On His Solo Debut, The Seshen’s Kumar Butler Puts Activists’ Voices Front and Center

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An electronic musician in a cap looks out onto the crowd from the stage.
On his debut solo project, 'solidarity,' Kumar Butler intersperses tender, meditative electronic soundscapes with clips from activists such as Mumia Abu-Jamal and Indya Moore.  (Maya Pisciotto)

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n my last year as a teacher at Oakland School for the Arts, I was assigned to the old band room on the top floor of the historic Fox Theater, where each day, hundreds of students hustled through crowded hallways, singing, dancing and tuning their instruments. It all felt like a too-real version of High School Musical, and I loved it.

My class was the only academic space in an obtuse corner of a hallway. And the room next to mine wasn’t really a room—it was a closet-sized audio production studio, tucked between blue lockers like a hidden passageway at Hogwarts.

I hadn’t paid much attention to what went on in there until I realized that the newly hired instructor, Kumar Butler, was also a young man of color, wearing an Oakland A’s cap. After a few conversations, it was clear that Butler—born and raised in Berkeley and Oakland with an Indian mother and Black father—was rooted in himself, his work and his community. It didn’t take long for us to connect outside of class, and before I knew it, I was invited to see his band, The Seshen. I caught their shows at a warehouse in West Oakland and at Outside Lands, where they were openers for Flying Lotus. They turned out to be legit, with a solid following. (The band even made KQED’s Best Bay Area Albums of 2020 list.) Yet Butler was an unassuming, if not quiet, member of the group.

A band with an electronic producer, drummer, bassist and singer with colorful braids performs on a festival stage.
Kumar Butler (far left) on stage with The Seshen. (Maya Pisciotto)

Despite his rising profile, Butler exuded genuine humility and creative talent, though—as the electronic producer in the six-person group—he was quite literally in the background. And that’s where he preferred to stay.

That’s why I was excited when I heard Butler had dropped a debut solo EP—appropriately titled solidarity. The project is a radical rethinking of how music in 2021 should be experienced: a tender mix of meditative instrumentals, layered with words from revolutionary speakers about social topics that don’t always get center stage in a profit-driven music industry. In each track, there are no lyrics besides the activists’ words regarding racial justice, police violence, trans rights and the dismantling of prisons. It feels necessary for the times.

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“I was trying to think of how to get my students involved into what was going on in Oakland and the country—without preaching to them, but by providing spaces for them to be authentically creative,” Butler told me over the phone.

At the time, he sensed that his students—teenagers who’d elected to be part of OSA’s audio production program, which typically provided access to professional recording equipment—were struggling within a sterile distance learning model. So, like any work that is community-based, Butler began to think about ways to spark his young learners. An instinct to use music based in the real world led him to what would eventually become his first song, “Breonna.”

Butler hit the East Bay streets with the Anti Police-Terror Project—a local organization that mobilizes various actions in response to police brutality in Northern California—and started recording prominent voices like Cat Brooks as they spoke out against the injustices of police violence: “There’s a war being waged on our lives, and so we say in the name of Breonna Taylor that it stops today,” Brooks can be heard saying in the track.

Inspired by the experience, Butler flipped the audio files into various folders, then distributed them to his students. He tasked the 9th–12th graders with integrating these political manifestos as lyrics, challenging each pupil to weave the raw language into their own made-from-scratch instrumentals. This later evolved into researching other audio clips from activists worldwide.

“We’re in a pandemic, so we have people struggling in many ways to find joy and inspiration, and I think looking at the ways in which these communities are expressing hope and joy is important,” Butler explains. “I’m not saying they do it all the time, or that they live in a state of perpetual joy, but it felt important to me to explore these subversive narratives and contextualize them through music so everyone could engage with it.”

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ith the classroom project a success, Butler realized he might be onto something organic, and continued to engage with diverse topics through his audio wizardry. As a Black man living in Oakland, he brainstormed topics that he was invested in and curious about growing into. Butler openly admits he is no savant with these subjects; rather, he is a student himself, learning and expanding with each audio clip he pulls from the internet to lace over silky beats.

In the opening track, “Locked Down,” Butler features the iconic incarcerated revolutionary Mumia Abu-Jamal, who speaks on the role of art in prisons. “Art is that which makes us human,” Abu-Jamal says, “and in [prison], the most inhuman of places, art yet gives colorful, resplendent, original, magical echoes of creativity.”

For Butler, lines like this hit particularly close to home. His older brother is currently incarcerated and has been in and out of the prison system for the past 20 years. The music is a way for Butler to process his feelings, while creating spaces for others to develop their own outlooks.

“I care about the history of my brother and others like him. They deserve to be heard, and to speak for themselves,” Butler says. “I came across Mumia Abu-Jamal talking about art, and that felt so good to me, and I wanted to include the idea of artistry in prisons as a way to give dimension to their experience.”

But like any layered subject, Butler also reveals the fuller elements of incarceration with an array of additional clips from other voices who broadcast their ideas on Prison Radio, and they weren’t all as optimistic. Sergio Hyland, for example, talks about the history of how prisons were designed in the feudal ages to suppress the working classes, and why he and other activists believe the system needs to be dismantled in modern times. Butler is careful to never inject his own voice throughout his EP; rather, he is a curator of perspectives that illuminate the eclectic, lived experiences of people we often ignore as a general population, or that we aggressively preach “wokeness” about. This EP is neither. It’s a contemplative space for questions to be raised, voices to be heard and further exploration to ensue.

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utler embodies this openness by turning his music inward on the third track, “Be You.” Admitting that trans rights is an issue he knew little about, Butler tapped into his network of both LGBTQ+ and straight friends, and began to collect ideas for a song about trans visibility. As a straight male, he acknowledges that he has much left to learn, but also believes that part of his role is to be an active ally for other marginalized communities.

“I wanted to provide a space for myself and for others I know who don’t really talk about trans rights to open a dialogue,” Butler explains. “It’s an open invitation, even if you’re not members of these communities. I think we are all learning at our own paces.”

The song samples various figures in the trans community, including Pose star Indya Moore, activist Jevon Martin and multi-hyphenate media maker Janet Mock. “With visibility comes pain, hurt, and by showing up authentically as yourself, you are bringing awareness to who you are… but the best part is that we have community,” says Martin.

The track encourages the listener to reflect on how they are complicit in these systems of oppression in our society—whether through perpetuating harmful gender norms or other forms of discrimination. It reminds us that it is difficult, even dangerous, for many people to exist in the world as they are. But even with that risk, the speakers assure us that it is worth the struggle, and reveal the possibility of genuine community.

The realness in this message goes beyond any one group of people, and conveys that if we hold ourselves accountable for showing up as our wholest, most aware selves, the potential for progress is greater than the consequences of vulnerability. Butler has done some of that work for himself, and in doing so, he invites listeners to embrace the sounds of solidarity.

“I saw that Indya Moore actually came across the song and Tweeted in support of it. That’s what this is all about. I only hope to build bridges, since politics can be so divisive in this country,” he says. “Pointing fingers doesn’t make change. We have to be open to talking about these things together, even if we’re uncomfortable about it.”

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Correction: This story originally attributed Jevon Martin’s quote to Indya Moore.