Even 13 years after Iz’s death, the question matters — to those still agitating for native Hawaiian rights, to Israel’s fans, and to Mountain Apple, Israel’s record label. Indeed, when, researching Facing Future, my book about Israel and his greatest album, I interviewed Israel’s longtime producer — and Mountain Apple president — Jon de Mello, he denied that Israel was an activist. Beyond that, de Mello flatly said, “He didn’t really have any political views.”
The truth is more complicated. Israel Kamakawiwo’ole felt a tension in the years following the breakup of the Makaha Sons of Ni’ihau, his old band, between passionate political engagement and the demands of crossover success.
Eager to pick up the mantel of his late brother, Skippy, Israel agitated for sovereignty in any number of ways. He recorded mele ku’e, songs of protest, like “Hawai’i ’78” and “Living in a Sovereign Land.” He gave the Hawaiian flag pride of place on the cover of his 1995 album E Ala E. He spoke with bitterness about the displacement of Native Hawaiians in interviews, drawing an explicit connection between Hawaiians’ dispossession of their native land and his own emotional health.
And, most controversially, he preached from his pulpit — the stage. Long beloved for his between-song chatter in concert, in the last years of his life Israel’s messages mixed generic bootstraps talk with more specific support for Native Hawaiian causes and crusaders, including Bumpy Kanahele, whose occupation of Makapu’u beach received the Israel seal of approval in a 1994 show. “Haoles, it’s nice to have you here,” Israel said at that concert. “But when pau with vacation, don’t forget: Go home!”
At the same time, Israel desired success on a larger scale than most Hawaiian musicians had ever achieved, out of both a desire to be loved and a concern for the well-being of his family after he was gone. And part and parcel of gunning for crossover pop status is not alienating your potential audience. So Israel also spoke onstage of there being “one race, brah — the human race,” and for years included the white, California-born drummer Mike Muldoon in his touring band. Muldoon told me that Israel liked to introduce him as “a Hawaiian trapped in a haole’s body.”
That notion of the inner Hawaiian proved to be Israel’s greatest tool in broadening his appeal. After the concert in which he praised Bumpy Kanahele, Israel got a phone call from one of his best friends, Betty Stickney. The white Stickney told Israel that some of her friends had been offended by his comments and had vowed never to attend one of his concerts again. At his next show, he tried to appease white fans by talking at length about how anyone could have a “Hawaiian heart.” He was opening his exclusive cultural cadre to non-Hawaiian fans.
After the show, he called Betty Stickney. “I fixed it,” he said.
And even now, Mountain Apple is in a constant battle to “fix” the image of Israel that survives. As Facing Future nears double-platinum status, de Mello and his company — beholden not only to their own business interests but to de Mello’s desire to honor his promise to take care of Israel’s family — are doing their best to push the image of Israel as an apolitical hero. It’s easier to sell a Hawaiian heart than a Hawaiian flag. And it’s easier to explain the aloha spirit than the tortured history of Israel’s people.
I don’t blame them. But I do disagree. It’s important to remember that Israel wasn’t just an angel of aloha. He was an activist, even if he was one who didn’t man the barricades. He was a complicated, flawed man, and those flaws were, and are, part of the reason that he means so much to local fans. “Sure, Israel was a latter-day saint,” musician Pali Ka’aihue told me. “But he was also truly a local bruddah.”
Dan Kois is the author of “Facing Future,” a book about Israel Kamakawiwo’ole and his most popular album. He is appearing at the Hawai’i Book and Music Festival on Saturday as well as at local bookstores Friday, Saturday, and Sunday; check for dates and times.
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