Tagata Pasifika

The Pacific voice on
New Zealand television
since 1987

Tagata Pasifika

The Pacific voice on
New Zealand television
since 1987

Ōtara-born, Tongan designer creates art for big names in hip-hop

Ōtara Tongan designer Ielemia Kolo
Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air
Ielemia Kolo. Photo: Jade D'Amico
Ielemia Kolo outside Ōtara family home. Photo: Jade D’Amico
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Breanna Tugaga-Rogers | Te Rito Journalism Cadet

Ielemia Kolo has been designing cover art for Pasifika artists taking the New Zealand and Australian music scene to a global level. From being a frequent collaborator with Australian rapper Lisi, and working on the first single covers for HP BOYZ and STNDRD, Ielemia has not only helped elevate a new generation of Pacific music but he’s also broken into the scene across Europe.

The 25 year old from Ōtara in South Auckland, created the cover art for breakout UK rapper Central Cee, and not just for any single, but for ‘Day in the Life’, the song that catapulted the drill artist into international stardom. He even works for one of Italy’s biggest rappers, Rondodasosa, and his friend, G.Issa, whose songs are 100% in Italian.

“It always baffles me that I made it out of Australia and New Zealand and into a scene where I don’t even understand the language.”

Ielemia chased these huge opportunities by any means possible, and not once were they handed to him.

Ielemia Cover art work. From top left row to right: HP BOYZ Bad n Bouj, Central Cee 23 Mixtape fan art edition, STNDRD My Uso remix, Lisi Good Life, Central Cee A Day in the Life, Lisi Perspective, Lisi Say Less, G.Issa Dope, STNDRD Poly People. Photo: Supplied

“Coming from Ōtara, the mentality people have here is go-getter. When we see an opportunity, we grab it with both hands, we’re not gonna let it slip. And if we look stupid in the process of doing it, so what? What do we have to lose?”

In 2019, the Australian music scene received international recognition when OneFour captivated the world with its own flavour of drill music. Ielemia saw a great opportunity.

“I’m like okay I do art, all these guys are artists, and I’m seeing their cover art, it could be so much better, so I made sure I had something to bring to the table. I presented it to them with the mindset that if it doesn’t pull through, I have nothing to lose because I’m not anybody anyway.”Ielemia messaged the Instagram of Melbourne rap group HP BOYZ, right after the release of their hit record ‘Engineers’. He knew the chances of them opening his message were slim-to-none as they already had a huge following.

However a week later they replied back, and Ielemia created the cover art for their next hit single, ‘Bad N Bouj’, which accumulated over 16 million streams on Spotify.

Bad N Bouj Cover art for HP Boyz. Photo: Supplied

Ielemia says this continues to open a lot of doors and he went on to create a billboard for one of Australia’s top rappers Lisi, and now has a tight working relationship with the artist and his team. He also designed the cover art for Lisi’s latest album, ‘Perspective’.

For Central Cee, the graphic designer saw someone share a snippet of his song ‘Day in the Life’, and this was when he only had 50k followers on Instagram, a big difference from the 4.6 million the rapper has now.

So again, the chances were slim-to-none. Ielemia thought Central Cee most likely wasn’t going to reply but he took his shot anyway.

“The next day he got back to me! And he was like ‘yeah, yeah let’s work, let’s do it!’ In my head, I didn’t even care if it was gonna blow or not, I just liked this guy’s sound.”

The track went out with Ielemia’s artwork at the forefront. Within the first week, the song was streamed a million times, then 2 million the next, and then all of a sudden it had gotten 50 million plays. Ielemia has created more than 50 music covers, all while juggling a full-time job.

“It’s not for everyone. It takes extraordinary perseverance to do this especially when you work 9-5, you come back home exhausted. It takes an extra bit of oomph to be like ‘nah I gotta work on my design stuff’, and then go to work again the next day.”

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A post shared by Ielemia (@gxldie.jpg)

Being a first-generation Tongan-New Zealander, Ielemia says his family’s work ethic has been instilled into him, and he knows he has to do whatever it takes to elevate to the next level, especially as his parents don’t always understand the ‘art stuff’.

“Every time I go back to Tonga, I’m always reminded about where my parents came from, what they sacrificed for us to come here. That always runs in the back of my head, like if I don’t do what I got to do to the best of my ability, this is a generation of sacrifice that has been handed to me, I will not only be letting my parents down but those before them, my ancestors.”

Ielemia says he’s always humbled and is always reminded of where he comes from, and recalls growing up with the bare minimum. But it’s given him a certain hustler’s mentality. It has inspired him to where he is now, and to see other well known artists who come from South Auckland, like Parris Goebel, is beyond inspiring.

“It’s the same thing that’s driving me, and it’ll most likely be the same thing that drives the next kid that comes up, just coming from where we come from. Nothing to lose but everything to gain.”



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