Sol Development's Karega Bailey, on set for the group's 'Helicopters' video. Sol Development's upcoming album touches on oppression, community and self-determination. (Cinque- qlick)
“What do helicopters do for us?” Karega Bailey, lead MC of SOL Development, asked me as we sat inside of Oakland's Zoo Labs studio earlier this year.
The search engine in my mind brought up flashbacks of footage from people being passed over during Hurricane Katrina, people being followed during protests in response to the killing of Oscar Grant, and hundreds of bird's-eye perspective videos of high-speed chases. The mental images kept flashing as SOL Development’s unreleased single, “Helicopters,” played in the background.
In the second verse of the song, Karega says, “Whoa! Gotta watch out for the planes too / My prayers go to Syria, we say ya’ll names too / Cause the same hate that we’ve been facing / Is the same hate that bombed they nation.”
That’s it. That’s one of the main messages in SOL Development’s music: acknowledging oppressive forces, not just here in California, or in the United States, but worldwide. And beyond that, their music is about combating oppression, empowering the community and pushing for self-determination. All served over this underlying baseline of love.
As universally applicable as those themes might be, the music industry — specifically, the modern hip-hop business — has proven that actually selling music that touches on those topics can be difficult.
The top songs on hip-hop charts are often pop songs, masquerading as the music we’ve come to know as hip-hop. So how does SOL Development plan to sell uplifting hip-hop that has soulful blues-like melodies laid over beats constructed from fusion jazz?
More importantly, how do they plan to ensure people hear the message, when there's so much other noise out there?
“Timeless music doesn’t compete,” Bailey said in response to my question. “The goal isn’t to compete, it’s to get the music to who it’s for.”
Bailey’s quick response was a mic-drop moment during our listening session. Also in the studio were band member Felicia Gangloff-Bailey (who is married to Karega), manager BJ McBride, photographer Ayesha Walker, and artist/ actress Talia Taylor. I think every single one of us had that “Well, he said that!” look on our face as we let the moment linger.
Timeless music doesn't compete. That’s a strong stance. And we’ll see how it holds up when their debut album, yet to be titled, drops this spring.
But before that happens, I can tell you that the group has been successful thus far.
Since I first met the folks from SOL Development, a group made of Karega Bailey, Brittany Tanner, Lauren Adams and Felicia Gangloff-Bailey, it seems like I’ve seen them everywhere. In the past two years I’ve seen them rock the Red Bay Coffee shop in East Oakland, shows on the street at First Friday in Oakland’s Uptown, and even the Oakland Museum. (I wish I could’ve seen them play the huge SXSW festival in Austin this year, just to see the crowd’s reaction, but I gather from Instagram that the group was well-received.)
Simply put, it’s good music: jazzy tunes, with clear lyrics and quality vocals, not to mention its themes are extremely relevant to the current news in America, especially right here in Northern California.
A couple of weeks ago, the shooting of Stephon Clark by a Sacramento police officer brought national attention to our state’s capitol. In the midst of the protestors, cameras and helicopters, SOL Development was right there. “I grew up on that same block,” said Bailey during a recent phone conversation. He told me that the neighborhood is a “forgotten part of Sacramento” where tourism and government dollars don’t reach.
To Bailey, being there for the protests was powerful, not just as a person who grew up there, but also as an artist who speaks about these issues and draws from real-world experience. “The teaching isn’t in the rhetoric. The rhetoric codes the instructions, but you have to undergo it to understand it,” Bailey told me. “This isn’t secondary research. You have to model it by living it.”
And modeling it isn’t always easy.
Bailey’s brother was shot and killed by another black man in Sacramento a few years ago. And although Bailey and his crew walk and talk a pro-African American message, he stands firm in his belief that, at times, it’s hard to love black people.
“It’s easy to love being black, but do you love black folks? If you can’t understand the question, you’ve never tried to love black folks,” said Bailey.
“We’re looking at some of the most scarred people; we’re beauty, but we’re scarred. And we haven’t received the healing, collectively. When you love wounded people, you have to be on the sacrificing end of love. And very few people are willing to be on the end of that,” said Bailey.
He added that it’s easy to love being black, because it’s popularized. I laughed as he said that you get to inherit the “spirit of cool.” And I silently nodded in agreement as he said it also comes with inherited wounds. “It’s not easy when you realize the guy who killed your brother, his pops is in prison too,” Bailey said.
Heavy. To hear that from a man who speaks of righteousness. A person who wears Black Panther logos, earth tones, and a hat that reads “Peace King.” A person who teaches at a school named after a Tupac poem, Roses In Concrete. A person who, every time I’ve seen him perform, always gets a solid percentage of the crowd to raise a fist to the sky — no matter what’s going on in the world.
Whichever old scars people are healing from, or whatever current events are causing new scars, Bailey and crew are present, consistently putting on quality shows with strong performances from Tanner, Adams and Gangloff, who also write some of the groups’ music. Constantly working strategically with other artists and notable producers like Alameda’s Trackademicks to Sacramento’s Mino Yanci.
Now it’s time to see how that consistency translates. How will crowds react to the group’s album? And how will it bring healing to the masses?
Regardless of the answers, it’s powerful in itself to hear entertainers speak of collective healing. Especially when the wounds are front-and-center, evident in the individuals, the community and the entertainment industry in itself. You don’t need to be up close to see it. It’s easily identifiable from far away; you could literally be sitting in a helicopter and see the pain in the black community in America, and how it relates to oppressed people around the world.
Pendarvis Harshaw is the author of 'OG Told Me,' a memoir about growing up in Oakland, and a weekly columnist for KQED Arts. Find him on Twitter here.