Lorde advocates for Māori culture in unique EP

By Griffin Brammer, Staff Writer

New Zealand singer-songwriter Ella Yelich-O’Connor, better known as Lorde, has released an EP featuring five of her newest songs sung in the te reo Māori language.

“Much of my value system around caring for the natural world comes from traditional Māori practices,” Lorde wrote in a newsletter to her fans. The artist released the album, entitled Te Ao Mārama, days ahead of New Zealand’s official Māori Language week, on Sept. 9. 

The album features Māori covers of songs from Lorde’s new Solar Power album. These include Solar Power, The Path, Stoned at the Nail Salon, Fallen Fruit and Oceanic Feeling, each with their own uniquely translated titles and lyrics.

The artist also released a statement on her website saying 100% of proceeds made from Te Ao Mārama sales will go to two different New Zealand based charities. The first, Forest and Bird, aims to help conservation efforts for New Zealand wildlife. The other, Te Hua Kawariki charitable trust, seeks to preserve Māori traditions and customs throughout the country.

“I’m someone who represents New Zealand globally in a way,” Lorde said. “(The Māori culture) makes us who we are down here.”

The singer worked with a team of translators, language experts and Māori elders to create the most respectful listening experience possible for te reo Māori speakers and non-speakers.

“Even if you don’t understand te reo, I think you’ll get a kick out of how elegant my words sound in it,” Lorde said.

One of the foremost translators and collaborators on the project was Dame Hinewehi Mohi, a singer and language activist who has worked heavily in the field of Māori music, most notably producing the 2019 Waiata/Anthems album, which re-recorded several famous New Zealand artist’s songs in Māori.

“It really warms my heart to know that young ones like Ella are going to absolutely make a commitment to (te reo Māori),” Mohi said in an interview to New Zealand-based culture magazine, The Spinoff. “I love it to bits.”

In addition to Lorde and Dame Mohi, the translation team included Sir Tīmoti Kāretu, Hana Mereraiha and Hēmi Kelly. 

Through the translation process, the team was able to incorporate references to Māori culture and mythology into the lyrics of the songs.

The actual title of the EP itself, Te Ao Mārama, translates to ‘world of light,’ and is not only a reference to the ‘solar’ part of the English title, but also describes an aspect of the Māori world creation story, emphasizing the album’s themes of natural beauty and conservation.

In Te Ao Mārama / Solar Power, the translation for the line “I’m kind of like a prettier Jesus,” replaces Jesus for ‘Hinemoana’, a Māori ocean deity.

There were also a few instances of Lorde’s complex metaphors being swapped for traditional Māori expressions. InHine-i-te-Awatea / Oceanic Feeling, the image of Lorde’s black lipstick gathering dust was swapped to ‘May the sun shine upon you and cast your shadows behind you’. Lorde would later say that it is one of her favorite lines of the EP.

In their interview with the singer, The Spinoff addressed the racist history and treatment of Māori people and the New Zealand government’s subduing of their language. “(te reo Māori) wasn’t something that was a big part of my life, and it was something that I had sort of sadness and a little bit of guilt around,” Lorde explained.

The project also features native Māori performances alongside Lorde. In Hua Pirau / Fallen Fruit, Mohi opens for the song, and towards the end, translators Mereraiha and Kelly perform a Haka – a traditional Māori chant – behind Lorde’s vocals. 

Lorde stated she was nervous about the album the entire time but accepts all criticism. 

“I am a little bit out of my depth, and I’m the first to admit that, and I’m opening myself up to any response to this,” she said. “What would have been worse is to just have been too scared to do it… That to me is sadder and scarier than being attributed any kind of White savior complex.”

Photo courtesy of @1ettakate via Twitter