To celebrate International Women's Day on March 8, the Herald and online magazine E-Tangata are telling the video stories of six inspirational Māori and Pasifika women, made with the support of NZ On Air. Today: Singer and 'artivist' Moana Maniapoto.

Moana Maniapoto was our most reluctant subject. "I've been done to death," she protested. She had to be dragged into being one of our six Conversations women, just as she'd had to be bullied into writing columns for us at E-Tangata a few years ago. You need to take one for the team, we said.

But then she kept insisting — because, she makes documentaries, too, and she's in the middle of a major one now about treaty negotiators with her partner Toby Mills, who's also our executive producer on Conversations — that it should be about all the people who inspire her and help her do what she does: the singing and songwriting, the activism, the documentary making, the writing, the championing of reo Māori.

The Squadron, she called them. "I don't do anything alone," she said.

Advertisement

Nah, we said. We only have 10 minutes. There's no room for your squadron. (Although, as it turned out, we had to stretch the doco to 20 minutes to fit everything else in.)

But despite her lack of enthusiasm for the spotlight we were offering her (which admittedly, she really doesn't need), she turned up anyway, and did what she does brilliantly: she told stories. The kind of stories that make her one of our most-read columnists on E-Tangata (when she gets time to write, which isn't nearly often enough).

Everything Moana does is a form of storytelling — whether it's in music, film, or writing. She likes to call herself an artivist, an activist who works through her art.

"It's a word I first heard when Toby and I went to the Arctic and we met a bunch of Sami activists who used film and storytelling and writing and journalism to talk about the rights of their people and indigenous issues. I like that word. I think it works really well."

Moana Maniapoto says if you are Maori you are a walking political statement. Herald / file photo
Moana Maniapoto says if you are Maori you are a walking political statement. Herald / file photo

Being Māori, the activism is unavoidable, necessary — as she explained in an E-Tangata interview after she was inducted into the New Zealand Music Hall of Fame in 2016.

"Journalists are often asking me about the social or political activism in my music. 'What comes first?' is the usual question. If you're Maori, you're a walking, breathing political statement. You are born into a whole series of responsibilities and expectations from the Māori and Pākehā worlds. …

"Just telling our own stories in film, like Toby does, or through contemporary music — that's a political statement in itself when those stories aren't well represented in mainstream media. Scotty Morrison and I have written songs about our navigators and sailors, our soldiers and their courage. About our Māori-speaking children. About Moriori. So, there's that side. Celebration and inspiration."

So, there's always been a purpose in Moana's music, firstly with her band Moana and the Moahunters, and then Moana & the Tribe and TŪ (with Paddy Free).

"Originally, we were on a mission to make Māori visible through our songs. … With every music video, we shoved as much Māori into the faces of every New Zealander that we could, because it was about us seeing ourselves and feeling good about ourselves and, at the same time, we were making a point. We were challenging the Crown, challenging Pākehā, with our lyrics and images."

That visibility hasn't come easily, thanks to the continuing lack of interest (and airplay) on New Zealand's commercial radio stations. We don't play that foreign-language stuff, she was told once.

And yet, Moana and her bands continue to play on stages all over the world — and not just at "world music festivals", either.

"Our success on the international live circuit hasn't been in spite of our language and culture. It's often been because of it.

"People overseas have fewer hang-ups about language or politics. They're touched spiritually by what we do. We're able to connect with each other despite the language barriers. We understand each other. And that's the greatest feeling."

Moana Maniapoto is one of six women featured in Conversations, a six-part video web series created by E-Tangata, an online magazine specialising in Māori and Pasifika stories and perspectives. You can see all the videos and stories at nzherald.co.nz/suffrage