“Kaona” and Exclusive Vice-Versa Interview with Jamaica Osorio

Learning How to Listen:  Sharing “Kaona”

Our interview with Youth Speaks Hawai‘i member Jamaica Osorio, co-author and co-performer of this powerful spoken-word piece.  Mahalo nui to Jamaica for taking some time to share her mana‘o on the creation of this poem, translation, and the power of language.

V-V:  Where did the inspiration for this poem come from?

JO:  Initially the idea came from a bilingual piece that another team had done many years ago. The piece was about conquest and was in English and Spanish. Ittai brought the idea to me, and at the time I was reading Aloha Betrayed and so the idea of Lili‘u came into play, and it all kind of took off from there.

V-V:  We really love the layering of different voices in the performance of the poem and how that evokes the idea of layering of images, ideas, and messages in the concept of “kaona.” Could you tell us a little more about the process of building the layers of this poem? Also, how were choices made about when to have people speaking in unison or separately, when to have all four of you and when to have two, when to coordinate mirroring gestures, etc.

JO:  The layers came together over time. First it was the English and then I wrote the Hawaiian. It wasn’t until after the poem was completed that I thought up the idea for the two boys to do the chant. Then the poem came to life. The mirroring gestures weren’t coordinated they were spontaneous, which makes the poem that much better . . . the fact that we were both feeling the same thing in two different languages is just so powerful. The rest of it has a lot to do with dynamics, what lines should have more voices for volume’s sake and what should have less. For the most part that process is focused on the performance.

V-V:  During the section when you and Ittai speak simultaneously, we noticed that you speak softer than Ittai. Is this to allow the English to come across clearer to meet the needs of the audience? Also, we’re wondering what the significance of speaking at the same time is in this particular instance, when before you both took turns in English and/or in Hawaiian.

JO:  Unfortunately our poems have to be accessible to the audience. Because of this, the Hawaiian has to be softer. If the Hawaiian overpowered the English, no one would understand the poem, and it was more important to me that the story is understood rather than people just listening to a beautiful language they do not understand.

V-V:  Could you describe your concept of the relationship between Hawaiian and English in this piece? Also, what role does translation play in this poem?

JO:  The translation is only there for the poem to be accessible. Unfortunately not enough people speak Hawaiian, and the audience that really needs to be reached is beyond our beautiful islands, so the translation is essential.

V-V:  Could you talk in general about the significance of including Hawaiian language in the poem and the choices you made?

JO:  It was really important to me to expose the people beyond Hawai‘i to our language and culture. I’m glad we were able to do that with “Kaona.”

V-V:  More specific Hawaiian-language questions: Who are you calling upon to grant this ‘ike to you in “E Ho Mai”? Also, since the poem is about passing on traditions, why did you choose to use a relatively newer mele instead of an older one?

JO:  We are calling upon our parents and grandparents but also our peers. It is just as much our responsibility to pass on the torch as it is our kupuna. “E Ho Mai” was chosen for a few reasons: 1) it’s something I was familiar with and it came to mind when we were running through the poem, and 2) it’s completely appropriate to the message we are trying to get across. I guess it just seemed foolish not to choose this chant.

V-V:  Why did you choose not to translate “he mana ko ka leo”?

JO:  “He mana ko ka leo” is translated indirectly. In saying “without language we have nothing,” we are saying that there is a power in our language and in our words that cannot be disregarded.

V-V:  Is “Without language, we have nothing” also meant to be a translation of “Ina ‘a‘ohe leo, ‘a‘ohe ola”? If so, why did you choose “leo,” which captures the idea of voice, speaking, and sound a little more, over “‘olelo,” which, although it has some of those meanings as well, is more related to language?

JO:  Leo was chosen mostly because of the way it sounded in the phrase. But at the same time it is important to acknowledge that “‘olelo,” as in language, can be silence, it can be in one’s mind or on paper. Leo is voice and only exists if it is being used, so in many ways it is more appropriate when we wanted to say that people need to speak and be heard.

V-V:  Congratulations on being featured in the recent HBO: Brave New Voices! What was it like performing this poem for the HBO audience as compared to Hawai‘i audiences?

JO:  When we were performing I didn’t think much about HBO except the fact that a large audience would get to learn about Hawai‘i . . . that was a big part of wanting to bring in pieces about home to the competition, but for the most part it was just like any other audience.

V-V:  Does this poem have any new or particular relevance to you (as a writer and performer) in connection with this year being the fiftieth anniversary of Hawai‘i’s statehood?

JO:  Not really. I think statehood is a joke, to be completely honest, and has absolutely no legal or moral standing. Those of us who know the history know that we do not belong to the United States and so fifty years of a lie doesn’t really affect my relationship with this poem.

Founded in January 2005, Youth Speaks Hawaii is dedicated to offering free after-school writing and performance workshops for teens.  For more information, visit http://youthspeakshawaii.org


  1. Man, this was a crazy powerful performance. The added complexity of the multiple languages just makes it even more mindblowing. Great!

  2. Language is important as culture and identity are both a reflection of ones Language. I liked the way you used different ways of communiting your message through Hawaiian, English, and motion. I really liked how you spoke about Kaona but then went on to say that some meanings should never be hidden. I also liked the line right before E Ho Mai when you spoke of our Kupuna wrapping us in words hoping that we will hold on to their meaning. I also liked how you identified the flower being a symbol us the children and then went on to use it throughout the poem. I appreciate your performance mahalo.

  3. wow. I was blown away by this performance. It was extremely powerful and emotional. I could feel the mana and emotions exploding from the two perfomers, which caused me to get chicken skin. I fully agree that language is very powerful and connects us to our culture. Without language, one is lost culturally; culture lives within the language. Awesome job!

  4. This performance was intense. I believe that the use of layering the voices added an extra means of incorporating the meaning of kaona into the poetry rather than just an explanation of what it meant. I believe that this was a good way to get information of the Hawaiian culture and customs across to others that are uninformed on the topics being that it is a truly entertaining and at the same time mind boggling performance. I am appreciative to you for getting this information out to share with people who would probably not have known it otherwise. E ola no ka leo, e ola no ka po`e hawai`i!

  5. You two put on a very powerful and eye opening performance. One thing I really liked was the layering of both the English and Hawaiian; it gave the poem more depth and makes it accessible to practically anybody, to know what’s going on and to be able to follow. Without language a culture is lost and you’ve acknowledged that in a big way.

  6. I love what the two of you have put together and how it has evolved overtime. I feel like it has a very empowering message for Native Hawaiians to find their own way to kū’ē, or resist. I love that there are other ways to express ourselves rather than just being “angry Hawaiians”.

  7. I absolutely loved this poem and its delivery. Kaona is such an important thing in Hawaiian. There’s more to a word than just its literal meaning. This is really powerful. I like how it ties the events/teachings of the past with the struggles of the present. Hawaiian is a language which is slowly being lost. To me, this poem is just what young Hawaiian people need to get that extra push to continue learning it or that spark in their minds that they should be doing more to learn their ‘olelo makuahine rather than just settling for the “common” foreign languages. I think that the deliverance of the poem shouldn’t change. Yes, it’s hard to hear clearly when both of you are speaking but if it were separated, the feeling wouldn’t be as intense. Also, I know not many people will understand the reasons behind having the oli in the middle of the dialogue but I think that it helps to reinforce that sense of needing to follow protocol. It’s an oli asking for knowledge and letting the teacher/others know that you are ready to learn. I appreciate the time and effort that has gone into the composition and execution of this poem and hope that you guys continue the good work!

  8. This performance was delivered with a tremendous amount of distinction, confidence, emotion and knowledge. I applaud the performance. Nothing is more important than being true to your culture and history. Language is one of the major foundations that one can connect with culture and without it, culture may inevitably be lost altogether.

  9. I really enjoyed this poem. I like how it was bilingual leaving a message of the hawaiian language but also translating for everyone in english. i like how the begining started off as hawaiian leaving it as the dominant language. This way the audiance can understand the importance of the hawaiian language. You can see alot of passion in the way the two speak. Very good poem

  10. I really enjoyed watching the two perform this piece of slam poetry! It was really exciting. It was easy to feel and see the emotion from the speakers’ voice, poise, and motions. The passion in their expressions were very evident. Although I personally can relate to her, I’m almost certain that audiences without any relation to this topic would also sense the emotion behind it and be moved as well. And because their voices are loud and clear it makes them seem very confident in what they are saying, as if they couldve lived throughthe days when they took Hawaii and altered the culture.

  11. As with many of her performances, Jamaica is fierce and both her and Ittai invoke mana in their leo and in their mana’o. They reveal the truth about the overthrow, annexation, and statehood, and how the concept of kaona became prevalent to the Hawaiian people. I felt that the construct of this poem was, to say the least, pure genius; the fact that both the Hawaiian and English translations were provided really showed the result of the American cultural bomb in Hawaiʻi and how most of the Kanaka Maoli lost their language and culture within a short span of time. I know that Jamaica perpetuates our ʻōlelo makuahine in just about every aspect of her life and it was amazing to see these young performers reach out to a non-Hawaiian audience in the HBO segment. I thoroughly enjoyed “Kaona” and hope that many other young Hawaiians will listen to the powerful words and heed to the call of the people so that we will be able to step up and erase this profound ignorance by calling attention to the truth of our history that has been whitewashed with American lies for so long.

  12. I was brought to tears the first time that I saw this performance. This was such a beautiful way to deliver this message. To have such a grasp of this concept at such a young age is amazing. It is also amazing that you two could deliver this concept to both youth and adults alike. I loved how part of your message spoke of the importance of Hawaiian language and you incorporated the use of the language in your performance wonderfully. I look forward to seeing what comes next. Keep it up! You two are awesome.

  13. This performance makes me get goosebumps. You can really feel their passion and emotion that they perform with. I really like this piece of slam poetry. I think that what they are hitting on is so important and is a real problem we deal with and have dealt with over the years. Good job!

  14. I really enjoyed the performance! I never really experienced slam poetry before and it was very emotional and passionate. I agree that kaona is something special to Hawaiians and it integration of the chant was cool. Thanks for sharing this poetry.

  15. This was an amazing piece to watch. Iv’e never really watched slam poetry but its seems like one of the most emotionally involved forms of performance. There were so many different aspects that really surprised me and grabbed my attention. like the audience participation in the oli chant and the simultaneous speaking of english and Hawaiian. i think both Jamaica and Ittai did an amazing job and they really made me understand a deeper meaning and appreciation for Kaona.look forward to another piece.


  16. Mahalo! This work is amazing. You guys hit it right on spot, and points got across so clearly wether in english or olelo hawaii. It stir up so many emotions in me just by the way we you guys did it. I could feel the mana in your words that it gave me chicken skin. Kaona was the perfect title for this slam poem. To me this slam poem could get across to any age. You guys are a great representation of kanaka maoli and i wish you guys the best in the rest that you do.

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