If you turn your brain off and listen to ‘Cool Down’, it might sound like a risqué love song, written in the heat of a passionate moment.
“As far as I can tell, you are hot as hell, fired up, going for the kill,” sings songwriter Seth Haapu, who re-entered the spotlight last year after a seven-year hiatus and at once won a handful of awards.
‘Cool Down’, his latest collaboration with singer Stan Walker, is written from a place of passion, but if you listen more closely to the lyrics – or watch the music video, filmed around Rarotonga – it is clear something deeper is afoot.
‘Cool Down’ is profound, political, and necessary. It’s a song about climate change. It’s a lamentation to the earth and to what we’ve done to her.
Haapu and Walker are singing to the land, to Papa or Papatuanuku or Mother Earth, acknowledging her plight.
The video opens with footage of Haapu in the rain, floating in Rarotonga’s see-through lagoon, basking beneath her blue skies and coconut trees. You feel what you feel whenever you see a photograph of Rarotonga on a beautiful day: awe of the island’s beauty.
Walker, filmed in the forest, sings, “you’re melting in the heat like it’s 69 degrees” and the camera cuts to Emma Kainuku-Walsh, who recently won Miss International Cook Islands. She is submerged in water and surrounded by flowers. She is Mother Earth. She is an island, partly buried.
“There’s trouble in paradise,” Haapu sings. “I see it in your eyes. Lost in the daily grind when you need downtime. You’re breaking a sweat.”
Shots of glaciers melting are interposed with aerial footage of Te Rua Manga and Rarotonga’s mountains. The profound beauty of the Pacific Islands belies some difficult truths: islands are most vulnerable to the rising seas; paradise is the front line of a global struggle.
Walker says: “The earth is our paradise and when Seth suggested Raro for the video, I couldn’t think of nowhere more beautiful to demonstrate what is at stake and what we stand to lose. The Cook Islands represent all that is good and all that we must protect.”
After his father died, Haapu undertook a more conscious journey to understand his culture. He retreated from the public eye. He began to search for the wisdom of the land and people his father came from.
This journey of self-discovery led him back to the village of Haapu in Huahine, a visit that deepened his understanding of the interconnectedness of Polynesia, disrupted only recently by borders and passports and policies.
Later, it would lead to filming ‘Cool Down’ on Rarotonga, the point of departure for Aotea, the waka that transported Haapu’s Maori ancestors to New Zealand.
During his break from the spotlight, Haapu did much thinking in and near the sea, away from Auckland’s urban sprawl, reconnected with a resource that sustained his ancestors for thousands of years. “Paying attention to the natural environment and listening to the inspiration around me – water, landscapes – yeah, I think there’s a lot to draw from returning to those places,” he says.
‘Cool Down’ was inspired by the temporary closure of a polluted beach near Haapu’s home. It prompted him to think about how the built environment he knew fit with a changing climate.
His journey to understand the Polynesian world view had been hopeful and expansive; the beach closure felt like a jolt into action. “I think it’s important when we feel those things to be active in enabling some change. I recall that was the key moment that stirred the idea that we can do more, that we can have a voice.”
Haapu had collaborated before with Walker, who describes himself as “very actively engaged” in raising awareness about immediate action on climate change.
As soon as Haapu asked him to work on ‘Cool Down’, he knew he had to do it. After humankind had lived in harmony with the environment for thousands of years, Walker says, “in such a short heartbeat we have done so much harm”.
Meanwhile, Kainuku-Walsh had been on a similar path. She moved to Rarotonga three years ago to reconnect with her Cook Islands culture and the values underpinning it. She transitioned from Auckland’s fashion industry to living in pareu, spent time in the sea, started a business making and selling local food. “We are what surrounds us. It is very important that we look after our surroundings in order to survive to nurture our rising generations on this planet. We not only inherit this land from our ancestors. We also borrow it from our children.”
Since it was released last last month, ‘Cool Down’ has been streamed more than 200,000 times. But what’s more important to Haapu is that the song resonates with someone, somewhere. “That’s how I measure success: that it would inspire someone, whether one person or a thousand,” he says. “I really believe every voice counts, particularly with this kaupapa, because the more people that feel a connection to the issues of our environment, the more we’re able to make an impact.”
Haapu has faith in humanity’s ability to make a dramatic shift, guided by values upheld in generations past. He believes people around the world are waking up to the gravity of the modern mistake, which was to bulldoze indigenous ways of knowing and of being in harmony with the resources that give us life. He is choosing hope.
“As long as you are breathing, there is still hope.”