On the surface, Pau Hana Sessions is a collective of three social scientists who host events and produce videos of performances from local Hawaii artists. But their story reveals it to be much more than that. Whether because or despite its name, Pau Hana Sessions was born at Professor Roderick Labrador’s dayjob.
“I had always used hip-hop and art in my classes to teach, and the students really got excited when I used this kind of material,” Labrador said. “So I decided to go full bore into it.”
That turned out to be a good decision. A 1.5 generation Filipino-American, Labrador is a distinguished professor of ethnic studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. He’s also authored and co-authored books on the Filipino diaspora and identity, most recently 2015’s “Building Filipino Hawaii.” His passion for hip-hop — a byproduct of growing up in the 80s when hip-hop started to enter national consciousness — was both a powerful tool for his research and an effective educational practice. And it led Ruben Campos into his classroom.
“About 10 years ago I sat in on a class of Dr. Labrador on Filipinos in hip-hop,” said Campos, a talented audio engineer and doctoral candidate in anthropology at UH. “He was teaching courses looking at hip-hop, ethnicity, identity construction and politics, and I came in as a grad student wanting to understand hip-hop.”
By then, Labrador had already begun incorporating musical artists in his classroom for Q&A sessions with students, a program he called “Inside the Ethnic Studies Studio.”
“Artists and musicians are used to talking to reporters,” Labrador said, “but we asked them things from ‘what’s this song about?’ to ‘what’s your family’s history?’ to migration stories to their politics. We were asking them questions that other people wouldn’t normally ask, but these are issues that are important to our students and important to ethnic studies.”
This naturally grew beyond classroom discussions into on-campus performances. Although the events were popular, they were limiting.
“Folks outside of UH would come and ask me, ‘can you do this stuff off-campus? Not all of us have access to the university.’ That was the catalyst for doing Pau Hana Sessions; let’s do what we’re doing on campus but let’s bring it to the community, and also link up with a local business and hold the events there.”
By 2016, Pau Hana Sessions was hosting events with local businesses like About The goods, In4mation and Lightsleepers. The events were not just performances, however, but also extended interviews where artists and audiences engaged in wide-ranging discussions with each other. These events were more open to the public than the ones based on UH, but there was still a wider audience waiting to get tapped into.
“Before, the important part was the event,” Labrador said. “But we also figured out that digital presence was important, too. If our idea is to create a portal or platform for local artists and for people to be aware of what they’re doing, we knew we needed to have a better and more consistent digital presence. From 2015-2018, it was kinda sporadic because we didn’t have anybody like Ethan.”
Ethan Caldwell is a professor of African American studies at UH who also happens to be a professional photographer and videographer. He got plugged into Pau Hana Sessions in Fall of 2018, and soon began shooting videos of the sessions and posting them online.
“A lot of it was finding ways to bring creative talents into the fold,” Caldwell said. “Not only for students but also to figure out how to give those artists their shine. With Ruben’s specialty in audio engineering, it all began to coalesce. We began to stay more consistent with our presence in terms of which artists to feature, what kind of scene we’re looking for, and how to include the dialogue with the artists and not just their performances.”
Now, Pau Hana Sessions posts new videos of artist performances and interviews on a nearly-weekly basis. Although local hip-hop artists are commonly featured, they also showcase singers, dancers, and soon, spoken word artists.
“The local scene here is amazing,” Campos said, “not just in hip-hop but its interconnections with the community. You have really exceptional artists doing super exciting things. You have to be there, you have to go and see it. The stuff on the continent is backed by big companies, but here we have an opportunity to go and see real amazing artists, meet them, and hang out with them and start understanding them on a deeper level.”
Caldwell echoed that point: “It wasn’t long ago I could go to Shirokiya and see Maryanne Ito, and right after you could just say hi. A lot of that wouldn’t have happened without getting to know her because of Pau Hana Sessions, but also there’s a certain way that the scene here is thriving. Part of what being in Hawaii brings us is the closing of that distance between artist and audience that you don’t really get in other places.”
Pau Hana Sessions is unique in Hawaii. It not only showcases musical acts that don’t fit neatly into the rigid genre barricades of radio, it also uses their music to engage in vital discussions on race, culture, class and identity — things that fundamentally underpin life in Hawaii. These perpetually relevant discussions and the wealth of artistic talent in Hawaii means that, despite being called Pau Hana Sessions, the work to be done will never really be finished. That may be a daunting reality for Campos, Caldwell and Labrador, but it’s nothing short of a blessing for the rest of us.
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