I’m not a fan of hip-hop, so I can’t really get a feel for how much influence the music label Dawn Raid Entertainment had in Southern California, but this documentary is a solid first-time outing for director Oscar Kightley. Currently available to stream on platforms such as Amazon Prime Video, “Dawn Raid” is helped by the self-effacing presence of Andy Murnane and Tanielu “Brotha D” Leaosavai’i. This is a cautionary tale of mixing business with family and sudden fame with an insufficient amount of education.
Perhaps in another time, during the era of MySpace and their flush years, I might have found these two insufferable. They were two Manukau Polytechnic students from South Auckland who met in a business class in the 1990s. Murnane thought Leaosavai’i was a serious student given his classroom attire: Leaosavai’i was dressed in a white shirt and dress pants. Murnane found Leaosavai’i abrupt. What Murnane didn’t know was Leaosavai’i came to class directly from his job as a strip bar bouncer, leaving work at 5 a.m.
By this time, Leaosavai’i had already seen considerable hardship. He had witnessed domestic violence.`His younger brother has been send to prison for murder. Leaosavai’i also was a child of the dawn raids. To understand the full context of his childhood experiences and the defiance signified by the name of Leaosavai’i and Murnane took for their company, one needs to know a bit about New Zealand history.
Following World War II, Pasifika workers were encouraged to migrate to New Zealand by the government and local businesses, but when New Zealand faced economic troubles in the 1970s, the government focused on Pasifika families, particularly those who had overstayed their visa. As one can imagine, the random checks targeted Pasifika families as well as Māori people. While one might be tempted to say this isn’t racism, but enforcement of immigration policy, however, according to the government’s version of history, “This blunt instrument was applied almost exclusively to Pacific Islanders, even though during the 1970s and into the 1980s the bulk of overstayers (individuals who remained in New Zealand after the expiry of their visas) were from Europe or North America.”
In 1971, Pacific Islanders were 1.5 percent of the New Zealand population, up from the 1945 population of 0.1 percent. In 2018, that population has expanded to 7.9 percent.
The Dawn Raids were first authorized by the government under Norman Kirk. Kirk was the 29th prime minister in New Zealand from his election in 1972 until his death in August 1974. He was the first PM to be born and raised in New Zealand and temporarily suspended the National party’s domination. Although Kirk’s government reformed Maori land laws and worked toward settlement land claims. He was replaced by Wallace (Bill) Rowling who served from 1974 to 1975. Rowling was replaced by Sir Robert Muldoon of the National Party, who was the PM from 1975 to 1984.
Under Kirk, the Dawn Raids focused on Samoans and Tongans who were from countries outside of the New Zealand territories (unlike Niueans, Tokelauans and Cook Islanders). Under Muldoon, “the National Party had drawn on racist stereotypes during the election campaign.” The Dawn Raids of 1976 had more “widespread public support for the police tactics,” but there was opposition led by local grounds and “condemnation from within the National Party as well as from the Labour opposition.”
It was only recently–almost 50 years later–that the government apologized to Pasifika people for the Dawn Raids.
Back to the Film
In the documentary, Leaosavai’i indicates he wanted to use the phrase “Dawn Raid” as an act of defiance, turning a negative to a positive. Together, Leaosavai’i and Murnane began a t-shirt business based on the hip hop subculture of South Auckland. Although much of the NZ hip hop culture was inspired by United States imports, the American music was also being synthesized by some original homegrown talents. Leaosavai’i had a group, “Lost Tribe’ on UPR Records and he had an ear for musical trends. Eventually, these men expanded their hustle into producing and promoting music. They were able to bring the Polynesian hip hop community to the attention of US labels, signing New Zealand hip hop and R&B artists like Savage, Adeaze and Aaradhna.
Yet with just over a year of business school classes, these two got in over their heads. The record label was forced into liquidation by 2007, but a US rom-com, “Knocked Up,” raised awareness of “Swing” by Savage. That brought Dawn Raid back, although now it is under the Frequency Media Group management.
One might have liked more critical, objective views of the two, perhaps beginning with the teachers that Murnane and Leaosavai’i had in a little over a year of business classes. Were they good students? Where they bad students? Did they get warnings from their teachers? That’s a minor quibble because of the fresh honesty and humility with which Murnane and Leaosavai’i tell their stories, intercut with the comments from the artists their label carried and clips from the heady days when these two men could afford to buy houses and cars and vacations. That was before the Inland Revenue people came calling. It would have also been lovely to have an assessment of the tax situation for those of us who like numbers.
There’s also been a dissenting voice from amongst the people interviewed.
“Dawn Raid” was released in New Zealand and Australia on 21 January 2021. It is currently available to stream on Amazon Prime Video and Apple.