I rank Moko as one of the best local releases of 2016 thus far and I strongly recommend catching Rehema's 10:30 White Rabbit performance Saturday night at Chreece.
NUVO: In your notes for the release, I read that the word "moko" means "womanhood" in the Polynesian language of Tonga. Why did you choose that word to represent this project?
Rehema McNeil: Overall, I wanted to reflect my upbringing. My father introduced the word "moko" to me years ago and I thought it sounded cool and clean. I felt it was fitting for this project because I have become a woman since the release of Davu.
NUVO: When we spoke last year I remember you telling me that Davu was essentially your first attempt at rapping, that you came from more of a spoken word background. Listening to Moko, it sounds like you've really found your voice as an MC.
McNeil: I'm still finding my voice. There's so much to learn, and the more you learn the more you realize that there's so much more that you don't know. It's a continuous journey and I'm looking forward to learning what's next. So I try to stay open to grow as a person and artist.
NUVO: On Davu your lyrics addressed themes relating to social justice. For example, your piece "Terrorist" commented on the 1921 Tulsa Race Riots in Oklahoma. Are there similar themes in your lyrics for Moko?
McNeil: It's a bit more personal this time around. I've been going through a lot of things, both good and bad. Those challenges helped to create character. So I wanted to write about it to release it. "Black Widow" speaks about beauty and identity and relationships.
On "False" I wanted to do a song based off Greek mythology. It tells a story about how hip-hop has become like gospel now for many people. People follow and adhere to the lyrics of the mainstream rappers and it changes their lifestyles. I didn't want to call the song "False Gods" because I didn't want it to be too preachy. So I called it "False" because I don't really agree with a lot of the things being told within music today.
NUVO: So you think the language of popular contemporary hip-hop is having a negative influence on young people?
McNeil: Yes, I would say so.
NUVO: You think it's contributing to violent or misogynistic attitudes?
McNeil: I love hip-hop and I think it's a beautiful art. As individuals every choice we make is our own. We can't blame media; we are only influenced and from there we make our own choices. I feel like whatever you expose yourself to repetitively, that is what you become over time. I'll leave it at that.
RELATED: Rehema at Chreece in 2015
NUVO: Womanhood is a central theme on Moko. On that topic I'd like to ask about your role as one of the few women emcees working the Indianapolis hip-hop scene. The rap scene here is very male-dominated. Do you have any thoughts on that?
McNeil: I have mixed emotions about it honestly. Part of it is an opportunity, because there aren't that many female emcees in the city that are dominating, so I have an open path to dominate and control the scene and saturate it with my music. But also I feel like I'm overlooked in certain areas, like getting booked for shows. I do get booked for more shows now, but that's more because of my personal connections. It's progressing, but it's slow like baby steps. At the same time I believe in creating my own doors and creating a buzz that is so broad and saturated within social media that people can't ignore it.
NUVO: Do you get a sense of whether there's more opportunities opening up for other women to follow your path?
McNeil: I would say yes. I hear women when I get offstage say, "Oh my god that was amazing. You were the only woman up there and you really represented!" That makes me feel good and I feel like it inspires other women to know that just because there aren't any women onstage you can still get up and do it.
NUVO: I want to get your thoughts on "Black Widow," which has a heavier club sound than any other work you've created thus far.
McNeil: I love to dance. I wanted to make a song that would make people get up off their seats and dance, and I feel like we achieved that. That song tells different stories. One of them is about being compared to another woman in a relationship and how that made me feel emotions of pain and disappointment, but ultimately helped me realize my self-worth, which is a beautiful thing. Then the song talks about identity and how the media paints a picture for little girls and young women to grow up to. I feel like every woman is beautiful, and there's not just one form for beauty. It's an anthem for confidence and finding your self-worth.