A few years ago I was reasoning with members of Ras Messengers, a reggae-jazz band who had in 1979 toured Aotearoa New Zealand. The Rastafari musicians recollected their experiences with various Māori communities. Occasionally female Māori elders (kuia), in introducing themselves to the band, would connect their genealogies back to Africa. The kuia did this as part of an indigenous practice called whakapapa, which literally means to “make ground”. It is a practice that allows diverse peoples who might never have met to find a genealogical route through which they are already personally related.
Rastafari also have a practice called “grounding”, which is to collectively reason on the meaning and challenges of contemporary life. Over– or inner- standing (instead of under- standing) is cultivated through the guidance of natural laws and – often with the help of drums, fire and holy herb – the intuition provided by spiritual agencies (Irits) that allows ones to pierce the veil of deathly inequality, oppression and dehumanization so as to redeem living energies and relationships that might help with healing in the present. When I think of Irits I also think of a key concept of Māori cosmology called hau. Overstood by Māori Marsden, hau is the breath or wind of spirit which is infused into the process of birth to animate life and associated with the intention to bind peoples together in righteous living.
A key stone of the Rastafari faith is that adherents collectively redeem their African genealogy so as to breathe life back into their suffering condition and leave behind the death of enslavement and its contemporary legacies. So when I heard of this story of the kuia and Ras Messengers, I imagined how this practice might have given strength to the Ras. After all, in those days (and perhaps still today), peoples of various African heritages were often forced (directly or indirectly) to disavow those connections themselves.
Whakapapa is an art practised collectively. Yet it is not free play, nor is it the manufacturing of fiction. It is a creative retrieval. It could even be a redemptive act.
This was certainly the intention of those who organized the tour of Ras Messengers alongisde the Black British theatre group, Keskidee (the name of a Guianese bird known for its resilience). The organizers were a group of New Zealand activists that came together under the banner Keskidee Aroha (Aroha being the Māori word for love, sympathy, nurturing affection etc). Their intention was to learn from and work with the artistic tropes of Black Power and Rastafari so as to catalyse a cultural revolution and renaissance amongst young Māori and Pasifika peoples thereby strengthening them in their confrontation with a racist post-settler society.