How Perspective Can Change Everything: A Look At Lisi’s Red Bull Symphonic
"I started to make more music that was more in touch with who I am and where I’m from. It’s only going to get better and better for me."
On a Saturday night in late June, Red Bull staged a takeover of one of Brisbane’s most iconic venues for a once-off live music event.
The Princess Theatre played host to the first-ever Red Bull Symphonic — a night where the music of Goodna rapper Lisi was reimagined by a 25-piece orchestra under the direction of acclaimed conductor Nicholas Buc.
A fusion of hip hop, Samoan culture and contemporary music, the evening was a resounding reminder that Lisi is an artist who is at the forefront of a new wave of Polynesian artists shifting the dial within Australian hip hop. Moreover, the show was a passionate display of cultural pride, proving that the effects music can have on a community can extend beyond the stage.
The lead-up to the Red Bull Symphonic had seen Lisi and the Queensland Symphony Orchestra working meticulously on rearranging the material from the rapper’s acclaimed debut album Perspective for this intimate experience. For Lisi, it was an eye-opening experience to see how his music — rap flecked with R&B and Polynesian influences — could be reinterpreted in a musical and cultural space that previously he (and undoubtedly many others in the Polynesian community) perceived unlikely ever to be connected with.
“To be with this orchestra, it’s been amazing,” he tells Junkee. “It shows that this isn’t weird or corny, it’s actually beautiful. If I could play the violin and put it on one of my songs, I would do it, one hundred percent. It’s massive and has really opened my eyes to a lot.”
When we meet Lisi, he’s arrived at The Princess Theatre for soundcheck on show day and is remarkably calm. He’s arrived with his crew, who are playing pool with some members of the QSO as we settle into couches in the green room.
It’s almost a perfectly timed sight, as conversation moves into the sense of collaboration Lisi has felt with conductor Buc and the QSO. Stepping into a space completely foreign to him, Lisi approached working with the orchestra and Buc with an open mind, letting his curiosity and hunger to learn lead the way.
“I feel like this could open a doorway for these genres to collide,” he muses. “After hearing the orchestra and what they could do behind my audio and beats, I’m like, ‘Damn! Maybe I wanna get this orchestra on a track!’ It’s crazy to hear these live instruments and learn about them too. Nic is letting me know. It’s the first time I’ve seen a harp, a marimba…the only time I’d heard of it is on the iPhone!
“I feel like this could open a doorway for these genres to collide.”
“Getting to learn about these things, I think it’s a massive thing for hip hop. I know it happens all over the world, but more so in Australia and more so for Polynesian rappers…it’s really opened my eyes to how much more we can be adding to our music. We can be a lot more creative.”
During the rehearsal, we watch Lisi and his roster of collaborators and special guests go through the motions with Buc and the QSO. It’s easy to see how well everyone works together and more importantly, are in sync and listening to each other.
For Buc, who had the task of composing the new arrangements for the show, he relished the experience as much as Lisi did – stepping into the realm of rap and hip hop, and discovering how he could fit in.
“The thing I love is the challenge of diving into a genre that I’m not as familiar with, learning and discovering what makes them tick,” he explained.
“What is it that fans love and draw them to that genre? What is the essence of hip hop that people really love? I’ve dabbled in so many genres and I’ve really relished in diving into the ins and outs. It’s been wonderful because I’ve been able to dive into the world of rap and hip hop and it comes out in the arrangements that eventuate. It’s a process of discovery and research that I really enjoy.”
“What is it that fans love and draw them to that genre? What is the essence of hip hop that people really love?”
“Orchestras often traverse outside their classical sphere but for hip hop and rap, it’s not done often. It’s been a pretty unique experience for them, as well as for Lisi. My job has been to write arrangements that are really leaning into that genre of hip hop and rap: a lot of rhythmic stuff that we try to riff off. Lisi’s songs have a really great storytelling foundation, so using the orchestra to heighten those stories emotionally…we can use the orchestra to expand the range and make them hit a little harder.”
As well as the Queensland Symphony Orchestra, the show features stand-out guest performances from the Selah Gospel Choir, recent The Voice Australia finalist Faith Sosene; and fired up verses from Lawd Lance, Nokz and Lisi’s crew, Th4 W3st.
‘Home’, Lisi’s inspired composition as part of Red Bull’s 64 Bars series, is a set highlight: a love note to Goodna and the community that raised him. Then with ‘Brown Brother’, Lisi injects poignancy — as the horns and strings of the QSO ring out behind him, the rapper takes on a hopeful tone.
“Man, what a time to be alive and to be brown/I’m a Samoan descendant and they know that ‘cos I’m proud,” he delivers with his chest, an opening line that is met with passionate cheers from the crowd. It’s an emotional moment for the family in the front row, the supporters strewn throughout the sold-out venue, and those seeing Lisi for the first time.
“My brothers, we have to start using our intuition and stop blaming the world when we’re the ones making decisions.”
“Some of those songs, I haven’t performed ever,” Lisi shared earlier in the day, speaking of tracks like ‘Brown Brother’, ‘Till The Death’, and ‘Baby We On’.
“They’re softer, sentimental songs that I wouldn’t normally put in my live sets. I’m looking forward to displaying that a lot more. I get to show that side and work on my different elements of performance.”
As he looks ahead to how working on a project like the Red Bull Symphonic could change his output moving forward, Lisi notes that the change is already underway. Fans — new and longtime alike — can hear how perspective can, and has, changed everything for him.
From here, things are only looking up for the Goodna legend. “When I look back at when I first came out, it’s the biggest cringe,” Lisi laughs.
“But that’s only because back then, I was still just hopping on the wave. Then I started to realise that I don’t want to be on the wave, I want to be in my own lane. Gradually, I started to make more music that was more in touch with who I am and where I’m from. It’s only going to get better and better for me, it’s all about becoming more creative and thinking of different ways to display how I think and feel.
“That’s the only intention I have as a rapper from now on, to just be a true artist rather than a person who just makes bangers. You can do both.”
Sosefina Fuamoli is a Samoan-Australian music writer and content producer living on Wurundjeri land. You can find her on socials @sosefuamoli.
Photo Credit: Red Bull