Ed. note: As long as humans have been making music, it’s been used as a form of protest. As part of KQED Arts’ 100 Days project, documenting artists’ responses to our new administration in its earliest days, I’ve asked Bay Area musicians to get in touch with songs they’ve written or recorded that serve as reactions to our current political climate. A new one is posted each week.
In December of 2016, still reeling from the shock of the presidential election, a group of Bay Area musicians boarded a plane for the Middle East. Aisha Fukushima, a singer, rapper and activist, has made a habit of such trips through a program with the U.S. Consulate that connects American artists with youth in Jerusalem and the West Bank.
For Kev Choice, an Oakland rapper, pianist, and member of Fukushima's band, it was an eye-opening journey in more ways than one. Following a week and a half of workshops with Palestinian youth during the day and performances with Palestinian musicians at night, Choice returned to his hotel room in East Jerusalem on the last night of the 10-day trip and picked up a pen. The result was "Morning Star," a song that features Choice rapping and singing over a sample of music by Sana Moussa-Star of The Morning, a Palestinian artist the rapper discovered while there.
"I wanted to write a song that captured my immense spiritual connection there, and also captured my experience with the Palestinian people, especially the children," says Choice, a versatile, classically trained solo artist who performs with everyone from The Coup to Too $hort; for a time, he served as Lauryn Hill's bandleader.
"It was so inspiring to see the children perform for us, listen to us, and connect with us. They were so talented and had so much to say, and it was just so powerful," says Choice. "The chorus of this song is me telling them to keep shining for the world."
Choice was especially moved, he says, by the warm, enthusiastic welcome he and his fellow musicians received from the residents of refugee camps in the West Bank.
"I had no idea of the depth and spirit of the Palestinian people," he says. "It was totally opposite of what I expected and what we are shown in the media."
As a spiritual person, hearing the Muslim call to prayer and visiting the birthplace of Jesus were both powerful experiences, says Choice. But the modern-day realities of life in Palestine made just as strong an impression: The band performed in Jerusalem, Bethelehem, Ramallah, and Neblus, locations that required the group to drive past the West Bank barrier wall daily. That separation, along with the heavy presence of Israeli military police, called to mind some parallels for Choice between refugee camps and American ghettos. Toward the end of the track, he raps:
In similar situations, divided nations
the occupation, police militarization
Refugee camps, just like my ghetto
it's time to wake the people up,
third day flow, like he rose
"The Palestinian people told stories to me, very similar to the stories we hear in the U.S., about police brutality, police getting away with murder, harassment on a daily basis, especially of the youth," says Choice.
Palestinians clearly live in a "divided nation, similar to how our nation is divided now politically and along lines of race and class," he adds. "We think of refugee camps as an area where refugees live temporarily in tents, but I found out their refugee camps are actually full-blown neighborhoods and cities, where refugees have been displaced for decades. It's like the hood, the ghetto, with lack of funds, resources, lots of poverty. People who were forced out of their homes years ago have settled there, but still hold hope to return to their original land."
Returning home, says Choice, his thoughts have turned to how to use his voice effectively as an artist under this administration -- as opposed to just "reflecting anger or resentment without bringing forth any constructive action."
"I can say 'F*ck Donald Trump,' and that's cool, but how are we going to mobilize to fight his agenda? How are we going to strategize and prepare for the next election, and how can we organize in our communities to keep things together no matter what he's doing the next four years?" asks Choice.
"I'm still going to speak my truth, speak against injustices where I see fit. I'm still going to use my music as service to my community to inspire and uplift in times of need. I'm still an artist, father, educator, and all those things. I just have to be more persistent and resilient as ever."