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What Lorde's Te Reo Maori Songs Mean For The Effort To Revive The Language

Lorde performs at a late show on August 23, 2021.
CBS via Getty Images
Lorde performs at a late show on August 23, 2021.

Who is entitled to sing in a language that is not their own? That was the question from some fans after New Zealand pop artist Lorde released a mini-album of five of her songs translated in te reo Maori, the language spoken by the people indigenous to her home country of New Zealand. Lorde is not Maori, but she said in a statement that much of her value system comes from traditional Maori principles.

"There's a word for it in te reo," she said in the statement, " 'kaitiakitanga,' meaning 'guardianship or caregiving for the sky, sea and land'... I know I'm someone who represents New Zealand globally in a way, and in making an album about where I'm from, it was important to me to be able to say: this makes us who we are down here."

And while this choice has drawn a lot of attention, Maori artists say it's just one part of a much larger movement to revitalize the language through, among other things, the power of music.

That movement gained traction when singer Hinewehi Mohi shocked audiences at the 1999 Rugby World Cup with her rendition of New Zealand's National Anthem. She had just released her debut album Oceania in te reo Maori — her native language — and when she was asked to sing at the Rugby World Cup, she decided it made sense for her to do the same.

"I wasn't actually sure of the English words," she said over Zoom, "so I decided I would represent Aotearoa the best way I could, by singing it in Maori. And there were a lot of people who couldn't sing along, and really took offense."

Mohi said she had intended the rendition as a celebration of her culture, but it began something much larger: a national dialogue about New Zealand's history of colonization and how it continues to harm current Indigenous inhabitants and their language. It also brought attention to the ongoing Maori Language Revival, which was fighting to teach te reo Maori in schools and increase fluency across the country.

The energy surrounding the Maori Language Revival was in sharp relief to the New Zealand of the early 1900s, during which time te reo Maori was discouraged in schools and English was taught as the dominant language, in accordance with the Native Schools Acts of 1867. Over time, the number of fluent speakers among the Maori declined to fewer than 20% by 1980.

"So you can lose a language in a generation, but it takes another three generations to reclaim it." says Mohi.

That reclamation, she says, is happening now. Today, the anthem is sung in two parts — first in te reo Maori, and then in English. Meanwhile, Mohi has continued to uplift the language throughout her life — including recording an album of songs in te reo in 2019 with Maori and non-Maori artists alike called Waiata / Anthems, to mark the 20 year anniversary since her game-changing performance.

And her work is being recognized nationally. Earlier this year, Mohi was given one of the highest honors in New Zealand, an Order of Merit, for her services to Māori, music and television. She also worked with Lorde to translate five songs off of her latest album into te reo, called Te Ao Mārama. The songs are not exact translations, but attempt to emulate the meaning behind each line while maintaining the cadence. A line like, "I'm kind of like a prettier Jesus," becomes, "Taku rite, ko Hinemoana," meaning, "I'm like Hinemoana, the Ocean Maiden."

"Obviously Jesus didn't factor in the translation," says Mohi. "It's sort of interpreting who we idolize and look up to, and I think that was more the interpretation of Hinemoana being the maiden of the ocean, and all the sort of metaphorical thinking that comes from that. ...And so that is a Maori perspective on what supports our ideologies and things we prioritize and see as an important part of our lives."

Maisey Rika, a Maori singer-songwriter, thinks the translated songs are a promising sign that the tide really may be changing when it comes to use of te reo Maori. Her parents and grandparents were ridiculed, and at times beaten, for speaking the language. Rika, by contrast, was brought up in immersive te reo schools as part of a movement called "Kōhanga Reo," or "Language Nests." She sings in te reo to this day.

"There's been a shift, a change in the tide here in Aotearoa," Rika says, "And so many artists, Maori and non-Maori, have wanted to be a part of this movement. And now Lorde wants to come and embrace this shift in the tide."

Lorde's album in te reo arrived just ahead of Te Wiki o te Reo Māori, or Maori Language Week. And while some listeners have questioned whether Lorde's use of the language is appropriation, others have pointed out that during this week, everyone is encouraged to speak te reo, regardless of heritage.

"And to see these non-Maori, the pakeha, hearing that beautiful language rolling off their tongue and the vulnerability in that — it makes me very proud," says Rika. "I think about my grandparents and I think, 'Wow, cool!' And we want to be a part of that. I want to be a part of that change."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sam Yellowhorse Kesler is an Assistant Producer for Planet Money. Previously, he's held positions at NPR's Ask Me Another & All Things Considered, and was the inaugural Code Switch Fellow. Before NPR, he interned with World Cafe from WXPN. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, and continues to reside in Philadelphia. If you want to reach him, try looking in your phone contacts to see if he's there! You'd be surprised how many people are in there that you forgot about.