Every Sunday night on Hawai‘i Public Radio, Paige Okamura produces and hosts Hawaiʻi Kulāiwi, a music show that explores the culture, language and history of native Hawaiians.
Known to listeners as “DJ Mermaid,” Okamura switches between Hawaiian and English to introduce her musical selections and explain their historical context.
“The goal for this show is really to help the audience just see Hawaii the way that Hawaiians do,” Okamura said. “A lot of our culture and history have been whitewashed and erased, pretty much from the general public’s awareness.” HPR added the show in August as one of several changes that brought more music and entertainment programming to its schedule.
Okamura’s efforts to preserve and spread awareness of the distinct Hawaiian language, music and culture are personal, she said.
Okamura grew up in Māeaea, Waialua, on the north side of the state’s Oahu island, and her family had lost the ability to speak Hawaiian over two generations.
“My grandma was raised to value the English language and a very Western sense of culture and society — because that was what was going to get her somewhere,” she said.
Okamura set out to learn Hawaiian language at the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa, where she’s now pursuing a master’s degree in the language.
During her undergraduate studies, Okamura hosted and produced a music program for the student-run radio station KTUH where she spoke in Hawaiian for the entirety of each broadcast. DJ Mermaid signed on at HPR as host of Bridging the Gap, a late-night music program that she produces one night per week.
Hawai‘i Public Radio Program Manager Nick Yee met Okamura at the university and has worked with her for about 11 years, he said. HPR already aired Kanikapila Sunday, a two-hour show featuring contemporary and traditional Hawaiian music, on Sunday afternoons. Yee wanted to create a space for DJ Mermaid to share her cultural expertise on HPR, he said.
Yee asked Okamura to create a program that is as much of a history lesson as it is a music program, he said.
That is how Hawaiʻi Kulāiwi was born. Every Sunday at 6 p.m., Okamura plays Hawaiian tunes that are packed with history, she said.
Traditional Hawaiian music features chants and drum hulas, with songs from the 1970s incorporating sounds from rock, jazz and R&B, according to Okamura. During the 1990s through the 2010s, musicians introduced synthesized sounds, though some young Hawaiian groups are now incorporating the “traditional” style of the mid-1900s, she said.
The Nov. 28 episode of Hawaiʻi Kulāiwi commemorated Hawaiian Independence Day, marking the date in 1843 when Great Britain and France recognized the now-former Hawaiian Kingdom’s sovereignty. Okamura did not learn about the holiday until she was in college, she said.
She played songs from Hawaiian artists who address Hawaiian history and culture in a variety of musical genres, including both contemporary musicians and their predecessors. The mix included songs from Ikaakamai, a reggae artist; Kahauanu Lake, whose trio performed a swing-jazz style of Hawaiian music; and the late Palani Vaughan, whose music honored the legacy of Hawaii’s monarchy.
In between songs, Okamura described the Hawaiian Kingdom’s fight for independence. When she played Palani Vaughan’s “Voices on the Wind,” she discussed how the song had been censored from radio broadcasts in the 1970s. The lyrics criticize the effects of colonization on Hawaiian culture, according to Okamura.
“When the album was sent out for distribution and for airplay at other radio stations, somehow someone would scratch out that track so it could not be played,” she explained to listeners in English during the broadcast.
That censorship is but one example of how Hawaiian history has been erased from the colonial era to modern times, shd added.
To Okamura, contextualization of music with Hawaiian history and culture is important. “Most people don’t speak Hawaiian,” she said. “A lot of people enjoy Hawaiian music for what it sounds like … but there’s so much history and culture going on in every song that people are just unaware of.”
DJ Mermaid’s passion for Hawaiian culture and her willingness to curate the music presentation for listeners who don’t speak the language makes her a great fit Hawaiʻi Kulāiwi, Yee said. The program has helped the state network reach Hawaii’s native community, he said.
Yee hopes to pitch Hawaiʻi Kulāiwi during upcoming pledge drives and is considering how to strengthen and build its listenership — potentially by scheduling it in a better time slot or even through syndication, he said.
Aside from being fluent in Hawaiian and having a “killer music taste,” Okamura is “DJ-compatible,” Yee said. “I can stick her behind a pair of turntables and go, ‘Make that crowd move.’”