Singer YAHYAH discusses her mum's death and cultural disconnection while living in the US
Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air.
Holly Cameron has embarked on a journey of learning, healing and reconnection through reclaiming her mother’s native language.
The 34-year-old singer, better known as ‘YAHYAH’, recalls fond memories of whānau holidays in Te Puru, where the reo was spoken freely.
“We were immersed in the language when we were there, but my mum didn’t speak it,” Cameron (Ngati Raukawa), who grew up in Te Awamutu but relocated to the UK when she was 16 and later to the US, told the Herald.
The pop artist describes the cultural disconnection she felt during her time overseas.
“If you’re not surrounded by your Māori culture - and especially because we didn’t speak te reo as a family - you definitely feel a disconnect,” she says.
“But now, coming home and reconnecting with it has made me realize the gap that was there.”
Despite the distance that separated her from home, Cameron’s cultural values remained strong.
“[I felt] a real true sense of who we are and the warm Kiwi way, which I think people have always been quite drawn to.”
Cameron has collabed with artist MOHI to produce an upbeat, summer love song called I Like You. The bilingual track will feature on this year’s Waiata Anthems album.
Waiata Anthems albums feature some of Aotearoa’s biggest songs, recreated and translated into te reo Māori.
Stan Walker, Tiki Taane, Bic Runga and Sir Dave Dobbyn have all worked alongside renowned reo experts like Sir Tīmoti Kāretu to embody this vision.
“Our goal was to make a mainstream song, but have te reo be mainstream in it,” Cameron says.
She hopes to hear the language ‘normalised’ on a variety of stations and platforms.
“Te reo Māori should be out there as much as it can.”
This year’s Waiata Anthems release includes 27 tracks and eight short documentaries profiling artists and their songs.
Cameron opens up about her reo journey in her documentary, saying: “When I sing in te reo, it opens up a part of my soul that hasn’t been touched before. Why would I not want to pursue that?”
The journey of reconnection was amplified when Cameron lost her mother to cancer.
“Singing and learning the language connects me to my mum,” she says.
“Something that I learned from my mum was to always be yourself, to be proud of who you are, but to really treat people with kindness.”
Cameron says a recent highlight was performing in Kirikiriroa. This was filmed as part of the Waiata Anthems documentary series.
“It meant so much because that was the last place that [her whānau] lived before we moved overseas.
“I felt Mum shining down from heaven. She was like, completely there with me.”
Despite her struggles to learn the reo, Cameron embraces what she describes as an ‘exciting journey’.
“Coming back, reclaiming the language, starting fresh and just being proud of the fact that I want to put the work in to do that.”
Cameron recently completed a reo Māori course, and hopes to enrol in more programmes in the future.
“I just want to really push myself and learn as much as I can, not just for the language, but to incorporate it into my waiata.”
All waiata and documentaries can be streamed online at:
Hero image: Holly Cameron talks about her mum and cultural disconnection.