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"A double-edged sword." Why everyone's talking about Lorde's Te Reo Māori album.

Ella Yelich-O'Connor, better known as Lorde, is arguably one of the biggest pop stars in the world. 

So it came as no surprise when her latest release, an EP sung in the Māori language of Te Reo, called Te Ao Mārama, gained recognition on a global scale. 

But for those back in New Zealand, surrounded by their ahurea (culture) and whanau (family), Lorde’s ode to the “Aotearoa sun” has not received the warm welcome one might expect. 

Listen to Lorde's Mata Kohore from her album Te Ao Mārama. Post continues after video.


Video via Lorde

When I listened to her words, sung in a language I have always embraced but not ever known, I felt, for lack of simpler terms, recognised. 

My beautiful culture - one that has been largely ignored for its tiny population - would be heard by the world. And for that, I felt gratitude. 

Sure, she is not Māori. And her pronunciation is no better than mine, as a Māori girl whose most basic knowledge comes from two childhood songs and a few key phrases. However, I saw it as a way for my people to get the recognition they deserved. 

This was also the inspiration behind Lorde’s own choice to release a Māori version of her original album, Solar Power

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"I'm not Māori, but all New Zealanders grow up with elements of this worldview," Lorde told the NZ Herald

"Te ao Māori and tikanga Māori are a big part of why people who aren't from here intuit our country to be kind of 'magical', I think."

Despite this connection to the language, her seemingly innocent intention to put New Zealand on the map has been dubbed a "white saviour’s" take of an already sensitive issue. 

With a population of just five million, it might be easy to assume it would be hard to find well-informed Māori willing to speak about Lorde's album. However, my experience was the opposite. After a quick callout to five or six family members back in NZ, I'd had a few brilliant woman willing to speak with me and give their insights. 

To Tiana, Lorde's Te Ao Mārama, was not a good-enough ode to Māori. 

When speaking to Tiana Renée Katerina Keegan, an indigenous activist hailing from the Waikato-Maniapoto region, she had an air I have long associated with Māori women: strong, intelligent, and fiercely defensive of their beliefs and whakapapa. 

To her, Lorde’s album is much more than just a topic of conversation; it is a “double-edged sword” for Māori people. 

(For readers without context, the Māori language is 'contextual'. Each region has its own interpretation of the language, and each interpretation carries just as much weight as the other. There is no right or wrong way to speak Te Reo, but the unspoken rule is being able to understand the ideas and its meaning, and not just the words being spoken.)

Lorde - Hua Pirau / Fallen Fruit. Image: Lorde.

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"Lorde doesn’t have the capacity to understand what she’s saying," Tiana shared. “It is so much more, and that’s what she’s not understanding. She has tried, and I am not invalidating that, but you gotta try harder. It’s not enough to just say it - you gotta know what you are saying.”

For Tiana, the concept of a white-kiwi woman singing in Te Reo is not necessarily an "ill-intentioned decision," but one rooted in ignorance.

Tiana's herself comes from a long line of Māori who have been proud defenders of the culture and its practices, including her Koro (grandfather), Sir Āpirana Ngata, who is featured on New Zealand's $50 note. 

Image: Tiana Renée Katerina Keegan.  

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Lorde's album came to the forefront of discussion when Māori performer and choreographer Jack Gray shared his personal experience with the team who represents the 'Royals' singer.

In an article for The Big Idea, Gray recalled being approached by Lorde's associates to choreograph the videos for her album. 

"I did not recognise the themes as coming from a perspective I was familiar with," he wrote. 

"It was a kaleidoscope of some shallow, self-centred, pop artist’s ponderings. She had little actual understanding of the way that her concepts were so white."

The meeting did not go as planned, with the team ending Gray's presentation early and later following up with an email claiming the singer wanted to go in a 'different direction'. 

"I felt a sense of burden leave my body and knew I had dodged a bullet. The bullet being commercialism and record companies and (well-meaning) but ultra-privileged pop stars," he shared. 

"Lorde gets to manifest a vision that isn’t hers. It’s a collaboration in which her celebrity-tanga is the focal point. She will garner support from the masses. This album will cross boundaries and will gain new Māori listeners. People will justify her trying. Because a Pākeha who tries is far more deserving of support than a Māori who tries."

Lorde - Te Ao Mārama / Solar Power. Image: Lorde.  

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Passionate Waikato-Maniapoto woman Te Wairere Ngaia agrees with Gray's point to a certain degree, and revealed to me it was two friends of hers, Hēmi Kelly and Hana Mereraiha, who actually translated Lorde's album into Te Reo. 

"There's a whole generation of us who went to the same revitalisations programmes to save, learn and promote Te Reo," she says. 

She explains that what really matters is following the process and the practices that come with learning Te Reo. Te Wairere believes Lorde has done that, but that's just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to this conversation.

"Her pronunciation was great, it didn't sound too jarring for me. You can hear when non-Māori artists and Māori who cannot speak Te Reo, but she did a great job considering she cannot speak it. 

"It says a lot because she took the effort and the time to ensure she was delivering an album as accurate as she could."

She pointed out however, that Gray's concerns did not sprout from the conception of Te Ao Mārama's release, but the choreography instead.

"A lot of the points he made were valid," she says. "But I do feel they focussed on the performance [choreography] not Te Reo itself. That was the message I received, that he felt Lorde and her team were fantasising our culture."

"He didn't feel like it aligned with our principles and our culture and values. I agree with that, but his concerns directly pertained to the performance."

Image: Te Wairere Ngaia. 

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For Te Wairere, the Māori language is a gift to be shared, learned and received. 

"When it comes to Te Reo and our customs and practices, and anything that relates to our Māori culture, we see them as a gift," she says.

"Our language, our customs, our meetinghouses - everything in our culture is a gift. It's a gift because we are still trying to look after it and revive it."

Te Wairere believes there is no easy answer. Each Māori will have a different view on Te Ao Marama.

"I can get what Tiana is saying in terms of she cannot relate to the words, as some of them are incomprehensible, but I think it is because of the actual words that were used. 

"A lot of the words in Te Reo are not your everyday language. It's like poetry. When we compose in Te Reo, it is literally like poetry. So I get why Māori especially cannot understand, because we have multiple meanings for one word and sometimes one word with multiple meanings. It's a complex situation to write and compose Te Reo.

"Protecting our gifts should be our number one priority but Lorde's goal, I believe, is also to protect and revitalise the language," she said.

"The reality is that Māori ourselves cannot make our language as popular as a global pop artist can. Māori have been singing in our language for decades and decades but cannot get the reach she has. So why not get our language as popular as we can by capitalising on any platform available to us?"

Listen: Mamamia's daily entertainment podcast The Spill. Post continues below audio.

Both Tiana and Te Wairere did have one point of agreement though: that to see Māori artists on the same stage as Lorde, we must support Te Reo-speaking singers and musicians. 

From the likes of Stan Walker, winner of the seventh season of Australian Idol, to the melodic Māori artist Maisey Rika, there are plenty of musicians whose work has supported Te Reo and the revitalisation of Māori culture.

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While there are many arguments to be had, Lorde's Te Ao Mārama has broken through a barrier many have not been able to crack. Plus, proceeds made from the EP will go towards two New Zealand-based charities, Forest and Bird, and Te Hua Kawariki Charitable Trust. 

There is no simple answer. 

Māori culture is rooted in upheaval and rebellion. Since settlers first arrived in the 1600s, ancestors and elders have combined body and spirit to reconnect with a past erased by colonisation. 

To exist as a Māori person, to share our practices and to learn Te Reo, is in itself an act of defiance.

While language does have ownership, it also has meaning. However, as Te Wairere shares her beliefs, she also recognises Te Reo has every possibility of dying out if it does not continue to be revitalised.

"If Māori artists cannot expand to a global stage and a pop artist can, then let them do it. It's a win for us Māori at the end of the day."

You can support Tiana through PamelaArohaDesigns.

Follow Te Wairere here. 

Feature Image: Getty + Mamamia.

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