Pharaoh Swami is a Kiwi based artist of Ethiopian descent living in Auckland City. In this timely and chilling version of a Māori song called Rua Kēnana by David Grace & Injustice, he has added a new twist to the contemporary rap music scene in New Zealand by sampling it.
He is one of about six people who organized the Black Lives Matter March in down town Auckland, June 1, 2020. It brought out tens of thousands of like minded New Zealanders waiting to see a change to the silent pandemic in this country, racism.
During Covid-19 lockdown Level 2, the protest garnered the attention of the world. Popping up on Al Jazeera and Daily Mail UK among others. Breaking lockdown restrictions to stand in unity with fellow Kiwis, and for George Floyd, a black man who was kneed to death by a police officer in Minneapolis. New Zealand’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Winston Peters even suggested the organizers be arrested. But breaking barriers for change is not a concept that’s ever scared Pharaoh Swami.
“BLM wasn’t just about Black Lives Matter – it was also about the fact that Māori and PI are the people who suffer from similar systems that our people suffer from here in New Zealand.
“And we wanted to highlight their issues as well. There is this constant camaraderie between the Māori community and the African community because when we held the BLM protest it was the Māori community who turned up in numbers and did the haka and everything.”
“There was a presence there,” he said.
Anyone who has been in the presence of a good haka knows there’s a spirit that’s evoked, it gives you chills, raises the hair on your arms and lets you know there is something much bigger than you, everywhere.
“In turn, whenever it’s Māori language week, our whole African community has been posting te reo words in their posts – there’s comradery there, because our struggle is a similar struggle,” Swami said.
The original track, Rua Kēnana 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.
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 stripped indigenous Māori of their language and affected a generation still living today.
Growing up in New Zealand, part of the experience, is being in the homes of friends and family of Māori descent. You’re invited in 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 language, she’d be beaten by authoritative members of society, like teachers.
It’s a strange conversation because she’s not trying to scare you, she’s simply opening her home and heart to this random human her child brought home. She’s just speaking her 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, Middle East 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 Kēnana
DS: What were you up to at the time you decided to make your song Rua Kēnana?
PS: It’s my first beat I’ve ever made by myself. Recorded myself and mixed it myself. 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 til 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 Kēnana and the melodies, harmonies and meaning always moved my soul in a way that I can’t really word.
“Rua Kēnana 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.
I wasn’t really thinking anything about Waitangi Day as I’ve never acknowledged, celebrated nor respected the holiday because it’s misguided and misinformed.
Māori were deceived with the language barrier and through gentrification and systematic oppression it turned a people of mana who treated tamariki (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.
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, my history as an African pharaoh paints an identical picture.
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 on 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 I am 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 – one side of me isn’t concerned about reception and thought – I don’t care what people think of me or my art, I’m more concerned with how I make people feel.
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. 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.
Allow us artists to help you learn how to feel and never what to feel. Cos feelings matter bro.