Music & Politics: The Role of Song in Hawaiian Activism

Sep 5, 2019

There’s no denying the power of music to inspire passion and spark social change – such has been the case throughout Hawaiʻi’s history. From the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom to the current conflict on Mauna Kea, songs have inspired activism and activism has inspired songs.

The song Kū Haʻaheo written by Hinaleimoana Wong has become the anthem of the Mauna Kea movement. It can be heard at community gatherings, school events and, most recently, in a “We Are The World” inspired video featuring some of Hawaiʻi’s top recording artists.  

Some of Hawai'i's most notable and accomplished recording artists and composers joined voices in support of Mauna Kea.
Credit Oiwi TV

“Music has always played a huge role in social movements,” said Keola Donaghy, a music professor at the Institute for Hawaiian Music at University of Hawai'i Maui College. “In the civil rights movement of the 1960s, here in Hawaiʻi back to the era of the the overthrow.”

Ellen Kekoaohiwaikalani Wright Prendergrast wrote Mele ʻAi Pohaku, also known as Kaulana Nā Pua, in 1893. It’s a popular Hawaiian number to this day. The lyrics voice opposition to the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom.

“It can function like an iron fist in a velvet glove, you know?” says Donaghy. “The message is kind of in the background, but eventually, it's going to percolate to the surface.”

Prominent Moloka'i activist George Helm on guitar during the Hawaiian Renaissance of the 1970s.
Credit Kingdom of Hawaii Blog

No one understood the power of music quite like George Helm, an iconic activist during the Hawaiian Rennaissance of the 1970s.

Helm’s role as an activist is well known but it’s his musical talents that filmmaker Kaʻāina Paikai celebrates in the short film Hawaiian Soul.

“What people would come to to see was him playing music, you know, and so that's that was kind of that bait in terms of rallying people around an issue,” says Paikai. “But using the music as a way to make the people show up.”

Hoku-award winning musicians Chad Takatsugi (right) sings alongside Hoku Zuttermeister (left) in a recently-released music video by Hawai'i musicians in support of Mauna Kea.
Credit Oiwi TV

Recent events on Mauna Kea have inspired more than 50 new songs, says Donaghy. Some of these will be featured in a coming album co-produced by Hōkū award-winning musician Chad Takatsugi.

“When tensions kind of hit a peak at the base of Mauna Kea, and people really around the world were seeing these images of our people fighting for something fighting for ʻāina, composers were feeling mobilized to be able to do something about this,” says Takatsugi.

He said even if he couldn’t make it up to the mountain, he could do what he knew best – music.

“We know the stories of 100 years ago because of our kupuna and the mele,” says Takatsugi. “So to be able to follow in their footsteps is really important.”

Takatsugi hopes the songs written today will live on for another 100 years.