When it comes to the New Zealand Music Awards, there's a common question you'll hear each and every year: "who cares?" For people both inside and outside of the local music industry, the event more often than not gets met with an eyeroll. And why wouldn't it? They're the biggest awards of the year, but they're easily the most predictable.
They're also desperately in need of change. Last night, upon being announced as the winner of this year's Best Urban/Hip Hop Album for her stunning record Brown Girl, R&B singer Aaradhna—who is the daughter of an Indian father and Samoan mother—used her acceptance speech as an opportunity to speak out on the frustration and disappointment of being shoved into a category simply because of the colour of her skin.
"So this song is "Brown Girl", and it speaks so many things," she said. "It speaks on racism, and being placed in a box. And for me, I feel like if I was to accept this, I feel like I'm not being truthful in my song.
"And I feel like if you're putting a singer next to a hip hop artist, it's not fair. I'm a singer. I'm not a rapper [and] I'm not a hip hop artist. It feels like I've been placed in the category of brown people. That's what it feels like."
Instead of accepting the award, the Porirua-born musician chose to give it to Onehunga rap crew SWIDT, who were nominated alongside PNC for their debut record SWIDT Vs. Everybody. "I feel like this is the kind of award that is for a hip-hop artist," she said. "And I want to give it to SWIDT, because I believe that you guys are the future of hip hop."
It was a hugely powerful moment, but the conversation itself isn't entirely new. Back in September, Moana Maniapoto (who you should know from her time in Moana and the Moahunters and Moana and the Tribe) issued her own wake-up call to the music industry when she was inducted into the New Zealand Music Hall of Fame.
As she put it herself, when you don't hear someone like you on the radio or see someone like you on TV, it's easy to come to the conclusion that maybe your culture just doesn't matter. It's time we stopped making excuses for it.
Like Moana, who believes we need a quota for Māori music on radio and television, Aaradhna also offered a simple solution to push things forward: ditch the "urban" title entirely (#BREAKING: the word has nothing to do with music, or race for that matter) and instead have separate awards for both New Zealand hip hop and New Zealand R&B/soul. If there's room for a Roots genre—whatever the hell that is meant to be—then surely there's more than enough space to recognise two very different artists regardless of what they look like.
"I had to say it," Aaradhna told RNZ last night. "I had to let it out."
Hopefully this time next year we won't be rolling our eyes so much.
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