Emanuel Psathas: In pursuit of integrity
The binge drinking culture in New Zealand is available for free viewing on the main street of any town or city between the hours of 9pm and 4am Friday and Saturday nights. We’ve all seen it. It’s no secret. But it remains so deeply ingrained in our culture, almost a source of pride, that any criticism of it is considered an affront to the nation. No-one knows this better right now than young hip hop artist, Emanuel Psathas who performs under the rapper pseudonym Name UL. His first album Choice(s) tackled the untouchable pearl at the heart of many of our social ills.
The album follows Emanuel track by track through a night out on the town providing an honest portrayal of the shifts in one's emotional and psychological state that comes with the highs and lows of a heavy night of binge drinking.
“I wanted to explain the scene from the perspective of a peer, someone who has existed in that culture,” says Emanuel. “The social commentary around this always comes from professionals who are outside the scene. You don’t think about the consequences at that age and a lot of that stuff doesn’t resonate. I wanted to provide another commentary from a different perspective and see if that sticks or changes anything.”
Emanuel provides a rare and distinctive insight into this culture. Not long out of high school when writing Choice(s), he speaks from a perspective of someone who has been immersed in it, who has experienced that culture at this moment in time. But also as a young person who has placed himself in the role of the observer, he presents a stark portrayal of the absurd lack of discussion around our binge drinking culture.
“This culture is so deeply ingrained,” says Emanuel, “that people won’t even talk about it as a contributing factor to anything. You read stories in the newspaper about a young kid getting done for violence, but no one ever asks the question - why is this kid wasted at 5am in town aged 17?”
The violence in the streets in the wee hours of the mornings, the date rapes, the stomach pumping at the hospital are all symptoms of a much larger social ill, and this is what Emanuel was tackling in his album. The question that Choice(s) poses to us is: Why does no one want to talk about this insidious culture? The untouchable nature of this subject matter was only reinforced for him after releasing the album. “Most people don’t want to talk about it, they just don’t want to go there.”
Aware of what he was wading into, Emanuel says that deciding to release Choice(s) was one of the hardest decisions he’s made in his life. This was his debut album after all, and he was no fool when it came to the potential risks involved in creating such a polarising piece of work.
“I have lost friends from putting out that album, and cut out a massive audience. I had to way up the risk - do I release an album and put my career at risk, or do I follow my heart?”
Many younger audiences took his criticism of the culture as a personal affront. They failed to recognise the personal threads woven into every song that told his stories of a young man leaving school and reflecting on the culture he was emerging from.
“I never say that I’m separate from that culture,” says Emanuel, “but everyone took it as that, that I was sitting up on my high horse. Every character in that album is a version of myself, but people read it as a criticism of others.”
On the flip side, however, there were many young people who breathed sigh of relief. “There are so many people who look at this binge drinking culture and see it as detrimental and damaging.” This album, Emanuel says, allowed them to validate their personal concerns and discomfort about not fitting into the culture that surrounded them. He says that reassuring those people was a worthwhile payoff for the criticism launched at him by others.
Emanuel speaks with a confidence in himself and his drive to create music. He holds a certain clarity about why he chooses to write about bigger social issues. He rejects writing music just for the sake of building popularity, but he in no way claims that he is trying to fix society's problems through his music. “I’m not trying to teach people anything, and I’m not trying to change the culture. I’m just a medicine for the symptoms.”
Integrity and being 100% real form the basis of Emanuel’s approach. At an early age, his dad taught him to listen to music to learn, not to like. When Emanuel shared with his dad an artist that he liked, he would receive a recommendation to listen to something similar but different. He learned the art of exploration. These learnings have framed Emanuel's relationship with music ever since and given him a certain freedom in the way that he creates. “I can’t control how people will react. The core belief is keeping that integrity really, really strong.”
Laid over the top of this belief, is a solid drive to work really hard. As a 14 year old, Emanuel saved up his pennies from washing dishes for two years so that he could spend one day in a studio. He was so determined to make the most of that day that he recorded his first eight-track EP in its entirety. Throughout high school he performed up to three nights a week while still attending classes and doing his exams. Since leaving school he has worked a full time job, creating his music at his studio before and after work.
“Every day I wake up and think I have to make music today. It’s always what I think about and do. I thrive when I’m way too busy, so I ram my schedule full morning to night. I finish my day at work and go straight to my studio and work on my music. I love pursuing it and seeing where it goes.”
Emanuel is on the verge of releasing some new songs before heading on tour towards the end of the year in New Zealand and overseas. He’s excited for people to hear his new sound. “I feel like I’ve transitioned from a teenager making music to an adult.” Still making fearless decisions about the kind of music that he wants to create, no doubt these new tracks will be full of ideas worth thinking about. “A lot of people are excited that I stand up to an idea. I don’t care if people are like, ‘fuck that guy!’. They know I’m being real. I just want to bring some honesty back into the world.”
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