Pasifika Music is Liberation Music: Dakota Camacho on the Songs that Soundtrack the Pursuit of Pacific Freedom

Dakota Camacho

Dakota Camacho is a CHamoru artist based in Coast Salish territory. In this op-ed, an extension of our Pushing Boundaries programming from May, Camacho reflects on the Pasifika music through the lens of resistance and the continual pursuit of freedom. 

Picture white sandy beaches, deep blue and turquoise waters. Imagine the warm ocean lapping your feet as you stumble upon a sea turtle’s nest. You turn towards the rising sun and stare into the miles of coconut groves behind you. In this place, there is food and water for multitudes. You are home in your ancestral lands. 

Then suddenly you hear a bomb explode a mere hundred yards from you. Followed by another. Machine guns blast. Toxic smoke plumes fill the air. Your heart pounds at what feels like 200 beats per minute It could be the anxiety. It could be the lead in your drinking water. It could be the literal poisons of military toxins entering your bloodstream. It could be realizing future generations of your family will never know the healing powers of your tranquil ancestral village.

This is the reality for many of us known as Pacific Islanders/Pasifika. Our homes have been rendered strategic military outposts. Guåhan, the island I am from in Låguas (the Mariånas), is most notably called “The Tip of the Spear of American Might”. We have been displaced from our lands because the military literally took the lands from our families at gunpoint, or with a more dull but equally deadly weapon of economic dependence. Meanwhile, tourists flock to our homelands by the millions, to see us dance and sing about a time when none of this was real. When our families weren’t suffering from houselessness, drug addiction, health disparity, poverty, language & cultural disconnection– otherwise known as symptoms of the colonial soul wound. And many of our cousins, aunties, and uncles are working those tourist industry jobs performing the fantasy of paradise for our beloved visitors. Our families work these jobs because they pay us just enough to stay at home, but not well enough to survive once our parents, siblings, or ourselves are diagnosed with cancer or kidney failure. These health issues that were caused by military presence in our homelands. This story is why many of us Pasifika people now call Coast Salish Territory our home. 

The story of our homelands as paradise is a part of our oppression. Yet, we are not passive victims in the war games played by global superpowers. We are poets, chanters, muralists, traditional healers, aunties, uncles, parents, community organizers, farmers, weavers, fashion designers, and so much more. While our islands are being used as playgrounds of destruction, we are part of a global movement channeling the powers of creation toward life. 

And so when KEXP asked me to write about Pasifika artists for National Pacific Islander and Asian American Heritage Month, I knew I couldn’t just write about the art. I have a responsibility to inform the continental audience of our realities in the Pacific. We are on the frontlines of the climate crisis that's primarily fueled by U.S. Military expansion. Many of us are living with the reality that our homelands, the places we live, could be nuked again. And so our culture – our music – is our vision for a future society of peace, equity, & justice for all people and the planet. 

Late last year, Kanaka ‘Oiwi songstress, chanter, and hula practitioner Hāwane Rios, blessed Kai Boy’s single, “No More War” with her ancestral magic. In the verses we hear the vocalists  denounce the ongoing genocide against Palestinians and draw connections between Palestine and Indigenous struggles worldwide: “We Stand for Palestinians, Indigenous Around the Globe, who are fighting back oppression, and for the land oppressors stole, No More War.” Hāwane enters chanting in ‘olelo hawai’i inducing fugu’ (chicken skin) as she invokes the relationship between the rivers of Moananuiākea (the “Pacific”) and the waters of Palestine. Hāwane and her family have spent many years now advocating to protect Mauna Kea from the proposed construction of a 30-meter telescope. She invokes this consciousness near the end of her mele (chant) as she calls for us to stand for Mauna Kea so must we stand also for Palestine. 

Fellow Kanaka Māoli artists Kauwila & Inalihi answer this call with their track “Pae ‘Āina to Palestine”. The song is laced with references that draw connections between the struggles, “Free Your People, Free your Mind, De-occupy Hawai’i & Palestine.” Inalihi raps, “We choose to join hands when they choose to bear arms, so hands off Makua, Hands of Sheik Jarrah” and Kauwila speaks to militarism’s impact on both lands, “Waimanalo, Makua, Gaza, trying to turn our homelands into a plaza”. These Kanaka artists are among many in the oceanic soundscape pointing to shared struggles. 

Earlier this year, Ziggy Ramo, (Wik and Solomon Islands) dropped the music video “Banamba” of his upcoming album, and newly released book project Human?: A Lie That's Been Killing Us Since 1788. "Banamba," which means change in the Birri Gubba language, plainly points out the colonial situation in Australia. The lyrics of the song read like a desperate attempt to get society to finally turn a compassionate eye toward the struggles of Black people, “Want you to get it, time to bear witness, It's sickenin', we live in a system that's killin' my siblings, my uncles, my mothers, my nieces, my aunties, my fathers, My cousins, my brothers, my nephews, I don't even turn on the news.” 

The music video features archival footage of numerous moments of Aboriginal sovereignty movement, including the 1965 Freedom Rides, which were inspired by Freedom Rides of the Black Civil Rights movement in the United States. Ramo’s lyrics seem to continue to acknowledge the ways both Aboriginal Australians and Black people in the United States are targeted by the police. He exclaims, “'Cause I can't breathe with this weight me, I can't live without my family, I wouldn't wish this on my enemies, The crazy thing is you be me family, And I can't breathe with this weight me, Damn, I just got clarity, I wouldn't wish this on humanity, The crazy thing is you be me family”. 

Indigenous people, and those who belong to spiritual traditions across the world, would resonate with this message of one human family. If we are to end war on this planet, we must embrace the truth that there is no human enemies. Our only enemy is oppression. In the face of so much carnage and inhumanity, it seems that artists have a central role to play in staying connected to the truth. Our ancestral worldviews hold all life as sacred, and it is often this understanding that animates our solidarity. 

This truth was modelled beautifully by Kanak Gong, a Kanaky band from New Caledonia when they dropped their acapella chant “Free West Papua” in 2015.  This video posted in 2015 called for West Papua, a region currently under Indonesian control, to be returned to the Melanesian family. This acapella take on their song of the same name from 2012 brilliantly uses traditional bamboo percussion to drive home the urgency of stopping the genocide. Since 1969, over 500,000 West Papuans have been murdered by the Indonesian Military while fighting for their freedom. In a Press Statement from the DOD, it was indicated that more than 7,000 military personnel have been trained by the United States at a cost of over 130 million dollars. In 2022, the State Department approved a potential U.S. $13.9 billion deal in weapons sales to the Indonesian military. The investment is part of the U.S.’s Indo-Pacific Strategy which considers U.S. military dominance in the region vital to global security. Despite claiming that America’s “... vital interests and those of our closest partners require a free and open Indo-Pacific, where governments can make their own sovereign choices,” the United States continues to deny the sovereignty of Chamoru and Kānaka Maoli, while funding the genocide of West Papuans. All while in cooperation with the French government who is doing the same to the Kanaks of Kanaky (momentarily known as New Caledonia). 

The Kanak Socialist Liberation Front (FLNKS) was founded in 1984 as a pro-independence alliance of political parties in so-called New Caledonia. In the same decade, Kanak artists gave birth to Kaneka music which began to weave Indigenous Kanak musical stylings with funk, rock, and reggae sounds. You can feel the funk influence in Théo Menango’s (regarded as one of the originators of Kaneka music) band Yata’s single, “Frères Kanak” and the impact of reggae music in Melanesia in their song “Ravels”. The music is inseparable from the social movement, which can be clearly seen with songs like “Hommage A Mandela” by JVDK and Jean-Pierre Swan’s “Liberte” which details the French military’s murder of 19 Kanak and the assassination of independence leader Jean-Marie Tjibaou. Then there’s “Loulou” by Bwanjep which speaks to the murder of Tjibaou’s brother nicknamed Loulou. Mo Yka rousing reggae jam,”Afrikanaky” speaks to the solidarity felt between Kanak and African peoples. Although colonialism attempts to eradicate our traditions, Pasifika people breathe continuity into our oral historical practices by creating music that reflects our lived experiences. The influence of Black cultural production on Kaneka music reflects a deeply Pasifika ethic in which our creative and ceremonial practices tell the stories of spiritual bonds we build with Black and non-Black Indigenous peoples across the globe. 

Over the last few decades, Kaneka music has exploded, expanding the ways different Indigenous Kanak musical styles localize reggae, soul, funk, and folk influences. The Le Mouv NC association in Noumea has played a huge role in this movement. The organization started in the nineties at the demands of young people who felt the power of kaneka music. Le Mouv NC is a part of a large network of social workers, music houses, sports movements, and churches that support the development of music as a way to embrace identity and solidarity. Mouv sponsors a concert series designed to be affordable for the average household, as well as a music school, a professional recording studio, multiple rehearsal and performance venues. Their website features the biographies of nearly fifty artists contributing to the movement highlighting the unique ways they draw from their distinct cultures and languages. For example, In 2011, Tim Sameke, a board member of Le Mouv NC, released a music video for his single Pilou Danser featuring Pilou dance, a dance that French government criminalized because they feared the trances Kanaks entered. Tim Sameke was also the initiate of the CALEDONIE PACIFIK music video which brought together Kaneka artists to advocate for peace. 

Peace in Kanaky is unlikely as long as the French government continues to attempt to subvert Kanak self-determination. New Caledonia is currently a colony of France and according to international law the Indigenous Kanak have the right to a national referendum to vote for independence or not. In 2021, while many Kanak families were practicing their ancestral mourning periods to honor those they lost to the COVID epidemic, President Macron forced a self-determination referendum, despite the calls from Kanaks to wait until after the traditional mourning period ended. In the last month, the French government’s proposed reforming the voting requirements. The reform would make it possible for non-Kanak French citizens who have been residents of Kanaky (New Caledonia) for ten years or more to vote in the election, thereby drowning out the votes of the Indigenous Kanak.  We have seen an explosion of protests in response by young Kanaky seeking to protect their people and land from further exploitation at the hands of French colonialism. As a result, France has banned TikTok in the country and sent in their military to suppress the uprisings.  As of writing this, seven people have been murdered by the military & hundreds have been arrested. As of late last week, President Macron has overruled his forced referendum. However, there has been no recognition that French colonialism must end, and that Kanaky must be free.  The potential of an independent New Caledonia threatens France’s stake in the region, which in turns fractures the shared interests between the United States and French militaries. 

Indigenous resistance to western imperialism flows through the blood of Pasifika peoples. In my home of Låguas (The Mariånas), we have been resisting colonial forces of four different global superpowers for over three hundred years. On Guåhan, the struggle continues on multiple fronts, the northern beaches of Guåhan that are currently occupied by the U.S. Military. For many decades the families of this area, including Litekyan, Ulunao, Talågi, and Inapsan, have been advocating for the return of their land and to stop the military from their practices of open burn and open detonation. However, the U.S. Military continues to expand its desecration of our lands. In 2019, the U.S. Military cleared 900 footballs of irreplaceable limestone forest to construct a live firing range that’s slated to open by the end of this year. According to the military’s own environmental impact study, they plan to fire 6.7 million rounds which will introduce many toxic chemicals directly into the Northern Guam Lens Aquifer, the source of 90% of Guam’s drinking water. There is no safe amount of lead in drinking water.  The U.S. claims to be invested in a prosperous future for the Indo-Pacific region, yet their actions raise the question, prosperous for who? Certainly not us Indigenous peoples of the Pacific. 

Like the Kanaks, CHamoru people have been deeply impacted by the cultural and political work of Black Liberation. The musical genres in which CHamoru artists have been drawn to include country, rock, reggae, & hip hop. Although the U.S. Military originally brought “American Music” to us as part of their colonial strategy, many of our artists have preffered to align themselves with Black artists who use their music to speak truths that the news media, the education system, and the government try to erase, ignore, and suppress. The laid back skank on Jonah Hånom’s “CHaChing” is inflected with his impressive flow that details the horrific legacy of colonialism in the Mariånas. On the song he says, “Chemical warfare blamed on a brown tree snake, Graffitied our aniti with your Spanish priests then Japanese, And now somehow we’re owned by the land of the free, Never had we asked for 10 thousand Chamorro casualties”. 

Micronesians have the highest rate of enlistment and death per capita in the U.S. Military. Joe Garrido and Pedro Blas collaboration “Ai Yu’os” speaks to the economic troubles that our people face that send our people to die in droves. “Humuyong yu’ gi gima’-hu ya hu li’e’ migai na taotao-hu manmapededesi, mamopble, sa’ mampos didide’ i salappe’... ti nahong inayudu ginen i gobetnu”. (I leave my house and I see all of my suffering, all of the poor because there’s such little money, and the help from the government is not enough) Earlier this year, Jeremy Cepeda dropped his first album, Hinale’ which is written entirely in fino’ håya. His song, “Ta Fanmalulok gi Pinto'-ta,” which was also featured in Independent Guåhan’s Na’lå’la’ Music Series, calls for our people to unite and free ourselves. This month, Nihi Indigenous Media released their “Protectors Anthem,” a collaboration with Microchild and Jonah Hånom. The music video features footage from the 90’s in which a CHamoru nationalist group, Nasion CHamoru, jumped U.S. military fences to draw attention to the injustice in which we live. One of the leaders, the late Maga’låhen Eddie L.G. Benavente was also a member of the CHamoru rock band Chamorro. In this music video, we see him thrown to the ground by military police as Shannon McManus of Microchild calls us to weave our hands together to stand for the sacred singing “we want birds not bullets in the atmosphere.” 

As Pasifika are on the frontlines of the climate crisis, fueled by the same militaries that are poisoning and killing our people, we also are faced with the realities of increasing climate disasters. Nihi Indigenous Media, alongside Micronesia Climate Change Alliance, was one of the few community organizations who were on the frontlines of mutual aid and climate disaster relief following supertyphoon Mawar. Most of the island residents lost water and power for over a month. Yet, almost no news of this supertyphoon was shared in mainstream American media. In the Gil Baza and Zero Down community in the village of Yigo’, almost every house was completely flattened. The Commission on Decolonization was also one of few government agencies providing direct aid to impacted communities. It’s no surprise that the Commission’s Executive Director, Melvin Won Pat Borja, is also an incredible artist. On an unreleased track entitled “Nobody Knows” from his forthcoming album he raps, “Send us off to die it’s for God & Country, Selling genocide yeah they trying to Fuck me, Brown people, my people go and check Gil Baza, parts of my island still look like Gaza, They can bomb bombs but they can’t buy healthcare, everyone’s mom still on welfare, can’t make it here so we making it elsewhere”. His analysis of the colonial situation and its connection to Gaza couldn’t be more pertinent. The militarization of the Indo-Pacific is directly connected to the U.S. funding of the genocide of Palestinians, Papuans, Congo & others and the militarization of the police and Black neighborhoods. Just as the U.S. Military is moving to assert its own power, artists of our region have a long history of using our creative powers to work towards genuine peace and security. 

Pasifika music is liberation music. Our homelands are more than a fantasy paradise for the tourist imagination. Our homelands are paradise because they are the lands that the Creator has given us, and the lands our ancestors have been buried in for thousands of years. Yet, the teachings of our sacred paradise teach us that all lands on this earth are paradise. All land, all water, and all life is sacred. All of our homes are endangered by militarism and climate crisis, and every bomb and every bullet, every attack on Indigenous sovereignty, threatens the continuity of our ancestral worldview. Our ancestral worldviews, that so many of us are desperately protecting with every breath, every strum, every drum, every hum, hold the key to global transformation. The great late Banaban-Black poet and prophet, Teresia Teaiwa, called for us to island the world, to remind the world of the love of land, water, and people required to live on an island. She writes, "for what is Earth but an island in our solar system, an island of precious ecosystems and finite resources". Our islands are calling out for us to demilitarize, to liberate, to unify the world. As we uplift Pasifika music this month, in the midst of student movements shutting down universities and demanding a divestment from genocide: let’s dance and sing along to the Pasifika soundtrack of unity, world peace, and true collective liberation. 


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