BJ Penn’s Entrance Music | The Story You May Not Know

BJ Penn’s Entrance Music

“Ua mau ke ea o ka ʻĀina i ka pono, o Hawai’i…”

If you’ve watched a BJ Penn fight, you’ve probably heard those words.

You may not have given them a second thought. But you’ve heard them, as the two division UFC champion prepared to do battle.

The proud Hawaiian Penn, whose induction to the UFC Hall of Fame was announced last week, is known for making a dramatic entrance — the traditional “ring-walk” — for his bouts.

Usually, it was a medley of two songs, both from Hawaiian musician Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, which echoed throughout the arena as Penn made his walk to the cage.

First would come “Hawai’i ’78,” as Penn prepared to walk down the aisle. A ukelele quietly begins the song, soon joined by a soft voice chanting the same Hawaiian phrase, over and again — with a lush, sweeping instrumental backing it all up, building… building…

“Ua mau ke ea o ka ʻĀina i ka pono, o Hawai’i…”

It’s generally translated as “The life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness,” and has served as the state motto of Hawaii since its adoption into the US in 1959.

But the phrase is actually much older; and usually credited to Kamehemeha III, who reigned as king of Hawaii from 1825 to 1854. It is said that King Kamehemeha proclaimed the words on July 31, 1843, the day Hawaii regained its independence from Britain.

There’s more than one way to interpret the phrase, too.

In an editorial in the Honolulu Star Examiner, two advocates for Hawaiian sovereignty offer their translation:
>Ua mau — it has been continued, perpetuated. Ke ea — the sovereignty, independence. O ka ‘āina — our lands, our people, our resources and the traditions and practices that enable us to feed each other. I ka pono — in justice.
The founder of GoVisitHawaii notes that the quote “was further explained” to simply mean “Do what is right in your life, and do what is right for the land.”

If you track down a recording of “Hawai’i ’78,” you’ll likely find the rest of its lyrics to have a theme more in common with the former than the latter. It’s a song of protest, which asks how the monarchs of Hawaii’s past would feel about the islands today:
“Cry for the gods, cry for the people, cry for the land that was taken away…”
In fact, the song’s title comes from a clash between native Hawaiian demonstrators and the Army National Guard in 1978.

But Penn used only the song’s introduction, before switching to another song of protest recorded by Kamakawiwo’ole: “E ala E:”
“We the voices behind the face of the Hawaiian Nation, the Hawaiian race

Rise for justice the day has come, for all our people to stand as one”
As Penn is honored for his legacy — and he’s legend of both jiu-jitsu and MMA — maybe it’s something to reflect on.

He’s a man of his people.

I suppose it also counts among his legacies that he also offered a different perspective on the music of Israel Kamakawiwo’ole.

Also known as “Iz,” the artist has became known worldwide long after his 1997 death — and not for these rousing songs of protest which we hear in Penn’s ring-walk, but for his sweet, Hawaiian-themed re-working of pop standards “Over the Rainbow” and “What a Wonderful World.” (Dan Kois notes in his book Facing Future that Kamakawiwo’ole recorded the songs at a drunken late night session on a whim, and had to be later persuaded to even include on them on his album.)

By the time “E ala E” (which translates to “Arise” in Hawaiian) begins, Penn would be well on his way to the cage… ready to make a little more history — for himself, and, as his choice of music made clear, his people.