At 24-years-old JULAI has found himself in the rap game. When you listen to his music he has a flow so steeped in musicality you’d think he’s been doing this all his life.
And yet, he hasn’t. Natural talent plays a role in his effortlessness on the mic, but there’s another, more inconspicuous factor at play—he’s been a lifelong dancer. In fact, for many years JULAI was focused on becoming backup dancer, a dream that only changed during the worst days of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Trapped at home with his brothers, both musicians, during Melbourne’s harsh 2020 lockdowns, JULAI found himself jumping on the mic during their sessions. Soon after he began dropping verses on Instagram, and eventually created his first demo track “COFFEE & SEX”.
JULAI is a fixture of Melbourne’s Ballroom scene, and was part of the recently disbanded House of Deviné. With the support of his house and community behind him, in 2021 he began performing his music at balls and queer club nights, building his confidence up as an artist. The support of his community is something he’s deeply grateful for. Speaking to Complex AU he said, “I really want to shout out my community for putting me on and believing in me…I don’t think I’d be where I am without them, they show up to every show.”
These experiences overtime culminated in the release of his first single “BADDIE BTTMS” in 2022. Since then, he’s continued to drop tracks and stayed deep in his performance bag. He’s also knocked off a bunch of other achievements: supporting Mulalo and Vv Pete at their respective shows, opening for Vetta Borne, and most recently, joining the coveted Converse All Stars program.
What sets JULAI apart has everything to do with his purpose—he’s pursuing rap for others as much as he is for himself. His why is bilateral: charting a path in this industry for both queer and Polynesian artists.
Speaking to Complex AU, JULAI reflects on his dance background, latest track “SUGAR & SPICE”, and coming for the bag of straight male rappers.
Before you moved into rap, most people knew you as a dancer. For many artists things happen in reverse—the music comes first and learning to dance comes later. How do you think you’ve been able to leverage your dance background as you’ve transitioned into music?
Well for starters, coming from the dance world, I have a lot of respect for dancers. Dance has helped me with work ethic—there’s no faking being good at it. It’s also helped me understand musicality and helped me with my flow as a rapper. I also want to touch on Ballroom culture a bit as well, because in Ballroom there’s a category where you can walk. A big part of our balls are commentators and chanters—the ones that chant as we vogue down. The chanters have so many unique flows, and a lot of my recent work is heavily inspired by commentators and chanters in Ballroom. So yeah, I want to give props to them because they’re such a big influence in my music.
Your latest track “SUGAR & SPICE” has just come out. What’s it about? Explain it for the people.
So I come from a family of six, and the only allowance we ever had was like $5 for a Myki, (laughs). We never grew up with the best clothes—our favourite places were the op shop, Savers and Kmart. I’m so grateful for my mum because she did what she could for us, but having limited resources gave me this mindset of ‘It’s not what you’re wearing, but how you wear it’. So I’ve always carried that mindset, and “SUGAR & SPICE” touches on that—it’s for the girls from the areas that like to dress up—we’re the girls with the sugar and spice. We don't have to be rich or wear luxury brands, we just like to dress up and look good in our area.
I think plenty of area girlies can relate! So, you’re Samoan, and you grew up in the 3177! Or Doveton, for the non-Melburnians. Polynesians across the country contribute significantly to Australia’s arts and music scene, but often go unacknowledged for their contributions. What are your thoughts on Pasifika talent in Australia?
I think there’s a new league of artists and entertainers emerging in Aus that are Polynesian, and I think a lot of kids look up to us. But I still think that for a lot of Pasifika kids, they don’t see a pathway in music or arts as a legitimate career choice or something that will bring them success. Even for me, being a backup dancer wasn’t something I thought could be a career path until I saw Parris Goebel do what she did. She’s Samoan, and I’m Samoan. Our people are great. We’re so naturally gifted but often see music and dance as hobbies and not careers.
And so I think it's really important for Pasifika people to go for gold when it comes to music, so that the Pasifika kids can see that this career path is possible—because we're so talented. I’m not just doing this for the queer kids, I'm doing it for the Pasifika kids too.
So I know you also recently became a Converse All Star. Congratulations! Talk to me a little bit about this.
Yep, I’m a brand new All Star! This is the very beginning, but currently I’m in the works with them on a Pride campaign. Honestly, I'm really grateful for what they’ve provided me with so far—they’ve really put me on. Shoutout to Converse for providing me with these opportunities, they’re helping me a lot with my career.
Unfortunately, traditionally hip-hop hasn't been the most welcoming space for gay men or queer people. Queer rappers are few and far between, especially in Australia. In terms of carving out a space for yourself in hip-hop, how are you finding it?
Yeah it’s crazy, I need a moment to reflect on it. I feel like it’s been easier recently, because I’ve learnt that I have power in what I’m saying and what I’m doing, and I understand the power of my impact. I’ve been saying it at my shows—it’s not easy to be a queer rapper. This genre is very gatekeeper-y when it comes to gay men, but I always say, I’m happy to be that bitch, the one that’ll knock the walls down.
I feel like I can say I'm good at what I'm doing, and I know how to put on a performance. What drives me wanting to leave something here for another queer artist to pick up. It's not just for me—it’s for us.
It was hard in the beginning—getting people to believe that I can do this. But the more I’ve been getting out there performing, I’ve been showing people that there's actually a community behind me supporting me that love the music. Even for producers, they’re understanding that there’s a demand for this kind of music and a space for it to exist in. And shoutout to the producers that have been giving me the time of day—I really love and appreciate them—they respect me and where I come from and how I express myself.
You’re one of our first gay rappers, but definitely not our last, and I imagine there are queer artists out there who feel just as apprehensive as you did about working with straight male hip-hop producers. Do you have any advice on this?
Honestly, I can only speak from experience—but I think really believe in you and do it unapologetically. There’s someone out there who's gonna love the music. And do it because you love music, do it because you love to express yourself, do it because you see power and importance in your voice. Do it for you. I think when people see that you fuck with yourself a lot, they’ll be like damn, Imma fuck with that too. But yeah, most importantly, be unapologetic. And also, the world is changing.
What’s next for you?
I think my next step is to be so undeniably excellent that events have no choice but to put me on a straight line-up. I don't want to just be getting booked for queer gigs anymore, and again, shoutout to my community—they mean everything to me. But at the moment, people tend to put me in the world of female rap.
But I have a feeling that I threaten the bag of straight male rappers, if I’m being honest. If you put me up against them my performance is far beyond what they can provide, because you have men that just jump on stage and do the bare minimum. But I give you a show, and I can say that with my chest. And again, I’m willing to be the bitch that breaks down those walls. So that’s my next goal. Put me up against them.
You can find out more about the Converse All Stars Program here, and apply for the latest All Stars intake here.