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Oahu-born hip-hop artist Punahele Kutzen is nearing his 60th day on Mauna Kea.
He has written 20 new songs in that time, employing rhyme, lyrical cadence and metaphor to document his participation in the peaceful protest movement.
With his physical presence on the mountain, Kutzen is hoping to halt the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope on a mountain he considers sacred. But his largest contribution to the protest movement is his music promoting indigenous land rights and Hawaiian culture.
“I’m one of the people who’s writing the soundtrack to the third Hawaiian renaissance,” said Kutzen, who’s known to music fans as Punahele.
An explosion of music, art and iconography is helping fuel the Mauna Kea protest movement.
It’s raising money to support the protestors, who call themselves protectors and are now in their eighth week of living in camps on the slopes of Hawaii’s tallest peak. And it’s serving as a rallying cry for more support from people around the globe.
Slogans like “See you on the mauna,” are a call to action worn on trucker hats and tshirts. Red, yellow and black clothing has become the attire of supporters. New pro-sovereignty songs, bolstered by social media, are introducing themes of Hawaiian heritage to a wide audience of listeners.
“The songs and the art and the poetry and the prayers are the armor that the protectors are using,” said Oahu hip-hop artist Navid Najafi, also known as Illnomadic, who has written new lyrics inspired by his experience standing on Mauna Kea alongside the protectors.
Civil Beat spoke with some of the people protesting the TMT through their artwork.
Growing up in Makaha on Oahu’s west side, Kutzen listened to rap kings The Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac, discovering an unlikely kinship between hip-hop and traditional Hawaiian music.
The two genres couldn’t sound more different. But Kutzen said themes of social change and injustice form the lyrical bedrock of both styles of music.
By high school, Kutzen was freestyling his own rap lyrics over his friends’ ukulele strumming. What began as a way to joke around and blow off steam soon became a passion.
Today it’s his career. Kutzen is now a musician known to his fans as Punahele. He performs and collaborates with local punk, reggae and contemporary Hawaiian artists to form a unique sound influenced by many genres.
In 2018, he released his first album “From Beneath Mt. Ka’ala.” The Hoku Award-winning anthology blends stories from his own upbringing with rap music’s blunt lyrics to form a snapshot of the modern Hawaiian experience.
“There’s not a lot of artists that speak about the realities of growing up in Hawaiian communities like mine — kids getting taken away by CPS, homelessness and parents smoking dope,” Kutzen said. “I feel like I’m the wild rebel who stands up and is not afraid to say harsh things. Sometimes I scare people.
“But it’s not out of anger. It’s out of love for my community and culture that I talk about the militarization of Hawaii and poverty and colonialism and youth incarceration.”
The music he’s making on Mauna Kea is a departure from his earlier output in one pointed way: The lyrics offer a sense of peacefulness. Although he takes Gov. David Ige to task for accusing some protesters of using drugs and drinking, Kutzen said his newer rhymes lack the biting aggression of some of his older tracks.
“It’s less harsh,” Kutzen said. “I’m not just firing off. Instead I’m trying to keep with the spirit of kapu aloha that’s so alive here and I’m putting it into my music.”
Chad Takatsugi studies the ancestral anthems of the Hawaiian people. He also writes modern music to reflect contemporary happenings in Hawaiian culture.
With his contribution to a forthcoming compilation album of songs about Mauna Kea, Takatsugi pays homage to a century-old Hawaiian song in an original track about the mountain’s sanctity to native people.
“With our music, we’re doing today what our kupuna did 100 years ago,” the Hoku Award-winning artist said.
Tentatively titled “Ku Ha’o Maunakea,” the album is expected to include 17 tracks by some of Hawaii’s most celebrated musicians, including Josh Tatofi, Lehua Kalima, Manu Boyd and Del Beazley. All of the music featured on the album was written and recorded since the TMT opponents started their encampment on the mountain eight weeks ago.
The album will be available on iTunes in mid-September. All proceeds will support the protectors on the front lines of Mauna Kea.
Takatsugi’s contribution, a song titled “I Pu’u Huluhulu Ko Wehi,” is dedicated to Poli´ahu, the snow goddess of Mauna Kea. It’s a song about the burgeoning wave of community support for the mountain and the protectors.
Takatsugi said he hopes the spirit of the song travels far beyond the shores of Hawaii to influence people everywhere who sympathize with sacred lands issues and indigenous rights.
“Let’s say there’s somebody who’s never been to Hawaii and may never set foot here,” he explained. “If a mele (song) can take them there and bring them emotionally to a state where they can understand what Hawaiians on the mauna are fighting for, and how what we have to lose if we don’t fight is too great, then it’s been successful.”
A triangle formed with pointer fingers and thumbs, raised above the head, signals reverence for Mauna Kea’s peak.
The hand gesture has become a ubiquitous and easy way to signal what side you’re on in the land use fight, and it communicates solidarity with those who call themselves protectors.
The symbol is also showing up in force on social media. Anti-TMT supporters have posted thousands of photos of themselves, or others, making the gesture on Instagram and Facebook.
Lindsay Takekawa, a part-Hawaiian surfer and entrepreneur who lives on Maui, said it helps her feel more connected to the movement on Mauna Kea, a place she has never visited.
“It’s an activation signal saying, ‘A’ole TMT,'” Takekawa said. “But it’s also an inclusive, uplifting gesture that says, ‘I am Hawaiian and I am here, present and standing in aloha for what I believe in.'”
When she “throws up the triangle,” it’s a simple way that she can align herself with the action happening on the front lines of the mountain.
Beyond the hand gesture, the triangle shape has become a protest symbol, earning a place on t-shirts. And last month surfers on Maui who participated in a paddle out for Mauna Kea positioned themselves in the water so that they collectively formed the shape of a triangle.
Singer-songwriter Tatiana Manaois, who built a global fan base by posting her original music and cover songs on YouTube, wrote the acoustic ballad “Mauna Kea” to amplify the message of the anti-TMT protestors.
Released on YouTube in early August, the song has garnered more than 20,000 views in less than four weeks. An accompanying music video showcases images of the protesters on the mountain during the ongoing stand-off.
“The song is my interpretation of the stance of the people protecting Mauna Kea,” said Manaois, who lives in New York. “I’m echoing their cry because I agree 100% with what they’re standing up for. And I only hope that people who hear it are inspired by their strength and willingness in standing up for what’s right.”
“’Cause what is sacred
In the world, ain’t a thing could replace it
We could learn from the burns of your ancient ones
Anything that we’re taking from
We’re only taking from ourselves
The world is us and we need help
Oh Mauna Kea, we’ll stand for you
Stand in the way of what comes against you
Stand till the end
To hear you roar again, Mauna Kea”
The 22-year-old Manaois, who is part-Hawaiian, said she has been following the telescope dispute in the news and on social media for several years. Although she was born and raised outside Hawaii, Manaois said pride in Hawaiian culture was instilled in her by family members at a young age.
The anthem “Mauna Kea” is a jarring departure from Manaois’ more popular songs, which more commonly evoke sentiments of self-empowerment, teenage heartbreak and young love.
On Instagram, Manaois urges her 227,000 followers to sign an online petition that demands an immediate halt to the construction of the TMT on Mauna Kea. Some of them, she said, have thanked her for writing the sovereignty song or written to her requesting more information about the dispute on the mountain.
“It is hard not to see that history is kind of repeating itself,” Manaois said. “I truly believe that TMT wanting to take Mauna Kea is honestly just taking it too far.”
Children are also joining in the political action on Mauna Kea.
After a recent visit to the mountain, Oahu artist Nai’a Lewis started thinking about how keiki participating alongside older protesters might be struggling to process questions about identify, political conflict and culture. An illustrator, she decided to harness her talents to create a series of coloring books for kids at the protest.
The coloring pages include illustrations of Hawaii’s unique geography, flora and fauna, such as an ohia lehua blossom; a taro patch; and a pair of high-flying albatrosses.
“There is this awareness I have about how kids may not be saying it, but they are thinking really deep questions or feeling really deep emotions that are hard to process,” Lewis said. “Just giving them something to physically do to get that emotion out creates an opportunity for dialogue.”
“The coloring pages, to me, are a way to open up a conversation between the parent and the child about these complex ideas of what it means to be Hawaiian or what it means to be a part of the protectors and the supporting community,” she added.
Lewis said she has supplied the keiki on Mauna Kea with a stock of coloring sheets and crayons. She plans to soon make her illustrations available for download on her website.
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