Callum Rei McDougall didn’t grow up fluent in te reo Māori. His whānau is predominantly Pākehā. But as a kid Callum followed his mother around to her te reo lessons and noho marae and grounded himself in his Māoritanga. Years later, like many others in contemporary Aotearoa, Callum’s te reo journey began in our education system. First at Wellington College, and then during a te reo major at Victoria University of Wellington. Callum's relationship with his language is something he is always developing. “My thing about te reo Māori is that we’ve got to open it up and not be so precious about it so that it can develop. Let the young people make up their own words to use in this modern-day context.”
You might know him better as Rei, the Kiwi artist working in the hip hop/trap/pop genres. He’s produced songs for Maimoa at Kog Studios, and just opened for Sons of Zion at a few of their shows. Rei works in both English and Māori when creating his music. But earlier this year he released a te reo EP, ‘Rangatira’, which has enjoyed airplay all over the country. It might be the first EP of its kind in te reo Māori, delving deep into the hip hop and trap genres.
His passion shows in his work ethic. Rei added a marketing major to his degree, and it was after that that he started CHIEF Sound. The label is entirely driven by Rei himself, and under a co-release deal with Kog Studios, Rei has been developing his sound. “I like a good pop song. I definitely look up to big-budget pop productions; I like breaking them down and just seeing how they work. Figuring out how I can make a song that [sounds like it] has a $100,000 budget. But only work with a fraction of that budget.”
He joins artists like Alien Weaponry and Soccer Practice in a movement of musicians pushing the boundaries of how te reo Māori music should sound. This boundary-pushing is not new. Even contemporary greats like Whirimako Black were once criticised for taking Māori music off the marae. Rei wants to take it even further.
Initially his mother was apprehensive when he wanted to make hip hop music. Like many of her generation, she saw hip hop as a negative space. But, as Rei says, they didn’t know that hip hop is about giving voice to minorities and being a voice for change. Today young Māori are working to heal from generations of colonial trauma. Authenticity is a huge point of insecurity for us. What does it mean to be a Māori artist? What does Māori music sound like? These are questions that Rei has confronted in his work. “You find in a lot of Māori music that it’s always about these certain kinds of kaupapa. Holding on to our culture and the language and stuff like that. I think that’s awesome. It’s an important part of Māori music but I just wanted to try and push the boundaries some more… Really I just wanted to make an EP that I’d like to listen to in te reo.”
He says that artists with longevity in their careers are people who are able to move in all these different lanes. The ‘Rangatira’ EP was his chance to open a new lane of possibility. It was also a space to have fun. “That’s why in my EP you do hear me using a lot of pidgin Māori. It’s kinda tongue-in-cheek and it’s how young people speak a lot of the time. I think we do need to be less precious about our reo to keep moving forward, but it’s all about context as well. I feel like I [speak more] in te reo ōpaki (the informal language). There’s more room for making things up and doing more pidgin Māori. Where, if you’re speaking on the marae, you can speak more traditionally and stick more to the format.”
Rei is settled. There is no existential crisis about whether te reo belongs in a trap song. The language is our treasure, and we have a right to use it as we wish. But Rei also spoke about how you can feel whakamā, or embarassed, when you aren’t a confident speaker. Most people who speak te reo didn’t learn it as a first language; it can be a point of cultural insecurity because the words don’t just roll off your tongue. “I was pretty whakamā about the whole thing really, about putting this out. There were probably a few hapa, a few mistakes, in my reo in the songs and everything like that. It was sort of mental thing for me to overcome that. Coming from a university te reo background you worry quite a lot about the grammar and te tika o te reo. If you come from kura kaupapa school you don't worry so much about that, you just worry about letting it flow.”
Rei says that the music he’s creating is still controversial to some people. Not only to those who don’t support our language, but also to Māori traditionalists. Rei uses te reo to create a space for him to express himself. When your language has been taken away from you, the process of repatriating that language in your world can be hard but incredibly healing. But it has also invited others to question the authenticity of his high-production-value sound.
I asked him what effect that had on him as a Māori music maker. If his music sounds polished, he says, that’s because he is trying to make something of that international high-production quality, something that blends the aesthetics of Drake, J Cole, and Kendrick Lamar into Te Ao Māori. It’s a far cry from a lot of the Māori music before, and destroys the assumptions that Māori music should fall into the singer/songwriter or reggae genres. So many young Māori today look up to the likes of Drake and J Cole, so there is a real consumer desire for those aesthetics to represent the life of a young Māori person. And despite the critics, he says the Māori music community has a lot of support for one another.
In the Māori world, ‘rangatira’ represents someone who is highly respected within an iwi or hapū. I asked Rei why he chose this name. “It’s called Rangatira because my label is called CHIEF Sound. This kaupapa I go back to in my music a lot. The idea of rangatiratanga and encouraging other people to be chiefs of their own environments and take control of their own futures… It’s more about leading yourself. I’m not trying to be a chief of anyone but myself.”