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Documenting the Oakland cultural renaissance


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Kev Choice: Love and Revolution (album review)

Kev Choice

Revolutionary: Kev Choice

Everyone’s talking about how K.Dot (Kendrick Lamar, for the unhip) just reinvented the hip-hop wheel with his new album, which drops the same day (today) as Kev Choice’s latest, Love and Revolution. It says here, however, that an equal amount of praise is due to the Oakland pianist/bandleader/composer/emcee, whose third full-length album is destined to be a classic, although it’s doubtful Choice will be trending on FB or sell platinum units.

Choice comes through with a solid effort which is topical, relevant, conscious, highly musical, adventurous, fearless, groovy, intelligent, mature and community-oriented (maybe even family-friendly, if your family enjoys shutting down 580 as much as BBQing at the Lake). While K.Dot can afford to enlist the services of pianist Robert Glasper, it’s worth mentioning Choice can play any note on the piano Glasper can play. No, there’s no gimmicky dialogue with a dead rapper to get tongues wagging, but Choice is far from a lyrical slouch. His musical skills were already beyond reproach—he holds a masters degree in jazz, is a bonafied classical pianist, and digs deep into funk and R&B—but it took him awhile to hone his rapping technique to perfection.

On earlier efforts, like the single “Definition of a Star,” Choice seemed to be aiming for KMEL airplay which never came, while holding back his musical gifts. But last year’s excellent Oakland Rivera broke that mold with forward-thinking tracks which raised the bar for hip-hop musicianship. Oakland Rivera also hinted at the lyrical butterfly Choice was cocooning into, particularly on the Gil Scott Heron-esque “Crazy Illusion,” which eschewed me-first braggadocio for poignant sociopolitical observations on gentrification and the changing nature of Oakland, and the hooky yet substantive “That Life” (recently treated to a club-melting remix by DJ D-Sharp).

With Love and Revolution, Choice doubles down on the conscious content, using today’s murky racial politics and growing community response to perceived systemic injustice as inspirational fodder for some ridiculous lyrical fusillades, which sounded unbelievable a couple of months back, when he debuted the album one memorable night at Yoshis. He might not be as quotable as Kendrick, but he’s not all that far behind.

It’s a testament to how well Choice has developed its themes that Love and Revolution feels like a concept album at times. Instead of tracks just slapped together willy-nilly, we get an honest-to-God song cycle, something which has been increasingly rare since the advent of the compact disc.

Choice’s “Revolution” refers to flashpoints like Mike Brown and Trayvon Martin, which have resonated nationwide, resulting in DOJ investigations and counter-resistant viral movements like #BlackLivesMatter. However resonant the response to Ferguson, the fire this time really began with Oscar Grant five years ago. Given that context, it’s only natural for Choice to address those topics, in an extremely Oakland kind of way. How Oakland is the album? There are instrumentals named “Oscar’s Revenge” and “Blues for (Alan) Blueford.”  Most of Choice’s supporting cast is local; there are zero throwaway cameo tracks featuring big-name artists for the sake of featuring big-name artists. But rather than a minus, that becomes a plus, allowing Choice to concentrate on substance, not superficiality. The result is a sense of cohesiveness and collaboration missing from many of today’s celebrity-studded albums – Love and Revolution is perhaps best described as a family affair which furthers Choice’s individual musical vision.

Jennifer Johns, Antique, and Kev Choice

Movement Music: Jennifer Johns, Antique, and Kev Choice

Content-wise, Love and Revolution is arguably a “street” album, albeit an extremely jazzy, soulful and progressive one which imparts its messages without being overly ghetto  — one hopes it will be played in the ‘hood as well as at non-profit organizing rallies. But while protests, marches and rallies have informed Love and Revolution’s content, the album’s righteous indignation—anger might be too strong a word for it—is well-tempered by a drive for innovation, creative juice-tapping, and a need to create beauty, even in an uncertain, unfair world. Choice is mature enough to realize that revolutionary militancy must be balanced by passionate love, and smart enough to figure out the two together are unstoppable.

It’s a testament to how well Choice has developed its themes that Love and Revolution feels like a concept album at times. Instead of tracks just slapped together willy-nilly, we get an honest-to-God song cycle, something which has been increasingly rare since the advent of the compact disc. Well-placed instrumental interludes help to pace the album without bogging it down, giving the vocal-heavy tracks “Room to Breathe” – to paraphrase the title of one of the interludes.

kev choice love and revolution rr 058

The album opener, “Feel the Love” (featuring Viveca Hawkins) bookends the track it segues into, “Gone Too Far,” setting up the love/revolution dichotomy which underscores the remainder of the disc. The combination of Choice and Hawkins is a potent one; a simple piano riff anchors the song, which swerves between soaring neo-soul expressions, down-to earth lines (“As long as justice escapes us, we live for the struggle/we keep holding on”), and a near-symphonic arrangement complete with crashing cymbals. Sampled TV news soundbites introduce an element of tense realism on “Gone Too Far,” which finds Choice commenting on police brutality and community protests “from Oakland to Ferguson, New York to Palestine” over a guitar-driven melody. “Fist up, hands up, stand up,” Choice repeats, adding, “we ain’t gon’ take it no more.”

Choice’s outrage is channeled into a jazz-fusion eulogy on the aforementioned “Oscar’s Revenge,” which sandwiches the energy-lifting “So High” (featuring Netta Brielle) around another instrumental, “Compatible,” which in turn segues into the single “My Cause” – whose lyrics fuse the love/revolution dichotomy into a single purpose (“ride for you like you was my cause”).

Lyric heads get treated to a showcase of verbal dexterity on “Noose”, which continues the social commentary and includes a blistering verse by Locksmith, as well as the super-duper soul vocals of C Holiday. A sampled monologue from the sci-fi classic “The Day the Earth Stood Still” goes on a bit too long – one of Choice’s few missteps – before giving way to “Another World,” which features HNRL’s Trackademicks and 1-O.A.K. (who supplies the mind-elevating hook, “when it all sets on fire/ for tonight brings truth to the light”).

1-O.A.K.

1-O.A.K. brings truth to the light

Perhaps the album’s best song, though, is “Movement Music,” another posse cut which showcases some of Oakland’s finest talents: Jennifer Johns, Ryan Nicole, Antique, K.E.V., and Aisha Fukushima. The uptempo pace goes well with the song’s lyrical themes of rhythmic uprising. Each guest slays when it’s their turn, while Choice takes a swipe at commercial radio: “they say we’re not hot in the streets/ but every time I’m there, you are not in the streets.”  Ouch. An exclamation point is added on the following track, “Young Oakland Interlude,” which literally features the voices of the next generation, chanting “jobs, peace and justice, if we want the dream, it’s up to us.”

After another instrumental, “Meet Me At The March,” Choice returns with “Daddy,” a heartfelt dedication to his daughter, Anya, which solidifies the “love” theme. The album closes with the melancholy solo piano track “Ballad for Blueford,” whose sad notes spotlight Choice’s composing skills.

When it’s all said and done, Love and Revolution accomplishes what every album’s objective should be: to be a soundtrack for our lives. Undoubtedly contemporary, there’s nothing especially trendy or faddish on the entire disc, which means it will remain relevant, as long as its themes continue to resonate. And while this album loudly screams “Oakland,” it’s worldly, sophisticated and nuanced enough to escape the trap of regional limitations – providing one has a chance to hear it.

Love and Revolution is available for digital download here.

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Fear of a Multicultural Planet: Jeff Chang Tackles Race in “Who We Be”

who we be display

Multiculturalism is inevitable. This much we know from population trends, which show that America is getting less demographically-white by the decade, year, hour, and minute. The rise of an ethnic majority represents an obvious conflict with the concept of monoculturalism, represented by the assimilationist notion of a melting pot—an America with one great big shared identity—as well as the concept of white supremacy, represented by the notion that blacks (and other races) are genetically inferior to whites, thus justifying inequity and racial disparity across social, political, economic, and cultural lines.

Author Jeff Chang at an Oakland book release party for "Who We Be"

Author Jeff Chang at an Oakland book release party for “Who We Be”

This dichotomy is at the heart of “Who We Be,” an ambitious new book by Berkeley-based scribe Jeff Chang, who tracks the growth of ethnic identity across a historical tableau, contrasted by ideological barriers and seemingly-endless waves of sociopolitical backlash which all revolve around the construct of race and the perception of racial consciousness – whether in the art world, the political landscape, or the funny pages of daily newspapers.

Before Garner, Brown and Martin, there was Grant,

Before Garner, Brown and Martin, there was Grant,

Arriving as it does just as the 1-2 punch of the failure to indict the uniformed killers of Michael Brown and Eric Garner has crescendoed into America’s latest race-based flashpoint—resulting in the hashtag-driven #blacklivesmatter movement—”Who We Be” could not possibly be any more timely or relevant. It offers a wealth of historical context and background to firmly disprove the notion that either incident was isolated; rather, such events are part of a larger continuum which has made pop culture martyrs out of Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, Michael Stewart, Lil Bobby Hutton, Malcolm X, Dr. Martin Luther King, Medgar Evers and Emmett Till (to name a few).

America’s racial dynamics haven’t just played out on a political chessboard, Chang reminds us. They’ve also been stretched across a cultural canvas which constantly vacillates between progressive movement and backwards regression, like an ocean tide. While the “Southern Strategy” of the Nixonian GOP established a race-based benchmark originally fashioned as a response to precedent-setting civil rights legislation and later dutifully continued by the Reagan-Bush Republican regimes, “Who We Be” assigns equal importance to a cultural narrative in which the white segregationist marketing of “Ku Ko Kola” eventually gives way to the multicultural kumbaya of Coca-Cola’s “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” commercials and Benetton’s rainbow-hued marketing strategy.

“Who We Be” opens with a scene in which the late Morrie Turner, the Oakland-born cartoonist whose strip “Wee Pals” was the first integrated comic to be syndicated nationally, learns of Barack Obama’s election and cries. This segues into an examination of Turner’s efforts at advancing multiculturalism, one comic strip at a time, then backtracks into an analysis of decades of dubious racial stereotypes embedded in cartoon commentary. It’s a history rife with coonery, minstrelism, blackface caricatures and outright racist cartoons, which show the progress Turner represented.

The blackface animals were gone. Instead Turner drew kids… having profound discussions about race and community,” Chang writes, noting, “The ink on the Civil Rights Act had not yet dried. The Voting Rights Act and the Immigration and Nationality Act were soon to be signed. But ‘Wee Pals’ already belonged to the future.

A "Wee Pals" strip

A “Wee Pals” strip from 1978

In another vignette, Chang revisits Black Arts icon Ishmael Reed’s concept of Neo-HooDoo, the idea that “all of American pop—its rhythms, its poetry, its swagger—descended from African and indigenous religion,” and the central concept behind Reed’s 1972 novel “Mumbo Jumbo,” as well as a sprawling manifesto/poem which Chang describes as “1,794 words of rapturous provocation.”

Reed’s journey from the East Village to the Bay Area allows Chang to wax poetic over an emergent Left Coast counterculture which organically linked the Black Panther Party, the Free Speech Movement, “Chinatown leftists,” “Raza artists,” and Native American activists into a loose grouping called the Third World movement.

Chang writes: “Grassroots arts movements led by people of color were blooming across the United States, but nowhere were there the kind of proliferating, overlapping circles of artistic, political, and intellectual intensity that there were in the San Francisco Bay Area.”

Willie Horton: Black Bogeyman

Black Bogeyman: Willie Horton

Despite such superlative-laden praise, “Who We Be” is far from an altruistic, overly-optimistic take on its subject matter. By the time it concludes, with a description of five young schoolchildren delightedly eyeing a Byron Kim installation of “429 chipboards of wood… colored within the spectrum from pink to bister” at a Washington, DC art gallery, readers have been dragged along for a bumpy ride through Lee Atwater’s demonization of Willie Horton and his ironic infatuation with black music, the Republican backlash against Obama, the death of Trayvon Martin, failed government policies which created the subprime loan crisis and led to the Occupy movement, the flap over a black visual artist attempting to reclaim the N-word, and a controversial Whitney Museum biennial exhibition.

Perhaps surprisingly, hip-hop is all but absent from “Who We Be.” Chang painstakingly traces what he dubs the “culture wars” of the late 80s and early 90s, but chooses not to revisit ground he previously covered in “Can’t Stop Won’t Stop,” i.e.  the PMRC’s censorship campaign, the “Cop Killer” controversy, and the repercussions of their impacts at the major label level. To paraphrase dead prez, “Who We Be” is bigger than hip-hop—both in ambition and scope—yet the “culture wars” cipher feels incomplete at times. Chang’s insistence on name-checking obscure artist-activists and their quest to bring identity politics to the gallery world makes it seem as if those efforts occurred in an art-scene vacuum, when in fact, identity politics have become a defining characteristic of the overall pop culture landscape — just ask Macklemore or Iggy Azalea.

Shepard Fairey's "Hope"

Shepard Fairey’s “Hope”

Amidst all the discussion of “Post-Racial,” “Post-Black,” and even “Post-Post,” it’s perhaps understandable that “Who We Be” is Post-Hip-Hop Generation.  Chang calls it a “dub history,” which means that while there are echoes and reverberations, there are also drop-outs; Chang doesn’t trace a strictly linear path nor attempt to connect all the dots – which might have been an impossible task. The visual art/identity thread which takes up much of the book’s middle section culminates with an unpacking of the backstory behind Shepard Fairey’s iconic “Hope” poster which symbolized the emergence of a new electorate, before becoming an ironic reminder of the weighty, and perhaps unrealistic, expectations placed on Obama.

But even when “Who We Be”’s narrative gingerly dubsteps over continuity gaps, Chang’s writerly flow makes it a pleasure to read. Eschewing the dry tone of an academician, Chang alternates prose-filled descriptions with solid reportage and telling statistical evidence, like a mutant hybrid of Carl Bernstein and Amiri Baraka. Obama’s 2008 election–the meta-flashpoint in a collection of flashpoints–is bookended by P.Diddy’s voter-registration efforts and what Chang calls “demographobia” on one side, and the birth of the Tea Party, the Great Recession, and Karl Rove’s failure to buy the 2012 election on the other. “It was easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of racism,” Chang says of a period ironically yet accurately named “post-hope.”

Chang’s brilliance as a writer is apparent, even when the subject matter he tackles leads to more questions than answers. It’s impossible to thoroughly address the identity politics of multiculturalism without also addressing the identity politics of whiteness, and “Who We Be” shows in no uncertain terms that for one to be fully realized, the other must be diminished. If the worldview of mainstream art critics, anti-immigration activists, and Tea Partiers relies on projections of “Whitopia,” as Chang posits, the rise of multiculturalism represents a gradual yet inexorable reality, as signified by shifting demographics which have already resulted in what he calls a “minority-majority” in California. The future of America, Chang suggests, isn’t a return to its racist, xenophobic past, but a world in which gay Iranian immigrants barely raise an eyebrow. We’re not quite there yet, as recent events have proven, but it seems to be only a matter of time until MLK’s mountaintop finally becomes a level playing field.