- Sudden Rush:Na Mele Paleoleo (Hawaiian Rap) as Liberatory Discourse1
With language rests life;with language rests death.—Kimura 74
Silencing the Native Hawaiian language was one of the loudest violations of human rights by U.S. American colonizers in Hawai'i. Within a period of a hundred years, Hawai'i was transformed from a place where nearly every Hawaiian person spoke Hawaiian to one where less than a thousand people spoke their mother tongue (Kimura 74). The American colonizers understood the centrality and power of language for a people and imposed English as the official language for business and education in Hawai'i. They forbade the speaking of Hawaiian and, therefore, externalized the lived-experience of Hawaiians who were forced to see the world through the lens of the colonizer. As Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiongo says, "Economic and political control can never be complete or effective without mental control. To control a people's culture is to control their tools of self-definition in relationship to others" (16). Muting the Hawaiian language and imposing the language of the colonizer was a means of controlling the minds of the colonized. By speaking English, Hawaiians were functioning within the discourse, which positioned them as inferior to the haole and created alienation, a condition "of seeing oneself from outside oneself as if one was [End Page 82] another self" (Ngugi 18).2 It is within this context of colonization that na mele paleoleo (Hawaiian rap) evolved.
Sudden Rush became the first group to record na mele paleoleo in 1993. Based in Hilo on the island of Hawai'i, the group consists of three Hawaiian male rappers: Shane "Kid Dynomite" Veincent (who named the group after his dad's race-car roadster), Caleb "Pakalo" Richards, and Don Ke'ala "King Don 1" Kawa'auhau, Jr., who raps in the Hawaiian language.
Rapper Ke'ala grew up in a family where speaking Hawaiian was forbidden. His grandma was fluent in the language but, as was common among Hawaiians before the 1970s, refused to teach it to her children and grandchildren and scolded anyone who tried. This internalization of colonization reflects the institutional policing of the Hawaiian language. School children who spoke their native language, for example, were kept after school to repeatedly write on the black board, "I shall not speak Hawaiian" (Kimura 74). During the 1990s, as a student at the University of Hawai'i-Hilo, Ke'ala enrolled in a Hawaiian language class to fulfill his "foreign" language requirement. Lear ning the language of his ancestors set in motion the arduous process of de-colonization. He discovered that "When you learn the language, you learn the lifestyle" as constituted in everyday practices, such as knowing when to go fishing or how to behave at a lu'au (party).3 The most meaningful benefit of speaking Hawaiian, however, as Ke'ala puts it, is "I can talk with my grandma now." He also speaks Hawaiian during his morning radio and Internet show on KWXX in Hilo, teaches at Punana Leo in Hilo, one of several Hawaiian-language immersion preschools in the state, and engages in the cultural production of na mele paleoleo as one of three rappers of Sudden Rush.
This essay explores the development of na mele paleoleo as a contemporary form of Hawaiian music that cut 'n' mixes African American hip-hop with Hawaiian rapping in the U.S. American-colonized archipelago of Hawai'i. It also questions the connection of na mele paleoleo to the black Atlantic. How does this hybrid musical genre function in contemporary Hawaiian politics? Moreover, why is rap the chosen musical genre for Sudden Rush? In addition this essay looks beyond music and problematizes concepts of diaspora and hybridity as rhetorical contructs of dominant discourse that serve to defuse Hawaiians' political stance as the rightful guardians of the 'aina (land) from which Hawaiians derive their identity. This essay is an attempt to critically examine Hawaiian rap as liberatory discourse in contemporary Hawaiian politics. In so doing, I will briefly trace Hawai'i's history as a settler colony and the subsequent hybrid mixing of rhythms and sounds that, [End Page...