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‘Racism is rampant’: Alien Weaponry, the metal band standing up for Māori culture


New Zealand was a war zone in the mid-1800s. On one side were the British and the colonial government, craving a stranglehold on more of the country’s land. On the other were the indigenous Māori people, fighting to preserve tino rangatiratanga: their sovereignty and self-determination.

On 29 April 1864, the British invaded Pukehinahina, also known as Gate Pā. Despite being grossly outnumbered, the Māori fended off the attackers using concealed trenches and guerrilla tactics. It was a fleeting victory in a war that, ultimately, led to the confiscation of 3m acres of Māori land.

Niel de Jong used to take his young sons, Henry and Lewis, on road trips past Pukehinahina. Half Dutch and half Māori, he told them how their great-great-great-grandfather fought and died there to protect indigenous freedoms. On other outings he showed them Hatupatu’s Rock – where myth says a young boy was magically shielded from an attacking bird-woman – and Lake Rotoiti, home of their Māori ancestors.

A record producer by trade, Niel also introduced his boys to music. Guitars, pianos and even a harpsichord were strewn around the house, and he exposed them to everything from Bob Marley to Rage Against the Machine.

Today, Henry and Lewis are, respectively, the 21-year-old drummer and 19-year-old singer/guitarist of Alien Weaponry, a groove metal trio completed by bassist Tūranga Morgan-Edmonds (who amicably replaced longtime member Ethan Trembath in 2020). Their tracks are sung in the Māori language, and fold the De Jongs’ musical schooling and heritage into a soundscape that’s folkloric yet vicious. On new album Tangaroa, Īhenga honours the explorer of the same name, who discovered and named Lake Rotoiti, while Ahi Kā recalls Auckland’s council burning a Māori village to the ground to “beautify” the city for Elizabeth II’s visit in 1952. As Lewis says, celebrating and preserving the Māori culture will always be inherent to the band: “Māori aren’t treated the same as others in New Zealand and, until that changes, we’re not finished.”

Once named “the hottest young metal band in the world” by Metal Hammer, Alien Weaponry played their first show when Henry and Lewis were just 13 and 11. “It was in this dive bar on K’ Road – Auckland’s red-light district – between a gay bar and a strip club,” remembers Henry, surprisingly more verbose than his baby brother, who as frontman bellows on stage. “We played to three people, doing the same five songs for about two hours.”

In 2017 – barely in their mid-teens – Alien Weaponry went viral, transcending metal’s underbelly not only by making confident, stomping anthems but also by singing in Māori. Their debut album, Tū, reached No 5 in the New Zealand charts and resonated all over the globe, as proved when they opened the main stage of the UK’s Download festival. Since its 2018 release, single Kai Tangata has accrued almost 12m views on YouTube.

Lewis says that, that same year, a Slovenian festival called MetalDays gave them a sense of how far they’d already come. “A huge crowd showed up and they were all singing the lyrics in Māori. They hardly even knew English, yet they knew the words to our songs. We’ve had people from the other side of the world say they’re learning Māori or going to study it because of us.”

That has always been Alien Weaponry’s foremost goal: keeping the Māori language alive through their music. Henry grows most assertive and passionate when discussing politics – often at the expense of whatever Lewis was saying. “What happens with a lot of New Zealanders is they’ll start learning Māori and then they’ll lose it, because it doesn’t get spoken enough,” the drummer says. “We’re at a point where we either fight for the language to be revived or it’s gonna die.”

A century and a half after white colonialists seized the lion’s share of New Zealand, only 4% of the population speaks Māori. English-speaking schools barely teach the language, or indigenous history, while those that do are threatened by decreased government funding and a lack of fluent teachers. Few know this better than the De Jongs, who studied at kura kaupapa (Māori-language immersion schools) before being forced to leave at nine and six years old.

Alien Weaponry.
Alien Weaponry. Photograph: Piotr Kwasnik

“You need teachers with teaching degrees, but you also need teachers who can speak Māori fluently,” says Henry. “A lot of the time, schools are having to make decisions like, ‘Are we gonna pick this person with a teaching degree who can kinda speak Māori, or this person who can speak beautiful Māori but hasn’t been taught how to teach?’ It was a very common problem when we were in kura kaupapa.”

As has been the case with every colonised country in history, the domination of land and resources has led to the oppression of the indigenous. Lewis says his great-grandparents’ generation was beaten at school just for being Māori and that racist practices persist today, all the way up to the New Zealand parliament. “There are quite a few people in parliament actively trying to push through bills that will take away Māori TV. They see it as special treatment or whatever,” he growls.

Henry adds: “Even in the judicial system here, racism’s rampant. Māori get charged much higher penalties, on average, than other people in New Zealand. There is still racial bias here; people like to act like there isn’t, but there certainly is.

“There’s also this hole that society has put a lot of Māori in,” he continues, “where they’re in a financial position where one of the few things they can turn to is drugs. They have to join gangs just to survive. There are some wealthy Māori but, when you say Māori, a lot of people think: poor.”

As a result, Alien Weaponry have long been writing songs that are enlightening stories of a culture’s customs and persecution. Their breakthrough track, Rū Ana Te Whenua, narrates the Battle of Pukehinahina, as the De Jongs’ dad did to them when they were kids. Whispers witheringly samples former National party leader Don Brash – who argues “most Māori have benefited enormously from colonisation” – and laments the 2004 Foreshore and Seabed Act, which handed ownership of New Zealand’s ocean to the Crown, overturning Māori protests.

Despite Alien Weaponry’s anti-imperialist venom, the De Jongs are optimistic. Henry spies glimmers of hope in the premiership of Jacinda Ardern, who, he says, “has opened up avenues for Māori to speak more freely. She’s solidified more Māori ideologies in government, while other governments have been very businesslike and ‘western’.”

He adds: “There’s always gonna be this push – and I wanna be a part of this push – to not only keep Māori alive but to let the language and culture thrive. That’s the New Zealand I wanna live in.”

Tangaroa is out now on Napalm Records.



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