With a musical love letter to his rapidly changing hometown, Oakland's favorite sideman takes center stage
"There's a lot on this album that I'd been thinking about for a long time, but hadn't really had the chance to say," Choice explains during an interview back in his neighborhood, at a shiny new burger joint on Lakeshore Avenue, when I ask about the first track that stood out to me, the upbeat anthem "Shed Light." It's built around a John Coltrane tune, with Choice rapping lyrics about the development of Oakland's Uptown District: "No matter how many fancy restaurants sprout up/the menus don't cater to the issues around us...tale of two cities, the pretty and the gritty/the welcome and neglected, the prosperous and profitless/we got some issues to address, can't build up part of the city and neglect the rest."
"I wanted to showcase the beauty of Oakland, and talk about all the possibilities here, but also the struggles," he says, noting that the record's name was inspired by traveling to the south of France recently and, upon returning home, wanting to "take people on a trip here, remind people that Oakland is just as beautiful as some of the most beautiful places in the world."
"The social activism on the album is just a reflection of what I see going on in my city, things I've been hearing about for a long time," he says. "What does gentrification mean? How do we address the crime rate? How does a black man succeed here, or even just escape the violence, escape police harassment? And what can I say and do as an Oakland native to be a positive influence on that?"
At the moment, what he's not doing very much of is sleeping. Today he has a two-hour break between mentoring at Castlemont (in one of Oakland's poorest neighborhoods) and a birthday party downtown for the soul singer Jennifer Johns (whom he's produced, and who guests on his album) that doubles as a fundraiser for the Creating Sustainability campaign, a new project to help build an economic stability plan for the city. When he gets home sometime after 2 am, he'll do some work on a record a singer just emailed him about producing, practice some lightning-quick Herbie Hancock licks on the piano, and maybe prep for the Black History Month event he's part of at Laney College the next day.
Last week he was in Atlanta for a Lauryn Hill show; next week he'll be in the Pacific Northwest on a quick Coup tour. And 10 minutes ago, an elderly woman with glasses interrupted him while he was eating a turkey burger to chastise him for not returning a CD she loaned him a few weeks back.
"I'm so sorry, I've been out of town. I promise!" he says, as she smiles and waves him off. "Reverend E — it's music she wants me to learn for church," he explains sheepishly after she's gone. "I need to do that." Two other neighbors, a middle-aged man with a little boy, and a 20-something kid with a buzz cut, stop to say hi within the span of half an hour. This section of Lakeshore is basically his living room, he admits; he always winds up stopping to talk to folks: "My daughter doesn't even like walking down the street with me here on a Saturday."
Of course, should you ever find yourself needing directions in Oakland, he'd be a good person to run into. Kev Choice — real name: Kevin Choice — has spent roughly 30 of his 38 years in this town. One of two boys raised by a single mother, a secretary, in three different Oakland neighborhoods, he was a precocious kid, he says. At Brookfield Elementary in East Oakland, he skipped the first grade after blowing through the workbooks for the year in a month or so.
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