When a practitioner is functioning at a high level, there is an undeniable poetry to movement and a real physicality to wordplay. If you can successfully bring these two disciplines together as one, the possibilities are jaw-dropping. Through her mixed-medium efforts in dance and poetry, West Auckland’s Jahra ‘Rager’ Wasasala is well on her way towards busting this crossover point wide open.
Although she makes it look easy, Jahra’s practice rests on a foundation of years spent unpacking and studying her relationship with the world. With a set of intentions focused on using that understanding to speak directly to the people who need her most, she delivers with an attitude you can sum up with three simple words – just do it. We caught up with Jahra to discuss her processes, history, love affairs with movement, hip-hop, and poetry, and where she sees herself headed next.
The photos accompanying this interview were shot by Auckland-based photographer Holly Sarah Burgess while she was handling creative direction for Nike’s The Rise zine – a celebration of Nike Cortez sneakers, and the inspirational New Zealand women who wear them. In her words, “The Nike Cortez was the perfect sneaker to allow these women to powerfully carve out the spaces they are in with such raw, positive energy. A shoe that has been defying stereotypes and breaking boundaries for 45 years, just in the same way these women don’t let their creative energy be confined to preconceived ideas placed on them by society. Their energy and presence is a gift to my camera lens and to our community.”
You’re a contemporary dancer, choreographer, and poet, and an engaging social media user; do the processes associated with these disciplines bleed over to how you run your social media?
I think that is where my Instagram comes into play. I use it as a portfolio of my writing and dance work. The more I invest in what I am writing and putting on Instagram; the more my audience is starting to resonate with it. Rather than just trying to get a deeply personal thing out, it’s more about asking myself, “What can I speak to them about that will resonate today?” I will do photo shoots specifically for poems for Instagram so that I can have the visual and the written together.
Can you talk a bit more about making the words and the visual go hand in hand?
In the traditional studio or company environment, dancers in training are subconsciously taught not to have opinions, and just be an obedient body. They’re encouraged to be a blank canvas. When I was second year at University, I was not fucking with that idea at all. In terms of my voice and message, I’ve been politically and socially driven since I was a teenager. When I was in training, I was at a point where I was feeling suffocated physically. I didn’t have an outlet to express my political and social opinions. Poetry found me at that point.
I recognised that language straight away and knew I could do it. From that point, I tried to locate the balance between those two worlds. They’re both so physically aggressive and can be quite overt. Sometimes they were in conflict, rather than speaking to each other. I had to make work that wasn’t hitting in the right way to find a balance, and learn when one medium has to surrender to the other for the message to come across. I’m still obsessed with investigating this, but I’m getting closer.
Jahra Rager wears Nike Cortez – shot by Holly Sarah Burgess
Political and social issues have been a concern for you since you were a teenager. Do you remember the moment or moments through which you became politicised?
It has just been a whole string of catalyst events from when I was a child. As soon as I was aware that I was a brown kid, my mother was a white woman, and my black dad wasn’t around, I started to realise who I was – in relation to them and the world. I was very self-aware from a young age. I was always interested in understanding how I related to my environment and also how much I could test it.
As I got older, I became obsessed with seeing myself reflected within society. To find this, I started looking into hip-hop. Afterward, I wanted to understand where hip-hop came from. I went back and began to understand how much race, injustice, struggle, and adversity played into its story. At school, I became obsessed with history and social studies. The people around me were feeding me the right information to keep me hungry. I think it’s an innate thing for people who are hyper-empathetic and sensitive to want to understand why things are the way they are.
Tell us about the conditions this was all happening under?
I grew up in West Auckland, mostly around Avondale. I have three siblings, but I’m the oldest. My mum was a single mum, and we moved around a lot. My dad wasn’t around. He’s from Fiji. He came over to New Zealand in his early twenties. Now he lives in Christchurch, but he bounces back and forth between there, Auckland, and Fiji. I was moving from school to school. One year I was in a very intensely religious Christian college, the next I was at Avondale College. I was getting a real split-mindedness and was aware of dualities from day one.
Could you expand on how hip-hop was your entry point into finding out more about who you are?
I first started to gravitate towards it because they all looked like my dad. I think most people of colour who gravitate towards hip-hop when they’re young, subconsciously have those feelings of trying to find themselves or find a father figure. I found all these men who looked like my dad. At first, it was very mainstream hip-hop. This was in the mid-2000s, so 50 Cent, Timbaland, Missy Elliot, Dipset, etc. At the time, I was very obsessed with dancing to hip-hop music. That was also the era of hip-hop dance becoming so big. The platform was changing. You had things like ‘You Got Served, ‘ and everyone was doing these competitions and things. Then I started to get obsessed with lyricism and the skill and technique behind it.
When you talk about becoming obsessed with lyricism, skill, and technique, who were your reference points?
Like everyone else, I was completely enamored with Tupac. I saw the poet and the prophet in him immediately. When I realised I wanted to perform poetry, I would listen to Tupac’s tracks, and I memorise his words, but more specifically his breathing and his accents, his tempo and his emphasis on certain words. I realise I was trying to train myself in performance poetry. I was mimicking rap I knew – in terms of weak internal rhyme schemes – because I didn’t have any other references. My indirect study of his lyricism and the way he performed his language was quite a strong influence. Sometimes I still catch myself mimicking those things.
Did you go to dance school directly after high school?
Yeah. I had a conversion when I was seventeen. I was strictly hip-hop dance for a long time. I thought that was what I was going to do as a career, and I was very focused on it. Then I saw this company from New Zealand perform who had all brown men on stage. That wasn’t that common back then. Again, the same as poetry, I recognised their physical language and knew I could do this. I was asked to audition for their youth company. I got in and trained extensively for three months. There, I found the vocabulary I needed to express myself properly.
After that, you began a Bachelor of Performing and Screen Arts (majoring in Contemporary Dance) at Unitech in Auckland. By second year, you’d returned to poetry. Was this when you started looking beyond hip-hop for reference points there?
I’m a child of the internet, so I youtubed poetry, and I found all these amazing people. My friend showed me this poem called ‘Crossfire’ by Staceyann Chin. It was the first time I had seen a mixed race woman performing her poetry so aggressively. Again, I saw myself in something. I wanted to do it and began finding references in other poets. I was very much caught up in the spoken word thing for a good few years. Then I started to read a bit more [laughs].
The man who has shaped my early twenties, in terms of his multidisciplinary approach and his writing, is Saul Williams. When I found him, I found someone who was making the shit I wanted to make. He’s a b-boy, he does theatre, he does his writing, he makes music, and he does trippy poetic rapping and spoken word. I became obsessed, and I still am.
Jahra Rager wears Nike Cortez – shot by Holly Sarah Burgess
How did you progress after completing your studies?
I was starting to play with doing different projects while I was training. They told me to stop doing poetry because it was a distraction, but I knew it would be the thing that would make me who I am. I was going to keep doing it. I did the slam poetry circuit for a year. I hung around hip-hop gigs. I was already starting to find out where I could go in terms of my range. I knew the work I wanted to make, so when I graduated, I started to make it relentlessly. I didn’t care about buying time or earning my place in the dance community.
When I started putting my work online, things changed. I began to get commissions, and have actual opportunities to perform. I started to spend a year making a work instead of hamming it out in a month. One day, when I was watching a video of Saul Williams talking about how he made ‘, said the shotgun to the head’ over four years, I realised I needed to start properly applying time to my own work.
How would you describe your community?
I while I was training, and after I had graduated, I tried to be a part of every community I could get a grip on. In the past year, I’ve understood that is not going to happen. I have a community: it’s the people I love and respect, who love and respect me. I’ve had some severings lately [laughs]. I think it’s healthy because the idea of community is in flux for me. What does it mean for my practice and what do I need from a community? I’d like to contribute in the right way, rather than just taking up space. I belong to everything and nothing. That’s my vibe.
We live in an era of increased visibility. Issues that have been long glossed over are now out there in the open. How have your political and social views shifted over the last few years?
I’ve been forced to dig deeper to understand what the fuck is going on. I’ve also had to become specific about who I’m speaking for and too – especially regarding audience and language. Over the last few years, most of my work has been geared towards women of colour, indigenous women specifically, and the global epidemic of missing and murdered women that’s not being investigated. I think my prioritizing for lack of a better word, in terms of what my work can speak to and what I can speak to as an artist has become more focused. Also, the urgency of making work has geared up tenfold. It’s been really interesting watching local artists start to shift their work towards being more specific, not just alluding to an issue, but saying it very clearly.
What is your vision for yourself moving forward?
I just want to take my work to the communities that will resonate with it the strongest, in as many places as I can. I’ve been invested in my new solo work ‘BLOO/D/RUNK,’ I want to tour it internationally next year. From when I was young, I was aware that seeing myself was the first step towards changing how I thought about myself and the world. I think I want to create exceptional, well-executed work at an international standard. I want to get it to places that are receptive to poetry and dance, but also take it back to the islands, or places that might not get that work as well. It’s ambitious, and I have to be pretty aware of where I am going. So many communities are still cloaked by religion, and my work is not about that lifestyle [laughs]. I have to be aware of timing and place. I don’t know what I will be doing in the long run. I’m just going by the years at the moment.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Jahra Rager will perform ‘BLOO/D/RUNK’ around New Zealand later this year as ‘a world, with your wound in it.’