Hinewehi Mohi made history as the first person to sing the national anthem in te reo Māori at a Rugby World Cup game in 1999. Now, she's marking the 20-year anniversary of that day with a whole new album full of waiata anthems.
"So, where are you from?"
It's the first question Hinewehi Mohi asks when we sit down to chat. It is, inadvertently, a loaded question because the answer is not a simple one and speaks to a loss of cultural connection spanning generations.
Instantly, she catches on to this fact and assures me: "There will come a time where you will form that connection." She then comes up with a list of people who could help me do so. This is what she does; she brings people together and helps to bridge a gap between cultures. It's what she's always done - whether she meant to or not.
Many will know Mohi from her te reo Māori hit with Oceania, Kotahitanga, but most will know her as the history-maker who controversially sang our national anthem in te reo Māori at a 1999 Rugby World Cup game in Twickenham, bringing that version into the mainstream forever after.
Mohi is Ngāti Kahungunu with "a little dash" of Ngāi Tūhoe, and a proud heritage of fighting for the revitalisation of te reo Māori.
That's why this year, she's marking Te Wiki o Te Reo Māori with a special new project which will also mark the 20-year anniversary of that Twickenham game and another Rugby World Cup.
Waiata Anthems is a new album curated by Mohi and featuring iconic Kiwi artists like Six60, Bic Runga and Stan Walker, performing their biggest hits in te reo Māori.
"Because it was coming up to the 20-year anniversary ... I thought I'd like to - rather than get upset about it - use it as a platform to promote te reo Māori," says Mohi, who admits the "blindsiding" backlash around her singing the anthem in 1999 was - and still can be - "quite harrowing".
"The pushback … yeah, that's still there. And I guess what really sort of tweaks me is to think that not all New Zealanders feel that [te reo Māori] is a part of all of us, because it is. It's the uniqueness of the Māori culture that ties us together and creates this very special piece of wonderfulness in the South Pacific. So, I guess I'm still sort of carrying a little bit of a wound from 20 years ago, and I really need to get over myself."
She laughs this off but it's clear that wound still pains her. When I ask her to talk me
through what she's feeling, she gets quiet - even quieter than her usual soft-spokenness - and thoughtful.
"When I sang the anthem in Māori and there was such fiery anger around that, I thought, 'Hang on a minute. Have I been in a complete bubble?' And I probably had been, coming from university studying Māori and where we as a whānau really embraced it," she says.
"There are factions, still, of those who don't like the anthem being sung in Māori at all. And there are still those who don't think the language is relevant or important. But it's just the picking and choosing. I mean surely everyone is proud when the haka's performed before a rugby game, but maybe not [any other time], and it's just crazy to disconnect those elements of the culture that you might deem okay or relevant.
"I feel like it's a cornerstone of our culture which needs to be protected. And we need to put our all into it, to get anything out of it."
That's where Waiata Anthems comes in. With the 20th anniversary of Twickenham coming up, Mohi started receiving calls from media wanting to talk about the event and, because it was too much negativity to handle, she flipped it into a positive.
"I thought, music is something really important to me as well and I know how music heals... so I thought that would probably be the best platform and the most accessible for people to be able to be involved with the language and have the support to sing along."
A quick chat with Universal Music and a whole lot of wrangling later and Mohi had assembled an all-star line-up ready to give te reo Māori a go. Well, almost ready.
"Everyone was terrified," Mohi says. "Like Paora [Apera] from Shapeshifter. He said, 'I'm so nervous … and I think I'm so nervous because it's so important and it means so much to me.'
"And Tiki Taane was the other one who said, 'I think this is the hardest thing I've ever had to do.' And I think that makes me more proud, that they should feel the fear and do it anyway."
By helping them to face those fears and walk them through the translations - with the help of Sir Tīmoti Kāretu and Tama Waipara - and nuances of the reo, Mohi was able to help them connect to Māori culture - whether they were Māori, Indian, Rarotongan or First Nation Canadian.
"It's helped them connect to their own culture in a safe supportive kind of way, which I hope translates so that those that listen and sing along can feel the same. This is a wonderful way that we can all share [the reo], and it can start the conversation," says Mohi.
"It feels like being able to not 'give a gift', because that sounds a little bit patronising, but it's like I've been able to extend a hand of support, so that they feel comfortable in delving into something that they don't necessarily have experience in."
Tami Neilson was one such artist who had next to no experience in te reo Māori, having only moved here from Canada some 15 years ago. She had to work intensively with Mohi, who coached her through a translated version of her song Cry Myself to Sleep, line by line.
While she admits she still feels "not exactly worthy" of being a part of the project, Neilson says it's "been an absolute, overwhelming honour and privilege".
"Singing [my song] in another language ... is pretty mind-blowing and amazing. Hearing the final result, I just started to cry. I couldn't believe it … it's really powerful."
That's what the Waiata Anthems project is all about; bridging the gap and representing the diversity of Aotearoa.
"I want to celebrate everyone who has worked tirelessly to revitalise the language and make it relevant to all of us - Pakeha, Māori, people of all ethnicities, faiths and sexualities," says Mohi.
"Maybe this can be therapeutic for me, you know, getting over myself after 20 years and still crying about it," she says. "But also therapeutic for people to be able to heal their sadness and that disconnect, and really be an important way of reaching out and supporting and caring for each other."
Who: Hinewehi Mohi
What: Waiata Anthems celebrating Te Wiki o Te Reo Māori
When: Out tomorrow
Plus: Te Wiki o Te Reo Māori takes place next week, September 9-15
Check out the translated lyrics for Sway / Haere Mai Rā by Bic Runga
Kei haere atu koe
Me mātau kē ake ahau
Ko tērā kei runga, ko au kei raro
Ka tūtuki tāua
Anō nei ko koe tōku moana
Kei toromi au
Ko koe te tino take
Tē taea te aha
Te haratau nei i tō ingoa
Kī atu au ki a koe
Kāore e tika, te mātai i a koe
Ngā mea whai tikanga
Kia maringi mai i te waha
Kua eke rā
Ki te kī atu ki a koe e pono ana
Ka noho koe
Kei haere mai, ka haere
Haere mai rā
Me mōhio ahau
Ki tōu katoa
Kāore he rongoā
E tino mōhio ai
I huri rapa ai tōku ao
E tipu nei te pōkaku
Takeo ana au
Wana kore ana
Ko hirikapo ki te ngākau
Tē aro rā me aha
Ināianei, kua kawa
Kia reka te ahiahi
Nāu rā e te tau