Navigators: The weekly south Auckland workshop growing the next generation of proud Aotearoa rappers

Budding Ngāti Maniapoto rapper Shekinah Peneha, aka Shaq, wasn't sure she would be welcomed in the male-dominated rap scene. But after joining the free programme held at Ōtara Music Arts Centre in Auckland, she's sure of her place in the game.

The 23-year-old reflected: "I was definitely nervous. But then, when I started playing my music and like them cheering me on, it kind of was like, holy heck, like, actually, this is cool."

Shaq, who hails from different areas of south Auckland, hopes to create a positive impact with her words. 

"Growing up in south Auckland, we're always considered the underbelly, we're always considered, 'Oh the bad place. Lock your doors. Don't go down that area'."

But the young rapper wouldn't leave it at that and has written a track called The South's Got Something to Say, which responds to negative portrayals of south Auckland.

Shaq is proud of her community. "I wouldn't choose any other place in Auckland or New Zealand to live. The culture, the food, the people, it's all beautiful."

In July 2022, Shaq attended her first Navigators session in the hopes of furthering her writing and performance abilities. She stepped up only two months later to perform at her first Navigators showcase in September. 

Since then, her growing confidence has been noted by Tongan sound engineer and Navigators facilitator Rizván Tu'itahi, known by the attendees as Rizzy.

"She was quiet. She was really quiet. We didn't have too many females in the space," said Rizzy.

Having received mentorship from an older family member in his own youth, Rizzy believes strongly that positive leadership can influence the lives of rangatahi for better. 

He noted: "That's the core of our programme - to connect. Yeah, it's more than just a rap music programme or, you know, a little bit of mentoring. It's more just connecting with all walks of life and learning from each other."

Rizzy said those on the programme "love what they're doing". 

"It's being nurtured. And they thrive in the space, because we're there to awhi them, and whakamana and let them know, like, you're doing awesome," Rizzy continued.

Shekinah 'Shaq' Peneha.
Shekinah 'Shaq' Peneha. Photo credit: The Hui

Sitting in a Navigators session, the safe and open intentions of the space are clear. The attendees talk openly about personal achievements, hard days at work; they celebrate Samoa making it to the rugby league final and even share grief for lost loved ones.

Shaq described the closeness of the group. "It's brothers, it's very much brothers. And I'm definitely grateful for having them in my life."

Whilst Shaq sees the Navigators group as brothers, she'd still like to see more wāhine enter the space. "I'm definitely proud to be a wahine Maori and to be a lyricist and a writer and a performer because … I feel like there isn't enough of us."

Shaq stepped up to perform at the Navigators' end-of-year showcase in November, which brought rappers, singers and slam poets from across Tāmaki Makaurau to the stage. 

Rizzy said: "It's just acknowledgement, really. There's some really talented people in this group and they just need the platform to shine."

With young rappers and artists like Shaq being nurtured by experienced musicians, we can only imagine the vibrant audio landscape that our proudly indigenous creatives will pave.

Made with support from Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air.