We couldn’t me more happy to introduce the fourth and final artist featured in the 80th Season’s Local Artist Commission Series: Oakland-based pianist, rapper, emcee, and music historian Kev Choice. Together with a handful of talented musicians, the Kev Choice Ensemble will perform a never-before-heard song at their Stern Grove Festival performance this Sunday, August 27, when they open for the legendary Mavis Staples.
Pulling inspiration from the strength it takes to push forward during tough times, Kev Choice’s brand new song, “Strong As Us”, reminds us that there is more to come from love than from hate, and that those who band together during tough times are sure to prevail. Read on to learn more about Kev Choice as a musician, the Kev Choice Ensemble sound, and what to look forward to when you come to the closing concert of Stern Grove Festival’s 80th Season this Sunday.
SGF: Tell us a bit about yourself as a musician/performer. Where/when did you first begin practicing music, and where did your passion take you from there?
Kev Choice: I was exposed to great music just from listening to my mom’s records at an early age. I first started taking formal piano lessons at age 11 in 7th grade at Westlake Junior High School in Oakland. I was deeply dedicated to getting better and it led me to the Young Musicians Program at U.C. Berkeley. I was also writing poems and formulating my first raps at that time. My keyboard skills helped me be able to produce and write my first songs. From there I continued to perform in Jazz Band and Orchestra at Skyline High in Oakland while also doing hip-hop shows around town. After high school, my piano training helped me gain a scholarship to Xavier University in New Orleans, Louisiana. I obtained my Bachelor’s Degree from there and then went on to Southern Illinois University at Carbondale to obtain my Master’s degree in Piano Performance. After college, I came home and established myself on the local scene and then began to tour with artists such as Michael Franti and Spearhead, Goapele, The Coup, Lyrics Born, Zion I, Too Short, Lauryn Hill, and more.
SGF: What is the Kev Choice Ensemble? How did you form the group?
Kev Choice Ensemble is the band I formed back in 2007 as a vehicle to perform my original music that I produce, write, and arrange. I had just finished touring with Lauryn Hill, and had the confidence and inspiration to really go full steam pushing my own music and own style combining elements of hip-hop, jazz, soul, R&B, classical, funk, and other contemporary styles of music. I wanted to showcase some of the dope young musicians on the East Bay scene as well. I was playing a lot at that time, but other people’s music or in cover bands, and I didn’t want to do that the rest of my life. I wanted to get my music heard and spread my message because I felt it was as dope and valid as anyone else’s.
SGF: Who is in the Ensemble?
Currently my Ensemble consists of:
Kev Choice – Keys, synths, lead vocals
John “Omayga” Adams – Drums
Kenshay Gooden – Bass
Andrew Levin – Guitar
Daniel Riera – EWI, Flute, Sax
Viveca Hawkins – Vocals
SGF: What sort of music should the audience expect this Sunday?
We play a mixture of conscious Hip-Hop, Soul, Jazz, R&B, Funk, and other contemporary styles of music like Electronic and Trap.
SGF: Have you ever attended Stern Grove Festival to see a concert? If yes, what stood out to you about the experience?
I have and what stood out to me is just the amount of people in attendance and how people really have a great energy and come to enjoy the environment and the music. It’s a great atmosphere to perform in because people really appreciate the music and being surrounded by nature adds a beautiful dynamic.
SGF: What do you—as a performer—look forward to during your Festival performance?
I look forward to really giving a ton of energy to the crowd and really connecting with them, especially those who haven’t seen me perform. I want it to be fun, to showcase my band’s amazing musicianship and inspire and express with the message I try to convey in the music. I also look forward to exposing the new fans to my repertoire from my five albums that I’ve released and the new piece I’ve been working on. I also look forward to looking out and seeing all those beautiful people in the audience.
SGF: In what ways has living in the Bay Area shaped or influenced your music or musicianship?
Living in the Bay Area, especially Oakland, has influenced me in many ways as an artist and musician. With so many legendary artists from here and so many great artists here now, it really makes me push hard to create music at a high level to live up to that legacy and continue to push the boundaries of our scene. There is also a certain feel, that is associated with the Bay that is recognized around the world, influenced by funk, soul, hip-hop, gospel, rock and more. There is also the legacy of artists using their music to express their opinions or take on issues of social justice that we see in our environment. I definitely want my music to be the voice of the people in my community that I represent and love so dearly.
SGF: Tell us about your new piece, part of the Festival’s local artist commission series. What is the song title, and is there any story behind the piece, or anything special you’d like to share?
The new song is titled, “Strong As Us”. It’s just about me pushing forward through adversity and staying positive about everything I go through and equating it to what I see happening in our country right now. It’s pretty disheartening with the recent events in Charlottesville. I felt like there is a lot of negative energy surrounding this coming from the media and the government and hate groups. As an artist, I always want to use my music as a voice of a positive perspective and inspiration. Sometimes I feel like going out and being confrontational but I realize that that can lead to a dangerous and non-productive situation. I wanted to remind people that we are stronger united and together and spreading love is much more powerful than hate.
SGF: Tell us a bit about your creative processes. Where do you tend to pull inspiration from when starting a new piece? Do you have a general process you follow, or does the piece come together more randomly?
Musically, I love to listen to vinyl and old records. I’ve collected all genres of records since junior high school. I especially love music from the 70’s so I turn on records a lot to get inspiration. I also use many current forms of looking up music like Soundcloud, YouTube, and streaming sites. Lyrically, just what I go through in life and what I see happening in my community inspires me.
Sometimes I start by playing around on the piano or keyboard, trying to find a motif or progression. I use programs on my computer so I often search through sounds and drums and see if anything touches me. I could also be inspired by a sample that I find on a record.
SGF: Do you have any advice for younger musicians in the Bay Area who are looking to move forward with their careers?
My advice would be always work on your craft, always be a student and continue to learn. Stay up on all forms of current promotion, marketing, production, and watch the greats as well. Also, never get deterred, every artist has a different path to success and the best thing to do is stay persistent and patient.
SGF: Is there anything else you’d like to share with your current or soon-to-be fans?
I’m heavily involved in arts education, teaching at Oakland School For The Arts in Oakland and I’m working on a piece for the Oakland Symphony to premiere in March 2018.