Oct 6, 2021 Music
Making her TV debut on Breakfast in June, Tāmaki Makaurau-based R&B artist Iris G performs her unreleased track “STORM”. The song is soft, sensual and intense. Perched on a wooden stool, she picks at her electric guitar with casual confidence. She appears to be a seasoned professional. She’s cheeky and cool and oh-so-secure in her earnest vulnerability. Even at the early age of 22, Iris has travelled a long road to make this premiere, carrying a much heavier load than her breezy performance might imply.
I first met Iris Guevarra at high school. Together, we’ve played second- string football on Wednesday afternoons, challenged our sleep schedules two years in a row with the 48Hours film competition, and celebrated each other’s 21st birthdays. Her melodic voice has scored my coming of age, her indie, folky sound increasingly taking centre stage. She played Avondale College talent shows to roaring applause and volunteered stand-out tunes to short films we would scrape together after school. And then, in 2016, our final year of high school, she achieved a feat that many high-school musicians in Aotearoa only dream of: she took out the top spot in the solo/duo category of Smokefree Rockquest.
The competition has offered career-making opportunities for many of our locally grown musicians, with notable artists such as Ladyhawke, The Black Seeds, Bic Runga and Kimbra all launching their careers after taking out top prizes. The momentum and exposure from a Smokefree Rockquest win offered Iris a valuable stepping-stone for moving forward with her musical ambition. However, shortly after taking out the competition, and shortly after our high- school graduation, Iris stopped making music. “I was under so much stress and trauma that I lost my voice,” she tells me.
In April this year, a small part of Iris’s journey as a survivor of sexual assault was explored in the RNZ series The Collective. In this eight-part documentary, a group of rangatahi engage in the Crescendo Te Urunga programme at its Avondale studio, preparing to perform a song at The Tuning Fork. Crescendo is a social enterprise that provides education for young musicians, allowing for self-expression and empowering young people to make positive changes in their life. Under the guidance of founder Marcus Powell and lead tuakana David Atai, Iris produced her single “My Body Is Mine”, while working through her trauma. She’s a stand-out performer in The Collective, conveying an inspiring openness about her journey and delivering an evocative and polished final performance. “It took me years to finish that song,” she says. “During that month of filming, I was doing so much therapy. But because I was doing all of that work I was finally ready to finish the song. I was finally healing that part of me.”
The title of the song, Iris explains, comes from a mantra that she has used to reclaim power in her body following the sexual assault: “It reminds me that I don’t owe anyone anything and that I’m in complete control of myself and my body. I think in that way it’s a good way to ground myself and remind myself of my purpose.”
This use of mantra is clear in the song’s production, with melodic chants repeating through the track. Throughout, it sounds as if Iris is self-soothing, with lyrics affirming her agency and control of her physicality. Conveying this affirmation was a driving force in creating the track, she says, as she so strongly appreciates the power of music in her healing journey. “My body felt so … I felt like I wanted to rip it off,” she says. “But when I listened to music, it was like everything else disappeared and I was present. I felt at home in my own body. I think that’s what I’ve always wanted to do: help people not escape but return to themselves.”
The sound of the single is also very different from Iris’s Smokefree Rockquest-funded track “Supernova”, which has the folky sound that I remember from high school. She explains that her newfound preference for R&B is due to the way it accommodates the softness of her voice, which she regained slowly through her healing journey.
Part of what makes Iris so memorable, besides her voice, is her look. With a bleached buzz cut, a set of grills and deep cheek dimples, her face isn’t easy to forget. This indelibility is amplified by her slick styling — she frequently dons reworked men’s suits, camouflage prints and a tilted black beret. While the choices are playful, Iris is also reinforcing political ideas of resistance and revolution (Che Guevara references are sprinkled across her Instagram). On stage, she takes the politicisation of her appearance even further, painting “MY BODY IS MINE” across her arms, or marking her cheeks with black lines like those worn by guerrilla fighters.
As Iris has propelled her music into overtly political spaces, her actions have borne out the symbols of the persona. She played an early version of “My Body Is Mine” at an abortion reform rally in 2020 and was taken aback by the crowd’s response. “I got so many DMs from women asking when I would be releasing it, and how much it impacted them and made them feel strong,” she says. “I might lose a few people but I’m gonna gain supportive people — survivors — who I’m doing all of this for. It’s their opinion that matters to me.”
Having her incredibly personal journey catalogued in documentary format is not something Iris takes lightly. She says she’s terrified about how much she cries in the series and is worried that people might see survivors as weak. The age-old, false narratives about survivors over-exaggerating are still pervasive, and Iris is one of many who fear those negative comments. But she believes that her story and her music offer a positive representation of survivors: “My hope is that the doco makes a change with the perpetrators who do it and with bystanders who don’t understand the gravity of it. My focus during filming was always about survivors, so my hope is that they feel inspired and that they know that they’re not alone.”
With “My Body Is Mine”, Iris G is certainly passing on her mantra to others and extending an affirming, understanding hand to survivors. “My dream is to end sexual violence in New Zealand,” she says. “The more I’ve been doing mahi around this space, the more I feel like I’m serving my purpose. That’s what keeps me going.”