Kevin Keepa went from busking for loose change on Wellington’s Lambton Quay to winning fans’ hearts on The Voice Australia. To mark the release of the Koi Boys’ debut album, he tells his story.
As told to Mana magazine‘s Leonie Hayden.
I was born in Taranaki, but my mum and my dad moved us down to where my father is from, in Picton. I spent most of my childhood down there, and moved back to Taranaki in my early teens. I was a very rebellious young man, always getting into trouble with the law. In and out of boys homes. My mother couldn’t deal with me. I used to sneak out the window to hang out with all my mates. I’d be brought home by the police. I thankfully grew out of those things, and music was what helped me do that.
I moved to Porirua with my mum’s younger sister, my Aunty Eva. I didn’t have a job back then, and it was hard to find one because I didn’t have a good education or anything like that. I was always getting into trouble at school, never listening. If I had the chance to go back, man I’d sit there and learn – but instead I became a busker.
One day I went to a party in Poneke with my guitar, and I needed train fare to get back to Porirua. I was broke as, walked past a bouncer in the street and thought “Man, if I could just sing a song, get 13 bucks for a packet of smokes and train fare…”
I walked down Lambton Quay for ages, sat there with my guitar and started to sing. The first song I sang was ‘Easy’ by The Commodores, but I was singing quietly because I was afraid of people looking down at me, like “get a job young Māori boy”. They weren’t really – I was just scared.
I met a busker called Willie, and he said “Bro, can I throw down with you?”, I said “Yeah of course”, and he just went for it. He said after “Bro, if you’re going to sing, let it go, just go for it, because that’s what we’re like. That’s who we are as Māori people. We express ourselves. You can stand there and sing all day, but it’s about expression. You see all these people walking past? You know where they’re going? They’re going to the Oaks Tavern up there, and when they come back around midnight, on the way back they’ll be partying with you.”
Sure enough, they did. I walked out of there with about 400 bucks in 20c pieces and $2 coins. Some people would throw a joint in there, a can of bourbon, something like that, and it became a job for me. I’d go down Thursday, Friday, Saturday and just sing. But I’d time it right for pictures, strategically place myself in the right spots.
And that’s where I met Danny [Faifai, Koi Boys founder], on the streets of Wellington on a rainy Thursday night. I think if I hadn’t started doing that, I’d honestly either be not around anymore, or in jail, because I was getting into a lot of trouble before Danny put my name forward to come to Australia and work. A lot of bad stuff, and I’m glad I was taken away from that, because here I am now.
This is an excerpt from an interview with Kevin Keepa in the upcoming issue of Mana magazine.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.