as only Virgo’s can be, “It’s something I’m trained in. I grew up in a middle class situation. My parents were able to get me classical tuition, so from the age of 5 I was playing the Piano for a few years, played the Flute for 8 years, Trombone for 8ish years and then I went to uni and studied Jazz.”
As Huriana often says, it’s hard being friends with tangata who are so talented.
“It’s the skill I have that I can put down on paper.” Naki continues. “I can prove I know how to do that stuff. Obviously it’s a good way to get feelings and things out, cause I’m not great at talking about that stuff all the time, so writing songs is a mean outlet. But that’s kind of it. It’s felt necessary but now I’m reaching a point where I want to have access to other skills. That’s why I’m going back to uni. I want to hone other skills so I can have other ways of expressing myself and … making money. Because Capitalism exists.”
Nobody can help the rueful chuckles that slip from our mouths.
“I may as well be making music because otherwise, what else would I be fucking doing? I’m disabled and on the benefit.” Naki finishes, throwing their hands up with a laugh.
“What is it you wanna explore in your mahi toi outside of music?” I ask, always curious as to what Naki is up to.
“So far I don’t know.” Naki starts thoughtfully. “At the moment I’m just thinking of getting this new album out so I really don’t know. I think once that’s done, it’ll free up the brain space and I’ll be able to think of something else. Who knows, learning new languages I might end up writing music in those new languages, or not.”
(We’ve had a listen to Naki’s upcoming album. Keep an eye out for it this coming Matariki)
“What was it like being Takatāpui navigating the industry with the music you make?”
I shuffled to get comfortable on the rug, looking up at Naki, haloed by the sunlight.The kihikihi sing, a constant comforting ambience to our kōrero.
Naki turns their face, glasses catching the light “It took me ages to release my own music.”
They pause, reaching for a snack. “I don’t know if this is necessarily specific to being Takatāpui. I’d already gotten to the point where I wanted to step away because before I released my music I was working as a session for other people for years. And then the global panini happened. That’s when I put together my first album. I couldn’t perform, I didn’t really wanna put together a band ’cause I’d rather rely on myself. If the pandemic hadn’t happened, I don’t think NahBo would exist the way they do now. Bands? Fun. Making music with other people? Really fun. But also very stressful, with so much politics and social structure stuff it made me tired trying to navigate it and understand it.”
We all nod, relating to that experience, having felt it in other spaces ourselves.
“Why could we not just turn up, do the thing we’re trying to do, shoot the shit and then leave?” Naki continues, “Why does it have to be so dramatic? Usually men would make it like that. Because of how I entered the music scene, studying in the jazz school, I knew a lot of white dudes. I feel like I don’t need to explain how that is. I just became more and more jaded. I’d be facilitating a white man’s music being made, playing these songs and thinking ‘what even is this, what’s it for, why do you need to make music?’” They pause for a moment, nibbling on a carrot stick and hummus.
“I subscribe to this idea found in Ursula Le Guin’s book ‘The Dispossessed’, that people make art because they need to. So with someone that has all their needs met, what is it for? Not that everything has to have utility, but you making art from your cushy perspective, what do you have to say? What do you need to explore? That’s the thing that helps a craft change into an art practice for me, what is your why?”
The room held that truth, all of us in agreement. Dust floated through sunbeams, the small breeze drawing koru patterns out of vape smoke. Down in the garden we could hear the mewl of one of our cats and the rustle of paws through long grass.
“Is NahBo a disruptor?” I ask, lifting my voice slightly to be heard over a tuī whistling right outside the door.
“Oh yes. For sure.” Naki states, pulling on their vape. “NahBo is an Astronesian being who has come from a Polynesian Utopia around 300 years in the future. 300 years because that’s when Star Trek is set and I wanted the excuse to put Jean-luque Picard quotes in there and have it be canonical.” We meet their smile with loud cackling, forcing ourselves to calm down and breathe as they continue.
“NahBo has been shot back into my body and is now experiencing the world through my person, and they’re like ‘Wtf is going on?’. This character knows all the things happening around them are ludicrous which is where a lot of the sarcasm in the lyrics comes from. NahBo is like ‘I knew yous were primitive but I didn’t know it was like this. I cannot believe you’re treating each other in this silly counterproductive way. What are you doing wasting time trying to make fucking oil appealing and profitable?’ NahBo helps me deal with the Existentialism… because when I start thinking about what we’re doing to ourselves I start spiralling… So it turns into a song.”
Naki smiles wryly, fiddling with a stray paintbrush left on the desk. I can’t help but think about past NahBo performances I’ve been to. It’s hard not to think of them as larger performance pieces. If you’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing NahBo perform, you’ll be very familiar with their sardonic political wit. The songs themselves are powerful art pieces, but they become even more nuanced when faced with a diverse audience.
“I used to do this cheeky thing where I’d put all the mental health songs at the beginning of the set, lure people in who relate to that,” Naki pauses, looking over their glasses at us, “I’m talking about white people.” We can’t help but laugh. “Then I’d play all the political landback stuff. All of a sudden those people are stuck at the front having to make eye contact with me. Like ‘yes, this is now about you. Listen to what I have to say.’ Now I try to be a bit more upfront about it. I state throughout that this is what it’s about.”
“With that dynamic, NahBo sets feel like a group performance piece, with the audience not even fully aware that they’re a part of it.” I blurt out. There’s something fascinating about art that play with the social fabric of a room.
“That’s kinda the point,” Naki responds. “Having NahBo as an allis separates ‘onstage me’ from ‘offstage me’. Sometimes it even takes people a while to recognise that they have seen me perform if they meet me offstage. It’s very much a safety thing. Making white people uncomfortable is scary. It’s dangerous. There have been a couple of gigs where I’ve looked out into the crowd and, bar the brown friends I’d brought with me, everyone else was white. I performed the set and it was fine. But that was terrifying. The last thing I want as well, is to start something in the crowd that could be harmful for the other marginalised people that come to my gigs. Which is why I’ve started changing up my banter and letting the music be the controversial thing. Sometimes it slips out in the banter.”
A large spider hangs over the door, the kaitiaki of our studio, weaving complex patterns around a fly she’s caught. A bee finds his way into our space, prompting a question from Kauri.
“Do you have any ritual for coming into that persona and when you come off?”
Tāwhirimātea whistles through the trees around our room, settling just as Naki begins to speak.
“I do have to have a point in the day where I’m by myself, running through the whole set. Things like the banter change depending on the venue and the size of the crowd. I want to get as much of the message across as possible while keeping myself and the crowd safe. If it’s a festival or there’s alcohol at the event, I take that into account as well. It doesn’t take much to set off a tightly packed crowd. Once I’m offstage the character comes off too, it is tiring holding that energy after a while.”
“Is there a song you’d like to speak to?” Kauri questions, no doubt thinking of the album preview we had before we began our interview.
Naki’s eyes drift up to the ceiling, glasses bouncing light rays around the room. They begin thoughtfully, “My song ‘Blue’ is the perfect example of how I wanted to approach this upcoming album. It’s about working through Imposter Syndrome, when you’re losing your sense of purpose. I wrote it the night before releasing my first album, in the midst of an existential crisis.” They laugh, their voice bouncing around the room.
“Who am I? Why am I saying these things? I talk a lot of shit about how people should feel a need to say something in order to be able to call it art. I was in this spiral of ‘What do I need?’ feeling very dark on myself. So I took that and made a song. I just heard a chord progression and from there built up the beat. Then I made a melody on the keyboard, trying to improvise and adjust it for my voice, singing it with random lines I’d written to help find the rhythm. It all came together at once in a very streamlined way. Making the song helped me realise I did actually know what I was doing. I wrote, produced, recorded and mixed it all in one day. It felt like some Tīpuna shit almost. It was all exactly right. The song was almost an awhi for myself.”
Our circle filled with sounds of support and love. What a blessing it is to have such beautiful friends. Naki returns our smiles with one of their own.
“It fits the theme of NahBo as well,” They continue, “It’s ridiculous that so many people will downplay their skills, the more marginalised the worse this gets I think. But I need them to know, you’re clearly skilled at this thing! I know so many people who will say, ‘Oh I just fell into this career’ And I’m like ‘No. That’s so insulting to everyone that’s hired you. People know what they want, else they wouldn’t have hired you. They know you know what you’re doing.’”
Hearty ‘Āe’s sound in tautoko as we soak up their kōrero.
“Imposter Syndrome, I feel is also this side effect of colonisation and capitalism and all these structures we live in!” Naki’s voice lifts as the energy in our space does, “They constantly manufacture this feeling of lack: ‘I can’t possibly be this good’… Obviously there’s a line between being comforted in knowing what you’re good at and being arrogant. But I was classically trained from the age of 12. I was getting good grades. I’m getting the same grades as all these other white musicians. Why do they get to call themselves musicians, artists even, and I still feel weird about it? It’s literally recorded. It’s written down that I was getting some of the highest grades. Who am I to say they’re wrong?”
We can’t help our energy as feelings of validation fill the room. For 15 or so minutes we share our experiences with Imposter Syndrome, how hard it is to battle that voice and how helpful we’ve found it to have a community that validates our work and supports us in our growth. Slowly, we ground ourselves again, settling back into our seats.
Kauri roots themselves “How has it felt moving from Auckland into Takatāpui spaces in Pōneke?” They ask, head tilted away from the harsh sunlight.
Naki tilts their head as well, glasses frames catching the light again “It’s been wild. It felt safer for me to be myself in Pōneke which gave me time to rest and sort out my shit. I knew I wanted to eventually go back to uni, better manage my chronic pain, go to therapy and keep writing music until I went back to Uni.”
“Going back to NahBo as a character from the future, have you ever written any songs from their perspective in their homespace?”
“The instrumentals,” Naki answers, eyebrows lifted, expression cheeky, “They kind of sound like video game music. But they’re supposed to be about the feeling of living over 300 years in the future and they’re a contrast to all the other songs. One of them is called ‘Water Level’. You know when you get to a water level in those old school games and it’s kinda random. It pulls you off the regular story. ‘Here’s a break. You’re gonna do a water level and it’s all bubbly sounding and there’s an instrumental track’. Those songs are like a breather between a set of quite heavy songs. I’m just giving you a break,” They laugh playfully, “here’s a joyful melody for a couple of minutes, and then, we’re gonna dive straight back into the intense anti-colonial shit.”
A nearby Tuī chortles along with us, the rākau outside swaying kihikihi songs through the valley.
“What do you look at to inspire those futuristic soundscapes?” I ask. Tāwhirimātea stirs the air in our room, playing with our hair before slipping out the window. Naki sits in silence for a moment, thinking.
“One thing that seems kinda different about how BIPOC people see Futurism versus Western Futurism is it usually involves a lot of reaching back and reincorporating things. Rather than a clean slate, start again. The textures and the materials might look different but the patterns and the visuals will be the same. Incorporating something traditional plus new ways to use material. For instance if the artist is Māori, drawing someone from 100 years in the future, they’ll be wearing flax but the flax is used differently. Even though flax is something we don’t use as much anymore. It’s far more ‘let’s explore new things with what we have’. It’s about getting closer to the earth rather than further away from it. It’s not about fucking off and colonising another planet in space. Because if we found another Goldilocks planet, there’s no way there won’t be another sentient species on it. That colonial mentality is still there.”
Hearty tautoko fills our circle, all of us nodding in agreement. Indigenous Futurism is always something that will excite us. Naki seems to bounce off our energy, barely pausing before speaking again.
“I feel like we’re kinda at the point with the environmental crisis where a lot of people are gonna die no matter what we do. But once we get past that point, we need to make the conscious decision that we live closer to the earth. Stop treating it like a dead thing. Maybe something more like symbiosis, a reciprocal relationship that is far more sustainable. Make a choice to walk away from the convenience and the speed and live slower, and perhaps that’s the more advanced thing to do. We don’t need more of anything, we don’t need things to be faster, we have enough.”
Sunlight hits one of three glass prisms hanging about the room, small rainbows bouncing over the walls, bees humming around the open window as Naki continues,
“In NahBo’s future we’ve reached that. So in this future, with those songs, it’s like, ‘what am I really saying if all my needs are met?’ That’s why all those songs don’t have lyrics. Because what do I need to talk about? In this oceanic future where I have everything I need, I do what I want, music is just a thing you’d listen to for fun. Why does it need to be talking about anything? And that’s great! I long for the days where the shit that I make is just decoration. I’m not trying to move mountains. I just like the colour green. I’m not struggling to eat, I have housing security and everything is distributed in a way that if I need it I can just walk. And if I can’t walk, there’s a network of people that are willing to help me get it. Music would exist in a way, but not the music I make now.”
We soak in Naki’s whakaaro, our space holding the conversation steady and strong, like a beating heart. A questioning meow travels up to us from further down the garden. Naki turns their head to the door.
“Yes?” They call out. Another meow sounds in response, this time slightly closer.
“He’ll be up in a second once he can figure out where we are.” Kauri laughs, swishing the water in their drink bottle around. We all watch the door for a moment, waiting patiently, only to hear another meow, this time further away. Naki laughs.
“Or he won’t.”
“Will NahBo exist outside music?” I ask, shuffling further over, trying to escape the sun.
“Those illustrations are done in the style of NahBo, thinking about the future. NahBo feels like a very important figure. Kind of like a guide for myself who lives beyond the crisis point that is very quickly approaching.” They pause, thoughtful before continuing on,
“I always think about that Moana Jackson quote that goes along the lines of, ‘the greatest disservice of Colonisation is that it has stolen our people’s ability to dream’. And I agree. Not just for Māori, but all people at this point, it’s stolen our ability to really dream. Dream big beyond what we currently know, like next week’s paycheck or housing security. If everyone was secure in that way, what would we dream of if we didn’t have to worry about that? We used to do that. We used to plan. We’d think about how the landscape would change 150 years from now before we made decisions.”
The room felt like it was vibrating with the heft of their kōrero, all of us in tautoko.
“Being able to dream with NahBo has been the most important part. I think that character will always be around because I need to be able to throw myself into that hopeful futuristic space when I get too cynical. It’s light, purely uplifting for myself. I know other people don’t have the luxury of thinking that far ahead. Not being able to plan a week ahead, a day for some, I’ve been there. And because of this project I can think 300 years into the future. No way is it gonna be like how I’m imagining but at least I can dream about it.”
“Being part of this generation of takatāpui ancestors thinking about the future is amazing! Meeting trans parents and kids, if I’m thinking about that future I have to think about all the children that are being brought up now to live in the future we are now creating. Seeing it actually happen, alternative families so functional and happy, it’s beautiful. This generation is definitely going to see the highest number of people transitioning to elders. I had no role models to look up to until I was at uni. But now we get to be those role models. Seeing all these radical people becoming parents, and teachers, making themselves accessible to younger people is great. If we can keep doing this, supporting each other, building community, we’re already beating all the records.”
They pause, a huge grin on their face. Our kōrero steps away from the questions, travelling along random tangents as blurted ideas inspire a response from another in the group. Kauri sits forward on the bed, the space holding all our thoughts in the present, our words seeming to hum along with the kihikihi.
“Stepping into being Takatāpui, pushing to surround myself with my community, having that community and watching how well we’ve adapted to having to take care of each other,” They interject themselves briefly, “obviously that’s quite sad and it shouldn’t need to be like that,” their hand flails, closing that train of thought, “but we’ve developed such robust and caring community structures. Just today, Members of the community helped me move house!
To this day, Trans people of colour, Indigenous and Black communities are the reason why this society has any semblance of actual community. All of the institutional programming is trying to push you into individualism, to sort all your shit on your own or in a very small nuclear family. Which isn’t sustainable. But as soon as you’re in an alternative community, all those boundaries and weird, superficial, arbitrary rules, don’t apply. Your existence already doesn’t fit into those structures so you’re freer to do whatever you want. In a statistical way we’re more heavily policed or whatever but in a societal way, you’re already a weirdo so whatever you do is weird anyway.” Naki laughs, taking a deep breath before shooting straight into another thought.
“My hot, not-so-hot, take is that straight men are some of the most socially policed gender identities. There are so many incorrect yet elevated role models for them. And it’s rigorous. They aren’t actively policed but socially they must conform to a certain image. If you cry, you’re not a man. Toughen up. If you don’t want these things, or if you don’t treat people this way, you’re not a man. But if you’re queer? Automatically none of those things apply or are expected of you. If you’re trans none of those things apply. Which is freeing. There’s a lot of scary stuff that comes along with it. But ultimately it leaves us free to live how we want.”
A meow sounds off again outside, perhaps in tautoko. Our kitten finds his way inside, walking right into the middle of our circle and lying down, intending to soak up the last hour or so of sun.
“The more we learn about solidarity and how to manaaki people,” Naki began, softly, eyes on the kitten, “the better. None of this mahi is worth anything unless we’re trying to get as many people as possible to the finish line as we can. Moving down here and immediately being surrounded by queer people that weren’t white I was like ‘Oh shit, I have a lot to learn’. But at the same time, it’s safe for me to learn here. It’s safe for me to fuck up, or for me to not be able to do a thing I thought I was able to do, and it’s fine.”
We couldn’t help but cackle. This was a conversation we’d all had amongst ourselves at some point in the past week or so. It’s beautiful hearing your whakaaro validated outside of you. I felt seen.
“If NahBo as an entity was gonna take you back to that astronesian future what would you wanna see?” Kauri asks, bright smiles, taking a cue from our kitten and bathing in the golden hour.
Naki held a moment to think, “I’d just wanna see where everyone lives and how it’s set up. I’d wanna go somewhere with heaps of people so I could talk to them, see what a home would look like. Would people at that point in time even have a permanent home? Would it be marae styles? Is it high density housing or is that not necessary? How much open space is there? Can you get everything you need from just your home or around your home? And then I’d wanna know about public transport.. What’s your power supply? Is electricity still a vibe?” I laugh at the way their thoughts unfolded, and how easily I saw myself in them. That shared Virgo trait of needing to collate potential new information.
The vibrational hum of our space began to slow, setting with the sun. In the last few rays of heat, I asked our last question, “What do you want people to take away from your mahi toi?”
“I guess… One. You can fucking do it. You can make it. If I can do this shit, it’s definitely possible for you to do it. Don’t let people gate-keep this medium of music from you because you can teach yourself how to use it. Two. It just doesn’t have to be like this.” Naki exclaims, throwing their hands up in the air, “That’s literally the main thing. Most of the time, the reason I have this crisis about Jeff Bezos going to space or whatever, it literally doesn’t have to be like this. We can have hope. Radical hope. Even though my music is quite dark I want it to give people hope in a way that lets them think about what they really want and pursue it. Or pursue it in a way the people coming after them can have what they want.”
We sit in that idea for a moment, soaking it in before closing the space with a karakia.
Naki stays for a last cup of tea before setting off down the track of our little fairy garden, taking the last golden rays with them.