Real Life

Rapper Queen Shirl’e shares how she found her strength in music

Having overcome many challenges, talented Queen Shirl’e is helping young people thrive
Pictures: Michelle Hyslop

South Auckland hip-hop entrepreneur Shirl’e Fruean has fond memories of her childhood in Samoa, roaming through untouched rainforest and picking fresh island fruit.

Cared for by her beloved great-grandmother Lakena Fruean, the MC and songwriter was given freedom and love. But when Shirl’e was suddenly uplifted to New Zealand as a young girl, her life drastically changed. 

As well as struggling with a new language, she was bullied at school. Eventually ending up in an abusive relationship, the talented rapper almost lost everything. 

“Throughout it all, the memory of my great-grandmother, who I called Mama, was my source of strength,” says the mum-of-three, who is known as Queen Shirl’e. “She supported my passion for performing arts from the beginning and her memory reminds me to stay grounded, and the importance of kindness and helping others.” 

Today, Shirl’e, 44, is a youth mentor, using her past challenges to help others through creativity, faith and hip-hop. 

It was at six years old, after a surprise visit from her New Zealand-based birth mother, Shirl’e learnt she was leaving Samoa. As well as feeling excited, she was heartbroken.

“I asked God to protect Mama,” she recalls. “I knew praying gave her peace, so I prayed I’d never forget her and everything she did for me.” 

Shirl’e moved into her grandparents’ house in Māngere, South Auckland, alongside her uncles, who were successful kickboxers, rugby players and boxers.

“I looked up to them and they pushed me to be better,” says Shirl’e, whose cousin is boxing champ Joseph Parker. “They helped me get into sports, which I was good at. While I loved my grandparents dearly, they were super-strict and we were always on edge. Coming to New Zealand shaped me into a resilient and courageous individual.” 

Papa Mose and Mama Lakena.

When her older sister brought home a book one day containing rap stars like Salt-N-Pepa and LL Cool J, Shirl’e was curious. 

“During lunchtime at primary school, my friends and I loved dancing and rapping along to songs on the radio – we even wore MC Hammer pants,” laughs the mum of Johvani, 21, Mikeymalik, 18, and Mahonri, nine. “But I didn’t realise hip-hop was a culture.” 

Shirl’e performed with cultural dance groups and also wrote poetry. 

“I’d craft poetry verses for friends, who’d share them with the boys they liked! Tapping into my creativity and passions helped me navigate the battles of those years.” 

While she thrived at school, excelling in academics, as well as athletics, she also got into fights. “I didn’t finish college,” she says. “I wanted peace and freedom.”

Shirl’e with grandpa Oliva Auimatagi, cousins Sa and Ollie, and nana Marina.

 At 15, her great-grandmother sadly passed away and Shirl’e couldn’t attend her funeral because of passport issues. Shortly after, she moved into the home of a supportive aunt and uncle, where she unearthed the “gift” that kept her out of trouble. 

“A family member was an underground DJ and taught me tricks on his turntables,” she says. “I became fascinated. He showed me graffiti art during train rides, and I fell in love with aerosol art, breakdancing and rap. It became my solace.” 

At her 21st birthday party, Shirl’e met her first hubby, a rapper who was part of a well-known South Auckland hip-hop group. 

“They introduced me to the music industry, showing me the ropes behind the scenes. I loved freestyling and rapping.” 

Shirl’e has set up her own academy to inspire young creatives.

After moving into the central city to live with him, juggling hairdressing training with bartender work, Shirl’e welcomed their two children. But when her marriage became violent, she started writing rap songs as an outlet. 

“I made the decision to leave my marriage. It meant sacrificing my house and dream job working as a performing arts tutor in Māngere.”

Then she faced a three-year court custody battle, which was the hardest time in her life. 

“I had to put my music on hold and focus on getting my children into my care,” she shares. “I felt so alone and was suicidal at times, but God, my family and friends kept me going.”

With the help of her church, she became a youth leader, discovering a passion for working with young people. 

“In 2006, I came across a group of teens who asked me to purchase them alcohol,” she recalls. “It turned out to be without a doubt one of the most pivotal moments in my life. I talked them into coming back with me to the Māngere Community House, now called Whare Koa, where youth thrive in dance, rap and music. A Māori woman there encouraged me to start my own performing arts programme and I did.” 

Honoured with a Pacific Peoples leadership award.

It has since evolved into the Queen Shirl’e Academy, which provides positive activities for troubled youth in South Auckland. Working as a tutor, Shirl’e helps young creatives nurture their talents. 

In 2014, after welcoming her youngest son, whose father isn’t involved, she learnt that he has autism. Two years later, she married a Christchurch rapper – it lasted less than 12 months – before persevering as a solo mum. 

“It has been difficult, but I used to babysit cousins, including Joseph Parker, and I guess it prepared me for when I was a single mother,” she tells. “I’m grateful for support from my son’s school and his paediatrician. I also have a new partner who’s really supportive and the kids love him.” 

Having recently launched the podcast Youth In The Booth, which gives young people a voice, Shirl’e and her academy have created more than 60 episodes.

“The stories are amazing and it’s therapeutic for the youth,” says Shirl’e, who won the Sunpix Pacific Peoples Community Leadership Award last year. “We’re currently seeking funding to produce our first academy short film based on the podcast.” 

The single Stronger is a collab with Lavina.

Most recently, she released the song Stronger, featuring former Ma-V-Elle singer Lavina Williams. 

Stronger is a reminder of the challenges we’ve faced in the industry as Polynesian women from South Auckland,” shares Shirl’e. “It’s about how we’ve managed to find the strength to overcome our challenges and still smile through it all.”

To donate to the Queen Shirl’e Academy, visit boosted.org.nz. For more info, find her Instagram account here, or her Facebook page here.

If you’re in a violent relationship, please call Women’s Refuge on 0800 733 843 or Shine on 0508 744 633.

For the Suicide Crisis Helpline, phone 0508 TAUTOKO.

In an emergency, always dial 111 and push 55 if it’s not safe to talk.

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