While Queen Lili‘uokalani was imprisoned for eight months at ‘Iolani Palace after the overthrow of the monarchy in 1893, she described composing music as a “a gift of nature” More than a century ago her song “Aloha ‘Oe” became one of the first from Hawai’i to achieve recognition outside of the Islands. Today, it remains Hawai‘i’s most famous composition and is often referred to as the ‘farewell song.’ It serves as the Queen’s lament to the demise of her Kingdom of Hawaii.
Hawaiian music is much deeper and diverse than most people realise. It’s roots are in the hula and chant traditions of native culture but it’s developed in many directions since then. One branch has played a significant role in the islands’ century old and still growing sovereignty movement. Waimānalo Blues, another very famous song, was written in 1974 by Hawaiian activist and composer Liko Martin. It’s a political protest song about the development taking place “Spun right around and found that I’d lost/ the things that I couldn’t lose/ the beaches they sell to build their hotels/ my fathers and I once knew.” There’s been many covers of the song but my all-time favourite version can only be watched on YouTube. Featuring four of Hawai’i’s greatest musicians check it out: https://youtu.be/5rg0_nLFCf0
Art and activism in Hawaiʻi are fundamentally intertwined. Native Hawaiian artists use poetry, art, mele (songs), ʻoli(chant), and hula (dance) to share individual visions of Hawaiʻi, intertwining family history, their connection to the land, and the legacy of the indigenous people. These stories are inherently rooted in resistance reflecting the continuing tumultuous political history of the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi, from colonisation to the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy to statehood. Continuing to today native Hawaiians have been fighting for return of the sovereign rights of their land and their people.
Hawaiian musicians sing about sovereignty to bring more awareness to the injustices committed on their nation. Their influence on the social and political system in Hawaii is comparable to the impact of reggae music on Jamaican society. Bob Marley expertly demonstrated how to explain to his people what was going on in politics in ways that everyone could relate to. Similarly some Hawaiian musicians use parable styling to educate while most just tell it like it is, sometimes in Hawaiian but mostly in English.
They describe how, since 1893, the Hawaiian Kingdom has been under prolonged occupation by the United States of America. The world has been led to incorrectly believe that the Hawaiian Islands have become an incorporated territory of the United States, which is currently governed by the State of Hawai’i and its Counties. The primary objective of the sovereignty movement is to expose the truth and ensure compliance with international humanitarian laws. The facts are clear, as far back as 1893, U.S. President Grover Cleveland called the deposition of the Hawaiian queen and her government “an act of war committed … without the authority of Congress”.
One hundred years later, President Bill Clinton signed the so-called ‘apology bill’ acknowledging U.S. government’s crimes. Among the illegal events was the formation of a provisional government “without the consent of the native Hawaiian people or the lawful government of Hawaii and in violation of treaties between the two nations and of international law”.
The effects of ‘discovery’ by western nations have devastated the once flourishing Hawaiian nation. By the time of the overthrow, the Hawaiian population had gone from at least 400,000 to less than 40,000 people – all in the space of a century, in part because of diseases introduced into the islands. After annexation students were not allowed to speak Hawaiian in school, Hula dancing was banned and the language and culture almost died out as a result. Kahoolawe, an island considered spiritually important to Hawaiians, was used as test-bombing site by the U.S. army until the 1990s. Unexploded ordnance still remains on the island even after an extensive clean-up attempt. And today, Native Hawaiians are the poorest and most imprisoned while their health indicators are the worst of all the ethnic groups in Hawai’i.
There are a multitude of injustices that need to be addressed and Hawaiian musicians have risen to the task with their message using many musical genres. Sovereignty messages can be found in Hawaiian chants, slack key, jazz, hip-hop and pop. ‘Jawaiian’ music, a reggae offshoot, is ubiquitous on contemporary Hawaiian radio and speaks to young and old alike. Native rappers–Sudden Rush and others–push civil rights issues and the cause of sovereignty in rudimentary Hawaiian lyrics. And, most interestingly, activist musicians have not only served to revive traditional folk music, but also native language and culture.
Many people saw Israel (Bruddah Iz) Kamakawiwo’ole, until his death in 1997, as the spiritual figurehead of this school as he always remained grounded in the musical traditions of the islands. His songs, sung in a lilikoi-butter lilt, celebrated the islands and their people while making a plea for their future. In his music, Iz was a staunch advocate for Hawaiian independence and sang about Hawaiian cultural and environmental issues.
In “Hawai‘i ’78” – first recorded by his band ‘The Mākaha Sons of Ni‘ihau’ and later solo – Bruddah Iz imagined what the ancient ancestors would think and urged respect for the environment and social justice and warned of the dangers of freeways and development. The writer Mickey Ioane drew inspiration from a tumultuous year in which Hawaiian demonstrators clashed with the National Guard at Hilo Airport over land issues, and resort development began crowding Hawai‘i Island’s oceanfront. “Talking with my grandfather, I asked, ‘If Kamehameha came back right now, how would he feel about seeing condos on the sacred land where we used to go fish?’”
In 1990 I first saw Iz perform as the opening act for the Doobie Brothers in the Hilo Afook Stadium. The crowd pushed to the front of the stage and were completely mesmerised. It was a really hard act to follow, and from that day I listened to his whole catalogue. He recorded only three solo albums but they are all gems. In the song E Ala E he calls on the Hawaiian people to come together to “defend our birthright to be free and give our children liberty.”
It was a great honour and a privilege to have seen Bruddah Iz perform in four concerts before he passed away aged just 38 in 1997. They were all chicken skin experiences – to be in his presence and to witness his passion for his music and people was euphoric. The lyrics of this song on his final solo album ‘In Dis Life’ spoke of Hawaiian sovereignty and declared “you can take the land, you can pay the man but you can’t take the truth away.” His mission was to educate everyone, especially Hawaiian children declaring it was “time to do what is right, what’s been taken must be returned.” People listened and now more than 20 years after his death they are listening to Iz in even greater numbers. His version of ‘Somewhere over the Rainbow’ has been played over three hundred million times. His legacy lives on supporting the sovereignty movement.
When I arrived on the Big Island back in 1981 the radio stations were playing a song that encapsulated the feelings of the growing Hawaiian sovereignty movement. Bruddah Waltah from Keaukaha Hawaiian Homelands in Hilo was protesting the fact that as time went by less land was owned by Hawaiians. In the coming decades numerous artists recorded cover versions of his ‘Hawaiian Lands’ song in more efforts to raise awareness. This version is a 2019 remix featuring Waltah with Keala Kawaauhau.
The most popular Hawaiian artist of the early 1990s, Keali’i Reichel released his Sovereignty Song in 1994 after participating in a 24-hour vigil to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Hawaiian monarchy’s overthrow. “We had a break from the prayers and ceremony, and I looked over the channel over to Maui, and I was missing home,” he recalls.
Around the same time I had discovered the multi-talented Uncle Willie K who regularly came to Pahoa to visit his son who lived locally and played a gig at the Pahoa Lounge. Word soon got around that the best dancing fun was to be had when Willie was in town and all my friends would come for what became historic parties. Later Willie returned a few times with his blues band to play at the Akebono Theatre and our dancing feet got a workout once again.
William Awihilima Kahaialii, also known as Uncle Willie K performed in a variety of musical styles, including blues, rock, Hawaiian, reggae, hip-hop, soul, salsa and opera. Born and raised in a family of musicians in Lahaina, Maui, Willie began performing at the age of 8 alongside his father, Hawaiian jazz guitarist Manu Kahaiali’i. In 1993, Willie began a collaboration with Amy Hānaialii Gilliom that would last for nine years. The pair recorded, performed, and toured together, and also shared a personal relationship. Their recordings won seven Na Hoku Hanohano Awards, part of Willie’s total of 19 Hokus as a musician and producer. He was greatly revered by many other renown musicians including Willy Nelson, Mick Fleetwood and Steven Tyler with whom he jammed in Maui. Sadly, he was overtaken by lung cancer and died in 2020 but left us a vast musical legacy including this song about being Hawaiian:
Bu La’ia is a Hawaiian comedian known for speaking and singing in ‘pidgin’ and for wearing a large ‘afro style’ wig and blacking out one of his front teeth while performing. He’s staged some pretty outrageous comedy stunts but was deadly serious with this sovereignty song:
On the Big Island the most active and focused musicians for sovereignty since I lived there has been the hip-hop/rap group named Sudden Rush. Their music is explicitly political and supportive of the Hawaiian sovereignty movement. Their first album was entitled ‘Ku’e’ meaning “to oppose, resist, stand different,” and included this song Paradise Lost:
Back on Oahu a formidable influence on contemporary Hawaiian music has been Henry Kapono whose original songs with a rock vibe celebrate his love for his family, express his pride in his Hawaiian culture, and share his joy in his home in the Islands! Touring with a local rock band in the late 1960s, he ended up stranded by the promoter in Vietnam. He and the band spent two years performing for troops in Vietnam and Thailand before returning to Hawai‘i. The experience left him with a lasting commitment to peace, a deep appreciation for life, and compassion and aloha for all people—themes that continue to resonate through his music. ‘Broken Promise,’ a Hawaiian mele ku’e (song of protest) won two Hoku Awards (Hawai‘i Academy of Recording Arts) — ‘Song of the Year’ and ‘Single of the Year’ in 1992 and was featured on the Kapono & Friends television special about Hawaiian sovereignty.
I first met Kelii ‘Skippy’ Ioane when his daughters participated in my HICCUP circus program in Keaukaha. Soon after I joined him and others to establish an organisation to help imprisoned Hawaiians and learned more about his activism. His band, Big Island Conspiracy, released the revolutionary album Street Tapestry Vol 1 – Reflective But Unrepentent in 1999. They impacted me so much I hired them to play at our next Hawaiian Jugglers Festival. Skippy’s life has been dedicated to fighting for sovereignty and he’s often found testifying brashly at public meetings, sometimes he sings a song like this one.
No account of Hawaii musicians for sovereignty would be complete without mention of Uncle Robert’s Awa Club band, everybody loves them! The band members are all ‘ohana from Kalapana. Members of the band are very talented musicians born and raised here in Hawai’i. All have played music and sang since they were young. They bring the old Hawaiian days vibe into every room they perform in. This band originated in Kaimū Kalapana and plays traditional Hawaiian music, Jawaiian reggae, country, oldies and goldies while subtly and smoothly spreading the sovereignty message.
The band play three hour sets at the best party on any Hawaiian island every Wednesday at Uncle Robert’s Farmers Market in Kalapana on the Big Island next to the 1990 Kilauea lava flow zone. Uncle Robert Keli‘iho‘omalu’s property on Kapoho-Kalapana Road miraculously survived the devastation and the family decided to share their blessing with locals, tourists and anyone searching good music, great food and the most eclectic group of fun-loving people anywhere.
Long before the market opened I was fortunate to make friends with Auntie G-girl, Uncle Robert’s wife, and then connected with the rest of the extensive Ohana. Together they played music for many community events including festivals in Pahoa that I organised. Auntie G-girl released three albums before her death and on one Kalapana I Ka Wa Kahiko she sings ‘Imua Kakou’ which sweetly urges us to be headstrong, and to go forward together with all of our might!
The Keli’iho’omalu family compound has become the HQ for the Lawful Hawaiian Government (LHG) on the Big Island. Kingdom meetings and educational programs have been held there for decades and everyone is welcome. Uncle Robert was an elected Noble until his death and has been succeeded by his son Sam. It was through this revered family that Dena and I both took education courses in Hawaiian sovereignty and eventually decided to become Kingdom of Hawaii citizens. It is here that the Kingdom of Hawaii has reclaimed land back from the illegal occupation and returned it to Hawaiian natives. It is at Uncle Awa Club that Hawaiian sovereignty is most alive and active. Their activities and developments are defiantly governed by LHG permits and rules not by the State or County of Hawaii.
At a time when many Americans are looking to better connect with each other by sharing their truths, it would be good to listen to Bruddah Iz who told us it is time for ‘E Ala E’ (to awaken). With their songs relating their own struggles and resistance to oppression and injustices Hawaiian musicians are exemplary and none do it better or more consistently than Uncle Roberts Awa Club Band. This story is dedicated to their members, Glenwood Tolentino, Ipo Quihano; Sam Keli‘iho‘omalu, Robert Keli‘iho‘omalu Jr. and Ikaika Marzo.
5 thoughts on “Hawaiian Musicians for Sovereignty.”
Aloha Graham. Your tribute to the Hawaiian music and the spirit of freedom within the movement of sovereignty is a perfect explanation to people that never have heard the true story of endurance and commitment. I am going to circulate it far and wide as well as relisten to many of the beautiful songs you mention.
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Thanks George I knew that it would resonate with you and will hopefully with many others. Imua!
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This is a wonderful article! I love Uncles AWA Band! They are beautiful people. I love Izzys songs, they speak to me deeply. I wish I had know him and these others. I feel so blessed to be welcomed by these native peoples and brought into their inner circle! I really want to do whatever I can personally to promote their sovereignty! These people are amazing! Where they could be bitter, they are loving, open, and beautiful! They have changed my life and I hope to make my small contribution to theirs in every positive way that I can. Aloha!
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I felt the true,” Mana”, of our Hawaiian Sovereignty movement through these stories, melds. I’m grateful to be reminded that,” We as One”, need to help keep the Spirit of Aloha, alive in our hearts through the Hula, educating our youth and appreciating our past. Kawika Kaipo, wrote and performed the incredible Mele, entitled “One Heart, One Voice”, which has become one of my favorite Meles. Take a few minutes and listen to his words. Aloha
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Never forget you taking me to IZ’s last concert in Hilo.. what an enlightening essay .. thank you my friend -DC
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