Herbs give New Zealand’s 1980s land rights movement a reggae soundtrack

Protesters occupy a rugby pitch during the 1981 Springbok Tour of New Zealand, Photo: Robin Morrison, courtesy Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira and Morrison estate

Originally published by Lindsay Magazine, July 2020

Sometimes it’s actually pretty easy to judge a record by its cover. Musically, Herbs’ 1981 debut Whats’ Be Happen? is a stirring example of the spread of reggae across Oceania in the 1970s. But it’s also a vivid political document, from the second you glimpse the black and white photograph on its sleeve. The aerial shot of the final standoff between police and protesters at Bastion Point in May 1978 captures the moment government forces ended a peaceful five hundred-day-long occupation of Ngāti Whātua ancestral lands north of Auckland earmarked for development.

These political tensions are entwined with the band’s early music, starting with the needling guitar riff of opening track ‘Azania (Soon Come)’. It’s a song that traces a line between the civil rights battles facing Pasifika and Māori communities in Aotearoa and the oppression of South African apartheid, all over a rocksteady beat. After name checking Steve Biko and Nelson Mandela, the chorus offers a call to “bow to the freedom fighters” and “send racists on the run”a message of decolonisation sounding across the southern hemisphere.

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