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Kev Choice's 'Social Distancing' Album Captures Four Weeks of Hope and Grief

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The rapper and pianist recorded the ambitious, uplifting album with two dozen remote collaborators while sheltering in place.  (Courtesy of Kev Choice)

The day shelter-in-place orders came down in the Bay Area, Kev Choice was in the studio with soul singer and Afro-house producer Jennifer Johns. They were laying down a track that would later become part of his Social Distancing album, “Can’t Stop Me,” where jazz piano flutters over congas. Between Choice’s verses, Johns’ resonant voice reminds us that “I’ma still sing my song / I’ma still shine my light,” even during a tragedy.

Once the two friends realized this might be the last time they would see each for a while, they rushed to get the vocals done before the stroke of midnight—so Johns could drive home before the order officially took effect. Choice remembers anxiety starting to set in. “I just put her in the booth and said, ‘Sing what you feel right now,’” says the rapper, producer and multi-instrumentalist. “That was the first song I started creating with this [situation] in mind.”

“I think it was a lot of racing against the unknown,” Johns recalls. When Choice began to play the chords on his piano, her mind settled.

“We had been talking about being resilient,” she says. “We share a spiritual perspective and a spiritual practice, so [we both believe in] the importance of saying out loud the power that we live with, the power that we are, comes from inside of us … even if the human part of ourselves isn’t quite sold on the idea.”

In the days that followed, Choice took his studio equipment home and quickly got to work on an album he envisions as a real-time dispatch from the COVID-19 pandemic. What started as a five-track EP grew into 12 songs that feature over two dozen collaborators—jazz musicians, rappers and producers, all recording remotely in their home studios.

Enveloped in the warm tones of live jazz, funk and soul instrumentation, the nuanced hip-hop project gives voice to anger at government inaction, grief for loss of life and frustrations at adapting to a stifling new normal. Yet an uplifting message floats through Social Distancing, carried by Choice’s buoyant rapping and piano playing. He doesn’t offer a false sense of hope, but rather a realist perspective ultimately grounded in his faith in the strength of the human spirit.

“Growing up in Oakland, we’ve had adversity from so many different angles. We’re ready for whatever fight we have to get into whether that’s oppression, poverty or a disease,” Choice says. “You have to have optimism in those situations when you’re fighting something that seems impossible to overcome.”

A classically trained pianist immersed in many of the Bay Area’s different live music scenes, Choice has omnivorous tastes. Social Distancing puts his jazz band Black London in dialogue with rapper-activist Mistah F.A.B., Lalin St. Juste of indie pop bad The Seshen, Karega Bailey from Sol Development and rising producer and bassist Drew Banga, among many others. Together, they take stock of the foreign emotional landscape all of us are now navigating as the world slows its pace, and we are asked to hold the paradox of retreating into the stillness of our homes (if we’re lucky enough to have them) while an invisible chaos looms outside.

“What we thought was important is not important—the likes, the money or the jewelry, none of that is important, all of them are disposable,” says Mistah F.A.B. His verse on the gospel-tinged “Silver Lining” flows with gratitude for quality conversations with his daughter and more time to perfect his crafts. “What’s really important is family, love and peaceful vibes, establishing a peace of mind. If you can master peace then you can create a masterpiece.”

Choice says his perspective is informed by his spiritual community, the Oakland Center for Spiritual Living, which emphasizes meditation and personal development as a means of changing the world. But in the moments when Social Distancing delves into worldly matters, he’s not afraid to lay blame on those in charge—specifically President Trump—for downplaying the epidemic and not doing enough to bolster the healthcare system and social safety nets. With communities of color being hit by the pandemic the hardest, he also draws connecting threads to the United States’ history of exploitation and genocide.

“For us to not have a better response, a better plan—economically and for those who are on the front lines in the medical field—to me is a travesty. And people are dying because of it,” Choice says.

Ultimately, Social Distancing ends on a resolute note. The final track is called “The Vaccine,” but instead of prescribing a solution, Choice gives the listener space to process. It’s an instrumental with Black London, and Howard Wiley’s saxophone, at times tense and at times soothing, rocks the listener into a contemplative reverie.

“Music is a healer, it’s a cure, it inspires us. I know doctors who are having super hard days, nurses, people on the front lines,” Choice says. “Hopefully they can listen to this at home and have some sort of consolation.”


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