What were you doing the first month under the Bay Area’s shelter-in-place orders? Having a hard time getting out of bed? Sitting dejectedly on your tiny porch in your pajamas, crying and eating ice cream popsicles?
Not Kev Choice. The Oakland MC and classically trained pianist — who’s toured as musical director for Lauryn Hill and a sideman with Goapele, Lyrics Born, the Coup, and Too Short— was busy writing rhymes and music to document the Bay Area experience of the global COVID-19 pandemic in real time.
On April 10, just four weeks after the Alameda County shelter-in-place orders went into effect, Choice put out a 12-song album, “Social Distancing,” featuring an impressive roster of Bay Area leading lights, including rappers Mistah F.A.B., Elujay, and Karega Bailey of Sol Development, bassist/producer Drew Banga, and singers like Martin Luther McCoy, Jennifer Johns and Lalin St. Juste of The Seshen.
Still, Choice admits he, like everyone else, had to fight the urge to hide under his covers. “I was trying to stay busy to keep from having a breakdown for sure,” Choice tells me over the phone. “Every day was a battle, in so many ways.”
Choice, who is a music teacher at the Oakland School for the Arts, a commissioner in Oakland’s Cultural Affairs Commission, and the vice president of the Recording Academy’s San Francisco chapter, went by his studio space and picked up the recording equipment he would need to make an EP at home. Then he started hitting up his musician friends, who were no longer able to tour, or have concerts, or even play with a full band in a studio. “A lot of artists were just sitting at home, not knowing what to do,” he says.
A blend of hip-hop, soul, funk and jazz, the album details our strange new world dominated by COVID-19, from having to ask people to stay six feet away to the newfound anxiety around grocery shopping and toilet paper shortages.
It also expresses mourning for the people who’ve already died of the coronavirus, empathy for the people who’ve lost income and the essential workers risking it all on the front lines, and anger at the Trump administration for bungling the crisis.
Most of all, it shines a light on the marginalized people in Oakland who are suffering disproportionately in the pandemic — people of color, the impoverished, the unhoused, and the people shut in with domestic abusers. But it is also a deeply spiritual album, which opens with a prayer, closes with an instrumental meditation, and embraces the pandemic as an opportunity to slow down and reflect.
‘Create something that would inspire people’
“Personally and artistically, I felt like a lot of things needed to be said,” he said. “I felt the people needed somebody to document how we were feeling and to tell that story through music. This pandemic is something that we’ve never experienced before in our lives. In the beginning, a lot of people were having breakdowns, not knowing what to do. I was trying to find a way to bring a positive aspect to it and also address some of the hard realities, too — the fear of death, how the government was responding to it, not being able to connect with people in person — put into all of that into the music, to create something that would inspire people during this time.”
While “Social Distancing” documented the shocking transition from our pre-pandemic reality to the new lonely paradigm, it was also a harbinger of things to come.
On June 8, Kev Choice released a music video for his single, “Silver Lining,” which features verses with four more distinct perspectives from Mistah F.A.B., Kevin Allen, Brookfield Duece and Mani Draper, depicting the five MCs wandering the empty streets of Oakland. On the song, Choice raps, “You know what’s next? Martial law, civil unrest.”
Six weeks after the album was released, the police killing of George Floyd on Memorial Day in Minneapolis set off a persistent series of Black Lives Matters protests around the nation.
The protesters also demanded justice for other Black Americans who were murdered in 2020 and whose killers were still walking free, including Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and Tony McDade.
Over the past month, demonstrators have set fire to businesses and police stations, looted stores, and pulled down Confederate statues and other monuments celebrating known racists. In response to the looting and vandalism, during the first week of June, several Bay Area counties and cities imposed temporary curfews on their residents. The protests have also netted real results: Floyd’s killer was charged with murder, and public officials in 17 cities around the country, including Minneapolis and San Francisco, are proposing to plans to reduce police resources.
“This song was written before George Floyd was killed,” he says. “I was speaking to the energy around the pandemic and shelter in place and wondering how people were even going to abide by that. When I wrote that line, I was thinking, ‘How far would it go?’ Then, it did go as far as it could go. There was definitely martial law with the curfews — and civil unrest. I’ve thought about that line a lot, like ‘Wow, that really happened.’
America ‘reached the boiling point’
“But as activists, we see things coming,” he continues. “We know that things are only going to be a certain way for so long before it hits a boiling point. And America’s reached the boiling point.”
At different points on “Social Distancing,” both Choice and Mani Draper point out that white Europeans and Americans have historically inflicted illnesses on people of color through colonization and slave trade. That’s why, they insist, it’s high time for real reparations, not just a measly $1,200 stimulus check.
“In the pandemic, we have nowhere to run, nowhere to hide,” Choice says. “America’s injustices are being magnified, and people are being activated. We can no longer run from these conversations that people in a normal frame of society wouldn’t even address.”
Back in March, Choice was in his studio recording his first EP with his jazz band, Black London, which is co-lead by saxophonist Howard Wiley and keyboardist Mike Blankenship. The album, “Black Magic,” a celebration of Oakland’s Black music traditions, was set to debut on April 10, with a show at New Parish. But as the band realized it would soon have to stop meeting in the studio, the record was put on pause, and a final jam session produced “Social Distancing’s” closer, “The Vaccine.”
“Social Distancing” touches on the both the profane — the desire to have a “rona bae” to weather the pandemic with — and the sacred, starting with a prayer by Oakland restorative justice advocate Kusum Crimmel, who presents a daily prayer on Facebook Live.
“In the first couple of days of shelter in place, it was a part of my ritual to get up and listen to that prayer,” says Choice, who’s a member of the Oakland Center for Spiritual Living. “It gave me some perspective on this. Like I say in ‘No Worries,’ my spiritual practice says that all is good, all is God. Even in the worst scenarios, we’ve got to look for the good in everything, even in our enemies.”
But the man who put out a full album in the first four weeks of the pandemic has not been taking it easy. Besides the video for “Silver Lining,” he’s released an instrumental album with DJ Fresh called “The Lush & Luxurious Vibes” on May 21 and then finished recording the “Black Magic” EP with Black London. And in June, Choice and his friends and frequent musical collaborators Jennifer Johns and RyanNicole came up with the Black Music Matters concert, held on June 14 at Lake Merritt, to complement all the Black Lives Matter protests happening around the Bay Area.
Black Music Matters
“We are coming together not only to provide cultural contributions to the movement for justice, but to also assert the world we want to live in,” the Black Music Matters founders wrote in a statement. “Black Music Matters envisions an equitable future, where our systems of housing, education, public safety, and food are reimagined to assure security for the least of us. We support the assertion of defunding the police and reinvesting in the cultural and fiscal well-being of our community.”
Choice says the concert was a powerful event that managed to follow COVID-19 protocols for social distancing while bringing people together. He wants to have a Black Music Matters concert every year, but the organization that formed around the event in a week has the potential to go beyond live shows, both supporting artists and encouraging them to speak out for social justice, as well as boosting music education for children.
“I can create music for the rest of my life, but I want it to have a deeper mission and purpose,” Choice says. “I want to put myself in a position to benefit the people who are out there fighting for the things I believe in.”