Pharaoh Swami on the Māori prophet Rua Kenana

Last week NZ celebrated Waitangi Day and the Prime Minister attended — a woman who even attended at all  made it a humbling event in terms of indigenous relations in NZ.  It is exciting, breaking new barriers, she also became the first female Prime Minister to speak at the whare rānanga on the porch of the upper marae. Still, one day to recognize indigenous people in their land is a strange concept when you are an indigenous person, it’s isolating and confusing and more so…hurtful. As part of his ‘Swami Sunday’s’ Single release campaign Pharaoh Swami, a New Zealand based artist of Ethiopian descent, added a new twist to the contemporary rap music scene in New Zealand by sampling a song called ‘Rua Kenana’ which was introduced to him by his close friends, a pair who are cousins from a Māori tribe called Tuhoe. It was the similarities he could draw between his own cultural identity and theirs that encouraged him to make this song.

Rua Tapunui Kenana (1869–1937) was a Māori prophet, faith healer and land rights activist. He called himself Te Mihaia Hou, the New Messiah, and claimed to be Te Kooti Arikirangi’s sucessor Hepetipa who would reclaim Tūhoe land that had been lost to pakeha / European ownership.

Pharaoh Swami says:  “I’m a soldier fighting in the war of love and hate and I won’t fight it the white man’s way. Never do I mean skin tone. The white man as in the western world. The capitalist consumerism-orientated, suit wearing ‘me’ mentality that tells us what to think rather than how to think.” 

 New Zealand is a country where the Native Schools Act in 1867 striped indigenous Māori of their language and affected a generation still living today. Friends and family of Māori descent invite you into their homes and it’s a sobering reality to learn this is not a generation from Jesus times they’re trying to show you in a book, this is your mate’s mum cooking you dinner, explaining that when she was little, if she spoke her natural language, she’d be beaten by authoritative members of society, like teachers. It’s a strange conversation because she’s not tryna scare you, she’s simply opening her home and heart to this random human her child brought home. She’s just  speaking their truth, gently with a smile making you tea — it’s a reality that is frightening, humbling and empowering all at once.

What Pharoah Swami has done with his song is highlight an affinity foreigners living in New Zealand have with Māori people and their land.  People from places like Africa and Asia (all over the world really) find an undeniably strong connection with the whenua…or land, and  it is one that’s hard to comprehend …but even harder to ignore:

The prophet Rua Kenana

DS: What were you up to at the time you decided to make your song Rua Kenana?

PS: It’s my first beat I’ve ever made by myself. Recorded myself and mixed it myself with final mixing touches done by Mak Swami and mastering by Munashe from AmmoNation.

DS: What were you up to at the time you made Rua Kenana?

PS: I’ve been going through a lot emotionally and spiritually over the past years in search of my identity as a person and as an artist so I was sitting there sleep deprived and felt so emotional so I spent a whole night and morning till the sunrise making it. My childhood friends David and Patrick Pene who are cousins are Tuhoe. And I was always educated on their history and culture which I diligently digested. They would always sing Rua Kenana and the melodies, harmonies and meaning always moved my soul in a way that I can’t really word. “Rua Kenana was a prophet from the Uruwera. He told his people not to go to war and let the white man fight the white man’s war.” He told them not to sign the treaty as he prophesied it would be the demolition of their culture and heritage.


Therefore the Tuhoe lands are uncolonised and hold such an eerie ambiance in the air hence the name “Children of the Mist”. I wasn’t really thinking anything about Waitangi as I’ve never acknowledged, celebrated nor respected the holiday because it’s misguided and misinformed. The Māori were deceived with the language barrier and through gentrification and systematic oppression it turned a people of mana who treated matariki (children) as tapu (sacred) and their wahine (women) as the nurturing goddesses they were. Yes there may have been savagery and war between them but name a race or era that didn’t… I’ll wait.

So in a day and age where our Māori and Pacific Island brothers and sisters are disregarded and labelled as delinquent and troublesome I couldn’t help but relate as my history as an African pharaoh paints an identical picture. So I decided to do what I always do and project my emotions and energy artistically to transcend my vibrations in to a resonant frequency that others could enjoy or heal from.  I created a song that feels like trials and tribulations. Heartbreak and injustice. Yet by also simultaneously encompassing the feeling of pride and self-love and the feeling of solving the predominant issue of identity crisis and depression. That feeling of light at the end of it all when you’ve climbed and fallen and gotten back up a million times and walked and triumphed to the apex of a mental, spiritual and emotional mountain. That moment the sun is rising and the light surfaces in the horizon and you feel the sun on your chest and face and breathe the cold air with eyes closed and thoughts absent…No intellect or analysis of the valley below. Just feels. Immense feels that can’t be quantified or explained.

At the death of my ego and expense of my insignificant sense of accomplishment, I can’t take credit for the song or any song I have ever made or will make cos it wasn’t me. It never is. It’s God working through me. Not the God depicted by humans who want control and power. My God, the God that my father and mother believed in and taught me of presents itself as a gender-less colorless ball of infinite unconditional love and forgiveness and light that starts with ego death and non-individualistic concerns. That’s the only difference in my music now I give it all to him all the glory and all the praise. Cos am I the artist who is responsible for the art or am I the paintbrush which is used as an instrument to heal or teach or stimulate people? I close my mind and open my heart when I create and just feel bruh and love blesses me with what love feels is right at the time. That’s what Rua Kenana represents for me. Broken natives paying the price for the greed of others yet not having the self-belief and empowering effect of identity and purpose which starts with knowing your unbiased history and language.

DS: How do you hope people will receive it?

PS: In all honesty I’m bipolar with this topic cos one side of me isn’t concerned about reception and thought as I don’t care what people think of me or my art I’m more concerned with how I make people feel. People will say “Oh you can’t understand the language or it’s so heavily layered with melodies and harmonies including me singing Bon Ivers “Woods” in the background during the Pōkarekare Ana, section of the song so some might say it’s overstimulating and can’t hear the words etc etc but that’s my point. Forget what you think and try gauge what you feel. Play it on speakers. Drown in it eyes closed and allow yourself to submit to what music really feels like.

I’m a soldier fighting in the war of love and hate and I won’t fight it the white man’s way. Never do I mean skin tone. The white man as in the western world. The capitalist consumerism-orientated, suit wearing ‘me’ mentality that tells us what to think rather than how to think. Well allow us artists to help you learn how to feel and never what to feel. Cos feelings matter bro.




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