Ladi6 calls out sexism in the New Zealand music industry

by Julie Hill / 01 November, 2017
Photography Darren Meredith

Vocal cord surgery threw her off the promo trail for her new EP, but global acclaim is happening anyway. Now, Ladi6 is calling out music industry sexists and demanding greater diversity.

Ladi6 arrives for our coffee date with Suki, pronounced “sookie”, who is either a Jack Russell or a Fox Terrier, and almost suspiciously well-behaved. Ladi’s fringe and Suki’s tail have been dyed blue in honour of her band’s new EP Royal Blue 3000

She has just played two nights at Leigh Sawmill – along with JessB, Bailey Wiley and Silva MC – in Alpha Sessions III, part of a series in which she improvises new material with her band and invites guests to perform. It was the first all-female session and her first time back on stage since having vocal cord surgery.

“The first night they [the audience] knew my support acts really well, so they were super-young and really drunk. They were so hyped, from the minute Jess went on. There were so many boys, and they’re all singing to Bailey Wiley and they know every single one of her lyrics, like [puts on a deep singing voice] ‘woah, woah, take it from me!’ Then Saturday night was our audience, and everyone was sober by the time it finished.”

Royal Blue 3000 came out in June, at which point Ladi6, henceforth her given name Karoline Tamati, found out she had cysts on her vocal chords that needed to be chopped out, so she wasn’t able to do any promotion. The band then threw out two versions of a music video for the song ‘Royal Blue’ because she didn’t like them. But in the end, none of that mattered, because the EP went gangbusters of its own accord.

“There’s no thought about diversity,” Ladi6 says of music awards shows.

In the US, Mass Appeal delighted over the single ‘Guru’, “a cut that bubbles, ticks and pulsates with undulating keys and insistent hi-hats”, while the website Dampshade favourably compared it to Childish Gambino’s chillaxed ‘Redbone’. US broadcaster NPR, meanwhile, fawned over the track ‘Royal Blue’ as a “psychedelic take on an evergreen dancehall groove”. “We loved that,” Tamati says. “We were so stoked that NPR cared. Because I don’t know why they would, and there’s no reason why they should.” The song has also been nominated for Single of the Year at the Vodafone New Zealand Music Awards.

Via the Alpha Sessions, the Ladi6 band, made up of Tamati, her beatmaker babydad Parks, drummer Julien Dyne and keyboardist Brandon Haru, has found a revolutionary new approach to songwriting that involves spending more time working out material live in public and less time alone in dark spaces. For the band’s three previous albums, “we’d just go into the studio, the boys would send me beats and loops that I’d have to make stuff up to. Eventually it got to be like, how do I do this? It’s not inspiring. I’m just making up any old crap at this point.”

The new regime of live improvisation has, she says, led to an more even distribution of labour, when it comes to songwriting at least, and fewer fights. “It’s not like we openly fight in the studio because we’re all very passive-aggressive, so it’s silence and it’s looks. It’s pathetic. Sometimes you just have to not talk and let the music speak for itself, and that’s a way we can all communicate.” ‘Guru’ and ‘Royal Blue’ both arrived more or less fully formed on stage, and the band decided against fine-tuning them too much.

What’s most exciting, says Tamati, is a new tendency to go upbeat. “In the studio it’s dark, you’re stoned and drinking a bit of whisky, having d&m discussions. You get a bit sad and deep in emotions, then we make the record, and I can’t even sing it because it’s so fucking slow. But all these new songs have got a real tempo to them.”

Royal Blue 3000 is dedicated to Tamati’s cousin Lily, who recently died of peritoneal cancer at the age of 30. The 3000 refers to Lily’s B-girl alias, Ice Cold Lils 3000. Tamati grew up in a large family headed by Losa and Vic, founders of the music and art collective Pacific Underground, who worked with streetkids in Christchurch and Tanzania (Vic now heads the anti-domestic violence campaign It’s Not OK). Lily was Tamati’s cousin on her mum’s side. Their families grew up together, so they were more like sisters. “She was one of the baddest B-girls in New Zealand. Quite often dancers don’t get profiled full stop, let alone breakdancing girls, but she was the baddest by far and still going hard.”

Lily fell ill and died within three weeks. “I honestly thought she was going to make it. With all my heart. So I didn’t realise she was going to pass away and it didn’t occur to me to talk to her about stuff that might be important. One of her dying wishes was, she said ‘all you boys have to make dinner and serve all the women’. There was about 80 of us at her mum and dad’s house. And she died that day.

“It was probably the most terrible time I’ve ever had, and it took me up until a few months ago to not be a horrible mess every time I think about it. But I felt lucky that I could make something that lives forever with her name on it.”

This month, Tamati will take part in a discussion at Auckland Museum on sexism in the music industry. Are there any Harvey Weinsteins lurking in the local music scene? “Totally. It’s already come out about two guys in the hip-hop community [last month producers and DJs Mark Arona and Peter Chambers were found guilty of rape and sexual assault]. So if that’s just the tip of the iceberg – because as we know, most women don’t ever say anything – it’s probably rife here in New Zealand.”

EPs and LPs by Ladi6. Clockwise form top left: Time is Not Much, 2008; The Liberation Of... 2010; Automatic, 2013; Royal Blue 3000, 2017

She says she has always felt protected touring “in the Ladi6 bubble”, or with male musicians like Fat Freddy’s Drop, “who are all like my cousins, or Scribe, who actually is my cousin”. So she asked a Facebook group of musician mums she belongs to about their experiences. (Tamati is mother to 13-year-old chess master, magician and cardistry specialist Philly, who she says thinks “what me and Dad do is not that cool”.)

The women had many stories, “from supporting male artists who say derogatory things about them on stage, about their tits or their weight or shit like that, to promoters following them all the way to their hotel room and trying to force them to give them blow jobs.

“Then you go, what’s the reason behind all of this? You start talking about the patriarchy, the way society has been created from the very get-go. Even at the music awards, it’s not often they’ll say, ‘oh, we’ll get a female guitarist for the backing band’. There’s no thought about diversity. It’s just, ‘we’ll get Ned and we’ll get Jeremy and George and Ralph’. They get an all-boy backing band and then get some models to give out the awards. And why? What is this,
a boxing match? At music awards, why do we need that?”

She’s fine now after her vocal cord surgery, which she says is a result of over-singing. “Teachers get it too when they’re straining-talking, like ‘Timothy! No! Go sit next to Matthew!’ But we’re not covered by ACC. We pay our levies, and this is probably the most common thing for people in my position, so how come we don’t get coverage? It fucking sucks.”

But where there is no accident compensation, there is karma. The doctor who treated her had attended a Ladi6 show many years earlier and loved it, so he gave her a $300 appointment for free, then referred her to another doctor who, because the first one was such a big fan, gave her a big discount too. “So I was super lucky. I feel like, I take it where I can get it.” 

Ladi6 joins Dianne Swann, Geneva Alexander-Marsters, Jessie Moss and Rose Matafeo to talk about sexism in the music industry, at Auckland Museum’s LATE series on Wed 8 Nov.


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