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Stan Walker here seen at one of his ancestral awa within Tūhoe-country.
Stan Walker (Photo: Supplied; additional design: The Spinoff)

ĀteaFebruary 24, 2024

Stan Walker on ‘uncle Tāme Iti’, his Tūhoetana, tamariki and tunes

Stan Walker here seen at one of his ancestral awa within Tūhoe-country.
Stan Walker (Photo: Supplied; additional design: The Spinoff)

Stan Walker sits down with Tommy de Silva to kōrero te ao Māori and his new waiata ‘Māori Ki Te Ao’. 

“I’ve always been unapologetically Māori, but because I started my career in Australia, I was suddenly apologising, and I was hiding,” says Stan Walker. Now the star musician, initially told not to sing in te reo Māori for fear of appearing too brown for Australia’s overwhelmingly white market, has come out the other side. His early English-language tunes stand in stark contrast to his recent waiata Māori. Newcomers to Walker’s music would be forgiven for thinking that two completely different artists created his first hit ‘Blackbox’ and his newest waiata, ‘Māori Ki Te Ao’. 

The turning point for Walker was his 2013 track ‘Bulletproof’. “Back then Australia said that was reggae, it will never work here – that’s brown people music”, explains Walker, somehow wearing a beanie and leather pants on a 28 degree Auckland day. Then Canadian band Magic! had a hit with their song ‘Rude’ and Walker was told “this is the new sound” – despite ‘Bulletproof’ having had a similar sound a year earlier. After that experience, he decided it was time to come home to Aotearoa. 

After returning, Walker was once again unapologetically Māori, exemplified by ‘Aotearoa’, his 2014 song with Maisey Rika, Ria Hall and Troy Kingi. But he sees a big difference between ‘Aotearoa’, his first waiata Māori, and his more recent Te Reo tunes. ‘Aotearoa’ was recorded in generic te reo Māori and not in Walker’s Tūhoe mita, “because we were at a point then that to even get a Māori song out was like, ‘let’s just take the win, whānau’.”

But now things are different. “​​We’ve gone from just taking what we can get, being glad we get to be Māori – to actually going, no, I’m not just Māori. I’m Tūhoe, I’m Ngāi Te Rangi, I’m Ngāti Porou, I’m Tūhourangi.” Nowadays, Walker sings in his Tūhoe mita. “When people sing my songs, they’re singing in my dialect,” says the proud Tūhoe tane. 

Walker’s Tūhoetana, including his uncle Tāme Iti

Walker has always felt the pull to return to Tūhoe, the seventh biggest iwi in Aotearoa by population, whose rohe sits east of Rotorua and Taupo, west of Gisborne, north of Hawke’s Bay and south of Whakatāne – with Te Urewera, their ancestral nahere, sitting at the centre. Speaking to the position of Tūhoe today, Walker says they “no longer just live in the valley, or live up Maunapohatu, or Ruatahuna or whatever. We are Tūhoe in the world.”

Walker’s safe space within Tūhoe-country is Ruatoki, a settlement between Whakatāne and Te Urewera. There, he can see whānau, ride horses, swim in the awa, eat and sleep, rejuvenating his wairua in the process. It’s hard for Walker not to feel at home and at peace in Ruatoki. After all, it was where his beloved kuia lived.

The beauty of Te Urewera is seen on full display in this photo, with a captivating waterfall surrounded by beautiful bush.
The untouched beauty of Te Urewera on full display. In 2014, Te Urewera became the world’s first natural feature to receive legal personhood status. (Photo: Tommy de Silva)

Speaking of his kuia, Walker has her and other tīpuna to thank for their Tūhoe mita. He says he can only proudly sing in their dialect today “because of the sacrifices that came before me through my parents, grandparents, my tīpuna. A lot of them fought and died for our language to be spoken, so it’s only right that I should be doing this.” When he says his tīpuna fought and died to maintain their ways, Walker isn’t exaggerating. Crown forces invaded Te Urewera in 1869, killing many, and police raided Maunapohatu in 1916, murdering two ranatahi, including the son of Tūhoe prophet Rua Kenana, who was illegally arrested that fateful day.  

In 2007, the government labelled some Tūhoe as terrorists, leading to another police raid where legendary activist and artist Tāme Iti, among others, was arrested. Despite the Crown saying he was a treasonous terrorist in 2007, Walker confidently says today Iti “is an important person, not just in Tūhoe and our whānau, but to Aotearoa for everything that he’s done. He is, more or less, the face for Māori, the face for Tūhoe.” 

Walker and Iti have made mahi toi together, with Iti telling him, “I need you, just like you need me because we all play our part.” Walker adds, “I might be the hand, and he’s the foot. We can’t do what each other does. But once we understand that we are only one part connected to the same body, but we all play our parts, we’re more powerful.” Their powerful artistic collaboration is on full display in Walker’s latest song. 

Walker and his Tūhoe whanaunga in front of the wharenui atop Taiarahia. Many are adorned in traditional Māori clothing.
Iti, Walker and their Tūhoe whanauna seen here in front of the wharenui atop their mauna of Taiarahia. (Photo: Supplied)

‘Māori Ki Te Ao’ brings the Tūhoe dialect to the fore. “I wanted the song to feel like a love letter paying homage to my Tūhoetana,” explains Walker adoringly. But ‘Māori Ki Te Ao’ can’t be fully understood without understanding what came before it. After all, in te ao Māori, establishing whakapapa is crucial, even for music. 

The 2023 waiata ‘I Am’, written to empower indigenous people, is the tipuna of ‘Māori Ki Te Ao’. “‘I Am’ is a reclamation of identity. Going back to your roots, knowing where you come from, who you come from,” says Walker. The song was written for Ava DuVernay’s latest film Origin, and has since become somewhat of an anthem for tāngata whenua, especially on TikTok, as Māori protest the three-headed taniwha coalition government’s te ao Māori plans. Walker didn’t plan for the song to become political but has found it “awesome to see how it has brought people together.” 

Walker sees ‘Māori Ki Te Ao’ as an extension of the indigenous identity ‘I Am’ reclaimed. He hopes his new waiata “encourages Māori to embrace their unique identities, their Ngāpuhitanga, their Kaitahutaka.” The new tune was written alongside his uncle, Donny Te Kanapu Anasta, a Tūhoe mita expert. “The process of recording it was a jam. It was probably one of the best, easiest, funnest experiences that I’ve had in a long, long time,” Walker explains. The whole recording process took just one day. 

Inside the Taurana studio alongside Walker, producer Matt Sadgrove and Anasta, were plenty of Walker’s Tūhoe whanauna. “I have a multitude of cousins who can sing, and they all came through,” Walker says. “Everybody through and through, not just me, but all the singers, they all whakapapa back to Tūhoe.

“I feel privileged that we get to share this to the world as uri o Tūhoe.”

The single is released with a music video shot in Tūhoe-country alongside Iti and the same whanauna who sang the background vocals. “To film there with three different generations of uri of Tūhoe was so beautiful and powerful,” Walker explains. From tamariki wielding hatchets to ranatahi singing, pakeke performing kapa haka and kaumātua doing pukana, the intergenerational face of Tūhoe features in the music video. The film takes viewers from Ruatoki and the ancestral mauna of Taiarahia all the way to the opposite end of Te Urewera at Te Pūtere marae. Climbing Taiarahia was especially important, says Walker. 

Taiarahia is where Iti “and a lot of my uncles and aunties, koroua and kuia,” fled from persecution when the government labelled them terrorists, Walker explains. Up there, they built a wharenui, which is featured in the video. In one particularly powerful scene, Iti leads the Tūhoe uri in a mōteatea-esque chant outside the wharenui he helped build. Walker says climbing the mauna with Iti, “who got persecuted, who got thrown in jail, who got abused and ashamed” was powerful. Atop Taiarahia, Iti explained the whakapapa of the mauna and of Tūhoe more broadly. Sharing that experience with his uncle was important for Walker, especially given “that might possibly be the last time he climbs up that mauna, you know, he’s getting older now.” 

He says having Iti’s full support for ‘Māori Ki Te Ao’, Walker’s love letter to their shared Tūhoetana, means the world to him. “What a privilege it is for us and for our whānau to have had him there sharing the knowledge, the history, the whakapapa of all of this with us.”

Inspiring the next generation to enact their mana motuhake and ranatiratana

Walker says his music “is how I stand up… This is my way of ranatiratana. This is my way of mana motuhake.” But he also hopes that his tunes empower the next generation to enact mana motuhake and ranatiratana in their unique ways. Empowering ranatahi and tamariki works towards a bigger goal of Walker’s: “My ultimate dream is to see our people healed. To rise up and not have to live with the mamae of intergenerational trauma that is not our fault.” He adds, “That’s my job, that’s my purpose, to bring hope, life, healing and joy. That’s what my music can do, and I’m gonna do the best that I can.” 

Among the next generation of Māori Walker is trying to inspire are his own tamariki, who he says are at the forefront of everything he does, from what he sings about to how he dresses. “What legacy am I gonna leave for them?” he asks himself. Walker hopes the legacy he leaves for his tamariki is ensuring they always know that their indigeneity is something to be proud of, not hide. That starkly contrasts the start of Walker’s musical career, when he was warned against being too brown and too Māori over fears of alienating white audiences. By teaching their kids to be proud and staunch in their indigeneity, Walker and his wife provide them with a fantastic foundation to be unapologetically Māori. “I want my ceiling to be their floor,” he says. 

Walker seen here picture with Tame Iti and two tamariki.
Walker is building an inter-generational movement through his music, all the way from tamariki, like those pictured here, up to kaumātua like Tāme Iti. (Photo: Supplied)

But Walker and his wife can only provide their kids with such a fantastic foundation because of their own journeys overcoming intergenerational trauma. Speaking about his tamariki, he explains, “They will never, ever go through that. That’s me and my wife’s job to go through it, to heal through it, to teach them, to protect them.

They don’t have to get a hiding. They don’t have to be ashamed. They don’t have to bow down. They don’t have to hide. They don’t ever have to feel displaced.”

Māori Ki Te Ao, Walker’s ode to his Tūhoetana, is out now wherever you get your music, and to see the intergenerational face of Tūhoe, don’t miss out on the music video either.

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