Illtalian talks Christian Rap in Hawaii and Cultural Norms
NH2O: Hawaii is pretty separated from the rest of the United States geographically, and it seems like it is culturally as well. How are things different when it comes to hip-hop or Christian culture compared to what you see in the industry or with your peers?
Illtalian: Great question, and very true! Okay so, as you noted, Hawaii is very different than the mainland in almost every way.
The Hawaiian culture has had a strong influence on the church here, and things are much more lowkey. There are definitely your charismatic churches, but they’re less common.
Things are a little bit more subdued here. In hip-hop, the biggest difference is that there is so much more diversity on the mainland.
In Hawaii, the styles of rap generally trend either towards hardcore underground (which I love, but which isn’t exactly conducive to a mainstream career right now) or, very specifically to Hawaii, a rap/reggae/island fusion, which is pretty cool but tends to be somewhat limited in its content.
On the mainland, it’s so much more experimental. There are more people, and so there are more niche genres that you can mess with and still have an audience for. I love that, and hope to bring more of that freedom back to the Hawaiian rap scene.
As far as the industry goes, the biggest culture clash has been when it comes to self-promotion: in Hawaii, there is a very strong Asian-influence, which has lead to what can be called a shame-based culture (i.e. don’t do anything that will embarrass yourself or the family), as opposed to the mainland, where it is more of a pride-based culture (go out and achieve things and make yourself look good).
I’ve seen this conflict come into play many times over the years between the Italian and Filipino sides of my family, and now I’m seeing in play out in the way I pursue my music.
Coming from Hawaii, I’ve been raised to believe that overt self-promotion is an embarrassing and really shameful thing, and so it’s honestly been a struggle to have to go out and tell people about how great my music is and why they should listen to it.
It’s taken years for me to really wrap my mind around the idea of doing things as simple as following up when someone doesn’t respond to my first email. In Hawaii, you’d take the hint that you were rejected, and would almost never ask again – and if you did, it would be a subtle, casual mention of the email in passing.
But in the CHH industry (and almost any industry, really) success often goes to those who are the most…aggressive?
Maybe persistent would be a better word. But sending two or three or even four follow-up emails, texts, phone calls etc is absolutely acceptable in this industry, as long as it’s done with tact and doesn’t come off pushy.
I’ve learned that people are just so busy that they need friendly reminders at times, and this is totally normal – and even expected!
So that’s been tough to wrap my head around, but I think I’m getting the hang of it.
NH2O: We did some research and found that Makana means gift or reward – tell us how that plays into the theme of this project and why you went with that title?
Illtalian: Wow, I’m impressed! You have a great research team.
Yes, that’s right, “Makana” does mean gift in Hawaiian. So the story behind the naming the album Makana, you know, I talk about that a bit on the title track but I never really explicitly address it.
The album is name in named in memory of one of my best friends, Lucas Makana Riley, who was killed by a drunk driver in 2016. His passing completely shifted the direction of the album.
I did a lot of music with Lucas, and he was my very first producer way back in the day, so I thought it was fitting to name it after him.
I actually used to tease him about that name, Makana, a lot, but it seems he’s had the last laugh once again.
Having Lucas in my life at all was a gift, and so he deserved to bear the name Makana. The album is also my gift to him and to my listeners, and is a way for me to share my gift of rapping with the world.
So there’s some wordplay going on there, beyond the obvious.
But mostly, it’s just a gift from me to Lucas, a way for me to honor the life of one of my best friends.
NH2O: I have some friends in Hawaii who have told me that the Hip-Hop scene is developing and growing – how does your Christian faith inform how you move/network/develop relationships in what might be a smaller market?
Illtalian: Now that’s an interesting question. Your friend isn’t lying – the rap scene, and really the whole music scene in general, is really starting to do some cool things in Hawaii.
Guys like Ariki Foster and Kahuna are killing it right now. As a Christian, the biggest thing is that I’ve avoided is doing something like the (here at least) stereotypical reggae/rap song about smoking weed and getting faded at a house party.
It may not seem like much, but there is a HUGE market for that out here, and in fact doing music in like that is pretty much the only way to get radio play in Hawaii as a rapper.
Rap is still very much held in low regard by the people in power in the music industry, and so the only rappers who get played are either huge mainstream artists or people who go into that reggae/rap scene.
Not that there’s anything wrong with reggae/rap, but it’s not my style, and the lifestyle depicted in the kind of song I’d have to write that is not something I’m gonna glorify in my own music.
I’ll also be the first to admit that being a Christian – and being upfront about my faith – has limited my opportunities in terms of getting local media coverage. I don’t get many return emails or calls here, because in addition to being a rapper, I’m open and honest about what I believe.
There’s not really a big audience for that, which is tough since as you said, it’s a smaller pool. You can only get rejected by so many stations and sites before you’ve exhausted all your options.
As far as I know, the “Christian rap” scene is almost totally nonexistent in Hawaii. There just aren’t enough people here for that to be a thing, which is why I never bothered with the “Christian rapper” label. Here, you’re either a rapper or you aren’t.
That’s enough to get you in the door with the Hawaii hip-hop community, which is very welcoming. I’m always honest about my faith, even if it costs me opportunities, because I don’t want there to be any confusion.
I love Jesus, and I’m gonna talk about Him in my music.
And since rap music is generally kinda discriminated against in Hawaii, we rappers tend to stick together in a way that’s less common on the mainland.
So yeah, basically I try to always be upfront about my faith when networking or collaborating, which hasn’t really held me back musically but definitely does commercially, at least in the islands.
It’s worth it though. I’m hoping to kind of break that barrier in the future.
NH2O: There is no doubt that there are some constraints geographically with artists looking to build up their fanbase, I can imagine you encounter that being on the island. What kind of things have you done to grow your fanbase and increase your audience reach? What does touring look like from that perspective?
Illtalian: You’ve hit the nail on the head right there. Hawaii has, I think, less than two million residents total.
It might even be less than a million and a half. Most of them are on Oahu.
That’s already a small pool.
Plus, each island really develops independently from each other, so being big on one island does not mean you’ll translate automatically to the others.
You have to grind and put in a lot of work – all over the place. And we’re kind of stuck in a weird monopoly situation where one airline controls almost all of the flights, so it’s crazy expensive to fly to other islands.
It’s not as easy as it used to be to just go for a day, and if you do fly somewhere for a show, you’re almost certainly going to take a loss financially, because unless you have someone to crash with and drive you around, you’re looking at hotel, rental car, and taking time off work in addition to airfare.
That’s not even counting food and music related expenses.
And, as I mentioned before, airplay is very limited for rappers. So you have to be smart. Generally it’s best if you link up with another non hip-hop act and co-promote.
That’s worked very well for me, even though historically it’s been very tough to make it in Hawaii as an MC.
But even that’s begun to change with social media. Suddenly, I can target ads and promote my music directly to my fellow locals.
I have a new avenue to get myself heard, and so when I DO fly up to another island, I’m not just doing some open mic at a coffee shop – though I’ve done my fair share of those, too.
NH2O: Since the new president took office, there have been several moments where Hawaii has been caught in the cross-fire in some ways – the climate change global initiative comes to mind, as well as the recent false alarm (given relations with North Korea). On the last song of the project you speak on that – what made you write that song and what do you hope people take away from it?
Illtalian: Oh, man. We try to just forget about that missile threat thing.
Yeeesh. That was embarrassing. But it was also sobering, too.
I honestly thought I might be getting ready to die, and that was an eye-opening experience. Really makes you take stock of life, you know?
And people have been making a lot of jokes about Hawaii and that whole situation since. As they should, because it was completely ridiculous. We laugh too! But it hasn’t really helped the relationship between Hawaii and the mainland much, which has already been kinda strained.
There’s a whole history about the overthrow and annexation of Hawaii that I won’t get into, but things are always tense here in that respect.
Recently, with some comments made by the current administration, it’s gotten a little worse. That’s just part of a broader problem: we don’t know how to talk to each other anymore.
People aren’t talking about any of the issues that are bothering them, or rather, they aren’t discussing them with each other. They just shout and yell and ignore whatever the other side has to say. Very little dialogue is taking place in Hawaii or anywhere else in America.
I was talking to a friend of mine who is very in touch with the hip-hop scene in Hawaii, Professor David Goldberg of the University of Hawaii, and we were sort of comparing notes about the whole situation with the Left and the Right, and how we could address that via rap.
He made a good point: if you take yourself out of the argument and listen to what both sides are saying you then realize that they’re both wanting similar things. Particularly speaking, a strong and successful America.
They just have different ideas about how to get there. But in this day and age of social media, where you can curate your entire life, we’ve become very averse to anything that we don’t like.
Song you don’t enjoy comes on Pandora? Thumbs down. Ad pops up on YouTube? Skip it. Someone says something you don’t like on Facebook? Report comment and block. I call it “anti-social media” in the song, because really, this thing that is supposed to bring us all together is increasingly dividing us by allowing us to seclude ourselves in these little cocoon worlds where everything revolves around our own individual tastes and preferences.
That’s fine when it comes to picking where you want to eat or what movie you want to watch, but that’s no way to live life.
And so, with all that in mind – all the tension here at home and on the mainland, all that stuff with the wall and the election and everything else, I just wanted to do my best to call everyone together. I wanted to help bridge that divide as much as possible.
That’s how I started writing the song. Because that’s what “Make America Hate Again” is all about – people think it’s a super anti-Trump thing, or a really anti-liberal thing, but it’s not.
I’m saying that we should hate hatred, hate division, hate the way our country is falling apart, more than we hate each other.
And hopefully people will take what I’m saying to heart.
NH2O: In 10-15 years, what do you hope God will use your ministry for within Christian Hip-Hop but also across the world?
Illtalian: I definitely want to change the world, God willing.
The best way to do that is to do it one person at a time.
I like to say sometimes that I am in the ministry of pain. Pain is universal; we might not have the same experiences, but we all know what it’s like to hurt.
Maybe you come from a broken home, or maybe your dad had cancer – when we get into specifics, things seem really different.
But on a general level, if we think about the bigger picture, we both can relate to the fear of loss, heartbreak, and hurt. We all need Jesus, and we all know what it’s like to feel pain.
Those are two universal truths, and I think that if I can tap into those two elements (and really, they go hand in hand), I believe my music will be able to do some powerful things.
If God continues to lead me down the path it seems He’s set for me, I imagine I’ll still be doing music, still trying to touch lives and impact people for Him, only on a much bigger scale.
That’s the dream, and the plan.