Noah Slee Reaches Back To His Tongan 'Otherland'

May 14, 2018
Originally published on May 14, 2018 7:19 pm

You probably haven't heard a Tongan R&B singer before. As far as Noah Slee has come from his complicated upbringing in New Zealand, he also pays tribute to his Polynesian roots on his 2017 debut. The album, Otherland, opens with "Kamata'Anga" — a welcoming chant in Tongan, Slee's native language — before delving into the kind of crisp production and progressive beats you might expect to hear coming out of Berlin, where he lives today.

Slee got his start performing in Polynesian floor shows with his eight siblings. While the sounds of his home region can be heard in Otherland, he says never quite felt comfortable in that environment, in large part because of his sexuality.

"Tonga's actually pretty backward in a lot of things: There's this mixture of really strict Christian values, but then they're still practicing old methods, too. Growing up in this environment, it was tough being gay; it was hard to accept myself," he says. "My brothers all played rugby and I was always the last to be picked."

Eventually, he packed his bags for Berlin. He wrote the song "Sunrise" after "too many long nights" there, caught up in the intensity of the city's music and nightlife. "Sunrise" proved an awakening of sorts: Slee says he realized he'd distanced himself from a culture that, in some ways, understood him best. The album that resulted from these experiences is a collection of his stories — "and what I want people to take away from it is, you know, tell your story. "

All Things Considered intern Miguel Perez contributed to this story.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Neo-soul musician Noah Slee is Tongan.

NOAH SLEE: (Speaking Tongan). What's up? My name's Noah Slee.

KELLY: Originally from New Zealand, Slee grew up learning his culture's traditions. And they are so ingrained in his identity that he opens his latest album "Otherland" with a Tongan chant.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KAMATA'ANGA (INTRO)")

SLEE: (Chanting in Tongan).

One thing we do in our culture is we always have like a welcoming - like an opening speech in a way. And that's basically what I'm doing with that first piece - is I'm welcoming people to who I am musically. And kamata'anga means welcome.

KELLY: Noah Slee says he didn't always feel welcome growing up in New Zealand - or in Berlin where he lives now. We caught up with him at the South by Southwest music festival in Austin. He told us he got his start performing with his eight brothers and sisters - first at family parties and then at corporate events.

SLEE: We used to have a Polynesian floor show. I was singing in that, and it was like traditional singing. And we did dances from different countries like Cook Island, some Hawaiian performances, Maori, Samoan and Tongan. And I think that's where it started for me - grew up singing in church too. And it wasn't until like high school I was like, ah, I really enjoy this. This is something I want to do. I started writing. And, yeah, here I am. Tongan is actually pretty backward in a lot of things. And it's like this mixture of really strict Christian values. But then they're still practicing old methods too. Growing up in this environment was tough. Being gay, it was hard to accept myself in a way because it was, like, definitely a homophobic environment.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TOLD")

SLEE: (Singing) I'm in the middle of the yard. I didn't get picked again. I tell myself it's not my fault.

My brothers all played rugby, and I was always the last to be picked. And there's this word called (speaking Tongan), which is a word for like other. It's not as strong as some other like homophobic words. But it's always something kind of like popped up growing up, and it like just stuck in the back of my mind.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TOLD")

SLEE: (Singing) Still the fight is so raw. I can talk to my blood under all this shining armor. Yeah, is it my fault? What am I running from? It's not enough.

It's something that I'm still learning and - I don't know - dissecting and dealing with on a daily basis. To be honest when I wrote, "Told" it just like happened like that. But I was ready for people to pick up on those themes of coming out and being open. I feel comfortable about it. And I feel chilled about the whole thing. You know, it's just kind of rolls off my tongue now, you know. I'm hoping there's some young kid out there in, like, New Zealand that's just like, yeah, that's my dude. Like, it's time.

I'm grateful for my upbringing in certain ways because it's given me a lot of will. You know, I have so many friends that have just OD'd in the back of my mind, you know. Maybe I do hear certain voices from my past. And just knowing where I'm from and what I represent - you know, just to like not go too deep into things.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUNRISE")

SLEE: (Singing) I can't wait for that morning sunrise.

"Sunrise," I wrote after two many long nights in Berlin. As much as I found myself there, I also hit like a dark spot where I was like hanging out with the wrong crew and caught up in the scene there - this huge drug scene. Parties going forever. It's such an open liberal city. But at the same time, you can drown there pretty easily.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUNRISE")

SLEE: (Singing) Maybe that's why I'm so negative. Letting my hair down too much again, feels like I've reached my fate.

For me, it's important to be around Polynesian people as much as I can. In "Sunrise," I think it's like my realization that I really don't have people that understand me in this way - understand my culture - and also just dealing with being so far and disconnected from family. And to get to New Zealand, it takes a whole year. Listening to this album is definitely just an insight to my life and who I am - my stories. And what I want people to take away from is - I think if anything, you know, tell your story.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RADAR")

SLEE: (Singing) I can't force these things. Now I know I've seen. I've learned. I'm living.

KELLY: That was musician Noah Slee.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RADAR")

SLEE: (Singing) You say that. I have come to terms with what I need. I dream. I dream. I dream. I love it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.