When Stan Walker, a New Zealand-based singer of Māori descent, first saw a rough cut of Ava DuVernay’s searing “Origin,” he’d never even heard the word caste before. But he was floored by the film, which is less an adaptation of Isabel Wilkerson’s 2020 bestseller “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents” than a movie about the writing of a book that finds links between worldwide systems of inequality.
“I didn’t know what the word meant, but it resonated with me in a big way,” said the singer, who has had hits in Australia and New Zealand since he won the seventh season of “Australian Idol” in 2009.
“I was thinking about my grandparents and my great-grandparents and even my parents — people who survived these caste systems. I think everything that I’m doing is in defiance of that, because I was told from a very young age: My language is gonna get me nowhere. Even my parents used to preach this to us: We’re not gonna send you to the Māori school. You need to learn English because Māori’s gonna get you nowhere.
“They were just doing the best that they knew to do because they were brought up by parents who were beaten at school for speaking our language. My grandparents survived it, my parents survived it and my generation has defied it. We’ve gone against everything we’ve been told by our parents, but also we are the dream come true for my grandparents and great grandparents.
“Their greatest dream was to see their grandchildren and great-grandchildren being who we are today — being outrageous, being bold, believing that we can become anything and do anything.”
When DuVernay reached out to Walker, he’d already been thinking about incorporating more of this into his music. Working on a tight two-week deadline, he and his collaborators brainstormed with DuVernay and came up with “I Am,” a statement of identity that is partly sung in the Māori language. “A big part of who I am is that I represent my people, Māori Polynesian people,” he said. “For a Māori person, our history has been taught orally. We’ve been taught to recite who we come from, what meeting house we come from, what tribe, what sub-tribe, what waters.”
After one screening of the film, Walker said, he was particularly struck by a comment from a viewer. “He said, ‘You know where you come from. You know your people, you know your tribes, you know your name.’ I didn’t think anything of it at the time, but I walked away and I couldn’t stop thinking about it: You know your name. There are people whose names were taken away from them through different situations in the film: the Holocaust, slavery…
“People’s names, their stories were deleted from history. How privileged am I to know my name, to know the origins of my name, to know the origins of my people, the origins of my land. To know what canoe we sailed on when we were migrating through Polynesia, and to know the names of the chiefs of the canoes and where they came from.
“The song is a reclamation of identity. It’s being reborn in the fullness of who we are. Even though I’m 33 years old, I feel like I’ve been born again in a whole new way.”
He paused and shook his head. “I get very emotional thinking about this sort of thing.”
This story about Stan Walker and “Origin” first appeared in the Race Begins issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.
Read more from the Race Begins issue here.