IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Behind the scenes of Lorde’s mini album in Māori, New Zealand’s indigenous language

The Polynesian language was “knocking on the door of extinction” after British colonization, but in recent decades there’s been a movement to revitalize it.
Image: Lorde
Lorde performs at the Corona Capital Music Festival in Mexico City, on Nov. 17, 2018.Claudio Cruz / AFP via Getty Images file

In the song “Oceanic Feeling” from her new album, “Solar Power,” singer Lorde alludes to a jump into a lake at Bulli Point, a beloved swimming spot in her homeland of New Zealand: “When I hit that water/When it holds me/I think about my father/Doin’ the same thing/When he was a boy …”

As an accompaniment to her latest work, Lorde — who became an international star with the smash hit “Royals” in 2013 at age 16 — has taken a different kind of leap: In homage to the history and landscape of her country, she recorded a set of songs in its indigenous language, Māori. 

“Many things revealed themselves slowly to me while I was making this album, but the main realization by far was that much of my value system around caring for and listening to the natural world comes from traditional Māori principles. There’s a word for it in te reo: kaitiakitanga, meaning ‘guardianship or caregiving for the sky, sea and land’. I’m not Māori, but all New Zealanders grow up with elements of this worldview,” Lorde, 24, wrote in a Sept. 9 email announcing the record. 

“I know I’m someone who represents New Zealand globally in a way, and in making an album about where I’m from, it was important to me to be able to say: this makes us who we are down here.”

To do it right, she needed help. 

A team knowledgeable in Māori language and culture assisted in reworking five songs from “Solar Power,” the third album by Lorde, whose real name is Ella Yelich-O’Connor. She released the set of Māori songs as “Te Ao Mārama,” or “World of Light.”

Among those who helped Lorde make it happen: Performer/producer Dame Hinewehi Mohi, who created shock waves when she performed New Zealand’s national anthem in Māori, not English, at the 1999 Rugby World Cup. Bringing the language to the world stage in that way was a big deal — and a far cry from the lived experience of Mohi’s family and that of other Māori, a population that still struggles with a colonial history that resulted in the loss of land, language and identity. 

“I didn’t learn Māori growing up until I was 10,” Mohi told NBC Asian America. “My grandparents were disciplined and were not allowed to speak Māori at school ... They would get strapped, caned; they would have their mouths washed out with soap.”

The collaboration with Lorde became another big milestone in an ongoing mission: By the time she joined forces with the Grammy winner, Mohi had already worked with some of New Zealand’s top stars on rerecording their hits in Māori to celebrate and revitalize the language. 

Once Lorde committed to the Māori recordings, Mohi said, “She threw herself into it fully. And we involved expert language consultants to support her in the translation process because it’s not a literal translation that you hear.” It’s an interpretation that “reflects the Māori worldview” and is “also something that we see as a powerful platform for the language, to share with the world.”

Hēmi Kelly, a lecturer in Māori language at Auckland University of Technology, who worked with Lorde on reimagining her music, said the translations were particularly challenging from both a technical and a creative perspective. 

“In Lorde’s song ‘Solar Power,’ [she] has a line there where she says, ‘And I throw my cellular device in the water...’ if I was to translate that literally into Māori, it would just sound silly,” he said. The Māori line ultimately came out more akin to “I throw all my worries away” — different phrasing, but evoking the sense of what Lorde wanted to convey.  

Kelly recalled that in the same title track, Lorde refers to herself as “kinda like a prettier Jesus.” 

“Christianity is not foreign here within the Māori world, but we have our own belief systems as well,” Kelly said. To align it with a Māori sensibility, he said that he instead used the lyrics “My likeness is that of Hinemoana,” the ocean maiden. “Rather than referring to the Christian narrative, I refer back to our own religious narratives.”

New Zealand’s ethnic Māori population was about 855,000 of a total of 5.1 million people at the end of 2020, according to government estimates. The current drive to stay true to the richness of the language — and elevate it for speakers, nonspeakers and those in between — is rooted in its historical suppression in New Zealand (or, as it’s called in Māori, Aotearoa).

After New Zealand officially became a British colony, the Native Schools Act of 1867 prioritized the teaching of English. Over the years, children were physically punished for speaking Māori. Indigenous people had millions of acres of land confiscated. Assimilation — involuntary and voluntary — took its toll.

In the 1970s, linguist Richard Benton began a major research project, interviewing tens of thousands of people to assess the extent to which the Māori language was surviving or languishing. The resulting report became a vital part of the Māori Language Act of 1987, which recognized Māori as an official language.  

Since then, the progress of revitalizing te reo Māori has been “phenomenal,” University of Auckland Māori language expert Hēmi Dale said in an email.

In the years since Benton’s report found that the language was “knocking on the door of extinction,” as Dale put it, “The perceived cultural, economic, social, political benefits of te reo Māori have seen a dramatic growth [in] acceptance. Now, Māori is heard from schools to airlines to television and radio to the workplace. 

“There are still some resistors but they are getting older and less strident. The language is not out of the woods as yet in regards to the numbers of speakers,” he said. “However, there is lots to be positive about.”

Not everyone has been happy with Lorde’s recordings, with some questioning them as appropriation or “tokenism.” 

But Hana Mereraiha, who translated several Lorde songs for the project — proceeds of which will benefit two charities, Forest and Bird and the Te Hua Kawariki Charitable Trust — disagrees with the critics. Lorde “followed the right process. She’s got indigenous artists, indigenous activists, and practitioners of the language… We’re all in this working together,” Mereraiha said.

The Māori language movement is ultimately about “ensuring that our language is normalized, floods the music industry, spoken by our babies, the medium of instruction in our education system — because that is the key to our healing of that intergenerational trauma, and it’s the key to the success of the indigenous people of Aotearoa for the future generations to come,” she said. 

“And if it means that Lorde is going to be a part of that movement, and use her platform to be an advocate for this movement,” Mereraiha said, “so be it.”