It’s been nearly a year since Nahko and Medicine for the People released their most successful album to date. Named after a Native American word for a call to action, HOKA delivers a message of strength, unity, and forgiveness. Rich in multi-cultural influence and draped in a rootsy vibe with some carefully infused hip-hop, the best way to describe the body of work is to identify it as a force.
With such an influential release, it’s fitting that the artists behind HOKA are equally inspiring. Nahko Bear, the band’s founder and frontman, is as much a leader, activist, and humanist as he is a musician. It’s refreshing that these qualities bleed through into the music; put on any track, and you’re likely to be challenged or find inspiration among any of the band’s songs.
For me, that song was “San Quentin.”
I first heard the song after coming across the music video shortly after its release. Nahko has been in my music rotation for three or four years, but there was something about this song that stuck in my brain. Other than it being an infectious pop song with an earworm for a hook, the story in the lyrics wasn’t conventional, certainly vague enough to stem curiosity.
Have you ever met an angel?
I know only the half of it
One side of the story, now I cannot forget
Here we go, another chapter, one step closer…
It’s one of those tracks that you mull over, a brave work that I couldn’t shake. I wanted to know more. As it turns out, there was quite a bit more, including the murder of his biological father.
Over lunch one weekday, I called Nahko. He was just getting started with his day, prepping to go “out and about.” The bearded frontman can be an intimidating figure, but he was as open on the phone as he is in his music. Easy to talk to. Never having met him prior, I was immediately comfortable in his orbit.
After some quick small talk, I begin to ask him questions about the song. Nahko — short for Nahkohe-ese; it means “Little Bear” in the native Cheyenne language — said he first had to paint me a back story. It isn’t the kind that many can relate to, one with a complicated beginning that was resolved so much later. “I had met my dad’s family years before and already sort of had the knowledge that he died, that he’d been killed,” he says to me. “I never met him, so I had gone through the trauma of that and (being told) all of the things that had gone on between him and my mother.”
His father was shot to death on Christmas Eve in 1994; the man responsible was jailed at San Quentin. Four years ago, Nahko’s music career, alongside his band Medicine for the People, was quickly gaining momentum. They were scheduled to set out on the band’s first full tour to support their 2013 album, Dark as Night, when Nahko received a call. “My uncle let me know that the guy that murdered my dad was going up for parole,” he says. “This was his first opportunity to speak to or meet with the family. The way they go about that is the family of the victim generally goes into the court and says, ‘We demand that he go back in.’ My uncle was like, ‘Do you want to come to the court hearing and help us put him back in prison?’ I was like, ‘Hell yeah, sounds crazy, let’s do that!'”
“I realized I wasn’t mad at this guy, technically, for (killing my father) because I wouldn’t have learned a lot of those things I learned without this experience. I’m a firm believer that everything happens for a reason.”
In the days that followed, everything began to shift in a new direction. Nahko didn’t make a decision about the court hearing right away, despite his initial enthusiasm. Instead, he chose to take a couple of weeks to really think about what his uncle had asked him and what he truly wanted to do about it. In the end, he says, “I ended up coming to this conclusion that I have a different story with Pops. I realized I wasn’t mad at this guy, technically, for doing this thing because I wouldn’t have learned a lot of those things I learned without this experience. I’m a firm believer that everything happens for a reason.”
Fate took the option away from him after all; due to a scheduling conflict, he wouldn’t be able to attend the hearing anyway. The visit kept nagging at him, though. It seems the issue wouldn’t rest. He developed another plan he now felt necessary to fulfill: a solo visit with the man in prison. Time was ticking away with the tour set to embark. In fact, he ended up making his trip to the correctional facility the same week the tour would start.
As a result of a sequence of unlikely events, he was able to gain entry as a visitor after arriving at the prison with no notice. The gatekeeper may have gotten the impression he was a current Hawaiian resident after viewing his Hawaiian driver’s license, assuming he had traveled from the island for their visit exclusively. The error in her interpretation allowed her to work some magic that ultimately ended with his entry into San Quentin, a prison notorious for its maximum security. Reflecting on his luck, Nahko just chuckles, “It was sort of like I 007’d my way into there.”
“He had gone through his own process of healing and had forgiven himself, which is why he was so available emotionally to speak with me about what had happened. It was a big affirmation for me of the perfect timing of my own experience and process of understanding that this is what I was meant to go do. It was powerful.”
Although he wasn’t quite sure what he was going to say to this man, the one thing he was certain of was that he wanted to share that he had forgiven him for what he had done. Other than that, he also had some questions he needed answered that no else else could provide. “To be honest, I was more in a space of trying to get the real story,” Nahko explains, “because my uncle wouldn’t tell me if he knew it or not. And I wanted to know from the man that killed my dad, from his words, what had actually happened. What was the relationship between the two of them? Was it something my dad deserved? Did he bring this upon himself? He was kind of inviting these things into his life, and I wanted to get it verbatim from (his killer). In the process of doing that, I realized the greater purpose for which I was there, which was to free both him and I — and my dad’s spirit — from this unforgivable act and find peace in some way.”
When Nahko walked into the visitation room, it was the first time in 19 years the prisoner had anyone come to see him. “I got in there, and he thought I was his long lost brother,” Nahko explains, proof that the man, at first, didn’t know who he was. But, even after he discovered the truth of Nahko’s identity, the conversation, fittingly, took a different turn. What could have been a contentious and unbelievably awkward moment became an open and emotional discourse. “He had gone through his own process of healing and had forgiven himself, which is why he was so available emotionally to speak with me about what had happened. (It) was a big affirmation for me of the perfect timing of my own experience and process of understanding that this is what I was meant to go do. It was powerful. We both shed a lot of tears in that conversation, and I think we walked away feeling very empowered. He told me, ‘If I ever get out of here — a life for a life, a tooth for a tooth (which is what the song says) — I would dedicate my life to you. I owe you one.'”
Nahko continued, telling me that this man had only been in the States for a couple of years before getting caught up in a world of negative decisions, a world in which his Dad had also been consumed. “My Dad had been using the facade of his nursing career for the Navy as a front to pretend that he wasn’t smoking meth and dealing and surrounding himself with some of them ‘bad Filipinos,'” he says. “He was kind of a gangster… and I’m kind of smiling because it’s kind of funny when I say it now.”
Nahko finished his story with the crowning jewel. There is a saying, “No good deed goes unpunished,” but it’s not always true. In fact, many times, the good deed becomes contagious — and that’s the result Nahko experienced in his life. “After I left and told my family what I had done, they were in shock. Half of them were not down and some of them were quite inspired (by that example of forgiveness).” About a month after the court hearing, which was to decide the fate of this man’s life, Nahko got another call, this time from his Auntie. He recalled, warmly, “She said, ‘Hey, I just want you to know that your brothers and sister were so moved by your story that they granted him parole…’ I couldn’t believe it!”
Nahko’s goal had come full circle. In turn, his actions had led to literally giving the key of freedom to the man who had murdered his own father. Where is this man now? “He was released from prison, was put on parole, went back to the Philippines, and I’m hoping that he’s alive and doing well.” Do you have plans to contact him in the future? “It’s definitely part of an ongoing story. When he was talking to me, he said, ‘If I ever get out of here, I want to take you fishing in the Philippines because that’s what my Dad used to do with me, and you never got to do anything with your Dad.'”
I’m sure like many people, I wondered how he could possibly trust such a person in order to fulfill even a fishing trip. His response was rooted in honesty. “I think it’s the human capacity to trust not just yourself, but trust the spirit that guides you. No matter what religion or spirituality you have, those beliefs come from trust and faith. These ways in which we exist, they’re the laws of nature, I guess you could say. It’s not that I trust him, necessarily, or I really even perhaps trust myself. I think, with time, you can really become aware of people and whether they follow through with their word or not. It’s within our best interest to trust. It’s hard to say that in a lot of circumstances, because we’ve been betrayed so many times. But the Spirit really guides and does show you the way if you’re willing to listen. It’s tough. It’s no small thing. It’s not like it just happens overnight.”
As Nahko spoke, it reminded me of the philosophy embodied by Trevor Hall, a musician and friend of Nahko’s, that also had a very strong theme of forgiveness and inner peace in his latest album, KALA, released in 2015. I couldn’t help but ask if it was coincidence or intention that created the ties between Nahko and Trevor Hall’s records. “It’s funny you should ask me that, because we just were having this conversation last night,” he said without hesitation. “Trevor is a historian, and what he channels and the stories he tells are things of the past, and they help us process the here and now. My gift is to bring the poetry and melody moving forward in a deeper sense. So we work from the opposite end of the spectrum, and we’re so different, and yet we’re so similar in the sense that we’re both servants. As artists, we serve what comes through us, and we give that glory back to the Spirit and Creator — and back to our respected belief structures which are, holistically speaking, pretty much the same.”
As you could gather, Nahko and Medicine for the People surround themselves with not only talented musicians (such as Joseph, Xavier Rudd and Zella Day, to name a few), but individuals that seem to feed each the souls of one another, an act that can be felt and heard in the music they create. It’s cyclical in nature, a rare brother-and-sisterhood that is not so common today. Nahko wouldn’t disagree. “Considering what our parents and grandparents had in the ’60s — whether it was Motown or The Woodstock era — that time frame shaped that time in history, and we’re really lacking that kind of community at this time. The medicine tribe has been finding each other, but this kind of collaboration — like on HOKA — with intention, is going to be more imperative for people to not only witness but access at this time in our country’s history and in the awakening of humanity.”
I make mention of the mess 2016 turned out to be and that Nahko and the band’s music really provides encouragement to stand up and be on the forefront of change, to demand more than what we’ve been handed. He understands this perspective. “We’ve become so easily caught up in our own little worlds. As much as it was horribly terrifying to witness such abuse of our civil liberties and our rights and the rights of Mother Earth, the more that sh-t gets stirred up, the better chance we have of changing it.
“Humanity itself is a complicated mess,” he continues. “Humans are really hard to understand sometimes, and then, on the flip side, they’re very easy to predict. So, even though last year was a sh-t storm, as you would say, you were very right in that sense because it was like a slap in the face. But so many folks are waking up and mobilizing and getting activated in their roles.”
To finish his thought, Nahko enters into an uncanny (presumably well-practiced) impression, quoting John Lennon in perfect accent and form: “People are always talking about giving the power back to the people, but the truth of the matter is that the people have always had the power. We’ve always known that. We’re just waking up to our responsibility and waking up to the power that’s within us.”
As I reflect on this notion co-mingled with what the last year has brought, I think out loud that perhaps everything that went on in 2016 was a necessary shove into activism for a generation, that maybe it’s time to step up and show up. Nahko’s response is both direct and encouraging. “It’s our turn to recognize that this is our opportunity to become the majority of people that think like this. … The sooner every person of every race can learn to step into a very specific role of acceptance, ally-ship and solidarity, the sooner we will see change. There are many layers to all those things.” He ends with a statement that hits close to home: “The most important thing is to educate yourself and go into places that are really making you uncomfortable to step further into your power.”
Nahko and Medicine for the People was posted on February 26, 2017 for HM Magazine and authored by Danielle McCallister.