Language, History

Radical Indigenous Contemporaneity in ʻKe Aloha O Ka Haku’

Dr. Leilehua Lanzilotti

Jan 8, 2024

Liliʻuokalani, born Lydia Liliʻu Loloku Walania Kamakaʻeha (1838–1917), was the last ruler of the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi as well as a talented musician and composer. One of her most beloved songs is “Ke Aloha O Ka Haku” (“The Queen’s Prayer”). Composed in 1895—when she was imprisoned for the better part of a year in ʻIolani Palace—it is a song of both forgiveness and hope. 

Only a year after Liliʻuokalani wrote “Ke Aloha O Ka Haku,” ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi was banned as a language of instruction, a law not fully repealed until 1986. Nonetheless, Liliʻuokalani spent the rest of her life advocating for her people both internationally and at home. Liliʻuokalani’s advocacy for the people of Hawaiʻi is her greatest legacy, and is seen through her voice as a composer.

An old photograph of a Native Hawaiian woman in colonial dress.

Queen Liliʻuokalani, born Lydia Liliʻu Loloku Walania Kamakaʻeha, the last ruler of The Kingdom of Hawaiʻi. Queen Liliʻuokalani, Hawaiʻi State Archives, Photograph Collection, PP-98-11-001.

Historical Context

Mele and chant have always been important in Hawaiian culture. With the arrival of the missionaries in 1820, incorporating and learning new western musical traditions was a natural connection to the rich musical knowledge of Kānaka Maoli. Liliʻu learned to read music and compose as a young girl, and wrote over 150 songs in her lifetime. In 1866, she became the choirmaster and organist of Kawaiahaʻo Church.

When Kalākaua became King in 1871, he gave his sister Liliʻu her royal name, Liliʻuokalani (o ka lani meaning “of the heavens”), as the heir apparent. At the time, the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi had diplomatic treaties and conventions with countries around the world, including Japan, Samoa, Norway, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America. Kalākaua was interested in both celebrating Hawaiian culture and asserting the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi as a modern country.

However, as Hawaiʻi thrived, greed began to take hold of its foreign residents. In 1887 a militia of Americans who called themselves The Honolulu Rifles forced King Kalākaua to sign a new constitution at gunpoint—now referred to as the Bayonet Constitution. This new constitution stripped the monarchy of much of its power and allowed the all-haole Hawaiian League to have more authority and power.

In 1891 Kalākaua died on a trip to San Francisco and Liliʻuokalani was appointed Queen. One of the first things she tried to do was overturn the Bayonet Constitution. Instead, her strength as a leader was met with a coup dʻétat—a sudden, violent, illegal action by force. The Hawaiian Kingdom was overthrown on January 17, 1893 when United States troops invaded to support a new provisional government led by The Committee of Safety, a group made up of mostly American businessmen.

Liliʻuokalani wrote to President Cleveland asking him to intervene. Cleveland told Stanford Dole as an American citizen to stand down and ordered that Liliʻuokalani be restored to the throne. Instead, Dole ignored the order and gave himself more power. In fact, after using US troops to assist in the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi, Dole now argued that the United States had no right to interfere in the foreign affairs of the new provisional government.

Composition as Resistance

Soon after, Liliʻu began to receive regular threats on her life. On Wednesday, April 5, 1893, she wrote in her diary, “. . . report was out that there might be an assault on me. Sent an order to Pacific Music Co. to send down 150 copies of ʻAloha ʻOe’ and 150 of ʻHe Mele Lāhui Hawaiʻi.’”

Although the publication/printing of “Aloha ʻOe” is mentioned in this 1893 entry, it was written much earlier—in 1878. The song has often been misunderstood as the Queen’s farewell to her kingdom, a colonialist revision of the true meaning of the work to romanticize the illegal overthrow and biased attitudes towards the Queen in quaint condescension. A closer look into her diaries shows a fearlessness and resilience that implies otherwise. Instead, in the nature of the above diary entry—and paired with a request for copies of the Hawaiian National Anthem she composed, “He Mele Lāhui Hawaiʻi”—I interpret the publication of “Aloha ʻOe” in this moment as an expression of her attitude towards the The Committee of Safety: “Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.”

In 1895, Liliʻuokalani was arrested, sentenced, and imprisoned to ʻIolani Palace for alleged knowledge of an attempt to take back the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi. During this time, she was denied all visitors except for one companion, and all of her correspondence was monitored. She was not permitted to receive newspapers or send out messages, but she found a way to subvert these restrictions through various creative pursuits: arranging flowers, quilting, and composing.

The songs she composed while imprisoned at ʻIolani Palace, including “Ke Aloha O Ka Haku,” were a form of revolution themselves. Liliʻuokalani showed that ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi was rich in meaning and history, that Kānaka Maoli could govern ourselves with strength, that we were and are indeed educated and capable. Of the various arts, the fact that music was used to make this point is also a reflection of Hawaiian culture and language. Until 1820, ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi was only a spoken language: moʻolelo and skills such as wayfinding were all preserved and taught through oral traditions, often with the use of chant/mele. Liliʻuokalani’s use of song at this point in history was an extension of this Hawaiian tradition.

An open book with script.

Liliʻuokalani's composing book, Courtesy ʻIolani Palace.

Through radical indigenous contemporaneity, Liliʻu was subverting stereotypes and blending musical styles as equal, made powerful together. While the harmonies and counterpoint are clearly drawn from her western training as a musician, the depth of the lyrics is made powerful through the poetry of ‘Ōlelo Hawaiʻi.

In “Ke Aloha O Ka Haku,” the word “haku” has many potential interpretations. Given that diacriticals were not standard use at the time, there are even more possibilities. “Haku” has always been interpreted as “Lord” inferring that the work is a religious song, however a purely religious reading misses the gorgeous nuance of Liliʻu’s lyrics and the importance of kaona (hidden meanings) in her writing.

haku (to compose)
haku (to braid, as a lei)
haku (core, as in pōhaku, stone, or haku ipu, pulp and seeds of melon)
hakū (to rise up, as the moon)
e kuʻu haku (my chief)

With these kaona, “Ke Aloha O Ka Haku” opens up into new layers of meaning:

The love of composing
The love of bringing together [flowers / the children of Hawaiʻi]
The love of the core [“the one refrain of my heart…the people”]
The love of rising up, as the moon [“You are my light / Your glory, my support”]
The love of [the people for] the chief

In every aspect of her life, including her music, Liliʻuokalani found ways of setting up systems of supporting and encouraging Kānaka Maoli. By publishing her songs and stipulating that they were available to anyone for an affordable price, Liliʻuokalani was encoding language and preserving it for generations until the Hawaiian renaissance of the 1970s could spark interest to revive our ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi. With her association to Kawaiahaʻo Church and the style of works sounding like hymns, these songs were able to sneak under the radar of the language ban as religious works, preserving their incredible poetry for us to find again as modern Kānaka Maoli.

Leilehua Lanzilotti (b. 1983) is a Kanaka Maoli composer/sound artist. Lanzilotti’s practice explores radical indigenous contemporaneity, integrating community engagement into the heart of projects. By world-building through multimedia installation works and nontraditional concert experiences/musical interventions, Lanzilotti’s works activate imagination around new paths forward in language sovereignty, water sovereignty, land stewardship, and respect. Uplifting others by crafting projects that support both local communities and economy, the work inspires hope to continue.

Lanzilotti was honored to be a finalist for the 2022 Pulitzer Prize in Music for with eyes the color of time (string orchestra), which the Pulitzer committee called, “a vibrant composition . . . that distinctly combines experimental string textures and episodes of melting lyricism.”

As a 2023 SHIFT – Transformative Change and Indigenous Arts Awardee, Lanzilotti is partnering with Te Ao Mana to provide free hula, language, and cultural workshops, creating space to come together as a community in the week leading up to their new opera project, Liliʻu. These workshops are not just to create space to learn, but more to create space to come together through language and culture, and to celebrate the diaspora. For a complete bio, please visit leilehualanzilotti.com.

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