Nahko and Medicine For The People bring their musical mission to Boomtown
Nahko Bear has had the kind of life that might be rejected by scriptwriters for being far-fetched.
Adopted as a baby by a middle-class, white American family, he tracked down his mother when he was 20, only to discover she had been forced into slavery.
He also began to learn about his Puerto Rican, native American and Filipino roots, and along with his birth mother has become an advocate for the anti-trafficking movement of indigenous men and women.
And to top that, he found out his biological father had been murdered in 1994. The powerful recent single San Quentin is the result of Nahko visiting the man responsible for murdering his father – and forgiving him.
‘I didn’t really know what I was going to say to him,’ says Nahko.
‘I went there to forgive this man and in forgiving him, I freed myself. It only hurts yourself to hang onto hate. Forgiveness empowers you to create change. I believe everything happens for a reason good and bad. People are put in your life for a reason, and you need to turn that pain into something positive to make the world a better place.’
‘Over the past three years, I’ve been cracked open so deeply in my own healing to really give this record my all,’ explains Nahko. ‘My style of writing and my intentions with how I put things together have evolved a lot.’
The song features on the new album by Nahko and Medicine For The People, their third, which is entitled Hoka.
And despite some of the weighty themes it covers, it’s a positive, uplifting experience, driven by Nahko and his five-piece band as they meld rock, folk, a touch of hip-hop and anything else that comes on their radar. They perform what they call ‘real talk music’, as in Nahko’s words, ‘it doesn’t beat around the bush.’
They’re playing next weekend at Boomtown, the eclectic festival near Winchester, that runs from August 11 to 14. They only made their first trip to the UK last year.
‘We were very well received,’ Nahko tells WOW247 from his home in LA. ‘It’s always one of those things, you’re never sure how you’re going to go down on your first visit somewhere – we’re not Mumford and Sons, but we have such a huge social media following and that’s a testament to our fans and word of mouth from our live shows.’
Good old-fashioned word of mouth, albeit in a 21st century social media-style, has been key in the band’s building popularity. They first came to prominence with their 2013 song Aloha Ke Akua which has gained more than 6.1million views to date on the fan-made video and became a Top Ten hit on both the Billboard Top Alternative Albums and Top Heatseekers charts.
‘When people are writing to me asking us to come to Africa or South Ameria, places we haven’t been yet, they tell me ‘‘you’ve got a big fanbase down here, we’ve been sharing your music’’ – people understand that there’s still a lot of music that’s being shared and following things outside the mainstream.’
But with the band rubbing increasingly up against that mainstream and becoming a ‘normal’ outfit, Nahko is relishing the chance to spread his message.
‘Absolutely, music has been life-changing for me, and it’s the thing that’s always been there for me in a way that I think a lot of people can testify to.
‘It’s always been appealing – you probably have a song or a band that changed your life. Music for me is how I view the world – the stuff I write, I write to further understand my own purpose here on the planet, and it’s a gentle reminder that, hey buddy, it’s going to be okay.’
And music has helped him through those difficult times in his life –particularly with regards to the different parts of his family.
‘Music is an easy thing to rely on, it’s a crutch, it’s a great tool for me to speak about my transitions.
‘I just tried to understand where I stood in this world, between these different families. It helped me bridge them in a way, to relate to everyone in the family, because they’re all so different.
‘As much as I knew I was related to these people, or they raised me, I often felt like an outsider. It took me many years to get through that and to a place where I could just be normal with me. I’m grateful I was given the capability to carry the weight and be able to be open and loving to everyone.’
Nahko started playing the piano as a youngster but, disillusioned by the world around him and inspired by vagabond, Americana musicians and storytellers like Conor Oberst and Bob Dylan, Nahko left home as a teenager in search of adventure and self-discovery
‘I started playing music pretty early, as a teenager I knew I had a gift to teach – I was a piano teacher and a music director for a while.
‘I definitely never thought, even in my early 20s,that I would be able to survive off it. My relationship with making music and what a normal musician’s life was like at the time – I didn’t know about touring, I didn’t know what a label was, I didn’t know any of that stuff. I was just writing songs, I was never looking at it, like, one day, I’m going to do that for a living.
‘For a good six years I was on a farm in Hawaii, and thinking that that was my life – I can make money as a labourer, I can use a hammer and nail. I still loved my music, but it was my side gig.
‘I would say that my relationship with my own music over the past five years – I turned 30 this year – I started to take myself more seriously. I thought, like, something’s happening here, people are actually asking about my music.’
His group’s debut album Dark As Night came in 2013, followed a year later by On The Verge.
They recorded Hoka with the British Grammy Award-winning producer Ted Hutt and Nahko and his musical collective are also joined by album guests Trevor Hall, Xavier Rudd, Rising Appalachia’s Leah Song, singer-songwriter Zella Day, the female trio Joseph, Hawaiian singer Hawane Rios and Pua Case.
As Nahko explains: ‘Hoka is a Lakota word, it is a call to action. It’s what Crazy Horse would say when he went into battle, “Hoka, hey!” My call is to put action to the words that I speak and the lyrics I sing. Not just to talk, but to do,’
Although Nahko is currently based in LA, he says: ‘I’m so like a chameleon, I can find my spot anywhere. I miss Hawaii and I miss the lifestyle, but I’m adaptable. Living in LA, I’m in a cool spot, I’m only a couple of blocks from the ocean on a quiet street, but I also recognise that it’s not forever.
‘To be honest we haven’t really stopped touring for three years – except to make the record.
‘We worked with Ted Hutt, and he was a great joy to work with, he has such a wealth of knowledge.
‘I was definitely trying to practice my English accent with him. My Australian accent is crushing it because I’ve got an Australian in my band, but the English accent just bleeds into Australian.’
And as this writer can attest, while his music and his message can deliver on any number of levels, Nahko’s English accent definitely needs work.
n Boomtown returns for its eighth year from August 11 to 14. There will be headline sets from Madness, Damian ‘Jr Gong’ Marley, Levellers, Leftfield and dozens more across the festival’s 24 stages.
Adult tickets start at £180 for the weekend, extra for vehicle parking or coach packages. Go to boomtownfair.co.uk.