Rob Ruha: The man who helped Tairāwhiti take over TikTok

Māori entertainer Rob Ruha doesn’t want to be called a pop star. His biography describes him as an artivist, a hybrid artist and activist. Music is the platform for ruha gifts these days; it’s much more than entertainment.

“I might be a ‘monstar,’ but when I think of pop stars, I think of beautiful people like my brothers Stan Walker and Troy Kingi,” laughs Ruha.

“I grew up with Troy and did kapa haka together on the east coast. Maisey Rika, Ria Hall, they’re pop stars, just like a bunch of kapa haka people. But I’m just making myself and I love writing songs.”

Ruha has just named some of the biggest stars of the Māori music scene, artists he is sometimes related to and has worked with most of the time in Aotearoa and around the world. The Aperahama twins were also influential when Ruha was a teenager.

Rob Ruha, the man behind the hit, 35, describes himself as an artivist, hybrid artist and activist.

Erica Sinclair Photography/Supplied

Rob Ruha, the man behind the hit, 35, describes himself as an artivist, hybrid artist and activist.

However, Ruha understates its presence in popular culture. Then 35, a song he wrote and performed with Rangatahi choir Ka Hao, has blown up with more than 12 million views on Tiktok and a #1 spot on the Top 40 New Zealand Songs Chart. And if you’re listening to commercial radio, it’s almost impossible to miss the song celebrating life on State Highway 35, which meanders along the North Island’s stunning east coast from Opotiki to Gisborne.

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The song was particularly popular with African American communities and Indigenous nations around the world. New videos are still being made by kids, politicians, TV stars and TikTok influencers like Dogg Face (Fleetwood Mac’s skateboarding sensation) – who have millions of followers.

“For the kids [a song going global] A normal thing that happens on Tiktok, it was more exciting for the adults! The Rangatahi pride themselves that people would love a song about where they come from.”

“These things shaped me”

Three years ago, Ruha helped found Ka Hao as part of a series of strategies to address coastal social issues and articulate the region’s cultural values. A sell-out tour of Tairāwhiti quickly followed and the young people set about recording an album One tira, one vote.

“My focus has always been Rangatahi,” says Ruha of the song, which was written in under an hour. “Protest, faith, history, spirituality – children need these things to be leaders of the future.”

Ruha is closely associated with Tairāwhiti, both parents are from there and he spent his childhood between Hicks Bay and Waihau Bay. And music – and art – has been in him for a long time.

“My childhood was kapa haka, kapa haka, marae, kapa haka,” he laughs. “We still do kapa haka together; it’s a Whānau thing.

“I’m a boy from the 80’s, when I was a kid the Kōhanga Reo movement was just starting and gathering momentum. Our pākeke (elders) began to share the knowledge they had hidden for so long. Te reo Māori was a very natural part of my upbringing.

“And my whānau is also creative in a broader sense. Both my grandmothers were weavers. Aunts and uncles were carvers and moko experts. Art, creativity, Māoritanga, spirituality – these things have shaped me and it has trickled down to my Tamariki.”

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“Art, creativity, Māoritanga, spirituality – these things have shaped me and it has trickled down to my Tamariki.”

Music is universal

Moving to Porirua in the early 1990s for high school would prove confusing.

Māori have been migrating from their tribal homes to urban centers for more than 50 years in the 1990s. Tribal networks such as Ngāti Porou ki Pōneke emerged to strengthen iwi connections and to assist Whānau into city life.

“I wasn’t used to being away from Whānau. Go to Mana College [in Porirua for Year 11] where I could count my relationships on one hand was culture shock. I was in different iwi territory and it was actually something I was struggling with. The whānau I had in Porirua drew me into groups like Ngāti Porou ki Pōneke.”

“[Mana College] This is where I got the music bug. Manny Abraham was our music teacher. He is the older brother of Ruia and Rānea Aperahama and we studied their music during music classes.”

Ruha's 35 has had more than 12 million views on Tiktok and a #1 spot on the New Zealand Top 40 Songs Chart.

Erica Sinclair Photography/Supplied

Ruha’s 35 has had more than 12 million views on Tiktok and a #1 spot on the New Zealand Top 40 Songs Chart.

If you’re unfamiliar with the Māori music scene, it’s thriving. Made with Māori audiences and iwi radio in mind, performers routinely alternate between English and Te Reo Māori. They are also accustomed to playing at festivals around the world and over the years influences on Māori music have diversified and now range from rhythm and blues to afro beats.

Some of the tracks on Ruha’s latest album preservation of the landscape have a relaxed, jazzy house vibe. Nowadays Māori music can be heard on George FM and in the Koru Lounge. Groups such as LAB and Shapeshifter routinely record songs in Te Reo.

“I make my music mainly for my people,” says Ruha thoughtfully. “But actually it’s for everyone, it’s for everyone, it’s universal. [The track] 35 is an example of this. Through social media, people are hearing the songs and resistance to Māori music is disappearing.”

Ruha articulates an evolution for Māori music, and there is always a tension and hesitation as Māori arts shift into the broader cultural space. The excitement of reaching new audiences is tempered by a latent fear of what might be lost in the process.

SIMON O’CONNOR/Fairfax NZ/Stuff

“Through social media, people are hearing the songs and resistance to Māori music is disappearing.”

“I didn’t feel like I belonged”

Ruha would move from Porirua to Gisborne to complete his final two years of high school. Here he met his wife – Cilla Beach from Ruatorea. They had five children. In doing so, Ruha’s had a number of reinventions. After graduating from school, the Ruhas worked in Hawaii, performing at local resorts and managing the kapa haka aspects of luao performances.

“Hawaii is a very special place. As a native Te Reo speaker, it was easy to make the switch and communicate with the locals. It was almost dialectal, similar to speaking to someone from another iwi.

“We have a whakapapa that connects us to the Hawaiian Islands. I felt a very real, very ancient connection with people that was deep within my puku.”

Upon returning to New Zealand, Ruha was a guest lecturer in dance at the University of Auckland, directed the marae at Unitec and coordinated a Bachelor of Performing Arts program at Te Whare ō Awanuiārangi. He was also director of the National Institute of Māori and Pacific Performing Arts.

“Now it all feels like old life.

“I didn’t have any musical ambitions because I felt like I didn’t belong. I didn’t see other artists wearing moko or speaking Te Reo as a natural part of their response to the world. Writing music has always been part of my jam and I loved doing it for Kapa Haka.”

Erica Sinclair Photography/Supplied

“I didn’t have any musical ambitions because I felt like I didn’t belong. I didn’t see other artists wearing moko or speaking Te Reo as a natural part of their response to the world,” says Ruha.

On a trip to Hawaii with Ria Hall and Maisey Rika, Ruha was asked to perform alone.

“Maisey said it’s time for you to hang up your piupiu, you’re going to do that mahi now. So with their support we started building a music career – 2014 was my first new release.

“I was happy making music, trying new things and experimenting. I took this template from Kapa Haka and experimented with it in this new world. I was ready to go in and explore. I didn’t have any big plans, I was just happy to be writing – and doing something new.”

‘Sing from your heart, your soul, your puku’

Ruha has come a long way since starting his solo career. Ruha’s music reached number one on the Te Reo Radioscope charts, iTunes and has ranked top 10 on the Official NZ Music Charts, NZ Heatseeker Singles and NZ Albums. Ruha also received a Laureate Award from the New Zealand Arts Foundation in November 2017.

“I’m drawn to Rn’B and Soul. I love the purity and the depth of spirituality that you can feel in reggae. Many of Bob Marley’s compositions were quite prophetic, in this respect they are comparable to the compositions of Tuini Ngāwai.”

Ngāwai, a respected Tokomaru Bay songwriter, wrote about racism, oppression and Te Tiriti. These issues are close to Ruha’s heart.

Maisey Rika, Rob Ruha, John Legend, Cilla Ruha and Seth Haapu backstage after opening for John Legend's All of Me Tour in 2014 at Spark Arena.

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Maisey Rika, Rob Ruha, John Legend, Cilla Ruha and Seth Haapu backstage after opening for John Legend’s All of Me Tour in 2014 at Spark Arena.

“There’s a soulfulness about (Performers of Color). They sing with heart, passion and conviction.

“When you sing mōteatea, haka, when you sing protest songs, you are singing from a place very separate from your intellect. When you sing from your heart, your soul, your puku – these places are warm. Everything has Mauri (spark of life), and when you perform, it comes from this pure source.

“I want to engage with that spiritual resonance and create what I’m supposed to create, what my ancestors want me to create, and make something new out of it.”

Preserving the landscape: the new album

Rob Ruha definitely has some pipes and croons throughout the twelve tracks like a modern day Maxwell. Thematically, the album could only come from Aotearoa.

There are elements of protest and there is the sadness of the Māori experience – a sorrow for the loss of land, language and culture. Also a tribute to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. The song Taka Rawa brings with it the challenge of embracing Māori knowledge and bringing it to global leadership.

The album is beautifully produced and also contains some romance and seduction.

“Ko te oranga o te Māori, ko tōna Māoritanga. Ko te whakatinanatanga mai ko tōna reo, ko tōna whakapono, ko wōna maunga, ko wōna awa, ko wōna moana, ko wōna whenua. Ko au e tū atu nei, ko te ariari a rātau mā, te whakapuru mauri o wēnā taonga katoa.

“Māoritanga is life, you can feel it in our mountains, you can feel it in our rivers, in our songs, in our art – and in our oceans and in our land. I am just a vessel for all that beautiful essence and quintessence, a reflection of those who have gone before me.”

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