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Stan Walker Is More Connected to His Purpose Than Ever Before

Walker tells Rolling Stone AU/NZ about the journey to his new single ‘Māori Ki Te Ao’, which was “the first of many things” for the Aotearoa artist

Stan Walker

Āio Media New Zealand

For the first time in his career, Stan Walker feels as though he holds full power over his creative processes. 

From one stellar release to the next, the Māori recording artist uses his voice to celebrate identity, not just throughout Aotearoa but within cultures around the world. He ignited an online movement which asked his audience to display their strength, particularly those fans who hold Indigenous roots as he does.

Sitting on a video call from the Whanganui home he shares with wife Lou and their two children, Walker reveals he’s feeling more connected to his purpose than ever before just a few days ahead of the release of his new song, “Māori Ki Te Ao”.

He says he’s never felt more settled, gaining power from understanding his whakapapa which enabled him to unearth new meaningful messages in his own art.

“It was the first of many things for me. It was the first time doing something for myself and creating this experience with these people and back home. I will never get over it,” he enthusiastically says. “This was one of the most fun, exciting experiences I [have] had – that’s an understatement. I knew exactly what I wanted to write about.” 

“Māori Ki Te Ao” sees Walker fully expressing who he is while also sharing the beauty of his native language.

“I wanted to talk about my identity as Tūhoe, because for the longest time “Māori” has been a blanket term for who we are, but we actually have our own individual identity – and this song is specifically a Tūhoe song,” he explains. “It’s reminding everybody and myself not just where I come from but who I come from and that’s my superpower.” 

To make the track, Walker took the reins over every element, including where and when he put the music together, choosing to work from where he feels most connected, his hometown – Mount Maunganui (it was his first time ever recording there). “I wanted to have my own mana motuhake over not just my songs but also the process,” he says. 

He selected the team around him, from producers to instrumentalists, and asked them to be a part of something special. Among them, there was talented producer and Sons of Zion member Matt Sadgrove, a steady collaborator of Walker’s, longtime friend Tawaroa Kawana, his cousins, and uncle, Te Kanapu Anasta, who acted as co-writer. 

“We’re passionate about being Tūhoe, we’re passionate about being Māori, we’re passionate about our language, we’re passionate about getting our language to the world, to our own people,” Walker asserts. “It was honestly the most beautiful, easiest process of songwriting and collaboration.” 

Alongside Anasta, Walker called upon their wider whānau and friends to offer backing vocals, wanting the song to be “for everyone.”

“I wanted to bring in whānau and people so their voices could be heard there. So, in the choruses and in the bridge, you have voices of Tūhoe, you have voices of Māori – there’s many voices in there.” 

Walker says his renewed sense of self has been deepened by the personal journey of discovery he embarked upon that has changed his life.

“Knowing my identity – being Māori, being Tūhoe, being made up of all these different iwi and different hapū. The beautiful thing about music [is] it transcends our language, belief, culture, wherever you come from. I love where I’m at, and I love the journey that it’s taken to get to where I am at and who I am now. “

His efforts are having a resounding impact, with some looking at Walker as a leader – a privilege dramatically thrust upon him in the wake of releasing “I AM”, written for the soundtrack to Ava DuVernay’s film, OriginHe says that being a part of the film has been “one of the craziest experiences,” expressing deep gratitude to DuVernay for challenging him. 

“She opened up the door and didn’t just show me her world or bring me to the table, she’s like, ‘This is your table, you take it, you turn it around, you chop it upside down, I’ll give you my whole world.’ She let me into everything,” he says. 

Origin tells the story of Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Isabel Wilkerson’s journey to writing the book Caste: The Origins of Our DiscontentsThe 2020 nonfiction book seeks to explain how today’s social hierarchy was created over time, and how decisions of the past created unjust standings that continue to be seen today. 

While some directors may have shied away from creating a film that digs deep into the roots of class systems and race, DuVernay relished the challenge. “This film is the one, it gives the back story and the whakapapa to a lot of happenings in the world today,” Walker says. 

Walker’s soundtrack song “I AM”, featuring both English and Māori, is about “reconnection to our identity, our language and the origins of who we are and where we come from,” and this is his emotional response to the film. 

DuVernay and Walker’s collaboration came about after Origin‘s producer Paul Garnes and his wife Tammy saw Walker’s “Ultralight Beam” video, which went viral. “They ended up watching the video, phoned Ava, and she was like, ‘Who is this, I need him, I need to know him,'” Walker explains. 

DuVarney was able to hunt him down quickly enough through a mutual friend, the revered Māori producer Chelsea Winstanley. “We were on a phone call within 48 hours and then it all happened,” Walker recalls. Once he connected with DuVernay, “I AM” came together within just a couple of weeks. 

“We were talking back and forth. She told me about the film, she sent me the film, and then this song was my emotional reaction to the story – it fit this film perfectly,” Walker says. “In saying that, this message and this feeling and this song had been living inside me for years. 

“It just so happened that we crossed paths at this time and it was time for me to talk about this, to sing about this, to bring this out.

“People connect to music because they feel it – they might not know what I’m saying but they can feel it. They’re feeling a sense of pride that they’ve never felt before, whether they’re on the beginning of their journey or they’re all the way through.”

Credit: Āio Media New Zealand

It’s been a long journey to this point for Walker, who first rose to fame after winning Australian Idol all the way back in 2009.

“I think over the last seven years, I really came into myself as an artist, as a person. I had to learn how to be unapologetically me and unapologetically Māori,” he admits. “It’s something that I was, but starting in the industry, coming into this industry, that light was dimmed real quick, starting in Australia and moving back and forward.

“I know for me, over the past five years especially, I’m asking, ‘What legacy am I going to leave behind? What legacy will I leave for my children? For my grandchildren?’ I think that everything I do now I always think about that, the legacy I’m leaving behind.

“I’m going onto my third child now, so I’ve got three more hearty reasons of why I need to really be the best version of myself, more so for myself, for my children, for my wife, and they’ve just made my intent more purposeful. 

As Walker adds, the only pressure he has now comes from himself – and he expects only the best. “I know my position, I know my power, so I’m just trying to do the best I can.” 

Stan Walker’s “Māori Ki Te Ao” is out now.