Dawn Raid’s Brotha D: My wife saved my life

From drugs and crime to being a devoted dad, the hip-hop legend reveals how Black Ferns star Adrianne helped him change his ways.
Michelle Hyslop

If someone had told a teenage Danny Leaoasavai’i – best known as Dawn Raid founder and rapper Brotha D – that he would mark his 50th birthday as a doting dad, dedicated husband and passionate community worker, the hip-hop star would have likely laughed in disbelief.

The musician’s youth was derailed by grief, domestic violence and trouble with the law – and it took a man’s death, which saw his brother imprisoned for murder, for him to turn his life around.

“We were bad people,” Danny admits in a raw interview with Woman’s Day, sitting alongside his wife, former Black Ferns rugby star Adrianne (née Lili’i), and their children, Chrissy-Jon, 13, and Elijah, 10.

“I was a young teenager with a lot of South Auckland in me. I wasn’t the Brotha D everybody knows today.”

It’s a transformation that reflects the star’s lifelong inclination to flip darkness into light. Losing his dad Ta’amu when he was 11, Danny ended up in Levin with his mum Pua and her new husband, but he couldn’t handle his stepdad being abusive to his mother, so he returned to his grandmother Saitu and other siblings in Auckland.

Danny with wife Adrianne, daugter Chrissy-Jon, and son Elijah

“I was a young Samoan with a lot of anger and no guidance from a father figure. We learned life on the run and when you do that in South Auckland, you can get trapped into different things. It got us into trouble.”

Asked whether his antics involved alcohol, drugs or crime, Danny candidly replies, “The whole shebang. We did everything. I mean, we were in a fight that murdered someone. We had a big brawl and someone lost their life – and because it was a big brawl, nobody could tell who done what. It’s the worst thing we ever did and anything else pales in comparison. It’s not something I’m proud of.”

Danny, around 18 at the time, says his younger brother John-Lee confessed to murder following the incident. He recalls visiting the teen in prison and tearfully pleading with him to tell his lawyer that Danny was the one responsible for the death, but John-Lee stood his ground, was found guilty and served around seven years before passing away.

“I decided this wasn’t where I wanted my life to head,” he shares. “I saw the darkness in losing my brother and had to do something better.”

Conscious that post-prison employment would be challenging for John-Lee – “the muso of the family” – Danny had started venturing into the music industry to create something his brother could benefit from.

By then, the star was dating Adrianne, who had fallen for his sense of humour after the two met through friends. Apart from witnessing Danny get into “the odd fistfight”, Adrianne was too focused on her sporting career to be exposed to anything overly worrying.

Adrienne has been there for her man in ‘bad and sad times’, and is so proud of his transformation

“He always made me laugh and I enjoyed that side of him,” says Adrianne, who played for the Black Ferns from 1999 to 2002.

Of John-Lee’s imprisonment and death, she adds, “It was hard on Danny, so that was a learning curve in supporting someone. It was a bad and sad time, but my job was to be there for him and work through it.”

Danny continues, “I’m sure there might’ve been points when she thought, ‘What a waste of time!’ But she hung in there. Without Adrianne, I could’ve made different decisions, but having someone who speaks positiveness and grieves with you is a big thing.”

Adrianne says Danny has been just as powerful in her own life, saying, “I was stuck-up and selfish when I met him. He’s shown me how to open up.”

It was Adrianne who suggested Danny, who also wanted to be an accountant, start night classes to complete his schooling and qualify for a business course at the Manukau Institute of Technology. There he met Andy Murnane, who was familiar with Danny’s music.

The two launched Dawn Raid Entertainment – its name another example of Danny turning negatives into positives. He was around six when cops arrived early one morning in search of his cousin, who hid in the freezer. “I was like, ‘What are you doing?’ I later found out it was the dawn raids. I wanted to show we could change the negative connotations into a positive by developing young, great artists.”

Dawn Raid launched acts including Adeaze, Aaradhna and Savage, and helped Danny transform his life while Adrianne continued focusing on rugby.

“She was flying around the world and did a stint in Italy,” he recalls. “Through all that, we said, ‘If we’re meant to be together, we’ll be together.’ But I knew she was the one when I met her.”

Danny and his Dawn Raid partner Andy helped other artists achieve their dreams.

So Danny popped the question over breakfast, then wed Adrianne in 2006. But while she was pregnant with Chrissy-Jon, Dawn Raid entered liquidation. “We were going through difficulties with the taxman while I was about to have the most beautiful moment of my life.”

The label survived and Danny began a new chapter as a parent. “That was the happiest day of his life,” Adrianne tells. “He’s a great father and supports the kids in everything they do.”

Danny proudly gushes over saxophone-playing Chrissy-Jon’s passion for music and sporty Elijah’s basketball team. “No matter how bad a day you have, coming home and seeing them smile – all problems disappear,” he says.

“I want to ensure they don’t see the life I once lived. I made some lousy decisions, which caused a lot of grief, so it’s about teaching them every action has a reaction.”

Reflecting on his own youth actions, Danny says his journey ultimately led to him to becoming a better man. Today, he channels his past actions into helping troubled youth turn their lives around, mentoring predominantly Pasifika boys through Oranga Tamariki.

“I see myself in them,” he explains. “I’m drawn to that to make amends for how I was.”

The couple married in 2006

He adds that steering his artists at Dawn Raid away from the temptations of the music industry was the perfect training ground. “I’ve been there, done all that! It’s child’s play. I can see things before they happen.”

The label’s ups and downs are chronicled in new documentary Dawn Raid, directed by Oscar Kightley and in cinemas on January 21. Danny hopes it motivates young South Aucklanders, who he feels are disproportionately covered in media, with a focus on negative stories rather than successes like chart-topping Manurewa teen Jawsh 685.

“I want it to inspire our kids out here – and my own children too,” he asserts.

However, Danny need not worry about inspiring his own kids – they idolise him! Chrissy-Jon tells us, “I used to be scared to do things on my own, but Dad always goes, ‘You can do it!’ I’ve learned not to be so scared of others.”

Elijah, meanwhile, boasts about Danny helping his basketball team.

“With other coaches, we rarely won, but with my dad coaching, we only lost two games. The cool thing is, my dad never played basketball in his life!”

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