Magazine article UNESCO Courier

A Maori Warrior Claims New Territory

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

A Maori Warrior Claims New Territory

Article excerpt

Kerry Buchanan [*]

Dean Hapeta launched New Zealand's political hip-hop scene by linking the force of Maori culture with the struggle of black nationalism to fuel consciousness and controversy

"Nigger!" The biker's insult blindsided the eight-year-old boy, shattering his vision of both Maori and pakeha (white) society in Aotearoa, the original name of New Zealand. The verbal attack sharpened the boy's awareness of his society's colour lines. Afterwards, he couldn't stand the sight of his fellow Maori cast as the peaceful but subordinate native. Nor could he look up to indigenous gangs in his working-class neighbourhood of Upper Hull, outside the capital Wellington. Turning to white society, he felt oppression. So the boy began to look inward, to imagine a "new breed"--proud of his Maori past and committed to a radical break with the legacy of colonial domination.

Today, at the age of 34, Hapeta will refer to himself as "one bad nigger" in reference to his hardcore politics as a rapper. Here lies Hapeta's strength and, for some, his weakness: the ability to weave Maori culture, language and political demands--from land and fishing rights to economic equality--within the style and context of black American hip-hop. Indeed Hapeta and his group Upper Hull Posse (UHP) have influenced a generation of hip-hop bands and fans across the country. Before these "warriors" stormed the stage, Maori music was generally marginalised like an exotic trinket of the past used in the "ritual" of entertaining tourists. By rapping in their language and incorporating the sounds, values and history of their people, Hapeta and like-minded artists shatter stereotypes of what it means to be Maori.

Hapeta's political consciousness did not flow from the "cultural awakening" of the 1970s when the Maori middle-class rediscovered its roots. He followed the learning curve of the streets, his whakapapa ("the place where one belongs"). Tuned into the liberation music of Bob Marley, Jamaica's legendary reggae musician, the songs of resistance rang true in his disadvantaged neighbourhood, where police confrontations were a rite of passage. By valourising the history of former slaves and colonised peoples, the music enabled Hapeta to discover "black outernationality" or the collective struggles of the oppressed.

The impact of Malcom X

In fact, Hapeta's group UHP began in 1985 by playing reggae inspired by the political message of Marley, considered a veritable saint. But then a new set of prophets landed in Aotearoa: U.S. rappers like Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash. Breakdancing and rapping with crews in the street, Hapeta began mixing a homegrown message with two major ingredients: experience and inspiration. Landing a job at the Justice Department, he scoured the country to hear Maori land grievances. The second element flowed from overseas via The Autobiography of Malcom X.

"The book knocked me out," he says. "It was great inspiration ... that pride in the self and the ability to do something about it." The life of the black nationalist--a cultural hero for his radical defence of racial pride in the 1950s and 60s--led Hapeta to see himself as a leader with hip-hop as a movement against racism and a political platform for Maori interests. Ironically, Hapeta was soon approached by the son of Elijah Muhammad, the man who banished Malcom X [1] from the Nation of Islam, an influential and controversial black militant group. …

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