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The Hip-Hop Journo

Sunday, January 11, 2009

HIP-hop is all about telling your story. It's about you, your culture and what you have to say; there's no need to imitate the negative rap out there.

This was some of the advice Fiji's very own international hip-hop artist MC Trey imparted at the free hip-hop workshop last week.

"I think a lot of young people are misguided and think that they have to copy what they hear, like a lot of Americans talking about violence and negativity," she said.

"It's about you, your story; why do you want to tell someone else's story? People around the world want to hear about what you want to say."

The artist, who was born Thelma Thomas, grew up in Lami until she migrated to Western Sydney with her family at age 12. She is today among Australia's top hip-hop artists and is in fact one of Australia's pioneers in hip-hop music. Her works, which include two solo albums and an album with her group Foreign Heights, have drawn her wide acclaim, including an ARIA nomination.

"Sometimes I think of myself as a hip-hop journalist," she shared. Her stories' are about social issues affecting the Pacific and the world; it's about developments that she feels strongly about; it's about motivating and inspiring people.


MC Trey spent time last week with about 12 hip-hop enthusiasts to share whatever skills and know-how she could. It was also an opportunity for her to properly gauge what the local hip-hop scene's about. It's impressed her.

"There's a lot of talent here; the standard's quite high," she said.

"A lot of young people have been practising at home; writing their own lyrics, learning how to make music using computer programs." Based on what she's seen so far, she reckons the strength of young enthusiasts here is their innate rhythm.

"Pacific people have a good internal rhythm; they're natural musicians," she offered.

"Their weakness though is (lyrics) writing. It needs to be developed a bit more; some are advanced though."

The workshop, made possible through Youth Inc Fiji and the Sydney-based youth organisation, Fiji Youth Initiative (FYI), was prompted by e-mails from local youth asking MC Trey for help. "I've always wanted to do this though," said MC Trey, who has been involved in youth empowerment since the late 90s. When they reached out I thought it's time to go; if kids are e-mailing me on Bebo from Suva then there's a need."

Her youth work really began by accident. She and a few hip-hop artists had put together a play titled The Bridge, which was mainly about their music and how it could be channelled to bring about positive change. They toured several detention centres after the main production and it was at these centres that she realised how it engaged young people.

"I realised how important it was for young people to have access and be encouraged to use hip-hop music," she said. She then started her youth advocacy workshops at the Redfern Youth Centre with indigenous young people before going out into other communities.

Such workshops, she says, is to help young people find a voice to express themselves. She helps them develop their lyrics, perform, use digital music programs and record their songs. Last week's one was somewhat special though. Not only is it her first in the land of her birth, but it's a vehicle through which she can urge emerging artists to rap in their mother tongue.There's Spanish, Japanese and even Samoan rap but there's not a full verse rapped in Fijian, Rotuman or Hindi, she pointed out. "They (participants) were not used to the idea but as the days have gone on, they're more comfortable," she knowingly smiled. Less than 100m away, some of the participants were enthusiastically ripping it in Fijian. She admits she has yet to churn out a full Fijian rap. It's something of a challenge as her Fijian is not so polished, she shared, but it should materialise soon.

Right Attitude

So how did this girl, whose first solo gig was at age five at the Butt St church with her father, Abraham, accompanying her on the ukelele, manage to get so far in the fickle music industry? Her go-get attitude. That's by far a large factor for her success. It's a trait she picked up from her dad.

"My father is a hard working person and will not wait for things; he'll go out and do things for himself and he won't take no for an answer and he'll always look for different ways to achieve it," she said. She's the same, she said. If she's told no, she simply looks for another way to get where she wants.

"It doesn't matter where you start," said MC Trey. "It's what you believe in and what you think is possible because once you believe it in your mind, you can make it a reality."

She also credited those who have helped her along the way.

"I guess that's why I kinda like to do it for other people too," she reasoned.

MC Trey always knew music was going to be a big part of her life; she just didn't know how.

At 18, she went to her first open mic at a club. After her performance, two producers in the crowd offered to produce her music if she would perform their pieces. There was also a promoter who asked her to be part of a big event he was hosting a week later. Her performance led her to secure a job as co-host of the television show, Freestyle in Soul Kitchen.

"It's funny how when you believe in something the Lord will always put someone or sends you an opportunity; some of us don't always recognise it," she said.

From television, she continued writing, singing and performing with or alongside other artists, like Lauryn Hill (of the Fugees) and Scribe.

Eventually, she put out two solo albums and formed a three-part hip-hop group called Foreign Heights, with which she did her latest work.

She's working on another solo album now although a large part of her time is spent in youth advocacy.

Her efforts in youth work are ultimately linked to one central message, which is "believe in yourself and persevere".

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