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Album intended for activism receives criticism from native speakers

By Isaac Ang Nov. 3, 2021

Quincy Han Art

On Sept. 9, Ella Yelich-O’Connor—better known as Lorde—released an album called Te Ao Marama, meaning “world of light” in Te Reo. Spoken by the indigenous Maori people of New Zealand, Te Reo is a highly spiritual and nature-focused language ingrained in Maori culture. Unfortunately, the prevalence of English has caused Te Reo to lose traction with native speakers; Lorde made Te Ao Marama to revive the dying language. While some Maori people praise Lorde’s activism of their culture, others condemn her actions as misappropriation of Te Reo.

Maori culture, along with Te Reo, has dwindled over the past couple centuries due to British imperialism. According to Britainnica, historians believe the Maori people arrived in New Zealand from Polynesia 1000 years ago, becoming expert hunters and growers. However, by the 1800s, British settlers started flooding into New Zealand. As the British imposed political and societal practices on the indigenous population, the Maori feared they would lose their culture. Tension erupted when the two groups fought a series of wars in the late 1800s, with the British winning. Although New Zealand gained independence in 1907, the impact of British colonization on Maori culture remains. For instance, more Maori parents, according to the Guardian, are teaching their children English rather than Te Reo. Today, only one in five Maori can speak their native language.

Though the Maori people recognize that their native language is disappearing from New Zealand, many disagree on whether Te Ao Marama’s release was the proper solution. Jack Gray, a Maori performer and choreographer, accused Lorde of tokenism, as she spread Maori culture and language without truly understanding or appreciating it, only driven by motives as an “ultra-privileged pop star” such as fame or financial gain. Tiana Keegan, an indigenous activist from the Waikato-Maniapoto region, claimed that Te Reo was a language of rich meaning, and Lorde did not “know what [she was] saying” when she sang in Te Reo.

Keegan believes that since Maori is not part of Lorde’s cultural identity, she cannot represent the Maori culture. Despite accusations of tokenism and misappropriation, Lorde firmly defended Te Ao Marama, highlighting the need to globalize Te Reo for it to survive. In an interview with The Spinoff, Lorde accepted criticism from Maori people, but stated “what would have been worse is just to have been too scared to do it,” mediating grievances by stressing how she worked with Maori community leaders, singers and translators to ensure she accurately represented the native language. Through her album, Lorde was able to raise awareness about the decline of Te Reo and Maori culture, which she considered a success.

“I think Lorde's album benefited the revival of Te Reo. The first step to any revival is awareness, and the discussion across social media about Te Ao Marama demonstrates that Lorde was successful in accomplishing that. Te Reo would, without doubt, diminish if there was no publicity about its decline,” Junior Marc Gabriel said.

Keegan fears that Lorde’s audacious ambition is a “double-edged sword” for the Maori people. On the one hand, Te Reo is a dying language and any effort to save it should be celebrated; on the other, Lorde could have had personal and not the Maori people’s interests in mind when she released Te Ao Marama. It is difficult to draw the line when one gains revenue and still claims their product contributes to the public good. Further research into Lorde’s involvement with Maori society could reveal whether she genuinely desired to and was capable of reviving Te Reo. As Te Wairere Ngaia, a woman from Waikato-Maniapoto, explains, the discussion reveals only the “tip of the iceberg.”

“The answer to whether Lorde’s album benefited the revival of Te Reo is tricky because the native speakers themselves cannot come to a consensus. In my opinion, Lorde put in her best effort to try to understand the Maori culture and sincerely hoped to revive the dying language, so I applaud her, if not the album, for that,” Senior Andrew Liu said.

The Maori are not the only indigenous group whose culture is slowly disappearing. The Big Idea reports that 130 out of 245 indigenous languages in the U.S. are extinct or nearing extinction. The Maori’s rise to fame presents to indigenous groups that their survival may necessitate unconventional solutions.

Whether Lorde’s album was appropriation or activism awaits discussion, but ultimately, marginalized groups around the world want their voices not only to be heard, but respected.


About the Contributors

Isaac Ang

Staff Writer

Isaac Ang is a junior at Leland High School and staff writer for the Charger Account. During his free time, he enjoys reading, playing ping pong, and experiencing nature. He is an avid rock climber. His academic interests include math, science, and coding.

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