Rapzilla Freshman Thomas Iannucci Killing Hawaiian Silence
If there was one line in 2020 Rapzilla Freshman Thomas Iannucci’s music that described him as an artist best, it would be in his song “Kuleana (Paradise)” featuring seni. at the end of his second verse. “I don’t know if I’ll ever spark a change, I just know the silence is killing us all man.”
Formally known as Illtalian, Iannucci grew up on the islands of Hawaii honing his craft of Hip-Hop. A little less than two years ago, Iannucci won the Nā Hōkū Hanohano Award for the best Hip-Hop album. Now, he is a Rapzilla Freshmen.
“This has been a goal for me for the last 5-7 years. In college, I used to read Rapzilla. It was all exciting to see the freshmen list and who was coming [up],” Iannucci said. “Especially those first few years, they were just killers. Hits after hits, amazing artists.”
In his state, Iannucci isn’t considered a Christian artist. Iannucci said the Hip-Hop scene on the islands, in general, is relatively small. While there are a few rappers who are believers, a CHH scene in Hawaii does not exist. To his peers, Iannucci is one of them, a Hawaiian rapper. While this acceptance has led him to his platform now, balancing his faith, how he interacts with his peers, and reacts to the social issues complicates how he makes decisions as a socially conscious rapper.
“As far as how my faith informs what social issues I tend to tackle, for me, I try to pray and trust God that he’ll lead me in the right direction,” he said. “It’s tricky.”
As “Kuleana (Paradise)” displays, there’s a social unrest building in Hawaii, caused overtime by what the native Hawaiians feel are acts against their homeland, Iannucci explained. The most recent event that displays the underlying tensions were the protests started in the summer of 2019 aimed to block construction of an observatory on Hawaii’s tallest peak, Mauna Kea.
A factor feeding into the unrest is the lifestyle the natives wake up to every day.
“There’s so much pressure to provide and work really hard,” Iannucci said. “A lot of our work is tourism, government, and the service-based industry. We have a lot of people with money coming from other countries, the mainland, and that sort of thing. Our job is service, making sure they’re OK, waiting on them, and serving them. It creates this sort of strain, stress, and resentment that causes a lot of anger and tension in Hawaii that bubbles over from time to time.”
In Honolulu, making less than $90,000 a year is below a livable wage. Despite living outside the city on the island of Kauai, Iannucci balances two jobs, working 60-70 hours a week. While people who can afford the hotels of Hawaii go and enjoy the islands, the natives are too busy and poor to afford to stay at these hotels and enjoy their island.
Their feelings come out in other ways besides anger. The state’s suicide rates have nearly doubled in the last decade, according to statistics provided by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2005, the suicide rate was 8.2 out of 100,000 people. In 2017, the rate increased to 15.2 out of 100,000 people. While the rate decreased in 2018 to 11.2, the tensions are still around.
“I was trying to talk to some of my friends about that, and they were all like, ‘Shut up Thomas. You live in Hawaii. Every day is a vacation. Your life is great,’” Iannucci said. “I was like, ‘dude, you don’t know’. I realize how much people think Hawaii is such a perfect place…We have a bunch of issues like [government corruption], drugs, suicide, and violence that is papered over with this veneer of paradise that can be oppressive at times in the sense that you are not taken seriously when you talk about these things because people have this engraved image of Hawaii.”
All these factors are the context behind Iannucci’s line in “Kuleana (Paradise).” All this is happening. Yet the Hawaiian natives try not to talk about their problems, Iannucci explained.
“There’s a very strong Asian influence in my family and in Hawaii in general where it is really frowned upon to talk about what you are going through, talk about your feelings, and to have feelings.”
One way the natives are dealing with the unrest is leaving Hawaii altogether. This, however, is changing the cultural landscape of the islands.
“So they go away to college, for example, and they just stay because they cannot afford to live here. Then you have more and more people from the mainland coming and filling that gap because they can afford to live here. So what’s happening is that Hawaii is starting to lose the beauty of its culture as you have these people make it more like California.”
Iannucci has considered leaving the island to Los Angeles. Living on a set of islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean caused Iannucci to feel isolated from Hip-Hop.
“I got really good advice from this producer who’s much more successful than me,” Iannucci said. “He said ‘listen, I won’t tell you what to do one way or the other because that’s a huge life decision and you have to think about that. But I want to ask you this, and you take this to mean what you will: ‘how many rappers do you know from LA or from California do you know?’ I was like, ‘jeez, a million.’ He said, ‘right, exactly, but how many rappers from Hawaii do you know’?”
Listening to the producer, Iannucci decided to stay in Hawaii and use his locality as an advantage for networking.
“I have found people are so interested,” he said. “They are so curious in a way that, friends I have from middle America or the big cities like New York or LA where a lot of people are from, people aren’t as interested. I have a way in. I have an open door.”
So Iannucci is staying in Hawaiian Hip-Hop, a genre fueled by the Hawaiian unrest. Iannucci said that, generally, each island has its own style and sound. Overall, however, that genre can be split into two groups: the outer islands and the city, which is Honolulu.
“On the inner islands, it’s more about the political change where it’s like ‘alright, so how do we overcome this? How do we affect a change,’” Iannucci said. “On the outer islands, there’s a little bit more of, essentially, how can we change ourselves on the inside and then use that change to affect our surroundings.”
The nature of the subgenre’s content is a reason why Iannucci switched his name from Illtalian. He outgrew the name he coined at age 15.
“I felt in an era with Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole, a lot of these guys who rap under their real name, it is a lot more authentic,” Iannucci said. “I never liked the gimmick of ‘oh, that’s my stage persona, but this is who I am.’ If I am going to make stage music, I want it to be about me, about who I am, about what I feel. I don’t want to hide behind a façade of Illtalian or anyone else.”
The chorus in “Kuleana (Paradise)” continues like this: “Paradise, they say we live in paradise, they don’t even realize, that we still tryin’ to find paradise in paradise.”
Above all needs, Hawaii needs Jesus, just like every other place on the planet, Iannucci said. With two albums out, a Hawaiian Grammy award, and the 2020 Rapzilla Freshmen title, Iannucci will keep growing his skills and spreading the message of the growing frustration in Hawaii.
“I am passionate about stressing and representing issues in Hawaii that are not reflected in mainstream media, so I’m happy to stay here,” Iannucci said. “God can do whatever He wants to do. I am not going to put a limit on anything. I can easily see a day come where I leave, but I believe, for the time being, I have work to do here as well.”
By the way, Iannucci plans on releasing a collaborative album before this summer. He’s working with a Hawaiian-based production group named The Brewz. The album will be titled Doubting Thomas.
“I’m going to be getting a little more in-depth behind the theory of that name change and that sort of thing.”