Lorde fan Anton Blank on the backlash to her te reo Māori album, and the power of forgiveness.
My closest Māori friends and family have no interest in Lorde. They don’t relate to the middle-class girl from Devonport. Lorde’s brand of introverted pop is too pointy-headed for them, just too damned white.
They’ve been raised on a musical diet of reggae, R&B, and Māori music from the likes of my cousin Brannigan Kaa. When I’ve messaged them to wax lyrical about Lorde’s latest album Solar Power, they chat about something else, or don’t reply.
On the other hand, I obsess with Lorde every time she releases an album. Raised on the North Shore myself, the queer progeny of an intellectual poet Māori mother and an equally eccentric and smart Swiss father, I relate to the descriptions of Lorde’s middle-class upbringing. I wish I had Lorde’s appetite for reading — she estimates she’d read 1000 books by the time she was 12.
I can’t get enough of Solar Power with its lilting reflections on Lorde’s position in the universe, and her relationship with the natural world, te taiao. It’s all about Aotearoa. The sonic presence of the land and sea floats across all the tracks.
My lockdown routine is to listen to the album while I’m out walking. Starting this week, I’ve included her Māori EP, Te Ao Mārama. I listen to the two versions end on end. One of the new tracks, “Hua Pirau” / “Fallen Fruit”, is a major reconstruction of the original version. Hinewehi Mohi is very breathy, present and central. So, too, other Māori voices and karanga. It is exquisite music. Spine-tingling.
This week I have sated my social media addiction by following the not unexpected backlash to Te Ao Mārama from some Māori. There’ve been lots of angry comments about white privilege and fragility, and some of the discussion has verged on bullying. The academic parlance of racism misunderstood and misused in the flurry.
The silliest meme I saw said that if you’re enjoying Te Ao Marama, you’re not in touch with your privilege. Another urged burning the album.
The critical issue has been whether Pākehā have the right to learn and use the language, with many post-colonialists vehemently opposed to sharing the language with anyone but our own.
Spoiler alert. Pākehā have been learning te reo and using it in droves for decades. So too have all the migrant populations who live here. Te reo Māori is an official language which we want all New Zealanders to learn and use.
Lorde’s a pop star using te reo in her work. It’s a very powerful international statement about the currency of the language.
Less than 10 percent of Māori are fluent in te reo. We don’t have a workforce big enough to keep the language alive. In decades to come, students will be taught te reo by a diverse workforce of enthusiasts. The patterns are the same everywhere. There are not enough Māori to work in health, education and justice, so we have to recruit an army of allies.
Forgiveness comes easier to some than to others. Nelson Mandela walked out of prison with no bitterness. He believed that if he retained any resentment towards white South Africans, he would still be, metaphorically, imprisoned.
Resentment, he argued, is like drinking poison, then hoping it will kill your enemies.
Burning Lorde’s album — that’s resentment.
Mandela went further. He encouraged Black South Africans to live in a way that enhances the freedom of others. So, our role as Māori is to strive for not only our own freedom, but the freedom of Pākehā as well. Now there’s a thought.
Māori revolutionaries have looked towards Mandela and Desmond Tutu as international leaders in the anti-racism movement, since the 1970s. Mandela and Tutu promoted forgiveness as the mode for moving into liberation, but I almost never hear this message within the context of Māori discourse. We tend to fixate on the trauma of colonisation, rather than the power of healing and reconstruction.
Te Ao Mārama represents a healing, if we allow the music to release its power.
In the digital age, it’s naïve to think that we can control the use and growth of te reo — which I believe is a positive thing. The language is flourishing, and I, for one, embrace the change with gay abandon. When I get anxious about what lies ahead, I remember to “breathe out and tune in”, which is my favourite line from Solar Power.
I’d forgotten about the power of forgiveness until I immersed myself in the online assault of Lorde and her Māori supporters this week.
The Māori workforces I train want to know what they can do to navigate their way through the racist systems that employ them. I can feel their unmitigated rage, and I get it.
This week I’m going to build a forgiveness dimension into my messaging, to help dissipate the rage. So we can release the mauri and the gifts we have received from the atua.
Anton Blank (Ngāti Porou, Ngāti Kahungunu) has an extensive history in social work, communications, Māori development, public health and literature. He has held senior roles in the government and not-for-profit sectors, and was the principal investigator of the 2016 report Unconscious bias and education — a comparative study of Māori and African American students. Anton now works across justice, health and education, developing strategies to mitigate unconscious bias and its impact on Māori. He is also the editor and founder of the Māori literary journal Ora Nui.
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