Moana Maniapoto is an artist and activist in action

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12 June 2022

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Moana Maniapoto, who has been an important voice on Aotearoa’s music scene for decades, has also made headlines internationally for her current affairs television series, following an approach from Prince Harry.

It was a hectic day for musician, activist and TV host Moana Maniapoto when Woman magazine visited to interview and photograph her. She’d just finished filming an episode of her award- winning current affairs series, Te Ao with Moana, for Māori Television, as well as viewing her newest music video. Also, that morning she learnt she and her show were finalists in six Voyager Media Award categories, including best current affairs programme, with three nominations for Moana in different reporting categories.

This good news came two weeks after Moana made international headlines when the representatives of Prince Harry, the Duke of Sussex, contacted her show to say the prince had chosen her to launch a campaign from his new non-profit, eco-travel movement called Travalyst.

“It sounded dodgy and we initially thought it was a joke,” Moana says. “But, no, we checked it out and it was legitimate. And because Travalyst was inspired by Māori values such as kaitiakitanga (guardianship), Prince Harry wanted the worldwide launch of its first campaign to happen out of Aotearoa and on our programme.”

Moana planned to fly to Los Angeles for an exclusive interview with Prince Harry, but it didn’t happen because of his busy schedule. She hopes the interview will be rescheduled. Instead, Prince Harry sent a personalised message for Moana and a promotional skit that featured him with Kiwi actors Rena Owen, David Fane and Rhys Darby. Moana was shocked by the huge international attention she and her show received when the world exclusive aired.

“It all went nuts. I could not believe how many people analysed, dissected and commercialised aspects of whatever a royal says and does. A couple of magazines in the US looked at the background of Prince Harry’s video message and constructed whole articles around Californian décor. In my world, I seem to be forever exploring issues around justice and co-governance, and I was surprised that some people’s whole life revolves around watching a royal. It was a strange situation.”

Moana gives the impression she’s had enough of talking about Prince Harry and wants to move on to other things she’s more passionate about – such as the success of her current affairs show.

Te Ao with Moana, now in its fourth series, is produced by her 31-year-old son and award-winning journalist Hikurangi Jackson. His father is Moana’s ex-husband, Labour MP Willie Jackson. When she heard about the programme’s Voyager Media Awards nominations, she was prouder of her son’s achievement than her own. They will find out who the winners are at a black-tie event in Auckland on August 20.

“My son’s my boss, and we’ve become a lot closer since we’ve been working together. It’s a true collaboration. It took us a while to get used to working together, because it’s a different dynamic. But he’s choice to work with, because we share the same values and interests.”

Born in Invercargill and raised in Rotorua, Moana started out as a musician and released singles as both a solo artist and with her group, Moana and the Moahunters. Their hit, a cover of the song Black Pearl, topped the New Zealand music charts. In 2016, Moana was the first Māori woman to be inducted into the New Zealand Music Hall of Fame. She dabbled in TV in 1993 after being offered the role of Dr Te Aniwa Ryan, the love interest of Temuera Morrison’s famous character, Dr Hone Ropata, on Shortland Street.

“It was daunting. As a singer, I came from performing on a big stage, when you’re in front of a huge audience and you have to reach out to the person right at the back. Television is not like that. Tem used to say to me, ‘Stop using your face so much. Just use your eyes’.”

After a year, Moana’s character was written out.

“By the time I got the hang of acting, Tem’s character went off to have an affair with another woman, and so they got rid of me as well. I asked, ‘Why is my character being killed off?’, and they said, ‘That’s TV, darling’.”

Moana, whose iwi are Ngāti Tūwharetoa and Te Arawa, has had further TV roles, but in different capacities. She hosted Yahoo!, a Saturday morning kids’ show on TV3 with Phil Keoghan. She has also made award-winning documentaries with her partner, Toby Mills, the most recent on visionary Dr Moana Jackson, a lawyer who specialised in constitutional law, the Treaty of Waitangi, and international indigenous issues, and who died earlier this year.

In 2019, Māori Television approached her with the offer of her own current affairs programme.

“At first, I wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about it, not because I wasn’t grateful. I wasn’t in a hurry to go back to TV, because I was touring and I was busy with my music.”

Māori Television was prepared to give Moana as much support as she needed. After a pilot season, her son came on board as producer in 2020. Broadcasting veterans Colin McRae and Cameron Bennett are also story producers for her small team of reporters. She’s glad she accepted the challenge of the weekly 30-minute show, which looks at national and international events from a Māori perspective.

“As a musician, I haven’t earned a weekly wage since 2004, so that was appealing. It’s hugely intense, but I love our team and enjoy working on the show.”

Moana graduated from law school and funded her studies at the University of Auckland by singing on the nightclub circuit. But she never practised law.

“When I finished law school, I was working on a research project looking at the impact of colonisation on te ao Māori, from spirituality, justice and land, and at the time, that put me off being a part of the legal system. I didn’t see law as necessarily having a lot to do with justice.”

These days, Moana expresses her passion and activism for indigenous issues through her documentaries, her current affairs show and her music. She will soon release her fifth song from her sixth album of collaborations with indigenous vocalists from Taiwan, Canada, Australia, Scotland, and Scandinavia. The women come from places where their indigenous language is endangered and they sing duets with Moana in their native tongues.

With so many career highlights and different roles, Moana has often wondered which word best describes what she does. But when she visited the indigenous Scandinavian Sami tribes, she discovered the perfect description.

“I picked up the term ‘artivist’. That’s artist and activist mixed together. That’s a clever term. I might pop that on my travel documents.”

This is Public Interest Journalism funded by NZ On Air.

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