Theia on Te Kaahu, the 'fierce wairua' Māori waiata inspires and her message to anyone threatened by the use of Te Reo

Theia does not mince her words - not lyrically, not in Te Reo nor English, and certainly not when it comes to the reclamation and resurgence of Aotearoa's indigenous language. 

Real name Em-Haley Walker and now embodying a new te reo Māori project as TE KAAHU, Theia launched her career in 2015 as an alt-pop singer.

She went on to open for acts like Charli XCX and Sia off the back of her first self-titled EP featuring the single 'Roam' and has since dropped another EP, Not Your Princess, along with a mixtape entitled 99% Angel.

Her new offering, TE KAAHU, exists in a new space entirely of its own, carved out by Theia - who was songwriting in Te Reo well before she was pumping out pop tracks - to pay homage to her whakapapa and utilise the "craft of Māori storytelling" through metaphor and stripped-back production elements. 

Just as the respective sounds of Theia and TE KAAHU occupy two different zones, the artist behind them says she has at times hovered between two worlds, unsure of her place.

From the outside, she couldn't appear more sure-footed, waxing lyrical on the 'fierce wairua' Māori waiata inspires, creating and sharing work entrenched the essence of her heritage, and even teaching Te Reo to self-fund her musical endeavours. 

Ahead of a special livestream TikTok performance of some of her mahi from TE KAAHU, Theia spoke to Newshub about Te Wiki o te Reo Māori, her new music, how she navigates her connection to te ao Māori and her hopes for how others will do the same. 

Newshub: How do you feel about Te Wiki o te Reo Māori on a personal level? 

Theia: I'd love for Aotearoa to get to a place where we don't need one week in the year in which we shine a spotlight on how beautiful and integral to our culture and society our indigenous language is. Our language is connected to te ao Māori. You cannot have one without the other. So my hope is that it'll just be an everyday part of life. But until that time - until every Māori is able to speak our language without restraint, then I think it's incumbent on us that we do celebrate Te Reo Rangatira (our chiefly language) as a nation. It keeps the heat on.

What does it mean to you to see te ao Māori utilised and celebrated in mainstream music and entertainment? 

I think it should be used and celebrated in all facets of life. But equally, it needs to be used correctly and with respect. It does pain me to hear people on radio or on TV pronouncing something 'half correctly' or not at all. I know that sounds harsh. But it's that same old argument – we know how to pronounce camembert but not Taupō. How does one go about being a part of it? Pay attention, educate yourself and make an effort to get those kupu (words) right.

Tell us about your Te Reo Māori project TE KAAHU - what's it all about? How is it different from the work you've previously put out as Theia? 

TE KAAHU is inspired by my tūpuna wāhine (female ancestors) and honours the craft of Māori storytelling and songwriting of old. The songwriting composition is heavily metaphorical. For example, my latest single 'Rangirara', which takes its name from my late grandmother, uses lots of kupu whakarite (metaphors) referencing the sky, thunder and its manifestations.

Sonically, TE KAAHU is very stripped back and while it's not bound by genre, it does hark back to sounds of yesteryear. Theia is very much in-your-face. The production is pretty intense and the lyrics are hard-hitting. Both projects represent me, they're just different.

I wrote waiata in Te Reo Māori before I launched my music career as Theia and for a while, my reo took a back seat because there was just so much going on. But then I slowly started dipping my waewae (foot) back in, and in 2019 I released a hymn in te reo Māori for Christmas called 'Te Kaiwhakaora O Te Ao'. It was sort of a watershed moment for me as I came to the realisation that I could do both. So in lockdown in 2020, when I had more time on my hands, I started writing waiata again. When it came to releasing them, I decided to give the projects their own platform. And so TE KAAHU was born. For me, it was important to give my music in te reo Māori its own space to breathe, while the Theia material also has its own space too.

As well as creating a purely Te Reo project in TE KAAHU, you've woven haka and Māori lyrics into Theia songs like 'CREEP'. Can you talk about that process and the significance of bringing Te Reo into your alt-pop songs? 

Yes, good question! I hadn't actually intended on doing that, but there are two songs, 'CREEP' with Vayne and 'Pohewatia' with Kings, which are bilingual. Both of those songs came about through the APRA Māori Songhubs last year, when we were paired with different artists.

Sonically, neither track fits with TE KAAHU, but both songs have such powerful messages so they fit perfectly with the more political stuff I've been releasing as Theia. One of the incredible things about using reo Māori in a big song like 'CREEP', for instance, is the palpable reaction you get from a crowd when you perform it live. The wairua (atmosphere/mood) was fierce - from Māori and Pākehā alike.

What is your hope for rangatahi Māori (Māori youth) who are struggling with their identity and feeling 'unseen'? Are those feelings familiar to you, and how do they influence your music? 

This is something very close to my heart and yes, I, like many Māori, know what it is to live between two worlds and not know quite where you fit. I say this to those I teach reo Māori and tikanga (customs and traditions) to: 'Kei roto i a koe, kei roto i tōu whakapapa Māori - ko te reo rangatira o ngōu tūpuna. Within you, within your essence as a Māori descendant, is your language. The chiefly language of your ancestors.' 

If you whakapapa Māori – Te Reo Rangatira is your birthright. It can be very painful to see others around you flourishing while you are struggling, or Pākehā being pushed to the forefront of a movement, of which Māori should first and foremost be central to. 

My advice to anyone who is feeling unseen is that no matter what stage you are at in your journey of reclamation, there are many others with you. Kia mate ururoa (fight until the end like a shark).

You've said that you had to hustle from the start of your musical career to record songs, perform shows, even do your own hair. Tell us a bit more about that journey, and how it feels to get recognition in the industry, particularly for your Māori waiata. 

I'm still hustling, haha. It never stops. I pretty much do everything on my own, with the support of my management team. So far, two of the three TE KAAHU waiata have been self-funded and I've got a savings account, banking up pūtea (finances) for the upcoming album. I work my ass off teaching te reo Māori and tikanga to cover the costs of recording and making visuals.

But it's all worth it, because I have been so overwhelmed by the response to TE KAAHU. When I saw that Apple Music had selected TE KAAHU as the feature artist for their current 'Up Next' campaign, I think I may have cried. To have waiata which are so personal and dear to my heart be recognised in this way is really special and humbling. Also, I was so excited to be asked by TikTok to do a live performance and to be included in the Māori Hub alongside some truly incredible Māori creators and personalities.

What does it mean to you to see global social media platforms like TikTok undertaking initiatives like the Māori Hub and shining a spotlight on Māori creators? 

I am so excited about the TikTok performance. I've always loved watching others on TikTok but have been a bit shy to share myself, so this has definitely pulled me out of my shell. What I love about TikTok is the massive amount of content on there that's geared towards learning reo Māori and just forms of expressing all walks of Māori life. There's stuff that's so hilarious, stuff that's educational and stuff that is political. It's incredible. So yes, the fact that TikTok spotlights these creators is amazing.

How do you feel about the influx of Māori waiata we've seen recently as part of Waiata Anthems, Te Wiki o te Reo Māori and elsewhere? Spotify has seen a 75 percent increase in streams of Te Reo songs since this time last year. 

Is the industry finally embracing Aotearoa's indigenous language, and how far do we still have to go? 

Wow, I was not aware of that increase. That's really great. In short, I will only feel the industry is embracing te reo Māori in music when we see those kinds of streaming figures without a movement like Waiata Anthems. That's not to say the Waiata Anthems movement isn't a wonderful thing. I'm just saying, it gives the industry something to work towards and think about because Māori artists have been making incredible music since the dawn of time. Our creativity is nothing new. We (Māori composers) have just not had our mahi (work) put to the front and celebrated in the way that it should be.

What is your message for people looking to find ways to learn about and embrace te reo Māori?

Get your knowledge from Māori creators and Māori-run initiatives. Listen to podcasts and music. Read books. Bookmark your favourite Insta accounts. Some of mine are @reomaorimai, @taringapodcast, @reorangatahi, @rangimariepoetry and there are many fab TikTok accounts too, like @maorimermaid, @loudproudwahine, @paniaofthekeef and @cwk2020. 

To Pākehā – be open to feeling uncomfortable and learning how to be an ally and not take over space that should be reserved for the many Māori who are trying to reconnect and reclaim their whakapapa, their language and their Māoritanga. 

There has been a lot of racist backlash over the use of Te Reo in the media - what's your response to people who are threatened or upset by hearing kupu Māori on TV or radio? 

Get over it.

Theia's live performance and Q+A session will take place on Thursday night at 8pm NZ time on her TikTok account.