Maui Now: A People Of Maui Interview
(Maui waitress Camile Velasco emerged as a top 10 finisher in season three of American Idol in 2004, launching a reggae, hip-hop career that has her touring with The Green, Sublime, and J. Boog. One of her songs, Mr. Sensi, has 6.6 million views on YouTube. She’s now known as the singer-songwriter Eli-Mac and has returned home to Maui to perform a concert with the California-based pop, reggae fusion group, The Mystic Roots Band. The performance is at da Playground Maui, Saturday. We wanted to find out how she’s doing and her evolution as an artist. Gary Kubota conducted the interview for Maui Now.)
KUBOTA: What lies ahead?
ELI-MAC: As far as the future of Eli-Mac, in my eyes, I have only just begun. Every year, I strive to reach a higher level and plateau in my career, and I do feel like I have been achieving that thus far. I’m currently finishing up my third album which will be full length this time. I also have a song with Collie Buddz coming out next month. The song is called “Resume’.”
KUBOTA: Your music now seems to have evolved into a fusion of genres? How did that happen?
ELI-MAC: Ten years ago I was still searching for my sound and who I was as a person, as a woman. I knew I loved hip-hop and R&B and reggae, but 10 years ago I didn’t think to combine them all together. Fast forward to today, after navigating through life and finding myself and growing up and becoming more of a woman, I dug deep to create this combined sound of my top three favorite genres. Once I combined them together, Boom, my sound was born.
KUBOTA: How has your sound dovetailed with your teenage years and your career now?
ELI-MAC: Growing up I always had a huge attraction to hip-hop and R&B. Maybe, it was because I grew up in the 90s and at that particular time, those genres were so heavy… It was just the style and energy. It influenced me at a young age. I started diving into the island roots of Jamaican reggae when I was in high school. Living on Maui, you couldn’t escape that influence. I gladly welcomed it.
KUBOTA: To what degree has your Hawaiʻi upbringing influenced your music?
ELI-MAC: Growing up in Hawaiʻi has definitely influenced my music and who I am as a person. For that, I thank God every day. I’m so proud to be from Hawaiʻi. Growing up in Hawaiʻi has definitely given me a special flavor and humility that shaped me and my music today. When I took my first love of hip-hop and R&B and combined it with roots reggae with the influence of the islands and people, it created my sound. I don’t think I would have the blended sound I have today, had I not grown up in Hawaiʻi. I’m not sure what music movement I am a part of, except to spread my message of peace and love and hope. That said, my biggest influences are diverse — Lauryn Hill, Nas, 2Pac, Billie Holiday, The Doors, Prince, Don Carlos, Bob Marley, Midnite, Slum Village, Erykah Badu.
KUBOTA: When did you get started singing? Did you sing in a church choir?
ELI-MAC: I didn’t grow up singing in church. I grew up in a house full of singers. My mother was a singer and both of my sisters. For the longest time, I thought that every family sang. Prior to American Idol, I had only been on stage once in my entire life. Music was not something that was discouraged by my family, but it was also not encouraged. We just sang at home and in the car with my mom and dad for fun. I remember when I was really little, back in the 90s, my dad’s car didn’t have a radio, and my sister Tuesday and I would always sing for him. I’ll never forget when he finally got a new car with a radio, he said he was kinda sad about the new radio, ’cause we didn’t sing for him as much, like we used to in the old car.
KUBOTA: Please tell me about your family roots. I understand your family came from the Philippines?
ELI-MAC: I moved to Hawaiʻi in the late 80s, when I was just two years old. I was born in city of Makati in the Philippines. My mother Rennie is from Cebu Island and my father William is from the Batanes Islands. My dad joined the US Navy, and that is how we got to the United States. Because of this, I believe I owe both of my parents my life. Unfortunately I do not speak any dialect of the Philippines. I only know the food words (laugh). But I grew up in a very, very Filipino household, and I am very proud to be a Filipina.
KUBOTA: When you’re back on Maui, is there a favorite spot you like to visit?
ELI-MAC: One of my favorite places to go is Haʻikū where I used to live. I love the jungle and the rain. All the flowers and vegetation and fruits make my heart so full. Another place I like to visit is ʻĪao Valley. I feel a deep and strong and soulful energy there.
KUBOTA: Please tell me about the development of some of your songs — “Tricky One” and “Roots Girl.”
ELI-MAC: “Tricky One” was a special song to me. A song I wrote about myself. At the time I was going through a rough patch in my life emotionally and mentally and financially. “Tricky One” was the product of that hard time. It was just what I was resonating with at the time…“Roots Girl” is also a very special song, to me. It was actually the one of two songs of mine that I didn’t write. It was given to me as a gift from a very dear friend. My friend Matt Billows wrote the song for his wife, my best friend Nohea Apia. We had Matt come to my house to record his song. Just to have fun. He had never recorded a song before and just wanted to try it out. Nohea and I came downstairs when he played what he had recorded. I instantly started crying. It was insane! I felt it right away. A few months later Matt and Nohea told me they weren’t going to do anything with the song, and they asked me if I wanted it and if I wanted to record it as my own. I cried again. I gladly and humbly accepted this precious gift and the rest is history.
KUBOTA: I understand you were working as a waitress at the International House of Pancakes in Kahului, when you entered the competition for American Idol. That’s quite a leap. But it seems like you come from a family of big leaps, your father and mother moving to the United States. I understand your mother is an entrepreneur.
ELI-MAC: My mother Rennie worked in fast food for many years. She became a manager with Pizza Hut and Taco Bell, and there she won manager of the year for the state of Hawaiʻi for five years in a row. After such accomplishments, she saw an advertisement in the newspaper for a restaurant on Maui. Based on her history as a manager and strong and promising work ethic, she got a loan from a bank and became the owner of International House of Pancake in Kahului, Maui. This was where I had my first job as a waitress. My family and the restaurant workers have always supported me and until this day they are my family and always will be. I always encourage everyone to go for their dreams. We only have one life to live. I refuse to be on my death bed with regrets. You’ll never have a chance if you don’t take one, so I say, “Take all the chances.” Either you win, or you are still in the same spot you were before you took a chance. To me, taking a chance is essentially risk-free.
(Interviewer Gary Kubota has received several national awards in journalism and written a national touring play, Legend Of Koʻolau. His book “Hawaii Stories of Change: The Kokua Hawaii Oral History Project” is in the permanent collection in the University of Hawaiʻi’s Department of Ethnic Studies’ Center for Oral History).