• Ngaiire on Day three of The Falls Festival at Mt Duneed Winery in Geelong on December 3, 2015. (Zo Damage)
She felt like an outsider when she started school in Australia after migrating at 16, but Papua New Guinea-born singer Ngaiire has made a career out of individuality and her growing fan base can't get enough.
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5 Jan 2016 - 12:07 PM  UPDATED 7 Jan 2016 - 6:49 PM

In late 2015, as buzz grew around the ARIA awards, a group of emerging Australian artists were recognised for their talent.

Among those to win a APRA professional development award of $15,000 was Ngaire Joseph, who goes by the stage name Ngaiire (pronounced Ny-ree).

The singer, who has appeared on Australian Idol, performed at Glastonbury festival and opened for Alicia Keys, says her sound was defined by moving to Australia at the age of 16 from her native Papua New Guinea.

"The schools that I went to in Papua New Guinea didn't have music programs. Most schools still don't," she says.

"So I feel very lucky to have had an amazing music teacher and an amazing music class when I arrived in Australia." 

The video for her latest single, Once, has been viewed more than 69,000 times on YouTube.

But the road to success has not been without its difficulties and Ngaiire believes Australia still has a long way to go when it comes to diversity.

"People are scared to talk about racism in this country," she says. "I find myself, as a black person, that I'm always dealing with that in the music industry."

Ngaiire at Falls Festival.

School years

Ngaiire knew she was different when she started high school in Australia.

"I arrived in baggy pants and plaits through my hair," she recalls. "Just a bit of a tomboy.

"I didn't shave my legs or my under arms [either] - but that didn’t really matter because a lot of the kids I went to school with had hippy parents."

The musician, who is now 30, left her home in Papua New Guinea in 2000 after her mother decided to move the family to be with Ngaiire’s stepfather who was studying at university in Australia.

Before they left, Ngaiire’s step-grandmother tried to prepare her for what was ahead.

Were you born overseas? We'd love to hear about your first impression of Australia as a new migrant. Contact us on sbsnews@sbs.com.au or via Twitter @SBSNews using the hashtag #FirstDaySBS

"I remember her telling me that I would change, and I didn't quite realise what she meant by that," she says. "I was quite staunch as a teenager and I thought, 'That's never going to happen to me - no one's going to change me'".

What she didn't know was that her new home would be a training ground for Ngaiire to develop her musical talent and eventually launch a successful solo career.

Known for her soulful voice and electronic sound, Ngaiire released her first album Lamentations in 2013 and has been hailed as one of Australia’s "most dynamic vocalists and unique performers." Her second album Blastoma is due to be released in early 2016.

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First impressions

As Ngaiire had come from a tight-knit community, the Australia she first encountered seemed strange

"I remember one of the things that struck me was that there were no people outside," she says. "I was so used to being in a country where everyone kind of just existed outside, because it's quite warm."

The feeling of strangeness continued at school.

"There were different cliques and different groups of people and everyone ate lunch in their different groups," she says. "And I thought this is was really strange because at school in Papua New Guinea we all sat together, everyone looked out for each other. So I was quite confused as to where to sit.

"I remember making friends with a whole bunch of people and anyone could have said, '[She’s] an outsider, why is she sitting with us?' But kids in Lismore were very accepting.

"I feel very lucky to have lived in that town."

Ngaiire (centre) receives a APRA Professional Development Award in 2015.

Two worlds

It's a long time since Ngaiire left Papua New Guinea but she still regularly visits her family there.

"We have got a little village that we return to and I really wish I could go back more often because it's just a real reality check. There's no running water, no electricity, no internet, so it's always nice to go back and be off the grid for a little bit."

And she's acutely aware of the opportunities she has had in Australia that wouldn't have been available in Papua New Guinea. 

"Part of my work now is to get to a point where I can go back to Papua New Guinea and provide opportunities to kids who were my age when I moved here."

She says migration can be daunting for teenagers, and parents play an important role helping them with the transition.

"There are a lot of things parents don't know their children go through when they move to a different culture or a different country," she says. 

"I think it's really important to talk to your kids about it, to explain how they are going to fit into a new culture."

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Ngaiire has worked hard on finding her own footing in Australia and is now enjoying greater recognition for her music.

"I have worked really hard to carve a path for myself. It's taken 10 years to make some headway with my music," she says.

"But I think Australia has been very welcoming. I am always experimenting, always changing my path in terms of sound and genre, and I couldn't be in a better country to do that."

This story was produced as part of the SBS series, First Day, airing on SBS World News throughout January.