The young Maori man out to slam tired old stereotypes

by Emilia Mazza / 10 May, 2017
Photography Josh Griggs
Rua at home in his bedroom.

Sheldon Rua – dancer, musician, dux of his school, performance poet with hundreds of thousands of online fans – is out to slam tired old stereotypes.

The first thing you notice about Sheldon Rua is that he’s got style to burn. Sure, he’s cool enough to pull off a look mashing up skater street style with hip-hop, but there’s more to it than that: he’s found a way to make that look his very own.

Rua has a huge 1970s-style afro. He’s on his third rendition of the style now – he says his second iteration, which he sported at intermediate, was bigger than this. His look has become less a statement, and more just a part of who he is. As the 18-year-old says, it’s “me just being me”.

The lanky-legged teenager – with Samoan and German ancestry on his dad’s side, and Tainui on his mum’s – is a semi-famous face in his Papakura community, thanks to his efforts as a spoken-word poet. I am Māori, a piece he wrote and performed for an audience that was later uploaded as a Facebook video, clocked up more than 350,000 views last year. He’s also a member of Prestige, a hip-hop dance crew that just won the New Zealand Hip Hop Dance Adult Championship and qualified for Hip Hop International’s world champs.

Rua’s been busting moves ever since he can remember – he thinks he may have attempted his first headspin in kindergarten. Dancing, he says is “in the blood” but developing technique and style has taken practice, and a lot of lessons. His membership with Prestige takes it
up a level.

The crew, along with their leader, Allister Salaivao, work on their moves three times a week for up to three hours at a time. If the pressure’s on in the lead up to the competition, it doesn’t show, at least not on the day I hang out with Rua and his dance mates. The vibe in the gym at the back of Manurewa High School is pretty loose, because breakdancing isn’t built on rigid routines. I watch the crew in action as they joke around and casually drop into moves, which the team “lab” under Salaivao’s guidance, working through ideas like musicians jamming.

Rua shows up for practice in ripped black jeans, a pale-pink t-shirt with ‘Hooligan’ written on the front in white lettering, and white kicks – an outfit that sets him apart a little from his tracksuit-and-t-shirt wearing dance mates, but he’s relaxed about looking different and the attention it brings. He laughs about getting “hit up all the time” by people who want a photo with him. “Some have seen me in ads,” he says (Rua was in an ad for the Auckland Transport Hop card). “Then there are random people that just come up and ask if they can touch my hair.” (He says he’s not too bothered by the hair-curious but won’t stand for any hassle about it). Others tell him they’ve seen the video of I am Māori, and want to explain how the poem made them feel.

I am Māori was borne out of Rua’s growing sense of unease at the effect that stereotyping was beginning to have on him and his friends – in particular, Māori stereotyping. It’s a straitjacket he exhorts his listeners to break out of, just as his mother exhorted him to do when he was a child.

Musician, dancer and performance poet Sheldon Rua has been busting moves ever since he can remember.

Marama Hetaraka is Rua’s mum. She was once a dancer, and is now a social worker for Iosis, a family services programme that operates in Manurewa. Her job means she’s seen how poor choices can wreak destruction on young lives. To counter this, she and Rua’s stepdad, Dave Hetaraka, have worked hard to make sure Rua and his siblings, older brother Zayne (21), younger sister Kyanna (16) – plus the two cousins who live with them, D’Cree (11) and Tipene (8) – have been raised “intently”, she says, “with God definitely at the centre of everything we do”.

What this means for the family, Hetaraka explains, is that they deal with issues openly instead of brushing tough subjects under the carpet. So when Rua came home from school upset after a difficult class discussion on the negative perceptions surrounding Māori, they talked about it. “We were able to speak about our childhood experiences of racism, and judgments and stereotypes, but also about our hopes around change,” she says.

A burning sense of injustice pushed Rua to write. An English class taught him about the power of performance poetry, and allowed him to realise he could “give a voice” to himself and others.

Ramon Narayan heads up Action Education, a youth programme that works to foster creativity in young people. He spent the last two years helping Rua develop his skills as a poet. One of the things the organisation does is to facilitate workshops in partnership with poets from the South Auckland Poets Collective in the lead up to Word – The Front Line, a poetry slam competition between Auckland high schools.

The workshops teach collaboration, Narayan says. Well-established names on the poetry scene like Grace Taylor, Marina Alefosio and Dominic Hoey (aka Tourettes) work with younger writers to help them develop their writing and performance skills. There’s a big emphasis on learning how to work with others as well. 

Rua has been playing gigs as a keyboardist since he was 13.

Rua’s the kind of person Narayan describes as being able to “just go out there and smash life”. His talent is obvious, he says, but it’s the way he gets alongside others to support them that sets him apart.

Rua is a performer, but he’s also a passionate musician who has been gig-ing with bands as a keyboardist since he was 13. In 2015, his reggae band Urban Legacy went through to the judges’ retreat on X-Factor New Zealand, and last year Two Imbue – his neo-soul duo with sister  Kyanna – won the regional finals of the SmokeFree Rockquest in their category.

Davin Tornquist, head of music at Alfriston College, says it was obvious from the outset that Rua was a special student, “not just because of his great attitude towards everything he does, but also because he’s so driven to succeed”.

The drive paid off last year, as Rua aced his last year at school, walking away laden with cups from year 13 prizegiving as well as being named school dux – the first Māori and Pasifika student in Alfriston College’s 13-year history to receive the top award.

“It was one of the most favourite moments in my life,” Rua says of receiving the honour, “and it just set the bar for myself for where I want to go. If I’m able to achieve this, then why not go higher?”

Music is a big part of what’s next. A scholarship through First Foundation is providing the means to study at Auckland’s School of Audio Engineering, where Rua will learn the skills he needs to produce his own music, as well as the ability to produce for others. Rua is attacking it with his customary verve and determination. “Why settle for mediocre when you have this passion of wanting to be great?” he says. “It’s just about wanting to succeed in life, and at the same time bringing others with you and showing that’s a totally okay thing to do.”

I am Māori

Sheldon Rua

I am Māori
Wait, but I’m supposed to be a hori! Right?
Holes in my Warehouse shoes
Sleeves covered in the fact that I don’t have tissues

Or Can’t afford tissues.
I’m supposed to be illiterate right?
Uneducated gangster always looking for a fight
I aspire to be nothing more than a high school
Because I
Was never going to university
Or maybe I’m just too proud
To admit that I need help
To get to university
Or to graduation
Or to year 13
Or my next English class
And apparently my flaws in education is a
“home thing”
So when I don’t achieve it’s a “home thing”
When I play up in class it’s a “home thing”
When I go to school without food and starve
It’s a “home thing”

But a house is not a home
And unfortunately I occupy a house
It’s not even a home
But Dad’s there… drunk
And Mum’s stoned
The only thing in my cupboard is dust but you
still tell me to cook the man some eggs
“Don’t moan or I’ll give you something to
moan about”

Ehara au I te rangatahi Māori
Rite ki ratou nanakia ana

So yeah, I am a Māori
But I am unfamiliar to hollow homes
I am unfamiliar to dusty cupboards and empty
Unfamiliar to the pain which stains the eyes of
my people like paint
Black, and blue
Which stains the minds of my people into thinking that
Living like this is something we choose

These stains may remain but

They don’t have to

My tama I’m talking to you
These stains may remain but they never, ever,
have to
My wahine I am talking to you
And I hope this gets through

You can resent me now
Say that I don’t know what the hell I am talking
Because of where I live and what I do
And maybe I haven’t experienced life like you
And maybe your shoes are a bit too big for me

But in reality
I’m a Māori
The same as you
And yeah I realise this reality is of some not all
But regardless of your reality
People will still throw in the same box as the
Māori next door

Regardless of your reality
You can go from broken bones to broken boxes
You can go from broken homes to broken

I have proof
I still see the snotty nosed Māori girl in my
mother’s eyes
She lives just down the road
Only this time she looks grown
She learnt to handle her own
Whilst steering the handlebars of my life she helped build
Solid like stone
I put my mother on a pedestal
For showing me how to pedal through pitiful
points of view of my people
And as I cycle my way through cycles of cynicism
I’ve noticed
That stereotypes, they don’t change

But people do

Tangata Whenua I pray that is you


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