In 2002, two young First Nations women took the Australian music industry by storm.
In January of that year, Simone Stacey and Naomi Wenitong, known as pop R&B act Shakaya, dropped their first single, “Stop Calling Me”, through Columbia/Sony. It peaked at number five on the ARIA Singles Chart, introducing the fresh-faced Cairns duo to a national audience. In a handful of months, the pair would unleash two more singles, go on tour with Destiny’s Child, Kylie Minogue and Human Nature, and then, on October 18, release their Top Five self-titled album.
Two decades later, Wenitong looks back on that whirlwind period by going back even further. She reflects on when a primary school teacher asked her to record her dreams. “I wrote down all this stuff with music. I even wrote that I wanted to sign with Sony because I saw the label name on the back of my CDs. Look, they were outrageous dreams, okay? But by the time I was twenty, I’d crossed everything off my list.”
Wenitong was in her teens when she met Stacey, then twenty-one, through a Certificate IV music course for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students at Cairns TAFE in 1999. The girls bonded over their shared Murri heritage — Stacey is from the Juru clan under the Birrigubba nation, while Wenitong’s family is from the Kabi Kabi tribe — and they both have South Sea Islander and European ancestry (Naomi is also part-Nepalese). So they joined forces to tackle assessments, including writing original music and performing their songs live.
“The course was perfect for us, for the way that we learn,” Wenitong says. Eager to nurture their developing sound, a family friend encouraged them to visit the newly-opened, multi-million dollar Megatrax Studio, owned by local nightclub impresario Reno Nicastro.
The girls set up a meeting with Nicastro to pitch themselves as backing vocalists for visiting artists. “We went up there with a demo we’d recorded in my Dad’s set-up — it was so crap,” Wenitong laughs.
“I remember the day the girls walked in so clearly,” Nicastro says. “Naomi was a kid. They gave me a cassette tape with their music on it. I liked the songs, so I said, let me reproduce them. I’ll get you into the studio properly to sing. And that’s what I did.”
A former musician raised in Innisfail by Italian-born parents, Nicastro concedes to having a soft spot for the girls from when they met. “I love them both; they’re like my little sisters.” So he agreed to let them record new music at Megatrax, an offer they keenly accepted until they realised how much studio time might cost. Stacey recalls that feeling of heartache.
“I was twenty-one years old, mum to a three-year-old boy. I was also going through a very tough relationship, domestic violence, etc. Reno was giving us our big break, but we had no way to make it happen.”
“I was 21 years old, mum to a three-year-old boy. I was also going through a very tough relationship, domestic violence, etc. Reno was giving us our big break, but we had no way to make it happen.”
Wenitong adds, “We were broke as. I worked at a coffee shop, so I called Reno from a payphone on one of my breaks. I had two dollars. Two dollars wasn’t a lot for a payphone call, so I tried to speak quick! I let Reno know we didn’t have money to pay for studio time, but he surprised me.”
Nicastro asked Wenitong what her weekly pay was. “It was like three-hundred bucks a week, so I said, ‘I’ll give you that amount’,” he remembers. “You’ll come to the studio and write every day for a year, and we’ll see where it goes. I said the same to Simone. I told them it was like fishing: one day you’ve got nothing, the next day you’ve got something. So that’s how we started.”
The trio agreed on the name Shakaya. With Nicastro acting as producer and manager, they spent twelve months working on what would become their debut album. “We wanted to keep creative control. We’d lose that if we’d recorded it with a label,” Wenitong says. “We write our songs. For me, writing is the main thing. It’s not worth getting up in front of everyone if I’m not singing or rapping what I want to say.”
When it came time for them to perform, Nicastro organised a gig at one of his Cairns nightspots, Club Tropo. He invited several industry friends to the performance, including TV host Richard Wilkins who later became their co-manager.
Shakaya’s first night on stage didn’t go as well as Nicastro had hoped. “I watched them perform, and I noticed how quickly they lost their breath. The girls weren’t used to singing and dancing at the same time. So I go, ‘Fuck, this is no good!’ I remember driving home at two in the morning and calling my friend Peter Andre. I said, ‘Brother, what have I done? Have I just wasted a lot of money and a whole year of my life?’ He said, ‘No, brother, they just need to be trained’.”
“I remember driving home at two in the morning and calling my friend Peter Andre. I said, ‘Brother, what have I done? Have I just wasted a lot of money and a whole year of my life?’” – Reno Nicastro
At Andre’s suggestion, in mid-2001, Nicastro booked and paid for Shakaya to spend three months in Orlando, Florida, at Lou Pearlman’s Trans Continental Studios. Pearlman had helped launch the careers of Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, NSYNC and O-Town (he was later convicted on numerous crimes, including conspiracy and money laundering and spent eight years in jail before dying in federal custody in 2016). The renowned boot camp involved dance and voice lessons, media training and trainer-led workouts to prepare them for stardom. But for the first time, Stacey and Wenitong found themselves dealing with self-doubt.
“There we were, in this rehearsal studio with giant mirrors, and I couldn’t even look at myself. I felt so uncomfortable. I wanted to go home and cry to my mummy because I was just so shame,” Wenitong says, adding that her worst fear was coming across as conceited.
“Our choreographer, a Black guy, cut the music, stopped everything, and said, ‘I don’t know what happened to you girls in your country, but no one wants to see shy little girls on stage’. He said, ‘Tell me what you’re thinking right now’. I said, ‘I just feel like the audience will think that I think I’m good’. Then he goes, ‘This is the thing — you are fucking good. That’s why you’re here, and they’re not. You should be embarrassed not to be on stage showing off’. And that mindset helped redirect the shame. I’ll never forget that.”
Towards the end of their time in Orlando, Nicastro was in serious talks with Pearlman and Los Angeles-based music industry figure Lionel Conway to sign Shakaya and introduce them to the American market. Then, with some crucial meetings already lined up, September 11 happened.
“It destroyed everything,” he says. “The girls were freaking out over there, and no one knew if the world was about to end.” So Nicastro called Wilkins back in Sydney. “I said, ‘Brother, let’s just go and do a deal with Sony. You know Denis (Handlin), go play him the songs.”
Wilkins lived in The Connaught building overlooking Hyde Park, a short three minute walk to Sony Music’s Australian headquarters on Hargreave Street in East Sydney. The TV host called the former Sony Music Australia chief and asked for five minutes of his time. “Why?” Handlin asked, before agreeing to Wilkins’ request to play him one song.
“So I raced across the road and into his office, popped the cassette tape in and turned “Stop Calling Me” up nice and loud. Handlin instantly declared it ‘a hit record’. Wilkins already knew it, of course: “I know, so what are we gonna do?” Handlin agreed to make a record deal happen.
“So I ran back and called Reno,” recalls Wilkins, laughing at the memory, who told the duo’s producer, “I think we just got the world’s fastest record deal.”
The first song the trio had recorded together, and released through Sony only one year later, “Stop Calling Me” would reach number five on the ARIA singles chart and go on to platinum sales. Nicastro remembers making the beat one morning and handing it over to the girls at lunchtime. The duo had finished the lyrics, melodies, and vocals by that afternoon. “We split songs up and agree on who does the first and second verse, then come back together for the chorus and the bridge,” Stacey says. “We both bring melodies to the table, then vibe off them and decide where to place them in the song.”
Stacey, the more introverted of the pair, describes the year they spent promoting their debut album, against the backdrop of her complicated personal life, as challenging. “I’d get bad anxiety in Shakaya and have extreme panic attacks,” she reflects. “Before one gig in Melbourne, I froze and felt crippled. It felt like an electric current rushing from the top of my head to my feet, which felt like lead. I couldn’t breathe; I couldn’t talk.” Wenitong would have to talk her through it each time, helping with breathing exercises and “reminding me why we were doing it.”
That purpose was paramount. The girls were mindful of their elevated platform and spoke openly and proudly of their heritage in interviews. Naturally, they sprinkled their identity into the music (“We had didgeridoo samples, a little bit of Creole in some of the raps,” Stacey says). But they didn’t understand why none of their conscious songs had made the album.
“We didn’t push the issue because we’d only just started. I was still a teenager; I wasn’t even confident I was writing good songs,” Wenitong says. “I didn’t click on it till later on; when you look at the songs that didn’t make the album, they’re all the ones about being Blak in Australia, all about going against the grain. It’s much more accepted now to talk about it.”
“I didn’t click on it till later on; when you look at the songs that didn’t make the album, they’re all the ones about being Blak in Australia.”
Following the success of their debut album, Shakaya released the follow-up, Are You Ready, in March 2006. They decided, amicably, to go their separate ways not long after its release.
“The girls, Reno and myself never really said goodbye; it just sort of petered out for one reason or another,” Wilkins recalls. “No one had a falling out; it got a bit hard after a while. With no disrespect to the label, what drives them is a success. And once those hits stop coming, they lose a bit of interest.”
Nowadays, Stacey and Wenitong work closely with their community: Stacey runs No Shame In My Game, a music program for young girls and teenage mothers. Similarly, Wenitong’s Naytive Mentorship offers songwriting workshops and professional development for emerging Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander musicians.
To celebrate the album’s twentieth anniversary, Shakaya is preparing a documentary, dropping previously unreleased tracks and performing gigs around the country. They are embraced as mentors by the current crop of First Nations female artists, including Malyangapa and Barkindji rapper Barkaa.
“Barkaa is so authentic, man,” Wenitong enthuses. “Watching her lets us see we’ve come so far. Of course, there’s still a long way to go, but I’m so proud of this next generation of mob. The way they’re operating in this country makes me so happy. We’re gonna be fine.”
This article features in the June 2022 issue of Rolling Stone AU/NZ. If you’re eager to get your hands on it, then now is the time to sign up for a subscription.
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