• Kathryn Cammell

New Zealand Music Month: Protest Anthems in the 1980s

Today marks the beginning of New Zealand Music Month, a celebration launched in 1997 with the purpose of improving the visibility and success of local music [1]. It is also an excellent opportunity to reflect on the history of popular recorded New Zealand music. The 1980s were a particularly interesting decade for local music, with bands like Split Enz and Dance Exponents (also known as The Exponents) reaching commercial success. The 1980s also saw the release of many songs that are now considered to be the ‘best New Zealand songs ever’, including Crowded House’s ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’ (1987), Split Enz’s 'Six months in a leaky boat' (1982), and Dave Dobbyn with the Herbs’ ‘Slice of heaven' (1986) [2].

Popular music in the 1980s flourished against a backdrop of conflict, anxiety and change in New Zealand. The sinking of the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior in the Auckland Harbour by French saboteurs in 1985 further fuelled a widespread nuclear-free New Zealand movement [3]. Tensions rose in the mid-1980s as there was a nuclear ships stand-off between New Zealand and the United States of America, although New Zealand eventually passed the New Zealand Nuclear Free Zone, Disarmament, and Arms Control Act into law in 1987 [4]. The 1980s were also a period of economic uncertainty, with New Zealanders experiencing rising unemployment levels and economic recessions [5]. At the same time, there was massive social and cultural upheaval and unrest. Protests against Government breaches of Te Tiriti o Waitangi/The Treaty of Waitangi rose, culminating in what has been described as ‘the pinnacle of Waitangi Day activism’: the 1984 Waitangi Day hīkoi (march) from Ngāruawāhia to Waitangi [6]. The 1981 Springbok Tour in New Zealand caused significant social unrest, with over 1,500 people charged with protest-related offences while the Springbok team were touring New Zealand [7]. Anti-racism organisations worked to challenge institutional racism and address the consequences of colonisation, including the loss of Māori land and language [8].

In the 1980s, local bands wrote music that reflected this massive social, political, and economic anxiety and upheaval. Blam Blam Blam’s 1981 song ‘There is no depression in New Zealand’ captured the sense of unease which characterised the early 1980s, particularly in the lead up to the Springbok Tour.

‘Everybody’s talking about World War Three,

But we’re as safe as safe can be,

there’s no unrest in this country

We have no dole queues, we have no drug addicts, we have no racism,

we have no sexism, sexism, no, no’

(Blam Blam Blam, ‘There is no depression in New Zealand’)

Through their satirical lyrics, Blam Blam Blam criticised politicians such as the then Prime Minister Robert Muldoon, who refused to stop the Springbok rugby tour and encouraged the United States nuclear-capable warships to visit New Zealand [9]. They brought to public attention the issues of unemployment, racism, sexism that were prominent in New Zealand. ‘There is no depression in New Zealand’ became popular with protest movements who adopted it as an ‘unofficial national anthem’, but it also achieved commercial success [10]. The song went gold a month after it was released.

In 1982, the reggae band Herbs released their song ‘French Letter’. The song protested French nuclear testing in the South Pacific, and like ‘There is no depression in New Zealand’ it became a popular hit and an anthem for the nuclear-free protest movement [11].

Do you know what makes the ocean glow

When unwelcome guests, are making nuclear tests…

Is there nothing at all who can appease your greed

Could you please leave the air we breath

Why is it something we’ve done

You all seem to forget

About nuclear fallout and the long term effects…

Let me be more specific, get out of the Pacific!’

(The Herbs, ‘French Letter’)

‘French Letter’ was in the New Zealand singles charts for eleven weeks, peaking at number 15 despite very little broadcasting on the radio [12]. When it was played on the radio, it was released under the alternative title ‘Letter to the French’ because the original title was considered to be too risqué for the radio [13]. The song was eventually re-released in 1995 when France resumed nuclear testing at Mururoa Atoll.

The end of the decade saw the release of New Zealand’s first rap record, a politically-charged song by the group Upper Hutt Posse. Their 1988 song ‘E Tū’ was a Māoritanga interpretation of rebel music, and it combined elements of hip hop and pātere (chant) to create a powerful struggle song [14].

Karanga, rangatahi, whakarongo, whakarongo

We're nga tamatoa, so we must light te ahi

Don't get led astray by Babylon, kia mau ki to Maori…

There's a lot of people who think they're tough today

But chiefs like Te Rauparaha woulda blown dem away…

E tū, stand proud

Kia kaha, say it loud

(Upper Hutt Posse, ‘E Tū’)

Upper Hutt Posse was inspired by African American leaders and musicians in the United States, including Malcolm X and James Brown’s 1968 hit song ‘Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud’. Of Brown’s song, songwriter Dean Hapeta said ‘man, that’s the same sentiment, the same message that Māori people need is like, say it loud – we’re Māori and we’re proud’ [15]. ‘E Tū’ focuses on Māori leaders like Te Rauparaha, Hōne Heke and Te Kooti, who Hapeta calls ‘our Malcolm X heroes...those who fought against the white man’ [16]. Its lyrics detail parts of the history of the New Zealand Wars and are a call to arms for Māori to be proud of their culture and heritage and continue struggling for their rights under Te Tiriti o Waitangi.

These protest anthems of the 1980s reflect a longer tradition of New Zealand artists using the mediums of music, art and literature to critique and protest political issues and engage New Zealanders in these issues [17]. From Māori waiata (songs) to cartoons, music to paintings, New Zealand artists have historically played a pivotal role in social activism and criticism.

--- Kathryn Cammell is the co-founder of Tahuhu Kōrero and a Master of Arts student in History at the University of Auckland, studying New Zealand history. All posts by contributing authors reflect their own thoughts, opinions and experiences, and do not necessarily represent the perspectives of the University of Auckland History Society.


[1] New Zealand History, ‘New Zealand Music Month - Introduction’, retrieved from https://nzhistory.govt.nz/culture/music-month

[2] New Zealand History, ‘New Zealand Music Month - Best New Zealand songs ever?’, retrieved from https://nzhistory.govt.nz/culture/music-month/natures-best

[3] Te Ara - The Encyclopedia of New Zealand, ‘Shipwrecks - The Rainbow Warrior and Mikhail Lermontov’, retrieved from https://teara.govt.nz/en/shipwrecks/page-6

[4] New Zealand History, ‘New Zealand goes nuclear-free’, retrieved from https://nzhistory.govt.nz/new-zealand-becomes-nuclear-free

[5] Te Ara - The Encyclopedia of New Zealand, ‘Economic History’, retrieved from https://teara.govt.nz/en/economic-history

[6] Te Ara - The Encyclopedia of New Zealand, ‘Ngā rōpū tautohetohe – Māori protest movements’, retrieved from https://teara.govt.nz/en/nga-ropu-tautohetohe-maori-protest-movements/page-2

[7] Te Ara - The Encyclopedia of New Zealand, ‘Organising against racism, 1970s to early 21st century’, retrieved from https://teara.govt.nz/en/anti-racism-and-treaty-of-waitangi-activism/page-4

[8] Te Ara - The Encyclopedia of New Zealand, ‘Organising against racism, 1970s to early 21st century’.

[9] Te Ara - The Encyclopedia of New Zealand, ‘Muldoon, Robert David - Prime Minister’, retrieved from https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/6m1/muldoon-robert-david/page-6

[10] New Zealand History, ‘No depression in New Zealand’, retrieved from https://nzhistory.govt.nz/media/photo/no-depression-in-new-zealand

[11] Te Ara - The Encyclopedia of New Zealand, ‘Arts and Social Engagement - ‘French Letter’’, retrieved from https://teara.govt.nz/en/interactive/45291/french-letter

[12] New Zealand on Screen, ‘French Letter’, retrieved from https://www.nzonscreen.com/title/french-letter-1995

[13] New Zealand History, ‘'French letter' by Herbs’, retrieved from https://nzhistory.govt.nz/media/video/french-letter

[14] Radio New Zealand, ‘E Tū: Thirty years on’, retrieved from https://www.radionz.co.nz/national/programmes/nat-music/audio/2018643937/e-tu-thirty-years-on

[15] Radio New Zealand, ‘E Tū: Thirty years on’.

[16] Radio New Zealand, ‘E Tū: Thirty years on’.

[17] Te Ara - The Encyclopedia of New Zealand, ‘Arts and social engagement’, retrieved from https://teara.govt.nz/en/arts-and-social-engagement

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