If you’re not yet acquainted with the powerhouse vocalist that is Kira Puru, you better jump on this bandwagon right now. She’s a musician, writer and photographer currently based in Melbourne and she is creating some incredible art.
Peril’s Tanya Ali caught up with Kira Puru about QPoC identity; working in a very straight, white male-dominated industry; one particularly controversial performance on January 26 this year and more. Read their full chat below.
TA: You grew up in Cardiff, New South Wales – about 13 km from the Newcastle CBD. As far as I know, that area isn’t particularly culturally diverse (to say the least). What was your experience growing up there?
KP: We were a working class family and had a beautiful, modest, rambling little house there that we moved into when I was four that my dad stayed in until he passed two years ago. I never really noticed how significant that home was in my heart until we sold it last year, but I miss it dearly.
Cardiff wasn’t terribly culturally diverse. There was a small Aboriginal community at my high school and Indigenous Studies available as an elective but nothing much beyond.
I vividly remember copping lots of shit all through my school years for being brown. I was one of maybe four PoC in my year. I was a shy kid and often turned to study to fill the time I spent alone. I remember several teachers being surprised at how astute I was, which felt preposterous even at the time. One girl assigned me the nickname “Vegemite Kid” because apparently I looked like I had Vegemite smeared all over my body. I reported a substitute teacher for racist remarks they’d made about me in Year 10 and never saw them again, though I couldn’t be sure if it was a result of my complaint or not, because there was no formal response from the school on the matter.
I go home from time to time and I don’t feel like much has changed. Even my family say some pretty backward shit and I have to constantly decide whether I want to be the nark or not. Sometimes I’m too tired. Visibility takes a lot of strength and patience.
TA: You’re now based in Melbourne, and have been for some time. What do you feel like are some of the differences making music and living there compared to your hometown, especially as a queer woman of colour?
KP: I initially moved here to pursue a career outside of the music industry, which is funny because there’s so many more industry opportunities here than there were in Newcastle. I guess that’s the most significant difference, because it’s now my primary source of work and income and I don’t think it would be as possible to make a living from it in any other city apart from Sydney.
Generally speaking I guess you can find acceptance easier in a bigger city because values are more liberal and sheer numbers force tolerance if not acceptance. That said, I live in the heart of Fitzroy and often find it to be a super white experience.
People ask me less about my sexuality here than at home, it doesn’t bother me so much to be asked but at the same time, it just seems so perverted to be asked about (and judged by) what you get up to sexually by strangers, don’t you think?
I don’t go to events much because I’m anxious in crowds but there are so many more excellent events here, made and run by QPoC, it goes a long way in helping you feel less excluded or othered or alone.
TA: At the moment, the marriage equality ‘debate’ is kind of unavoidable. Within all of this, QPoC people are largely excluded from most major ‘Yes’ campaign material, and QPoC voices are pretty much silenced, apart from on social media to an extent. Recently, you tweeted this video of Munroe Bergdorf being interviewed, commenting: “Look, I’m all for #SSM but in my mind, this is more important & it saddens me that there’s substantially less PoC allies than LGBTQIA+ ones” in regards to the racist backlash that Bergdorf received after speaking about the realities of white supremacy. What are your thoughts on all the past month’s goings-on?
KP: I agree that the voices of trans folk and queer people of colour have been largely silenced during the SSM (same sex marriage) campaign and while I’m quite obviously pro-yes, I’m finding it so sad and frustrating. I’ve written countless posts on the topic that I’ve ended up abandoning or deleting because digging in to it makes me feel so defeated and despondent. I shared that video because I think we could all be better at centering the voices of trans and queer PoC when it comes to these topics and I also just think Munroe is so strong and articulate.
Same sex marriage is a palatable issue that boring, conservative white people can get on board with. And even though I am queer and obviously an advocate for SSM, I think the hullabaloo being made about it is distracting us from other really important political issues. All the lineups I’ve seen on SSM events have been largely composed of straight white people…but like…most events are?
TA: Earlier this year, you made headlines by wearing a bloody brilliant ‘Change The D8’ choker while performing with Urthboy at the Australian of the Year awards. It got a lot of traction, even from the likes of the UK’s Daily Mail. With a little bit of distance now, what are your thoughts/feelings about the reaction to your statement, and the way your statement was received?
KP: Ah yeah…that damn choker. It caused way more of a splash than I wanted it to.
Urthboy and I were asked to perform a medley for the Australian of the Year Awards on the eve of Jan 25. Tim called me personally to ask if I wanted to be involved, acknowledging that the event could potentially be problematic but it might also be a good opportunity for someone like me to be visible and a platform for us to make an impactful statement if we chose. I also really needed the money, to be honest. We were both fairly adamant about choosing a song by an Indigenous artist or that had a message aligned with how we felt about ‘Australia Day’. They wanted John Farnham’s You’re the Voice. We ran a range of options by the production team and all of them were refused. I’m paraphrasing here but we were told it was because “Australia Day is for everyone” and they didn’t want to alienate people or make anyone feel uncomfortable. Pretty sure they meant white people.
We went back and forth until just days before the event and before we knew it, we’d been locked in to this performance and had no real choice in the song or subject matter. For me, it was really important to communicate in some way that although I was participating in this event, singing the country’s most meme’d song, in the shadow of a date that essentially celebrates genocide and the continued silencing, ill treatment and murder and of Indigenous people, that I wasn’t doing so blindly or in support of the date and day itself.
I felt troubled about having agreed to do it, thinking that we could create a really artistically beautiful, powerful piece for national TV that spoke to how so many people in my circle were feeling in this political climate, to only be railroaded into something subdued and inoffensive.
I ran a few costume ideas by my friend, Madeleine Joy, who serendipitously, is an artist that specialises in embroidery. I had the choker in my handbag. She finished it in a day.
Tim chose to wear a shirt that said ‘Australia has a black history’ under a jumper that he took off moments before the broadcast. They ended up cropping us both at the shoulders during the song but the choker slipped in because they couldn’t really crop any tighter than my neck without it looking weird.
My performance was a bit of a flop. I sang out of tune, my in-ears were playing straight static and I was standing next to the drums and couldn’t hear anything. I locked myself in the bathroom for five minutes and had a little cry afterwards because I felt so disappointed about cocking up my first live broadcast. I hadn’t even opened Twitter yet.
I wasn’t remotely ready for the flack I was going to cop online and it was a really emotional time for me. I received lots of nasty messages about the way I look, my poor performance, some saying that I was a hypocrite and an ungrateful migrant, you know, all that stuff. I felt that perhaps I had derailed a really important political conversation by making it about me when it’s not at all. I worried that I had inserted myself, really publicly, into a discussion that it wasn’t my position to have. I’m glad I did it though, I learned a lot and I’m really grateful for the enlightening conversations I had with people at that time.
In hindsight, ’Change The D8’ was not quite the right sentiment. It was just a phrase, symbolic of my anger and frustration, a nod in solidarity to those who share my views and a reminder to those who don’t that we won’t be silenced.
Australia does not publicly acknowledge the black deaths it was built on and the mourning that January 26 represents for so many. Changing the date won’t do shit until we confront our ugly history head-on. The issue isn’t so much the date but our system, our attitudes and our denial.
TA: The music industry is notoriously dominated by white, cis-het males. You’ve been in this business for a while now – do you think it’s changed over the past decade, for the better or worse?
KP: Yes, it’s changing. But it’s glacial. I mean, in 2017 I still can’t go to a soundcheck without the engineer greeting the boys in my band before me and asking them about tech requirements even when it’s my name on the poster. A producer once theatrically tapped at his computer, pretending, when I asked him to make changes to a mix because he thought I was so stupid that I wouldn’t be able to hear the difference if he didn’t. There’s no effort made to make green rooms and band rooms safe spaces for women, NB or trans people. Often I’m the only woman in the room. I’m barked at or whistled at or leered at when I’m not being ignored or made to feel undesirable or invisible.
There’s two women on the APRA board, one on the AMCOS board and all 26 members are white. How can we expect lineups to authentically reflect the nation’s diversity or an industry that acknowledges and protects our rights and needs when we don’t even have equal representation at that level? We have a long way to go. I think heaps of us are just waiting for the dinosaurs to die.
TA: In August, upon the release of the Falls Festival lineup this year – which was (surprise surprise!) incredibly white, male and straight – you tweeted not only criticism, but proposed something even better: a festival like Sugar Mountain or Laneway Festival but “hell brown with an 80/20 slant on female/NB presence.” Is this something you’re seriously thinking of pursuing, because it sounds like A LITERAL DREAM and we’d be behind you 100%!
KP: Yeah, I have already had some chats with people about it. I’m definitely serious. It’s a big dream of mine to make this happen but I need some time to plan, put together a really dope team and find a lot of money, so it’s still in the dream category at the minute while I’m busy doing a few other things.
TA: Apart from that, what’s next for you – can we expect some music/shows from Kira Puru soon?
KP: Yes, there’s music coming. Sooner than you might think. Keep an eye on my socials if you want updates.
TA: Finally, who are you listening to at the moment?
KP: Oh jeez. First of all just get on board the Haiku Hands train before it runs you over. See a show as soon as you can.
I’ll keep it local here. Yeo, The Preatures, Dan Sultan and Nai Palm have all released great new records this year and Mojo Juju has a cracker coming out real soon. Kaiit, Ecca Vandal and B-Wise are the next big things. New Venusians, Slow Dancer, Ric Rufio and Jones Jnr are ones to watch. Remi, Sampa the Great, Joyride and A.B Original because OBVIOUSLY. But if you really wanna know the goss, I spend my downtime listening to Ariana Grande and all the One Direction spinoff projects.