With the release of his Dream Something LP in 2012, Raiza Biza made his voice heard loud and clear. Spitting introspective and passionate rhymes with confidence and clarity over a set of dusty jazz and soul infused boombap beats, he gave us his all. It was the honest story and unique perspective of a young Rwandan man who spent his childhood in Zaire and Zambia, fell in love with US hip-hop in South Africa, and forged himself into a talented and hungry rapper on the streets of Wellington and Hamilton.
Warmly received by both audiences and the local music industry, Dream Something and the mixtapes that followed led to Raiza and his Ammo Nation crew touring New Zealand on a regular basis. They forged alliances with organisations and collectives like Young, Gifted and Broke, Red Bull Sound Select and Madcap along the way. That wasn't all. Email by email, and mention by mention, Raiza started noticing another trend. "I realised I was starting to get media and blog love from outlets in all these different European countries," he reflects. "There was a pattern emerging where my specific blend of music seemed to resonate with people over there. I guess the ambition to one day tour Europe was born then, but at that point, it was really more of a dream."
Early in September, Raiza released his new Day & Night EP. Several weeks later, he boarded a long-haul flight to Amsterdam with fellow Ammon Nation rapper Blaze The Emperor. Together, they embarked on a self-financed two-week tour through The Netherlands, Germany, France, and England. Not long after they returned to New Zealand, I gave Raiza Biza a call to find out how the tour came together and what he learned from his time performing music abroad.
Red Bull Studios: I know that after you had released Dream Something you started to get the feeling that you might have an audience in Europe. When and how did you realise touring there might be more than a dream?
Raiza Biza: "In 2013 I opened for Oddisee on a New Zealand tour. The day after we did the Wellington show, we hung out at the waterfront food markets. While we were there, I asked Oddisee how he did his first Europe tour. He told me people used to hit him up and ask him when he was going to do a show where they lived. He'd ask them where they went to see hip-hop shows and tell them to go into the venue and tell the people there they wanted to see Oddisee. From that, he started developing a contact list of promoters and venues."
"To make a long story short, on his first European tour, he had to crash on couches, pull in favours, and travel on the buses. That first tour, where he had to invest his own money, is the reason why he can still tour Europe the way he does. When he told me that, people from Germany and France had been hitting me up here and there on a one-off basis. That was when I realised it might be possible for me to do this. After that, it became more of a strategy or goal and less of a dream."
Once you had that strategy in place, what steps did you have to take to execute it?
"After we got off tour, I went through my messages and contacted everyone who'd ever sent me a message from overseas. I told them the same thing he'd told his fans. People started going into venues and telling bookers they wanted to see Raiza Biza. I've always had my own email mailing list as well, which is probably one of my strongest points as an artist. I sent out an email saying that wherever in the world you may be, I'd like to come and perform in your city. I also put out a similar Facebook status. I got about fifteen messages back from places like Paris, Berlin, and Amsterdam. Around that point, I got held up by some personal issues for about a year, so I had to put things on pause for a bit."
When were you able to get back to it?
"By the middle of this year, I was on top of everything. I sent an email out to all of my contacts in Europe to let them know I wanted to come over and play some sometime within the next few months. After that everyone got to work and started trying to put things together. Within about a month, I had the shows booked in. The biggest challenge was timing them in a way where it worked for all the venues within the two-week window I had there. It just came together super easy, because the foundations were already in place and people had been waiting for me. I had a lot of help from three key players: My friend Simon in Germany, a producer from the Netherlands named Symplex, and Koder, a UK grime MC who spent some time in New Zealand earlier this year."
"When I told Red Bull about the tour, they asked if I would be interested in doing a mentoring session with Oddisee. It was crazy because I'd kept thinking that Oddisee would never know that the conversation I had with him laid the foundations for this tour. We got on Skype, had a laugh about the strange ways of the universe, and he gave me some advice about publicists, booking agents and how to convert audience attendance into Facebook likes and downloads. It was a really easy talk, and I learned a lot. I'm going to have another session with him soon to debrief."
What was it like when you arrived?
"It was terrifying. It was a lot more terrifying than I thought it would be. I'm not really the type to take a moment to sit down and reflect on things. Once I got there, it all hit me at once. We were in Amsterdam relaxing by this lake drinking beer surrounded by hundreds of people laxing out. I was like. I just looked around, and it was quite an epic moment. Here we were, on the other side of the world, and it had come about through music. My heart was swollen. I felt really good, content and ready to really do this, really give the audiences the best version of what we do."
What did you learn from performing to audiences in Europe?
"They were some of the best audiences I've performed for. Every show was love. Most of the shows only half the people were familiar with my music. A lot of the attendees came because they'd heard it was a New Zealand artist, or because they heard it was someone from overseas. I still had to fight to convert the other half. People didn’t come through to hold the wall up, though. They came through to have a good time. If they like a song, they applaud. They really make noise. They came through with open-minds and walked away having enjoyed themselves."
You went through the Netherlands, Germany, France, and the UK. What were your observations on the different countries?
"I found the Netherlands and Germany to be very liberal. They were very open-minded places. People seemed happy, relaxed and chill. I found England faster. People were just minding their own business and trying to get from A to B. I finished up the tour in London. The show was themed LDNZ. It had a mixture of UK and New Zealand artists playing at it. I will say one thing about London; there are a lot of Kiwis there. A quarter of the people at the show were Kiwis. I had some real ass fans in there. They knew me. It was crazy. It was one of the more surreal moments."
"It was really good to see what Koder has built for himself in London. People have a different work ethic over there because there is so much more competition. Koder's work ethic is through the roof. When I was with him, we did a radio interview, we were shooting running visuals, meeting different artists, and this was all in one or two days. London is all grind. As soon as you slip up, some other MC is ready to take your place. I also found there is a lot of unity in the Grime scene out there. Novelist came through the show. In the grime scene, they will have twelve MCs on stage and keep reloading the beat. Before the show Koder told me, when we have gigs here, people all just go. The whole scene just goes to gigs. We have a very united scene at home, but there it's almost a rule."
"Another thing I picked up is people really love New Zealand music. New Zealand music already has a name for itself on the world stage. It wasn't introducing them to New Zealand music. They're already familiar with that. Going over there made me a lot more conscious of the fact that this is New Zealand music. It's its own entity, and people really like what we are doing. Right now, I'm just trying to keep building momentum for another round. Since I've been back, I've had booking inquiries from Paris, Oslo, Vienna, Glasgow, and Zurich. I've got heaps of following up to do and a lot of plans. It's all go."
Raiza Biza's Day & Night EP is out now.