Pauly Fuemana, the New Zealand singer-rapper who scored a huge worldwide hit as OMC in 1996 with How Bizarre, has died aged 40 of pneumonia. How Bizarre was an infectious confection blending Fuemana's Polynesian roots with catchy pop hooks, a slangy rap and mariachi trumpets. It first topped the New Zealand charts, then repeated this success in Australia, Ireland, South Africa and Austria, and made the Top 10 in eight other countries, including the UK. In the US, How Bizarre topped the airplay charts, helping it become the biggest-selling record yet to be released by an act originating from New Zealand.
Fuemana was born in the suburb of Otara, South Auckland, one of New Zealand's poorest communities, to a Maori mother and Niuean father, and grew up speaking Niuean as his first language. With his two older brothers, Phil and Tony, he shared a great enthusiasm for making music, yet Fuemana's teenage years were marked by gangs, petty crime and encounters with the police. He spent some time in a youth prison. He formed the rap trio Otara Millionaires Club – an ironic reference to the low socio-economic status of much of the suburb – with his brother Phil and Paul Ak in the early 1990s. Initially the trio performed in a style indebted to US rap artists, but Pauly's growing confidence saw their material take on a more distinctive South Pacific flavour.
In 1994 Alan Jansson, a musician and producer, recorded what he saw as the cream of South Auckland rap talent for the Proud compilation album. OMC's contribution, We R the OMC, made a significant impact and Jansson began working solely with Pauly, recording him as OMC. In late 1995 How Bizarre was released on the Auckland label Huh! It quickly became a huge summer hit, selling 35,000 copies, demonstrating that Fuemana and Jansson had managed to create an indigenous hip-hop sound that reflected Auckland's status as the world's largest Polynesian city.
Fuemana went out to promote it on its extraordinary run of international success. This included a Top of the Pops performance on BBC television where he was accompanied by Polynesian dancing women. OMC's broad appeal was demonstrated when the world music authority Charlie Gillett began championing OMC on his BBC London radio show. Fuemana's US popularity found him hired to record I Love LA for the Mr Bean soundtrack.
I interviewed him in London in 1997. His years in gangs were reflected in the tattoos that covered his limbs, yet he struck me as a thoughtful man, bemused by his success. When Fuemana resettled in New Zealand in late 1997 he found that what was once a joke – an Otara millionaire – now represented his reality. Expensive cars were just part of the lavish spending. Jansson then sued Fuemana over royalties, so effectively ending OMC. By 2006 Fuemana had declared himself bankrupt, though in 2007 was recording as OMC, again with Jansson, but few were listening.
A dissolute lifestyle had taken its toll and the once handsome singer became physically fragile. "He went from nothing to having all this fame dumped on him and he was meant to cope with it all himself," his brother Tony told TVNZ.
Fuemana is survived by his wife, Christine, and five children.
• Pauly Fuemana, musician, born 8 February 1969; died 31 January 2010
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