Nana I Ka Ili (Look to the Skin)

Words and musicĀ  Creative Commons License 1979 by Jim Bearden

After the white sugar planters and merchants who had gained control of Hawai’i overthrew Queen Lili’uokalani and established their own government, in 1893, they managed to consolidate their power by persuading the U.S. government to annex the islands as a territory, in 1900. This had the unanticipated result of granting native Hawaiians the vote, as the U.S. government insisted was their right. They formed the Home Rule Party, which used the slogan “Nana I Ka Ili”, or “Look to the skin”, to urge Hawaiians to vote for non-white candidates: a frankly racist campaign slogan which backfired on them. The white Republicans who controlled the territory convinced Prince Jonah Kuhio Kalaniani’ole, who was pure Hawaiian, but easily corruptible, to run for the Congressional Representative position in 1902 as a Republican. The majority of Hawaiian voters, following the slogan, elected him, and continued to elect him for the next 20 years, even though he served the interests of the white oligarchy much more closely than those of the Hawaiians who had supported him. I wrote this song long before the election of 2016, but the damage that “President” Trump has inflicted on his own white supporters (not to mention the “collateral damage” to the rest of us), whose vote for him was based on similarly racially-biased reasons, should remind us all that this story is by no means entirely in the past.

Verse 1:
In 1893, the sugar barons struck —
They stole Hawai’i’s kingdom from its queen.
They joined it to the U.S. to legitimize their gains;
And what was to come was not what might have been.

With the Territory came new directions; they had to hold a few elections;
The Home Rule Party started moving in.
“Use your votes, put down the haole.” “Vote Hawaiian, for Hawai’i.”
Their battle cry was “Look to the skin.”

“Nana i ka ili,” you look to the skin,
Yeah, you look at the least important part;
“Nana i ka ili” — if you look to my skin,
You’ll never know the color of my heart.

Verse 2:
Then the sugar kings found Jonah Kuhio Kalaniani’ole —
Pure Hawaiian, royal blood — he had it all.
They satisfied his heart’s desires, got him on their side,
And the Home Rule Party’d seen its curtain call.

Prince Kuhio went to Congress, got into the Homestead Land mess —
Made sure the sugar lands stayed what they’d been.
For twenty years he served the bosses, presided over his people’s losses,
Because they all looked only to the skin.


Verse 3:
Now today, we tell ourselves, “That’s all far in the past.”
How far we’ve come today, but even so,
When you hear of things like “Kill-a-haole day” at school,
Just think how far we all have yet to go.

For whether it’s the racial thing, or a girl out on the beach,
Or just someone who’s too fat or too thin —
You’ll cut yourself off, blind and deaf, you’ll never know the truth,
As long as you look only to the skin.


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