Deep-rooted emotion, hope and faith can be found interwoven in hundreds of hip hop lyrics composed by University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa College of Education graduate student Punahele. The educational administration major captivates audiences with heartfelt rap compositions. His latest recording, The West Above All, captured a Nā Hōkū Hanohano Award for Hip Hop Album of the Year in July. This summer’s 45th annual awards ceremony, hosted by the Hawaiʻi Academy of Recording Arts, marked the third time the hip hop artist landed an award for a solo album.
“My music is used as a tool to stand against anything that is harmful to ʻāina (land, water or the planet),” Punahele expressed. “As a Native Hawaiian from Mākaha, I also want my music to heal and uplift my culture and community.”
Punahele earned his bachelor’s degree in ethnic studies in spring 2022 and plans to graduate with his master’s in spring 2023. The kānaka ʻōiwi (Native Hawaiian) scholar hopes to work with at-risk youth teaching place-based learning alongside poetry and hip hop, all while incorporating Hawaiian cultural practices and ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi (Hawaiian language).
“UH has helped me and my academic career by connecting me with great teachers and colleagues,” Punahele said. “I am thankful to people like Kumu Jon Osorio, Kumu Noʻu Revilla, Professor Rod Labrador and Dr. Ruben Enrique Campos for making me feel like a kid from Mākaha could share my story while uplifting my culture and community through academia. The best of my academic career is yet to come.”
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In 2019, while standing in solidarity with kiaʻi (protectors) during anti-Thirty Meter Telescope demonstrations on Maunakea, Punahele wrote more than 40 songs. Lyrics jumped out as he witnessed police arrest ʻohana, friends and fellow Native Hawaiians.
In all, the motivational musician has recorded a total of nine solo albums: The West Above All, From Beneath Mauna Kea, Don’t Glorify Snitching, The Menehune Giant, From Beneath Mt. Kaʻala, Dice Games at Pokai Bay, Batu Monsters, Pupuka and Rubber Duckies.