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Identity and Popular Music in Aotearoa

Jesse Brand


This essay is examining identity in New Zealand and its direct connection to popular music. In the western world individuals, especially the youth, often look to find and define their own identity and place through clothing, recreational activities and music. Globally, we see trends regarding styles of music, but also a definitive culture that directly identify with these trends. These cultural styles usually have an associated birth place like Cleveland for rock and roll, Tennessee for country music, England for punk and heavy metal, and New York for rap music. The following is an synopsis of New Zealand music from the 1950s to present, exploring the sense of identity music held in the country and whether it was an independent culture of its own - or rather, a mixture of external influences - and determining if the source of this identity matters to the individuals who identify with it.

Identity and culture in New Zealand are heavily intertwined with popular music, but this is not confined to original New Zealand music, rather, New Zealand youth draw upon American and British stylistic identities whilst finding their own. This dates back to the end of the Second World Warin 1945, when life’s daily struggles were lifted from victorying western countries like America, England, and New Zealand. There was great economic growth and technological development that allowed for more social time for adults and youth alike. It was noted that, “greater freedoms for adolescents led to the emergence of a new market for music, fashion and entertainment”(The post-war family, 2017, para. 5)meaning that for the first time the youth of these countries began to form their own sense of identity, and by the “1950s a technological revolution meant that the overseas media began to have a real impact” with the arrival of rock and rollfrom America (The post-war family, 2017, para. 5). The decades that followed show a rich relationship in the west between popular music and youth culture alowing them to “construct an identity outside the restraints of class and education, an identity which places them squarely outside of conservative mainstream society”(Shuker, 1994, p. 194)- which seems to frequently be the goal of each generation to outdo the generation before it.

New Zealand as a country was less than a century old and steeped in indigenous culture, so it was fitting that a member of the Maori Britalian in WWII would compose and perform the song “Blue Smoke” (Neil Finn revives WWII song for new video Blue Smoke, 2015), becoming the first song to be recoded and produced solely in New Zealand in the late 1940s. By the 1950s cultural development and social identity were blossoming in New Zealand, with the war becoming history individuals were finding new ways to define who they were. Maori culture continued to play an important role, as groups like the “Howard Morrison Quartet, embraced by New Zealand.[…] were able to bring Maori culture to the white, Pakeha majority”(Bourke, 2010, p. 729). However, it was Johnny Cooper, nicknamed the Maori Cowboy, who gave American rock and roll a New Zealand edge when in “1956 he wrote and recorded Pie Cart Rock and Rollat a time when the country was in the midst of a rock and roll frenzy” (Popular music in New Zealand from 1900 to today, n.d., para. 10). These maori artists were not performing their traditional music, rather, assimulating to American pop music of the day. However, they offered a taste of their own cultural background to mainstream popular music, thereby, creating an element of cultural identity in contrast to the american music that otherwise dominated the country (Tempest, 2013).

If the 1950s saw the beginning of a shift in New Zealand youth culture, the 1960s were revolutionary; the baby boomer generation were now becoming teenagers and this large influx in youth throughout the western world. This movement brought more international music to the country, visible now on television with “shows like C’mon, which relied on local musicians to cover international hits”(Barnes, 2013, p. 328). New Zealand was not excluded from the the musical British invasion, as pop sensations like the Rolling Stones, The Who and the Beatles toured the country (Schmidt, n.d., para. 1-2). In effect, the New Zealand music scene slipped into a catagory of “exist[ing] within a nation that may have distinct sources or influences from outside a nation’s political borders” (Johnson, 2010, p. 1). New zealand returned fire as artist John Rowles recorded If I Only Had Time which “went to number three in the British charts” (Popular music in New Zealand from 1900 to today, n.d., para. 21). Reffered to as “The Maori Austin Powers” (Sweetman, n.d., para. 3) by Simon Sweetman, John Rowles’ sound was not distinctly New Zealand, as the country seems homonognised with the westen identity rather then one of its own.

The 1970s started out with great success for New Zealand band Fourmyulawho’s experimental song Nature “in the first few weeks of January 1970 [, …] had reached number 1 on the national charts”(Fourmyula, n.d., para. 15). This was a great success for New Zealand music culture for a kiwi band to hold the number one spot against powerful international acts. At the same time artists were battling for air play, independent radio stations were also battling for their right to airtime, and in March 1970 the Broadcasting Authority permitted a licence to Radio Hauraki to broadcast over the Auckland area (Cammick, 2014)- until this time they had been forced to broadcast illegally from a boat in international waters since 1966. “Radio Hauraki not only provided new music, styles and energy to radio broadcasting in New Zealand, but also forced the government to rethink their approach to youth audiences”(Mollgaard, 2012, p. 62). Through these examples we see how both music, as well as the medium providing the music, played an important role in enabling youth to form an identity through popular music in the 1970s.

Maori culture saw a positive boost in popular culture with the group Patea Māori Club releasing Poi E in 1984, “spending four weeks at number 1”as noted in the appropriately named article Poi E,The Song That Motivated A Generation and Brought Pride to a Town(2016, para. 16). At the same time further south, the 1980s saw an interesting shift as music from the city of Dunedin started to gain recognition, known internationally as the Dunedin Sound. Independent label, Flying Nun Records would become a driving force behind this movement and as owner Roger Shepard describes, “There was no one direct cause for what happened in music in New Zealand in the 1980s. But it cannot be denied that an extraordinary amount of wonderful music was created in that decade. Most of it was from the South Island, Dunedin” (Shepherd, 2016, p. 1).

The punk sound that was inspired by Chris Knock’s band, The Enemygave birth to sub-culture of bands in Dunedin that developed momentum, in turn attracting national and international attention; creating identity within a group of New Zealanders. However, this sub-culture was not representative of the country as a whole and so, “46 per cent of Top 100 LPs in 1985 originat[ed] in the United States, and a further 43 per cent from the UK”(Shuker, 1994, p. 49), leaving less then 11 per cent for domestic bands. Neil Finn claims, “New Zealand radio is responsible for killing New Zealand music”(Bourke, 1997, p. 119), however, an alternative perspective is provided by Roy Shuker, stating “New Zealand can best be regarded as an example of a country with a small market for recorded music… and with a relatively unimportant role for local sounds within the international music market”(Shuker, 1994, p. 78). This implies that during this era of Kiwi music during the 1980s, identity was strong within certain groups, yet the subculture was under-recognised both nationally and internationally.

While Flying Nun Records was now establishing itself overseas, Hip-Hop music had exploded out of America; and although New Zealanders did not develop the new sound they were identifying with both the style and culture, while the content was made their own. The Dunedin Sound was identifying predominately with European descendants, however, Hip Hop was giving a voice to the Maori community. It was stated that “most Polynesian rap music in Aotearoa-New Zealand has appropriated a variety of African American musical paradigms and blended them in distinctive and idiosyncratic ways with traditional indigenous musical forms of waiata (song), and idioms such as the haka (war dance), patere, and karanga (call to ancestors)”(Mitchell, 2001 p. 30). In this way, Maori youth had found a way to keep their unique culture alive in contemporary western society.

These culturally rich Hip-Hop tracks remained as a sub-culture of their own until 3 The Hard Ways track Hip Hop Holidayreached number one on the national charts in 1994. However, the lyrics are less relevant to Maori culture than tracks by Maori rappers such as the “Upper Hut Posse, Dam Native, Moana and the Moa Hunters, DLT, OMC, and Che Fu [who] have […] successfully managed to combine rap with vernacular expressions of Maori militancy that sometimes incorporate the use of the Maori language”(Mitchell, 2001, p. 30). Of these artists, Che Fumanaged to secure two number one hits, Chainsin 1996 and Without a Doubtin 1998. These artists demonstrated their ability to accept a movement from overseas and use it to form their own sense of identity.

Another sub-culture had been steering in Aotearoa over the 80s and 90s, and reggae music was becoming an important part of identity for many Kiwis. In 1999 “Fat Freddy’s Drop’s second album went straight to the top of the album charts when it was released in their native New Zealand”(Admin, 2009, para 1). When in 2006 The Black Seedsreleased “Into The Dojo (2006), which spent five weeks at No 1 and sold more than 30,000 copies”(Gilchrist, 2008, para. 19), it was apparent that Kiwi Reggae was unique and New Zealanders across the country were identifying with it. Like with Hip-Hop, New Zealand Reggae “retain[ed] stylistic features of the genre, […] they have localised it via the use local language as well as elements drawn from their musical heritages”(Cattermole, 2005, p. 57). Like Hip-Hop, Reggae gave voice to the Kiwi indigenous culture, however, another culture was exemplified by teenager Ella Marija Lani Yelich-O’Connor who gave voice to a largely Caucasian urban youth in an unpredicted way. Under the stage name Lorde, she sold over one million copies of her debut album Pure Heroinsince its release in 2013 and “in August 2013 Lorde became the first female solo artist in 17 years to top the U.S. Billboard alternative chart” (Ray, n.d.)and as the 2010s came to an end, Lorde remained one of the most successful New Zealand artists to date. Lorde’s music brings hope to a sub-culture as she “Write[s] from the vantage of kids joined by their experience—“We’ll never be royals”—Lorde traces a path of transforming identity and burgeoning ambition. It’s the voice of youth, but also of striking sophistication” (Heller, 2014, para. 1).

We have looked at the past 70 years of New Zealnd pop music culture and its relationship to identity. Noticing that the country is yet to produce a genre that is distinctly their own, rather, drawing from the popular culture of other western countries, prodominately America and the UK. Dispite this imitation from overseas, Kiwis have managed to shape these forgien styles into something that they can call their own and identify with - from rock and roll, punk, reggae and contemperary electronic pop.

Through these and other styles not only western decendents, but also Maori people, have been given an opportunity to speak of their history and culture, helping this minority hold an identity while also assimulating into moden culture. Aside from its indiginous roots, New Zealand, although removed geographically is a part of western socity and so it is logical there are strong ties to global trends in culture. In this way, we see that New Zealnders have managed to hold an identiy based on music that connects them both with their homeland and ancesters of Aetearoa, as well as connected to their broader family that inhabit western colinised countries around the globe.

Works Cited

Admin. (2009). Fat Freddy's Drop - Dr Boondigga & The Big BW. Retrieved from

Bourke, C. (1997). Something so strong.Melbourne, Australia: Macmillan Publishing.

Cammick, M. (2014). Radio Hauraki: The Pirate Days – The Good Guys. Retrieved from

Fourmyula. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Gilchrist, S. (2008). Black seeds continue to grow. Retrieved from Otago Daily Times:

Heller, N. (2014). Lorde: The Music Phenomenon of the Year. Retrieved from Vogue:

Johnson, H. (2010). Many Voices.Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Jennifer Cattermole, 2005, ‘Oh reggae but different’ the localisation of roots reggae in Aotearor, Glenda Keam, Yony Mitchell, Home, Land and Sea: situating music in Aotearoa New Zealand, 47-59, Melbourne, Australia, Pearson.

Mitchell, T. (2001).Global Noise: Rap and Hip Hop Outside the USA.Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press.

Mollgaard, M. (2012). Radio and Society: New Thinking for an Old Medium.Newcastle upon Tyne, England: Cambridge Scholars Publishing .

Neil Finn revives WWII song for new video Blue Smoke. (2015). Retrieved from

Poi E, the song that motivated a generation and brought pride to a town. (2016). Retrieved from

Ray, M. (n.d.). Lorde. Retrieved from Encyclopedia Britannica:

Shuker, R. (1994). Understanding Popular Music.Oxford, England: Routledge.

Sweetman, S. (n.d.).If I Only Had Time: The John Rowles Autobiography. Retrieved from

Tempest. (2013). Number ones in the fifties. Retrieved from

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