How do our personal histories influence our present identities? Reflecting on his indigenous roots, the New Zealand-born singer-songwriter describes how he came to live his truth.
Noah Slee has bleached his dark curls. “I needed a Beyoncé moment,” he exclaims, laughing. It’s the launch day of the Berlin-based musician’s new single, Soulflower, the first single of Twice, his second record. His guitar in one hand, a glass of prosecco in the other, he wears a beam of satisfaction. It’s been two years since his debut album, Otherland, a striking fusion of R&B and soul that drew inspiration from Slee’s manifold personal experiences. In hindsight, Slee describes it as deep, hopeful, and groovy. “However deep the story, it’s gotta be groovy. It’s my favorite way to write music,” he says. How do the new tunes differ from Otherland? “Not that Otherland was super serious, but I’m more relaxed and don’t give a fuck in terms of what I want to say and how I want to say it,” he says. His audience’s appreciation has given him a lot of confidence, something the EP reflects beyond doubt. In part, it addresses hurdles he recently tackled. Hold on, Stop Me speaks about having three throat operations that, though not life-threatening, burdened him while finding his voice as a musician. “A lot of people have health issues, it’s just part of life,” he says, referring to the fact that he translates his experiences in a breezy way. Because, before everything else, Slee’s work is relatable, and suits almost every scenario. The song also touches on valuing life: “It’s quite self-affirming, too, you know?”
Born in New Zealand to Tongan parents, Slee laid out the foundation of his musical career with Spacifix, the Kiwi pop-funk outfit he joined at the age of 16 and stayed with for eight years. The group of friends and cousins “who jammed together” took world stages, from the UK to Australia. The band’s split allowed him to break free from the restrictions that an existence in the spotlight brings, reinventing himself as a solo artist three years later in Berlin.
A few weeks later, we meet at the production of the music video for Do That, the most upbeat song of the new release. The energy is on fire. Watching him direct about 25 voguers, implementing his own choreography, you almost forget that he is the one to sing. The song is about prioritizing oneself, a “love fest” with so many people involved, he points out. Slee is a people person, having always thrived on collaboration, be it in Berlin or elsewhere. Asked about New Zealand, his relationship to nature instantly takes over the conversation. “Nature is symbolic of who I am as a person, but also of escape,” which explains his immediate getaway to the countryside to complete Twice. Slee’s upbringing was filled with country escapes, to the Polynesian 169-islands nation’s serene, green bush, black sand beaches and dunes. His words dissolve into laughter as he reminisces the yearly visits to the small kingdom: “I was like, I got to go to this place and there is no TV, no computers; we would have to make up stuff with our minds, play with whatever is around.” Slee had dreamt of the bright lights of the city, aspiring to live amongst illuminated skyscrapers rather than in remote landscapes—an enthusiasm he addresses with America. “I was just so intrigued by the American culture. I mean, it runs the world, you know?” Though more than the obvious reasons changed his mind, the song is about having a conversation with himself, to not find too much identity in American culture. “There are so many amazing things going on in the world that I am way more influenced and inspired by. So much about American culture is so commercialized that it’s quite soul destroying.” It urged Slee to question what people idolize, and how such interests shift with personal growth. “Do Americans believe in their American Dream anymore? Is that even a valid statement anymore? I doesn’t really feel like it is anymore.”
“Not that Otherland was super serious, but I’m more relaxed, slash, I don’t give a fuck in terms of what I want to say and how I want to say it.”
Slee’s mother tongue is Tongan. The Polynesian language granted him access to his roots, told through his grandparents’ stories. “There is so much history but it was never written,” Slee says, recalling their nostalgia about pre-colonial times; times when worshipping gods was a daily ritual. “My grandparents would tell us about the importance of being one with the land, that when you come to this place you become renewed. They would also call me by the name of that land I was blessed by; it is attached to your name. At the time, I thought they were all crazy—I didn’t come to terms with what that meant until I was a little older; about respecting earth and how powerful the ocean is.” Slee remembers a ritual practiced by Eua people. The indigenous group strongly believes that the tip of a mountain is where a deceased’s spirit enters a new dimension, symbolized by a meeting of different oceans. He recalls experiencing the ritual in Te Rerenga Wairua, the northwesternmost tip of the Aupouri Peninsula, at the northern end of the North Island of New Zealand. “I was just standing there in awe; it was breathtaking,” he recalls, “Whether you believe in it or not, you feel something. You gotta see it, it’s very powerful.”
New Zealand has recently come under scrutiny for capitalist efforts to demolish such ancestral lands, inhabited by indigenous Māori tribes for over seven centuries. People are taking a stand to protect their heritage in Ihumatao just outside of Auckland, urging the government to stop a housing development. “It’s sacred land, and it’s kind of their last hope,” Slee says, stressing that the attempts are always peaceful. Witnessing it from afar, he says it feels like a broken record. “Every decade, people are fighting for something that is so genuine and what New Zealand is about, trying to bring understanding to the importance of protecting land and heritage for what it is.” In other parts of the country, the Māori people have established legal rights for nature, having gained legal personhood for rivers, forests, and mountains. “The world is at a point where we’re coming back to [nature]. If only indigenous lands were respected for what they were, maybe we wouldn’t be in the crisis that we are. I’m getting heated up now!”
A sense of renewal permeated Slee’s move to Berlin. Originally set to visit Europe for a short stint, he ended up staying. “I could be more myself here, especially in the queer scene. It was very liberating and mind-blowing for me that people can really live their truth, from when they wake up to every point in their lives. I wanted that.” Being from a Christian, Tongan family, and generally a community loyal to conservative values, Berlin aided his personal freedom. He resonated with the local music scene, and soon sealed the deal to work on Otherland, which encapsulates parts of his very personal journey.
Soulflower talks about a previous relationship that ended due to life circumstances. He metaphorized the story with blooms and gorse, two types of flowers that grow on opposite ends of a cliff, with different exposure to sunlight. In Slee’s version, the flowers meet. “It wasn’t a nasty break-up, it just wasn’t meant to be. We still have an appreciation for each other. The song reflects the amazing memories and that there’s still something there,” he says. It describes the beauty of meeting another, juxtaposed with the couple’s incompatibility. “I had to find someone in this patch. It sounds like classism, but it’s not.”
Slee eventually sees himself returning to New Zealand. He gets a thrill out of seeing things connect and is determined to leave his mark on the local cultural scene, which he describes as raw and rich. “I had great people help me in my journey, triggering something and changing my perception, and that constantly happens now through friends, people I look up to,” he says. Moving forward, Slee strives to mimic their collaborative actions to his own music label as well as producing, song writing, or in a booking aspect. He refers to people like Ladi6, a local R&B and soul heavyweight, or long-time friends of his, Bailey Wiley, Melodownz, and Sammy Johnson who have paved the way for Poly-Reggae, a cultural music genre that, according to Slee, survives on its own due to the lack of a decent music industry, while many play it safe by only performing for peer communities. He says that their style exists within a formula, particularizing a certain narrative. [Sings, ‘my girl broke up with me.. Again’]. “I’m kind of seen as an underdog back home,” he chuckles. But Slee knows the hardship of breaking the mold as an artist in New Zealand. Would that hold him back? Unlikely. “There are so many stories that haven’t been told. I want to do it, and do it in the right way.”
“The world is at a point where we’re coming back to [nature]. If only indigenous lands were respected for what they were, maybe we wouldn’t be in the crisis that we are.”
Noah Slee is a Berlin-based neo-soul singer songwriter with Tongan roots. Following his debut album, Otherland, Slee will release his next EP, Twice on 22 November, which includes Soulflower, Still, and Do That.
Text: Ann-Christin Schubert
Photography: Jenny Penas