Noah Slee Reaches Back To His Tongan 'Otherland'
You probably haven't heard a Tongan R&B singer before. As far as Noah Slee has come from his complicated upbringing in New Zealand, he also pays tribute to his Polynesian roots on his 2017 debut. The album, Otherland, opens with "Kamata'Anga" — a welcoming chant in Tongan, Slee's native language — before delving into the kind of crisp production and progressive beats you might expect to hear coming out of Berlin, where he lives today.
Slee got his start performing in Polynesian floor shows with his eight siblings. While the sounds of his home region can be heard in Otherland, he says never quite felt comfortable in that environment, in large part because of his sexuality.
"Tonga's actually pretty backward in a lot of things: There's this mixture of really strict Christian values, but then they're still practicing old methods, too. Growing up in this environment, it was tough being gay; it was hard to accept myself," he says. "My brothers all played rugby and I was always the last to be picked."
Eventually, he packed his bags for Berlin. He wrote the song "Sunrise" after "too many long nights" there, caught up in the intensity of the city's music and nightlife. "Sunrise" proved an awakening of sorts: Slee says he realized he'd distanced himself from a culture that, in some ways, understood him best. The album that resulted from these experiences is a collection of his stories — "and what I want people to take away from it is, you know, tell yourstory. "
All Things Considered intern Miguel Perez contributed to this story.
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