Youth mentor inspires through culture and hip hop

27 Jul 2021

Tipene Harmer (Ngati Kahungunu) is passionate about three things - youth development, music and being Maori.

Tipene joined the Kura Wellbeing team at Mercury Bay Area School as a Youth Mentor in October 2020, a new role for the school, bringing with him expertise in the youth development area. Half of this role involves engaging with students experiencing challenges and providing them with guidance. The other half is spent teaching junior and senior students te ao Maori concepts, culture and tikanga.

“I love working with young people. They’re amazing, some of them just don’t know it yet. I’m kinda a big kid myself. I relate to them and their struggles,” Tipene says.

Tipene created a learning programme called Poutama to help students map out their next steps. Poutama symbolises genealogies along with the various levels of learning and intellectual achievement. 

“My mentoring is tailored to each student. I start by understanding who the student in front of me is and figuring out ways I can engage that person. I’m also kinda ‘cool’ to them, which helps break down the barriers. I guess the moment I’m not cool I might have to try something else,” he laughs.

Tipene was inspired to pursue a career in youth development and education by a grassroots community event he organised in his hometown of Flaxmere in 2015. FlaX Music Academy was a community hip hop workshop for people of all ages who wanted to learn the art of hip hop. Tipene ran the workshop and together with the participants organised a live show and produced a compilation CD. 

“It wasn’t about turning them into musicians, it was about giving them an experience that made them feel like they could be something,” he describes. “It was also about kids and their parents reconnecting through music.” This was important in a community that had been deeply affected by gangs, violence, drugs and poverty. 

Driven by the success of this first project, Tipene went on to complete a Bachelor of Education degree and has since worked in South Auckland, Hawkes Bay and the Waikato in the youth development and youth justice areas. 

“A saying I heard once really stuck with me. ‘Young people are not a problem to be managed, they are a resource to be developed.’ That’s my teaching philosophy. I’ve never seen youth as a problem. My role is to sow seeds and give them the tools to help them navigate their own lives.” 

Tipene’s other passion, music, has been gradually growing over the last 20 years. “I started by writing poetry/spoken word because writing helped me process what was going on in my head.”

In 2012 he released his first album, Tautoko, meaning support. Tautoko was an album born out of necessity. Tipene’s Mum was unwell at the time and the family were struggling to cover costs.

“I decided I was going to produce a CD of my music, take it up to Auckland, play a gig, sell the CDs and raise money for my whanau. That was my big plan.”

He sold all the CDs and raised enough money to help cover expenses after his Mum sadly passed away. Not long after that, Tipene was contacted by Warner Music who were interested in adding him to the label. The re-release of his album had him collaborating with Aotearoa hip hop royalty.

“I got to collaborate with some of my favourite Aotearoa musicians that I grew up listening to, Che Fu, Scribe, Dam Native, Prince Tui Teka, DLT.”

The first single was the hugely successful West Side Hori which earned him his first APRA Silver Scroll nomination in 2013 and four Waiata Maori Music Award (WMMA) nominations in 2019, taking the WMMA Best Maori Urban Artist gong for Tautoko

His second album, Heritage Trail, was released in May this year and Tipene is currently touring the country with it. Three singles have been released so far Ariki, Warrior and Turangawaewae featuring Maisey Rika and Troy Kingi, with the album recently nominated for a Silver Scroll. 

“I’m pretty honoured to be nominated again. But it’s not something I build my career around. If it means that more ears get to hear my music, then I’m all for it.” 

Heritage Trail is a synergy of te ao Maori (the Maori world) and hip-hop, providing an honest record of Tipene’s life right now. 

“I wrote this album for a hundred years down the track, after I’m long gone. When my photo is hanging in the marae and my mokopuna points to it and asks who’s that, what was he like, they can press play on this album. This music is about legacy.”

The song Kupe written on the banks of Whitianga’s Taputapuatea Stream, named by Kupe himself after the sacred waters of his homeland, tells the story of Kupe’s discovery of Aotearoa and his first stop, Te Whitianga nui a Kupe (Whitianga, Kupe’s crossing), proving that Tipene’s music is also a way to learn about the history of Aotearoa, Mercury Bay included.

“For me it’s not about the streams or album sales, it’s about what people are doing and thinking. If I’ve inspired somebody to go out and connect with their heritage, their kids, their family, their whenua, where they’re from, their turangawaewae (place to stand), well, man, that’s up there with oxygen for me. It’s why I do what I do.”

The APRA Silver Scroll award will be presented in October 2021. Tipene’s next show on the Heritage Trail album tour is at Nivarra Lounge in Hamilton on Friday 30 July. Tickets available from or on the door. 

Pictured: Hip hop artist and youth mentor, Tipene Harmer (Ngati Kahungunu), has been working with students at Mercury Bay Area School.