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Molokai-Made Hip Hop Album Wins Na Hoku Hanohano

By Catherine Cluett Pactol | Editor

Photo courtesy of Na Hoku Hanohano Awards.

Back in 2020, Molokai resident, educator and artist Maile Naehu got a message from a friend about a curriculum that teaches American history through hip hop. It struck a chord to do something similar, but with Hawaiian history. She “sat” with the idea for a while, as the pandemic brought lockdowns. 

Then one morning, inspiration hit. 

“As soon as I woke up, all the ideas came for this project and what it might look like and I remember I told Hano [her husband], ‘The ideas are coming!’” she said. “Because a lot of times when we have creative projects, it’s like a lightning bolt hits me and I have to sit down and start typing and writing all these ideas out. So he was like, ‘OK. What do you need?’ And I was like, ‘I’m going to be busy writing all day,’ and he’s like, ‘OK, I got you.’ So I remember he made sure that I had a good breakfast, I had a good lunch, and I was on the deck all day, just typing away. And I was like, ‘I gotta type this up before the ideas fleet’… And by the end of the day, I had a proposal and a narrative of what this project would look like.”

That project, which would turn into a 13-track album called Ho’okupu – a collaborative effort with other artists across the state – just won Hip Hop Album of the Year at last Saturday’s Na Hoku Hanohano awards. 

The album tells the story of Hawaii’s history through the medium of hip hop, starting with the Kumulipo, the beginning of creation, all the way till today. 

Maile and Hanohano Naehu recruited close friends who are among the state’s best hip hop emcees and others to join them in the effort. 

“We had academic professors, music producers, hip hop emcees, chanters, historians — everything that we needed to make sure that this was done well, but it wasn’t just an album,” said Maile. “We really wanted to create an experience for everyone that was involved as well, because that type of mana would be put into the project. And so we would meet on Zooms every month for a year. Just dreaming big and talking about what it might look like and going through a timeline of history.”

Then, last year, the group met at the Naehu’s off-grid east end home to work on the album’s creation during two, five-day sessions. During that time, they not only made music but worked in the fishpond, ate off the land and visited local schools. 

They worked on the Naehu’s deck and made notes and brainstormed ideas on a huge roll of paper spread out on the table that got covered in coffee spills.

“Everything was recorded in our really modest, humble studio,” said Maile. “We wrote all day beats were playing all day on the deck and people just kind of wrote in their own grooves and worked together as they wanted to. And we just had a blast.”

Hanohano described how amazing that process was, but also how intimidating it was, not only to work with friends who they described as “supremely talented” but to create an accurate historical timeline through music. 

“Whenever you come together and create, it’s a very intimidating process because you are not sure if what you are doing is sufficient, good enough, especially when your peers are supremely talented,” said Hanohano. “And so that process at first is intimidating, and then it got very special, very amazing, real fast.”

The album is named Ho’okupu, which means gift or offering. 

“Everyone was so afraid that they weren’t bringing enough, even myself,” continued Maile. “And so we had to remind ourselves that what we’re giving is so amazing and it’s just a true gift or an offering for all of Hawaii to use forever, something that was taught from a different perspective than what we’re used to in the textbooks because of hip hop. I think music in general can really relay powerful messages that otherwise can’t be related in other mediums, even through a simple conversation with somebody. People can get all riled up and like it turns into a debate. But if you’re listening to Bob Marley, you can’t deny the way it makes you feel, and the connection that you feel to people, to place, through those types of music or art forms. So that’s what we wanted to do.”

Known by stage names Queen Maile and the Paniolo Prince, the Naehus have created albums in the past. But this time, they not only wanted to create music but also develop a curriculum around it. An accompanying textbook serves as a classroom tool that’s already being used at schools including the University of Hawaii College of Education. 

“This album for me, just being able to finish it and put it out there, to be available to any of our children, any of our people, anybody around the planet, at any time from here till forever — to me, we won already. I don’t care about what kind sales the album does. I don’t care about if we win a Na Hoku or not,” said Hanohano prior to the awards. “The fact that it’s being taught in our schools, the kids are going to be able to go learn about who they are, where we come from, how amazing it was, how sad, how tragic, how glory. All of that – we won.”

They said they’ve heard from many families whose keiki love it and are learning history through the album. 

“They’re rapping along with it. They’re memorizing all the lyrics. It’s just amazing,” said Maile. “We grew up memorizing the lyrics to Dre and Snoop. It’s like, whoa, now we have hip hop music that’s our story.”

The couple also wants to dispel negative connotations around hip hop, pointing to the genre’s history as a catalyst for change. Heavily inspired by the forefathers of the hip hop genre as well as Hawaii’s own Sudden Rush, Hanohano said the album brings hope for the future. 

“When you talk about hip hop, you can also look at them as prayers being sent out. And so all of our songs are treated as speaking the truth, telling history, and sending pules – prayers — up for better days to fix the sores, the injustices, the wrongs, for find pono, better days for our environment, for our kids, for education. But it’s all about love, and I think that’s one of the greatest gifts we put into it.”

Hanohano is born and raised on Molokai, comes from a family of paniolo and has worked in aloha ‘aina his whole life. He also grew up dancing hula and got into storytelling and poetry. 

Maile is a cultural practitioner, hula dancer and artist. She’s an educator and Hawaiian language teacher who has developed Hawaiian language curriculum that’s widely used. Maile said she’s always loved hip hop but never thought she’d be a hip hop artist until she met her husband and together, they started making music together. 

They also run Hui O Kuapa, a nonprofit to restore fishponds and create educational experiences of aloha ‘aina – and the umbrella organization under which the album was created. 

Music has been a huge part of their family life and they describe the album as a family affair, with their son as one of the album’s producers and their daughter creating the cover art. 

After being nominated for Na Hoku Hanohano Hip Hop Album of the Year, they were named a finalist in the category. With the awards approaching on July 1, they got a call from award producers asking if they’d perform live at the show. Maile said they were in disbelief. 

“We’re doing it [creating the album] because we want people to just start thinking a little differently and start having these conversations. So we’re winning when that happens, but for people to validate it and say, ‘Hey, we hear you and we love what you’re doing’ was like a whole ‘nother level,” said Maile. 

They not only performed live at the show, but were named Hip Hop Album of the Year winners. 

“I feel real hopeful that we’ve presented an option for our kids and the future, for actually go to, and all artists to look at and start to fill in the pukas of our Hawaiian timeline,” said Hanohano. “This is not the end. This is just the beginning.”


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