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Creating his own legacy: Raiza Biza. Photo/Supplied

Is it Raiza Biza's time to shine?

Having become a hip-hop voice for NZ’s African migrant community, Raiza Biza is cutting loose with new album Bygones.

There’s definitely something of a watershed feeling to Raiza Biza’s latest offering, Bygones.

Having spent much of his 32 years wearing the mantle of pioneer musician for the African diaspora in New Zealand, the Hamilton hip-hop artist is now ready to create his own legacy.

It’s unsurprising that his backstory has made him stand out from the crowd – his family’s departure from Rwanda while his mother was pregnant, his birth in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the years in first Zambia and then South Africa before finally emigrating to Gisborne just as he was becoming a teenager.

Gisborne only lasted a couple of years – “too much of a culture shock” to end up in a city with the same population as the suburb of Johannesburg he’d just left. So, on to Hamilton, and the start of a rapping career that initially focused on how tough it was to forge an identity from such a peripatetic upbringing.

Since 2012, his background has driven four albums and a clutch of EPs and singles from an artist who embraced the streaming culture and the ability to self-promote via the internet as the perfect way to sell his socially conscious message.

The publicity material for Bygones still emphasises Biza’s roots. But when asked to explain why this new album has a far looser, perhaps more commercial, outward-looking feel to it, he’s quick to say the past nine months gestating the nine tracks have been about “shedding the old me”.

“Being one of the pioneering African hip-hop acts in New Zealand has always been the talking point and as I grow older, I realise how that has impacted on me as an individual.

“I felt a certain duty to the younger members of the African diaspora and those that were creatives because when I was younger, I didn’t have anyone who looked like me and who I could point to for my parents and say, ‘Look, I want to be like them.’ We had Scribe and 4 Corners and Deceptikonz, but they didn’t look like me so I felt a responsibility to vocalise my feelings and put them in a way that the younger generation could see how I felt growing up.

“I guess the idea of Bygones is about leaving the past in the past – and what I’ve shed in the past couple of years is this pressure from Dad that ‘you represent all of us and you have to be black-positive’. It’s hard for a kid to deal with that pressure – especially if you’re the only African kid in your town and your parents are saying that you’re the elected representative for the whole nationality.

“So, I’ve left that in the past and I represent myself and those close to me – I can create my own legacy and build my own things to pass on to my kids just the same as my dad passed his down to me.”

The way that works on the album is via far more contemporary production than previous albums – tracks such as City Girl and Funds that are straight-up club bangers, the tongue-in-cheek shot at fame in the smooth groove of Palm Tree, the purposefully slurred and sloppy Paranoid, the killer chorus hook on Self Medicated and the politically minded, star-studded closer, Trouble, which features Sudanese-American rapper Oddisee and Jamaica’s Zenyth.

In Biza’s mind he’s “making the canvas more ugly”, intentionally losing the polish and perfectionism that have been the hallmarks of previous albums. But the effect is huge – and seriously listenable.

“One thing I never understood as a kid is that I heard these records by people such as Jay-Z and I’d be correcting him in my head – replacing his words with a better metaphor or words I thought were better – but now I realise that it’s not about all those technical things, it’s about how he feels it. It’s been tough for me, but now I’m realising that it’s less about telling people something and more about painting a picture and letting them see what they want.”

Bygones may be a watershed album for Biza but it’s still not as progressive as he wants. He says he feared the album he wanted to make was so different from his previous projects that it would only confuse his fans – “so I kind of had to meet in the middle”. But there’s no doubt he’s having fun mixing his soul and jazz influences with more experimental and programmed sounds.

This new direction has also come with a desire to collaborate more outside the hip-hop sphere. He guested on tracks for Jon Toogood on Haja, the second album for the Shihad frontman’s side project, The Adults. Biza says he’s eyeing up the chance to work with Ladi6 and the soulful pop-rock of Leisure.

“I certainly want to work with more rock musicians – I love that whole different approach to writing a song,” he says. “The sky’s the limit for me now. I live in the studio even when I’m off-duty so I just want to widen my creative horizons.”

BYGONES, Raiza Biza (Low Key Source)

★★★★

This article was first published in the October 19, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.