For New Zealand artist Em-Haley Walker, connection to her Māori heritage, language and culture is paramount. It’s the true north in all she does, from launching her te reo Māori project TE KAAHU in 2020 — a stark differentiator from the festival-primed alt-pop of her project Theia, to her work as a teacher of te reo language skills and tikanga Māori practices.
It should come as no surprise then, as she readied the release of her debut album Te Kaahu O Rangi, that her ancestors were by her side. It started with regular visits from female kaahu, New Zealand’s native hawk (which her project is named after). But as she delved deeper into sharing the knowledge and storytelling of her ancestors through song, they visited in many different forms.
When she rehearsed her live show at the end of last year she felt the hands of her tūpuna (female ancestors) on her back as she performed a karakia, a ritual chant. And when she filmed the music video for her single “Rangirara” — about her unending love for her grandmother — near her ancestral Waikato river, she witnessed a Māori legend unfold before her eyes. In legend, the fierce female taniwha, a supernatural creature by the name of Waiwaia appears as a log that floats down the Waikato.
“There was no debris in the awa [river] and then all of a sudden, really slowly, this log with this branch coming out of it, started moving down the river,” says Walker.
“[…] This entire project feels like it’s been led by [my female ancestors] and I’ve had the most incredible experiences with my kui [grandmother]. I can feel my kui, my nanny, tangibly, and then I’ve had all of these experiences where I’ve felt Nanny Mete, which is the main matriarch who I’ve written about and tried to honour, which is my great grandmother.”
For Walker, social media platforms are part of her reclamation and redress journey. She’s part of a vibrant and vocal Māori community on TikTok and her videos posted to Facebook and Instagram have been embraced by both rangitahi Māori (young Māori) and pakeha (white New Zealanders).
“My manager started showing me all the shares and comments and the amount of Māori and pakeha who are so supportive and adore the vocals, the nostalgic vibe, and the harmonies and the peaceful warmth that comes from it,” says Walker. “It’s just really amazing.”
Walker quotes a Māori proverb when speaking of her work with TE KAAHU: Kia whakatōmuri te haere whakamua, ‘I walk backwards into the future with my eyes fixed on my past’. She sees the past, present and future of Māori culture as intertwined, with language at the forefront.
“Although most importantly for me, this is something I do for the benefit of my people, it is really this decolonising practice where by way of me doing this mahi [work], it’s able to touch non-Māori as well; and if anything, expose them to the beauty of our reo [language], the talent of our people, and also the timelessness of our reo and music.”
This interview features in the June 2022 issue of Rolling Stone AU/NZ. If you’re eager to get your hands on it, then now is the time to sign up for a subscription.
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