New Zealand’s inspirational Savage on Samoan humour, ‘Swing’, his deadbeat dad’s death, and dissing Wiz Khalifa.
“Is that guy from New Zealand? Really? He’s great!” Seth Rogen once exclaimed about Savage before collapsing into laughter like his affectionate Knocked Up character. We were discussing his and Judd Apatow’s accidental father classic: the South Auckland rapper’s ‘Swing’ scored that scene where Rogen hooks up with Katherine Heigl’s hottie on the club dance floor. Like many, they don’t know that before Demetrius Christian Taanuu Savelio’s smash hit made him a star in America, came an extraordinary journey up from South Auckland’s toughest streets.
“I was born a fuckin’ mistake,” Savage growls on ‘All In’. His violent father Sefo Lefe’e Savelio never wanted or loved him. While Demetrius’s mother Aiga was pregnant with him in 1981, she was looked after by a Greek woman. Two decades on, Dawn Raid’s Deceptikonz dropped their pioneering 2002 album Elimination, hitting #2 on the New Zealand charts. The cover art wittily featured Savage sitting holding the sky tower like King Kong. His song ‘Broken Home’, the Once Were Warriors of hip hop, hacked its way into heads like mine, as raw and powerful as a machete:
Brought up in Manurewa was a little rugged kid
I struggled through pain as if I broke a hundred ribs
I was 7 years old eating lunch from garbage tins…
I waited on you until the hours got darker
I just couldn’t believe I had a coward as a father…
Is it true? You never once held me or showed me love…
Because of that you will grow old all alone…
It’s hard for me to stay still and stay calm
I looked into the mirror ripped half of my face off…
It’s Wellington, 2013. Cool and collected, Savage shakes my hand firmly, and takes a seat.
I raise his 2005 debut solo album Moonshine’s ‘Set Me Free’, where he orated about overcoming being a suicidal young man. I thank him for representing on suicide, mentioning a close friend killed himself. “Oh bro,” the big man with a big presence says emotionally, leaning towards me from a comfy black chair. “Wow, no journalist’s ever picked that one out. That was actually my favourite song on Moonshine, particularly close to my heart. I try to reach out to people that are going through the same shit. If I’m not out there letting people know that they’re not alone, then I’m not doing my job, not just as a rapper, but as a human being.” He’s always wanted to give back to the community, particularly to young people. “I came from man, you name it, I pretty much went through it.”
Savage is a focused and engaging subject, confiding vivid truths about his life that haven’t seen print. At his lowest ebb, he tells me, he was homeless and sleeping under bridges, inspiring ‘Set Me Free’. “That song meant set me free from my past and let me go the right way and make something of myself. I was singing about my darkest, darkest hours when I was on the streets, that’s the part where I don’t wanna live. Then to the music side where I’ve actually got something to fight and live for,” he pauses, lowering his voice almost to a whisper, “I don’t wanna be going anymore.”
The earthy, genial guy is wearing a black lavalava, tshirt, glasses and cap, with a sweat-soaked white towel draped around his shoulders. One plain chain around his neck, and well-groomed facial hair. After Elimination, he realised he had to let go of all the anger and hurt about what his father did and didn’t do; it was gnawing away at his insides. “You’ve gotta let go of it,” he says. “A lot of it really fucked me up as a teenager. I did a lot of bad things.”
He was expelled from high school, and got caught up in a cycle of gangs, drug dealing, and violence (“I put myself in a lot of hard situations”). Following serious trouble with gangs (“I had to go into hiding. I had a lot of people after me”) and an ugly confrontation with his father during his grandfather’s headstone unveiling in Samoa, he went back to Auckland resolved to get stuck into recording. “Bro, to be honest ‘Broken Home’ was that song that was me taking all this shit that I bottled in about my old man and putting it out there on tape. The tape got to him in Samoa somehow, and apparently it really hurt him emotionally. My mum would tell me that she heard stories that he was really upset. I just laughed, I was like ‘fuck, I hope he’s upset. I want the world to know what kind of arsehole he was.’”
“I wasn’t going to put ‘Broken Home’ on Elimination, but my Deceptikonz boys sat me down and said, ‘Look, we need to put it on the album. People need to hear your story.’ I thought it was just for me, no one will ever understand this kind of shit,” he says, raising his arms—as he often does— displaying his South Auckland tattoo on his right arm, his Samoa tattoo on his left.
“You will find peace beneath the wood beneath the stone,” ‘Fallen Angels’ kicked off his redemptive journey. In 2008, the song’s totemic line “Against all odds we kiwis do fly” came true. Moonshine’s ‘Swing’ soared through an American music industry decimated by piracy, selling 1.8 million singles (and also featuring on million-seller CD Now That’s What I Call Music Volume 29). ‘Swing’ scored more than 33 million downloads on Savage’s MySpace page, YouTube saw tens of millions of hits and multiple covers—most notably hardcore metallers I Miss May’s. Savage recollects: “I met those guys randomly. They loved the song. Oh man, different lane to hear my verses spat like that.”
Savage laughs plenty during our korero. Humour keeps him going during the years touring the US, beginning with promoting ‘Swing’ and Savage Island during Barack Obama’s 2008 election campaign. Once, at a gig in Utah: “This stoner dude just walks up to me and he’s like, ‘Man, you guys Samoan?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m Samoan, he’s Raratongan.’ He goes, ‘Man, can I hang out with you guys?’ Well you know, I looked at this dude like, this dude’s a weirdo. So I was like, ‘No, get the hell outta here, man.’” Turns out, he chuckles, “it was none other than Wiz Khalifa,” the skinny black rapper behind mega-hits like ‘Black and Yellow’.
Earlier in the afternoon, I watched Savage stand calmly stage-side for a few minutes. Then he went up the steps and energetically performed songs like ‘They Don’t Know‘ and Sione’s Wedding 2’s ‘Wild Out’. The females at the front swoon as his distinctive voice booms from the stage. He commands the stage more than at the pre-2008 gigs I saw. He’s a big guy, but he can move! The crowd’s excitement builds towards ‘Not Many: The Remix’ and ‘Swing’.
“We love watching the pride of fellow South Aucklanders when he demands, ‘South Auckland raise your arms, let me see you throw it up’,” sister hip hop bloggers Penina and Leilani Momoisea tell me later. Mangere Bridge’s Penina recalls a performance of the South Auckland anthem (with David Dallas and Scribe) at 2011’s Rugby World Cup Hub in Mangere before the All Blacks crunched the Wallabies. “From the opening bars where Savage yelled out ‘Pito Saute Aukilagi’—‘South Auckland is the best’ in Samoan—the crowd erupted.”
“I made sure I gave it my all,” Savage remembers recording the humorous classic (since covered by rambunctious Palestinian group Dam) that made his name in Australasia. “In the last year I’ve seen how much people appreciate my music. I’m pretty sure I dropped two kilos out there,” he relaxes into his chair. That reflective moment by the steps? “I always thank the lord for his blessings, to give me enough strength to get up there and put on a good show.”
Being on the road in America with his idols like Akon (‘Locked Up’) and Mississippi’s David Banner (‘Get Like Me’) has lifted his game. “David Banner’s show is absolutely amazing, absolutely crazy.” Busta Rhymes is a formative inspiration who still influences him. “I probably could never capture his energy, but I can energise the crowd. As long as I make music that makes them react like they did today, I’m doing the right thing.”
DJ Sir-vere, the prolific Major Flavours mixtaper, remembers the first time Savage unleashed ‘Swing’ during a soundcheck at Styx Bar, Rotorua. “I was like, Holy fuck, so catchy.” They have been close friends and touring since Savage’s freestyle on MF2 over a decade ago. “He’s just larger than life and hilarious full stop! It’s a continuous ride of laughter and fun and being idiots.” Sir-vere tells me his favourite gig was a packed Dunedin joint on Bath St where Savage climbed on top of the speakers and freestyled over Roots Manuva’s ‘Witness the Fitness’ beats. “The place exploded. I’ll never forget it. Later, he drank me under the table, literally.”
Big Sav tells me he makes bangers like ‘Twerk’ and ‘Tear the Roof Off’ to help people get away from their lives’ stresses, relax, and have fun. “My biggest song is ‘Swing’, but I’m no perverted bastard, by any means. I have daughters.”
His eloquent answers contrast with the lazy caricature of rappers as inarticulate interviewees. He lived in New York during first American album Savage Island’s production. There was too much concrete, too much craziness. “Being a Pacific Islander, I love the sea. I like to see trees and greenery and the ocean. L.A. is a better feeling, more tropical. You’ve got the Pacific Ocean right there and at the back of your mind there’s only one flight to get you home.”
A promoter interrupts. “Sorry, we’ve got a lot of too excited fans who can’t wait for Savage to sign their CDs.” Savage charms my photographer again kissing her on the cheek. “‘Set Me Free’ bro, that brought a smile to my face,” he walks out of the tent. The staffer drives him away on a golf cart.
“Can I ask some more questions?” I run into him after evening falls. “Sure.” We continue talking backstage, leaning on an outdoor table at the edge of Frank Kitts Park, by Wellington Harbour.
The 31-year-old reflects on his colourful thirteen years in music. “My life’s a fucking movie, man. It’s a rollercoaster of a movie.” Mayhem and Miracles was originally called The Orator. This was before Savage heard of Tusi Tamasese’s superb film, which conveyed Samoan culture in its bones. “One thing I noticed that it really captured was our wicked sense of humour.” Samoans laugh first, help second, he chuckles in his understated Samoan way. “Say for instance you see a dude bail down a stack of stairs and he’s hurt, other people will rush to him for aid. I will stand there and laugh my arse off.” The Shawshank Redemption remains his favourite movie. “Powerful. Showed how your determination can get you out.”
He also took his bible, a gift from his mum, wherever he went in America. “I took it with me the whole way. My favourite passage is Psalm 23:4 and that’s what I feel has been my life,” he pauses, reciting each word clearly. “‘Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and your staff, they comfort me.’ My grandfather [Dr Fa’atiga Leota Tautasi, one of Samoa’s first doctors] showed me those lines before he passed away.”
Raised by his sister Antonina Miriama, Savage went looking for church as a teenager. “I went to a Mormon church and when they told me I had to look a certain way, I was like: I truly believe that God accepts me for what I look like the way I am. I went to other churches where they put pressure on you. Like, you’ve just walked into a church and they say, if you don’t repent now you’re going to hell. And have the whole church look at you, like waiting for you to get up. That’s wrong. I got frustrated with churches.”
Then he had a revelation. “It’s in yourself where you’ll find God. The body’s a temple of God. As long as my relationship with God is good no one else can ever judge me or tell me how to be.” He adds: “I’m not a bible basher, I always tell people what I think and that’s about it, it’s all on you… I don’t force church on my kids.” He stalwartly supports his partner’s pastor father’s church.
2004, Mareko’s ‘Stop, Drop and Roll’ is rolling through New Zealand. The National Party keeps attacking hip hop. I interview Dawn Raid producer Brotha D during the Wellington leg of the nationwide Hook Up tour. As a southerly swirled around him in Manners Mall, he was almost bursting with pride for Savage. “If music can change a person’s life, why shouldn’t it?”
Later that year, Savage and his crew were driving to Hamilton. They had the halftime slot at a Warriors game. He recalls taking a cellphone call from his sister. “She starts crying and I go, ‘What’s up?’ And she was like, ‘Dad died.’ And I go ‘Why are you crying?’ Then I told my brother. My brother started crying. I looked at him and I was like, ‘Don’t waste no tears for that dickhead.’ I laughed to be honest. I laughed and I was like, ‘fuck him. He died the way I predicted it to be.’ At the end of the day we all flew over to Samoa to go and help. I wrote a little letter, put it on his casket, I just let him know that I was burying all my burden with him. I was at a point where I was going to change my last name. We all agreed to keep the name [Savelio], but start new.”
Last winter, he released Mayhem and Miracles, his third solo album. His mum, overcoming her chronic alcoholism after a car crash—alluded to in ‘Because of You’—is one miracle. “That lets me know that there is a man up there,” he testifies, glancing up. “Not just that. My mum rings me every now and then spontaneously. In 2007 she rang me one night, she goes, ‘I had a vision that next year you’re gonna sign a multi-million dollar deal with a major label in America.’ I didn’t think in my mind, oh you’re crazy, I just thought, okay, I accept it.” When that deal hit the table, the first person he rang was Aiga.
When he first arrived in America in 2008, another Samoan rapper was dissing him like he wasn’t good enough to be backstage in Utah. “He had a head bigger than a pumpkin. This guy’s ego was so far gone it was unbelievable!” Then David Banner walked round the corner. “He was like ‘What up Savage?’ Then he comes and gives me the biggest hug.” There were other rappers who made fun of his Samoan kiwi accent, or that he was from the Land of Hobbits. The staunch South Aucklander shut them down: “Unfortunately for me, or maybe fortunately for me, I come from the ghetto of New Zealand.”
In mid January, Savage tweeted from Perth: “VERRY URGENT!!! SOME MF STOLE MY FATHER INLAWS CAR WHILE HE HAD 2 PULL OVA N GO INTO AN AMBULANCE ON THE MWAY,” before giving the black ford explorer truck’s details. The next day the vehicle was returned. In late February, he Instagrammed a handwritten letter from Alizé’s Séverine Chomat, thanking him for his endorsement. Infamously, Chomat’s fellow French executive Frederic Rouzaud—then director of Cristal producer Louis Roederer—dissed Jay Z and other top rappers singing about Cristal: “What can we do? We can’t forbid people from buying.” I suggest to Savage that he represents, and also transcends boundaries, at the same time. “Exactly. I’ll take my shirt off my back for you. But that one second that you cross me, it’s game over for you.” His reply is steely like ‘Savagefeel’ on Tha Feelstyle’s Samoan-language Break It To Pieces.
‘I Love the Islands’, Savage’s music video paean to Samoa, became poignant after the 2009 tsunami. “Definitely brought a few tears for me, mostly because I lost members of my extended family in the tsunami.” While filming he’d taken his family to his beautiful home village of Lalomanu. He says after the tsunami struck, it was like a bomb had dropped there. “It was such a sad feeling. It made me wonder where are those kids who were playing with my kids?”
Savage put his hand up to help, he gestures. The highlight of last year’s Flight of the Conchords’ ‘Feel Inside’ video, he led organising relief concerts throughout New Zealand. “It was very personal for myself, and for Scribe, because our [extended] families’ villages were the main villages hit. It was really heartwarming to see Kiwis pulling together to support us.” Don McGlashan, the Finns, and other palagi musicians volunteered, also. “That was such an awesome concert that we did throughout the country and we raised about $350,000 New Zealand dollars, which is a lot of talas. It made me feel so proud to be a Kiwi, man.” He beams that huge Savage smile, optimistic about Samoa’s recovery. “The one thing you can’t kill about our people is our spirit.”
The previous week he flew back (economy) from gigging in Alaska, and at the Las Vegas Sevens. “There were so many Polynesians up there [in Anchorage] I couldn’t believe it. Minus 11 degrees! Wherever there is hard labour that is needed you can guarantee there’s always Polynesians there. We work from the bottom up.”
Savage’s now at the serious stage; his priority is to be a good dad until his time ticks over. “That’s very sacred—it’s my cornerstone. It’s what makes me me.” ‘All In’ let people know what he does is for Skylah, Caleb, and Hailo. He says Hailo’s birth, hearing her voice for the first time, was awe-inspiring. “What it did was it took every emptiness that was inside me to do with my father, to do with a lot of personal shit, was all taken out and filled in with the love of my daughter. A lot of times I say to myself, why didn’t my father feel the love for his own kids that I do for mine?”
More people come backstage hoping to hang with the American star who still tours Taihape, Whakatane, and Otaki. Dawn Raid’s palagi CEO Andy Murnane moseys over and asks him what’s up? Later Murnane tells me he and Brotha D believe Savage is one of New Zealand/Pacific music’s true icons, who should have a Manukau City street named in his honour. “Big heart and big sound, he’s one of the nicest guys we know. He achieved what everyone from the ‘hood dreams about and it should be celebrated loud. Sav has put his career on hold at times just to be with his kids, being a good dad is more important than music.” A couple of weeks on, the Masterton rapper K-One describes NZ Hip Hop All Stars’ January visit to troubled youths before a Perth gig, where they took turns telling their struggles. “We had all come from humble or rough beginnings, but his story really made me think wow! To come from his background and achieve what he has is nothing short of amazing, so I have mad respect for him.”
Savage and Dawn Raid recently parted ways amicably. He argues the cost of a label infrastructure doesn’t make sense for him in the cash squeezed music market. He’s now self-managing on Savage Entertainment, dedicated to singles (“We’ve all got to adapt”). He’s kept his deal with Universal, pushing his catalogue before directors like Apatow. The poker dabbler’s putting chips on a significant American release soon.
Other current projects include hitting the gym (re-signed up by Che Fu, the don of New Zealand hip hop). He featured on populist Maori group JGeeks’ ‘Down Down’. Savage thinks their video—“about Maoris and Islanders and the thin line between them”—is one of the funniest he’s done since ‘Stop, Drop and Roll’. On it he wittily disses: “You Jgeeks look like you’re from the GC.” With Mayhem and Miracles, Savage feels that he’s laid everything out on the table, like he’s closing in on redemption. He looks me straight in the eye. “I don’t want this to sound like a sloppy, sad story.”
Savage’s calling post performing ain’t surprising. “If I don’t evolve like Snoop Dogg’s evolved, I fall off the face of the earth. But hey, I’ve been doing a really good job so far. At the end of the day there’s gonna come a time when I’m gonna have to hang up my gloves,” he smiles, reconciled. He recalls the youth worker who planted the seeds that turned his violent life around. “I truly believe that the man upstairs put me in music, not for me to be famous, not for me to be like [rappers] T.I. or Lil Jon, but to achieve such status that I’ll be able to go back down to help at-risk youth, the kids that need to be inspired.”