Musician-actor Troy Kingi’s latest is the third in a 10-year, 10-album, multi-genre project – and it comes as something of a surprise.
When he followed that blues-rock, pass-the-guitar-around-the-party record with the gloriously fun but ridiculously left-field intergalactic 70s funk album Shake That Skinny Ass All the Way to Zygertron, it seemed a series of short musical phases was how his next few years would pan out.
After all, this is a man whom most Kiwis are probably going to recognise from his acting roles in Mt Zion and Hunt for the Wilderpeople, or maybe even for playing his old schoolmate Piri Weepu in the 2014 made-for-TV Stephen Donald Rugby World Cup biopic The Kick. Yes, “phases” seemed to nicely sum up Kingi’s career. But, lately, it’s his music that’s been getting attention, with Zygertron and its single Aztechknowledgey winning him airplay and awards. Last year, he won Tuis for best Māori artist and best soul/R&B artist and also the Waiata Māori Music Award for best Māori pop album.
Album three, then, comes as something of a surprise. It’s a deep, spiritual roots-reggae protest album steeped in peace-loving Nyabinghi Rastafarianism and woven through with indigenous storytelling from around the world, most notably Māori.
Kingi knows it’s a risk to produce something with such a powerful title as Holy Colony Burning Acres and sing tough, politically motivated lyrics, such as Colour of My Skin’s “we are statistics now, just numbers in the native roll”, and theme songs about the murder of Aboriginal Australians and West Papuans’ bid for independence. He certainly understands he might be criticised for making protest one of his phases, especially, as he says, when it might mean people expect something as “deep and meaningful” from his next album, which is “just as likely to be about dancing”.
But he’s also keen to point out that these are honest, spiritually charged songs that he’s researched and feels more emotionally connected to than anything else he’s written.
His latest project materialised three years ago at the annual Wairoa Māori Film Festival after he met film-makers whose backgrounds ranged from North American Inuit to Aboriginal Australian and Polynesian and realised their similar stories could lead to an album that “resonates not just with Māori, but also indigenous people from all over the world”.
The 35-year-old is of Te Arawa, Ngāpuhi and Te Whānau-ā-Apanui descent and lives in the Bay of Islands with his wife, Huia, and five children. He lives his culture daily (he does karakia to Tangaroa before his regular diving expeditions for kai moana, and to Ranginui and Tāwhirimātea before catching flights), so says it was easy to tap into such themes as race, colonialism and introduced religion.
But, interestingly, he mostly doesn’t use anger to get his point across. The songs – backed by stunning 12-piece band The Upperclass and impeccable 70s reggae production that’s reminiscent of The Upsetters and The Abyssinians – such as Ethiopia and First Nation, are more likely to call for unity and stress resilience than cry rebellion.
This is most obvious in the song Truganini, about the terrible life of Australia’s last full-blooded Aboriginal Tasmanian. Midnight Oil’s song of the same title uses anger at Truganini’s fate to talk about burning flags, but Kingi wants the story to point towards some kind of hope.
“The only way to change is to fight hate with love,” he says. “Instead of going into the story and being sad or angry, my Truganini differs from the Midnight Oil song in that I want to show that through all the bad shit that has happened, we can just continue – and I feel that’s quite a universal story for indigenous people. I can’t talk for all Māori, because there are definitely some radicals, but, for me, we want recognition of what’s happened not so we can say, ‘We own this place, get out of here’, but so we can live together in harmony.
“Truganini is all about showing the endurance of people such as Māori and showing that the worst times are gone and we’re in a place where we’re more about finding solutions.”
“I ended up with 100 people wanting to share stories with me, and one of them was someone in Australia who told me about West Papua. It broke my heart to think that there must be millions of stories like that around the world,” he says.
“A lot of stuff happened to my ancestors 200 years ago and I can only read about it, which doesn’t feel real sometimes. But what’s happening in West Papua is happening now – it’s scary.”
Kingi knows that, come next year, his decade-long project will mean he’ll move on to another genre and another album, but he hopes these protest songs will remain relevant.
“For sure, I’m proud of the album. Even though it feels as if I’m doing something and then moving on quickly to the next thing, I’ve put a lot of time and effort into the writing on Holy Colony Burning Acres and I do want them to have longevity.
“I’m not the most politically minded of people, but there are some things that just need to be said. Sometimes, I’m not even sure I’m the person who needs to be saying them, but someone needs to and that’s what I’ve done.”
HOLY COLONY BURNING ACRES, Troy Kingi & The Upperclass (Rhythmethod)
This article was first published in the July 20, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.