Ladi6: My story as told to Elisabeth Easther

Karoline Fuarosa Park-Tamati – aka Ladi6 – is one of New Zealand’s best-loved recording artists. From her early days with Sheelahroc, to her pioneering work as a female hip hop artist, multi-award-winning Ladi6 is currently touring The Alpha Sessions. Wellington, Meow, August 7, Auckland, Phoenix Cabaret. August 12 &13.

As a child, I was a natural show-off. I was also a real perfectionist, and was top of the class for a big chunk of my primary years. I loved being the leader, the loudest, the bravest. I was out there all the way. I was the fifth of six children and I and my little sister were always thought of as “the baby”, even though there were two of us. We were constantly pandered to, but not pampered, and our parents would always say: “Think about the little girls. What about their lunch? Where are their shoes and socks?” My parents worked constantly, but we were constantly on their minds, we knew we were special.

My Dad is that guy who gives everyone a nickname. All my siblings had nicknames but only two stuck. Kristy is Cookie and I’m Ladi. He gave it to me the day I was born. Because there were complications, dad was worried, and he started getting aggressive so was banned to the hallway and the door was shut. Dad stared at this door that said Ladies In Waiting. When I came, Dad said, “This is the Ladi we’ve been waiting for.” And that’s how I became Ladi. The 6 came later.

We lived in Aranui, across the way from Sumner and Mt Pleasant. I’d see their lights from my window and imagine it was Hollywood and that one day I’d go there and be a big star. And because Mum used to have all the fashions and glamorous big chunky pieces of jewellery when I was little, I’d dress up and put on her lipstick and pretend I was from Gloss. I always hoped I’d be glamorous and famous.

Mum and Dad both had really shocking childhoods which led them to struggle to control certain behaviours as adults. Dad was a violent man, but was also very fun. He was the funnest dad with a very quiet rage. Mum was louder, she controlled the runnings of our house, and Dad was the force. Eventually, through working as youth social workers, they began to heal themselves while learning how to heal others. They learnt new ways to communicate, and investigated certain issues with their own childhoods. As Mum and Dad shared their stories, and told us about their childhood traumas, slowly as a family, we all changed together.

This started happening around 1990, and family meetings were introduced into our household, as opposed to being dictated to, or given hidings, and there were some bad ones. Dad went to anger management, Mum went to rehab for co-dependency and we began a journey of no more violence in our household. Sometimes I’d think, “Please give me a hiding already,” because all this talking is endlessly painful. My little sister and I once got a lecture about a party we snuck off to and lied about. They talked to us for hours about the dangers, breaking down our thought processes. After a while I just wished they’d hit us and be done with it.

Mum loved musicals and African-American movies like The Colour Purple. She had this idea that Africa was the motherland and we’d go there one day. Then, in 1995, based on work he’d done in Christchurch, Dad was headhunted by Volunteer Service Abroad to go to Tanzania to work with street children. As Mum was a social worker, they wanted her to go too. She was beside herself with this opportunity to return to Africa, where she felt our people had an affinity — although my mother and father are both 100 per cent Samoan.

I was 16 at the time, and had the hugest meltdown. Africa? It was the first time I ever swore at my parents, I was so upset. I had a really close friend group, I was on the phone 24/7 with my mates, I had a social life, I didn’t want to leave. So I slammed the door, walked the dog for an hour, then came back. They said we are going and Bonni and I were plucked out of school.

We were really well looked after, but it felt like going to another planet. Some nights there’d be 60 or so people standing along the fence, looking into our house, just watching us, so the first thing Mum did was get curtains. While we were there, I missed everything about New Zealand but, when we got home 18 months later, I got another culture shock, and realised how awesome it was and I missed Tanzania. That feeling lasted years.

Once back from Africa, I got a job at McDonald’s and because my older sister was passionate about hip hop culture, I found rap, and that was that, I’d found my thing. And because Mum ran all these after-school programmes, dance and drama that we all attended while growing up, I already understood a few key factors about performance. One was the importance of rehearsal and I had this hardcore work ethic. I made my first group, Sheelahroc, practise ridiculously hard, religiously. The girls would come round, we’d grab hairbrushes as mics, turn on the beats and stand in front of the mirror. It was our passion. I knew if we practised hard enough and got the right music, we couldn’t fail. By the time we did our first gig, we had a super-tight 20-minute set.

Our first single was called, If I Gave You The Mic. It got to number one and stayed there a number of weeks. It was even nominated for a bNet award, and we had to fly to Auckland. From the minute we got on that plane, I felt I’d found my calling. But in 2001, Sheelahroc broke up before we’d dug in deep and it broke my heart, as I knew we were on the precipice of something great. At the same time I’d started Verse 2 with Parks, who’s now my husband. So when Sheelahroc broke up I thought, “Well, I’m just doing Verse 2 now.” Then Parks and I, we fell in love and made this plan to follow Shapeshifter to Melbourne, but when push came to shove Melbourne seemed too scary and far away, so we went to Auckland instead. We took two shitty, unwarranted, unregistered cars that both broke down at different stages of the journey, but eventually we got to Auckland. We started a residency at The Khuja Lounge almost immediately, and it became instantly popular.

My life in music has felt like a magic carpet ride, with all these lucky things that’ve happened, like arrows lighting the path, telling us we were going in the right direction. We were so well-supported. Then we got pregnant when I was 22. I remember how everyone, even some of my own family, said, “Oh no, she was on this great trajectory and now it’s all over, what a shame.” But I thought it was the best thing ever. I have the type of personality that tries to always remain optimistic. I always see the silver living, I’ve never delved too much into my woes, not for too long, so we just decided to make it work and prove everybody wrong. Our son will be 18 next February, and we have raised him entirely on music money.

I lost my mum to kidney disease during Covid, although she’d been sick for a number of years. My husband and I moved in with her three years before she passed away, and we looked after her full-time. At hospital they told her, “You’ve come to the end of your life.” That’s how they worded it. They said, “We can keep treating you, but we’d like to recommend we stop treatment and spend however long you’ve got left, at home, doing what you want.” Mum loved that idea. She’d been in and out of hospital for months and just wanted to go home and be surrounded by family and sing songs and have a big party. I have a really large extended family — mum had 10 brothers and sisters — so we told everyone to come over. She drank wine, and we rolled her hospital bed to the sliding door in the lounge so she could smoke as many ciggies as she liked. We laughed and cried and danced, and then Covid happened. Everyone had to go home and she passed away two days later.

It was so beautiful. She’d been in pain, and when she finally passed, she took a last breath and her body froze in this stunning position. She looked like royalty. Then we washed her and oiled her skin. Covid made it interesting with new rules every day, so 15 of us ended up quarantining together. But it was actually this perfect thing, making big meals every night, grieving together, and it validated for me that life is short, and we must never live in regret.

We did over 20 shows last summer, we have loads of gigs ahead and there’s the new record, The Alpha Sessions. I will be forever grateful for all the amazing, incredible things that have happened throughout my life. But for the future, I would love to retire from performing and touring by the time I’m 50. Maybe record or perform the odd song now and then, but I really want to own a home somewhere and be a full-time foster mum. That’s the future Parks and I are working towards.

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