Activism beyond politics
By Beverly Creamer
Advertiser Staff Writer
It was mid-morning on a Saturday in that hot dry Moloka'i heat and more than 600 people had thronged the parking lot to hear Bruddah Iz. They sprawled on the grass and crowded a stage built specially for the big man who had come with great difficulty to Moloka'i to bless the island's small general hospital.
Working with Dr. Emmett Aluli, the musician had already been trying to help doctors understand how to approach people in culturally sensitive ways, especially in talking about making changes in their diet. And his own struggles were a more powerful message than any words.
"A spiritual activist that was him," says Aluli. "He knew the history so well the cultural trauma we as Hawaiians are faced with in our history and our health. Morbid obesity is part of the problem and he knew it and he suffered through it and we incorporated a lot of his ideas. Every time we hear his songs we're going to cry and try and do things better."
Gently, quietly as he did on Moloka'i and on countless other occasions Israel Kamakawiwo'ole expressed Hawaiian activism in his own way. But even now, a decade after his death from the effects of morbid obesity, there's little agreement on what exactly that means.
Some call him an accidental activist who touched the fringes of radical Hawaiian politics through helping out friends. Others say his music forged clear lines that spoke to his own political concerns. Still others see him as a social and spiritual force lamenting the loss of Hawai'i's country lifestyle and the breakdown of the culture.
In many ways Iz was politically naive, more comfortable lending a hand to a cause than pushing for it outright.
"He wasn't pushing anything," says Robert Ferrigno, the attorney and friend who helped orchestrate the emergence of his solo career. "If he was an activist it was almost by accident."
A close friend, artist Betty Stickney, remembers how Kamakawiwo'ole had been "horrified" at the reaction of some of her friends after he dedicated a concert to Bumpy Kanahele, an advocate for an independent Hawaiian nation.
"They said they'll never come to any more concerts he sponsors because of his feeling about haoles," said Stickney.
The incident bothered him so much he recorded a response at a live concert in Las Vegas, telling Stickney, "I fixed it," as he described what he felt it meant to have a "Hawaiian heart" and how it defied racial barriers.
"He was terribly conscious of people's feelings," says Stickney. "In that tape he goes through a very careful description of what Hawaiian means to him getting to the top of your game without stepping on anyone else's toes."
While Kamakawiwo'ole stood with those he cared about and for things that mattered to him he waved no flags, marched no streets, called no one a land thief. Instead, he picked songs that resonated in a way that offered his people pride in themselves and their past, and hope for their future.
"When we were raising money for the Angel Network for homeless families, he came to the Hawai'i Theatre in a wheelchair, on a portable ventilator within two months of his own death," says Jon Osorio, chairman of the Kamakakuokalani Center for Hawaiian Studies at the University of Hawai'i-Manoa and a longtime Hawaiian music performer.
"Onstage he was an absolutely commanding figure. You could not ignore him," says Osorio. "I don't know what else you call an activist if it isn't someone who can get your attention away from your everyday life and make you think of deeper things, political, cultural, social things that are bigger than you. There were more people listening to Iz, to that one man, on any given day, than listened to any of us."
Activism and music
In the early days of the Hawaiian renaissance and protest movement, Kamakawiwo'ole was on the bill at some of the free concerts designed to raise awareness about the Navy bombing of Kaho'olawe, one of the biggest issues of the day.
"To educate people about what was going on, concerts were a big deal, so entertainers played a huge role," says Walter Ritte, who organized many of those protests.
"If it wasn't for the entertainers bringing thousands of people into one place so we could talk to them, it would have been hard to educate," says Ritte. "No one would come just to listen to someone speak. That wasn't the draw. The entertainers were the draw. And at the same time more and more people started asking for Hawaiian music."
The activism and the music grew up together, says Ritte. And Kamakawiwo'ole's voice, backed by the plunk of his ukulele, and words laden with a bittersweet longing, gave power to the movement.
As a solo performer, Kamakawiwo'ole put protest songs on his albums calling on his Hawaiian people to stand for justice, mourning a land in danger from freeways and development, singing about how it would have broken the hearts of the old-time monarchs if they were to return. They are songs like "E Ala E" and "Hawai'i 78," the latter with chants ringing in the background from Onipa'a, the 100th-year commemoration of the overthrow of the monarchy.
His cousin Ilei Beniamina was often the one he turned to for help when he was trying to put the music in his heart into Hawaiian words. Though he spent several early childhood years and the summers of his boyhood from about age 10 to 14 on the family's home island of forbidden Ni'ihau, hauled off to the rocky island by his grandfather to drum some of the rascal kid out of him, he didn't have complete fluency in the language, says Beniamina. So it was her expertise that guided him to the Hawaiian words he needed.
She remembers how it would burn her up sometimes the call in the middle of the night. Darn it, his cousin thought. That boy should be asleep. But when he called she'd answer. And help.
"Cuz, I just thought of something," he'd start, and Beniamina listened because she was the one expected by the family to help the younger ones. The oldest daughter of the oldest brother. It was her cultural role.
On this particular morning in 1995 it was 1 a.m. when her cousin called from a bed at Queen's Medical Center where doctors were trying to stabilize his failing health. Kamakawiwo'ole needed her help to understand a translation in Hawaiian for the words "e ala e' or ‘wake up wake up everybody,' she says.
"He was telling the Hawaiians 'Wake up, we're sleeping and as we're sleeping, our land is slowly being eroded to foreigners,' " says Beniamina.
Though the song was written by another songwriter, it was Kamakawiwo'ole who defined its message as a signature song.
'Kolohe Boy' matures
Kamakawiwo'ole's sense of his own message and his own power to tell it evolved as his career developed. In the early years he took a back seat to his older brother, Skippy, who had a stronger activist core and included songs of protest on the albums recorded by their original band, The Makaha Sons of Ni'ihau.
In those days, Kamakawiwo'ole was the kolohe the rascal of the group, remembers his cousin Mel Amina, who played with him over the years, including on backup guitar during his solo career.
"He was fast with his mouth," says Amina. "Skippy was more the spiritual one, but when Iz left (Makaha Sons) I saw a growth of the kolohe boy to the spiritual side finally coming out.
"Israel had his own movement," continues Amina, "helping those in jail and those who were heading in that direction. ... He said he made mistakes, too."
To the University of Hawai'i's Osorio, this was where Kamakawiwo'ole came into his own as an activist, speaking most eloquently for those who could not speak for themselves.
"He takes me out to Wai'anae (with his music)," says Osorio."... I think of people who are broken. People who've been run over. People who've been ground up. That's the part of our people he represented best. People who've been so terribly stifled by America and American culture and still have the grace to be able to sing and think for themselves and to feel and be loving.
"You're talking about people who are poor, unhealthy, who struggle and are in pain. And even if we do meet these things with great dignity and grace, it is still a wretched comment on this society that we are in this state. I think he said those things in his music."
De Mello, who produced five of Israel's solo albums, reinforces that view of Kamakawiwo'ole as a social and cultural activist, who began steering away from things more overtly political to speak increasingly about issues closer to his heart the culture, the family, the children. Especially the children. He called on parents to watch out for their kids, to know where they were, and for the kids to listen to their folks.
On the night of the 1996 Hoku awards, Kamakawiwo'ole sat next to the microphone onstage, pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and waved it at the crowd.
"See this … This is not for gangs and drugs," he told the kids. "This is for hanabuttah."
Laughter roared through the audience. But de Mello remembers how he clutched backstage, wondering how far Kamakawiwo'ole would cast his line this time and what strong and troubling message might be dangling from the hook.
"He'd cast way out," says de Mello, "and slowly reel you back in and the message was always positive."
A recovering drug user himself, Kamakawiwo‘ole saw families in shambles and watched drugs and poverty destroying the fabric of his culture.
"I think that he actually had a vision," says David Tasaka, who worked with Kamakawiwo'ole for 2 1/2 years and helped him lose 200 pounds between 1992 and 1995. "One of his dreams was to have a CD of positive affirmative music for the children of Hawai'i. We were talking about it. We were going to call it 'Hope for our Children.' He was a real believer in the power of music to change people's minds about what they think."
Going to schools
In the last few years of his life he had even begun going to schools to talk to kids about avoiding drugs, remembers his widow, Marlene Kamakawiwo'ole.
"He had been talking to gang kids and sharing," she says. "... (He told them) to love your 'ohana, but you've got to love yourself before you can love others.
Because of his history with the drugs, he was trying to educate others. He wanted to let people know they have a choice in everything and to try and make the best choice you can."
Ultimately, maybe it was those who needed him most who defined his activism.
The boy in Kaimuki fighting a weight problem as serious as Kamakawiwo'ole's own, and whom Kamakawiwo'ole kept in contact with through e-mail; strangers from around the world also struggling with weight who, through e-mail, turned to Kamakawiwo'ole as confidante and adviser; family members and acquaintances who sought his help either for financial problems or for his simple but perceptive wisdom.
"We did a lot of praying before we went on stage," remembers Amina. "... Hold hands ... say a prayer ... Mine would be to ask for the strength to have the music and have Israel touch everyone in front of us. Israel would mostly pray for who was around us at that point and how we could be a help for everybody beyond that circle."
"He was after the betterment of mankind," says de Mello. "His neighbor. His local Hawaiian. He had friends in jail, living on the street, and a large Hawaiian family that was struggling. He wanted them to be better. He would have loved to finance the whole bunch."
Reach Beverly Creamer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 525-8013.