Agent of change: Teeks – Te Karehana Gardiner-Toi – speaks out on Māori issues and his new album Something To Feel

Shilo Kino (Ngāpuhi, Tainui) talks with artist Teeks (Ngāpuhi, Ngāi Te Rangi, Ngāti Ranginui) about discovering his voice, te reo Māori, activism and staying true.

This year I gave up my full-time job and a reliable source of income to go back to kura and learn te reo Māori. I’m now two months into full immersion at Te Wānanga Takiura o Ngā Kura Kaupapa Māori o Aotearoa , with about 120 other students, who are mostly Māori and on the same journey of reclaiming te reo.

When you’re in full immersion, it’s all you think about. So naturally, this was what came up first when I spoke with Teeks or Te Karehana Gardiner-Toi (Ngāpuhi, Ngāi Te Rangi, Ngāti Ranginui) a Māori boy from the Hokianga who exploded on to the music scene in 2017 with his silky smooth voice and charming looks. His debut album, Something To Feel, is now the No 1 album in the country. But before the music, he was a te reo Māori teacher.

He asks me how I’m finding kura and I tell him the truth. It’s hard. Really hard. What’s your advice? I ask, hoping he will give me some secret formula that will make the reo magically come.

“Leave the shyness at the door with your heart wide open and go in with the intention of observing as much as you can,” he says. “That’s a big part of the learning process.”

Ah, the shyness of speaking te reo. I call it the taniwha of whakamā, because it’s been the biggest challenge for me this year and probably the biggest hurdle for many Māori. How do I do that? I ask Teeks. Getting over the shyness. Letting go of the whakamā I have felt my whole life in speaking te reo on top of learning a language beaten from my tūpuna.

“There is trauma there for those who are on the journey of reclamation,” he agrees. “A big part of it is reconnecting with all of Te ao Māori. Identity and sense of belonging is a big contributor to learning the reo and how you hold yourself and your level of confidence.”

His next advice is not just for me but for all Māori who are learning and reclaiming te reo. “Go and learn who you are and where you come from.”

It’s that kind of confidence and assurance that Teek oozes effortlessly. He knows who he is. He knows where he comes from. And he knows where he is going. He admits he doesn’t know what it’s like to be disconnected to his culture but he has empathy for Māori who have.

His upbringing in the Hokianga, his cultural roots, his whānau, his schooling at kura kaupapa and growing up immersed in te ao Māori has shaped everything. From Teek’s music, to his words, his outlook on life and his ahua. It’s something money can’t buy.

Teeks often sings live in te reo Māori and his song Never Be Apart was translated into E Kore Rawa e Wehe, the te reo Māori version. He is a little bit older and wiser now since his first EP The Grapefruit Skies, was released in 2017. He’s 27 and a lot has changed in four years.

“At a young age you’re not really sure if you’re good at something but now I feel comfortable in my own skin. As an artist, this [Something To Feel] is some of the best work I have done. “

“The biggest thing has been coming into my own and the surety of myself, my individuality and caring less about what people think. A lot of growth and maturity has happened. It’s been liberating.’

Teek’s growth has transitioned into using his voice to speak up and be what he says is a “change agent”. He was one of the first tāne to speak out on sexism in the music industry and he was persistent in encouraging his Instagram followers to get out and vote at the last elections. But it’s his voice on Māori issues that has possibly had the most impact.

“With a platform comes a responsibility to inform people, especially with issues around Māori and Māori rights. Pākehā need to listen to Māori.”

Teeks has a lot to say on Māori issues and we could have spent the whole day talking about it because there are so many. We touch a little on the housing crisis and then there’s the prison population and unemployment. Māori are over-represented in all the wrong statistics.

“Decolonisation is a big issue for Māori but it’s also a big issue for Pākehā and they have to come to realise that,” he says.

“There is intergenerational trauma that has affected whānau Māori for generations. Māori are homeless on our own land.”

There is also racism on many levels. Only the other week, kura kids were racially abused for speaking te reo Māori at a council meeting. A member of the public was heard saying, “why do we need to listen to this monkey language?” and then there are the constant complaints of te reo Māori being spoken on mainstream media news.

But there’s also hope, with the number of teenagers studying te reo Māori at secondary school passing 30,000 for the first time and waiting lists across the country for part-time te reo classes, many who are Pākehā wanting to learn.

And although Teeks says it is awesome there is a huge renaissance of tauiwi learning reo, he also says Pākehā need to be conscious.

“I think if more people learn te reo Māori, only good can come out of that,” he says. “But Pākehā can come into the classroom without any baggage, whereas Māori have trauma and intergenerational trauma.”

All of this is why Teeks’ voice is so important. Behind the striking looks and voice is someone who has a greater purpose. I tell Teeks I don’t think I have ever seen a Māori featured on Vogue before, and probably no other Māori kid who dreams of being a singer has either. This year, Vogue named him one of the music industry’s “most promising talents”. He was signed by Beyonce’s publicist Yvette Noel-Schure. There is something hopeful and beautiful when you see one of your own make it and it reminds me of the saying “you can’t be what you can’t see”.

“It’s crazy you know, it’s not something I ever imagined,” Teeks says.

“As a young Māori boy who grew up in the Far North in a small community, the world seemed so distant. I see it as a chance for other young Māori like myself who might have the same dreams and aspirations but don’t see their own people occupying the different spaces.”

Teeks himself was mentored by Māori artists such as Maisey Rika, Tama Waipara, Rob Ruha, Seth Haapu. It was Tama Waipara who introduced him to New York producer Jeremy Most for The Grapefruit Skies EP in 2016. He wants to pay it forward.

“I think that’s the biggest thing, opening the door of possibility for young Māori. That’s a big passion for mine.”

At school, Teeks describes himself as being “painfully shy”. So shy that no one knew he could sing until he had to waiata in class.

“You know there’s the whakataukī, Kāore te kūmara e kōrero mō tōna ake reka – The kūmara doesn’t speak of its own sweetness. We are so painfully shy and we are so humble to the point it can become self-sabotaging. I think we as Māori need to find the balance to own it and have that reassurance in ourselves and confidence in our own ability.

“Our biggest obstacle is in our own minds and our projection of doubt. Stay true to who you are because there’s no one else in the world like you.”

But back to the music.

Something to Feel reminds me of a whaikōrero, stories about love woven in and out of time. Deep love. Yearning love. Lost love. It feels heartbreaking and nostalgic and sexy all at the same time. I tell him I wish I could find a love like what he’s singing about.
He tells me about his grandmother Janet Toi, one of the most moving love stories of all time.

“My nan Janet Toi (Nee Mall) is Pākehā and when she was young she ran away with a Māori boy, my koroua and got married. She left her parents and siblings and when her mother found out, she wrote her a letter, disowning her from her family.

For me it’s a testament to their relationship and the weight and gravity of their love for each other. I think it set the standard and bar for me for what to look and hope for in a relationship.”

Teeks laid his Nan to rest next to his koroua at the whānau marae earlier this year.
“I can only hope to find something as special as they had.”

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