October 03, 2021
HE WHAKAARO | OPINION: Pākehā allyship needs to extend beyond te reo
By Atakohu Middleton
Kaiako/Lecturer, Te Wānanga Aronui o Tāmaki Makau Rau/Auckland University of Technology
It was the big surprise of Te Wiki o te Reo Māori. Local electropop singer Lorde, who is Pākehā, released five songs from her album Solar Power in te reo Māori, with proceeds going to charity.
All of the songs focused on the environment, Lorde said, so it was appropriate to have them translated them into te reo Māori. Te reo, she added, is “just a crazy beautiful language; I loved singing in it”.
Those involved in translating the songs and coaching Lorde in correct pronunciation, among them language experts Sir Tīmoti Kāretu, Dame Hinewehi Mohi, Hana Mereraiha and Hēmi Kelly, had managed to keep the project quiet until Te Wiki o te Reo Māori rolled around. But as soon the songs were out, claws were, too.
Supporters said that the involvement of such reo experts was gold-star endorsement. He aha hoki, said some detractors, asserting that non-Māori were not entitled to sing in te reo. The singer had a white saviour complex, said others, and her mini-album, titled Te Ao Mārama in te reo, was “tokenism in full force”. Lorde was capitalising on a language she knew little about, while Māori artists slogged away creating incredible music that commercial radio ignored.
There was also an argument that seeing a privileged person gain such easy access to reo experts deepened language trauma among Māori who didn’t have te reo or were struggling to learn. Lorde had publicly said that the translated songs were a starting point in her reo-learning journey, and this prompted a predictable rejoinder: Maybe a reo-Māori album and access to top Māori creatives should come further down that road.
I observed the tautohetohe with mixed feelings. I’m no particular fan of Lorde, though I am a fan of anything that shows the whole country that te reo is beautiful and valued. That’s a message someone with Lorde’s international fame sends far and wide.
However, during the debate, something kept niggling at me. Te reo revitalisation is political. The work we do to support our reo is inextricable from the work we do to reclaim what has been lost and assert our mana motuhake, our right to control our destiny. We can’t divorce our language activism from the activism (still) required to see improvements in Māori education, health, housing and employment, to tackle disproportionate rates of incarceration, and to challenge racism.
Nō reira, koinei taku pātai. Where does Lorde, and the increasing number of non-Māori singing in te reo, stand on these critical issues? Do these artists engage with just the fun reo stuff and skirt around the rest?
We could argue that we value our artists for their music and that’s enough. We might say that anyone who sings in te reo is worthy of praise regardless of their whakapapa. We might further argue that we don’t want to hear about musicians’ politics.
The counter-argument is that music is often highly political and that the intersection of celebrity, globalisation and social media has put paid to the idea that artists and their ideas stay in the lane marked ‘music’. We’re used to seeing artists and musicians engaging with politics (they are citizens like the rest of us, after all) and leveraging their cultural clout for political ends, often with great success.
I guess the questions I am left with are these: How far does tauiwi musicians’ commitment to te ao Māori really go? Where do they stand on the really hard topics that affect te ao Māori? Do they stand alongside us when the going gets tough, or do they remain fair-weather reo-only friends?
Here’s another pātai: What do you think? He aha ō whakaaro?
Radio Waatea and its board would like to advise that the opinions posted are those of Atakohu Middleton and not the views of Radio Waatea, its management or its board.