This week, The People's Conservatory will premiere Kola: An Afro Diasporic Remix of The Nutcracker. The production is a re-envisioned version of Tchaikovsky's holiday classic through the lens of African and Afro-Latinx music, dance, theater, and culture, designed to reflect the lives of Black and brown children socially, politically, and spiritually in modern-day Oakland.
As well as incorporating re-mixed Tchaikovsky, the work also features new works from Oakland's Kev Choice representing jazz, gospel, Afro-Caribbean, hip-hop, and R&B. The Kola creative team, comprised of Jennifer Johns, RyanNicole, and People's Conservatory founder Rozz Nash, approached the beloved local musician to help rewrite this narrative and provide new compositions.
The work includes contributions as performers, composers, and costume and set designers from over 500 students from more than a dozen East Bay schools involved. "They're all incredible women, incredible entertainers/educators," Choice said of his selection, "and I was flattered that they considered me for the project."
In Kola, we follow 13-year-old Nzingha on an epic ancestral journey through time and space. Following the trail of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, she travels to West Africa, Brazil, Cuba, Haiti, and Spain and back, discovering her deep roots in the world and most importantly her own unique voice. This Afro- and Latinx-rooted program explores indigenous histories through music and theater, all done through dance-styles ranging from breakdancing, to jazz, flamenco, and of course, ballet.
"Because I have a diverse background in music, I was able to take classical and African music, jazz and hip-hop to create an Afro-diasporic re-mix of every genre of Black music you can think of to create a sonic landscape that supported the story," Choice said in an interview. "I love all those styles of music and being able to bring them all together in one place was a satisfying process."
Although he has been playing music and performing for more than 30 years, appearing in local venues including Yoshi's and The SF Jazz Festival, Choice's down-to-earth demeanor and laid-back musical focus have kept him a bit underground. But as Kola and other projects come out in 2020, it may have people asking, "Who is Kev Choice?"
The musician grew up in Oakland and took his first piano lesson at age 11. "I was really dedicated to music at an early age," he recalled. "Being a member of the hip-hop generation, I was also into rhyming and rapping, forming groups around The Town." After earning a bachelor's at Xavier University of Louisiana and a master's at Southern Illinois University, he came back home and became engulfed in the music scene, working with artists such as Goaple and Zion-I. Then in 2007, he toured with Lauryn Hill for a year as her music director.
"That was a beautiful experience," Choice said. "In a lot of ways, that showed me that I really belonged in this industry. And watching her go through the ups and downs of touring, how she didn't compromise her music or vision, really encouraged me to want to be my own artist. She inspired me to seek my voice and be unapologetic about it. She gave me that energy. So when I came home, I started working on being Kev Choice."
Since that time, Choice has added to his international resume by touring Europe with The Coup, and working with artists including Dwele, Martin Luther, Amel Larrieux, Omar, Joi, and Souls of Mischief. As a solo artist, he's opened for Robert Glasper, Mos Def, Digable Planets, DJ Quik, and leads a jazz-hip-hop-funk big band, the Kev Choice Ensemble, in addition to producing and performing his own material, which includes original jazz and classical compositions.
"My focus is to stay engulfed in the local music scene and keep trying to create opportunities where we can celebrate music, celebrate culture," he said.
As a hip-hop artist, Choice is on a similar but slightly different mission. He aims to not only return hip-hop to the cultural standards it once had, but to surpass the genre's creative peak by adding new layers of musical nuance into beats, rhymes. His artistic vision, he said, is to be an artist who combines hip-hop "with a type of musicality that has never been done" and to "make conscious hip-hop music that is also accepted on a mainstream level."
Today's state of Black music, particularly mainstream rap, concerns Choice. "The subject matter is often very offensive, and centered around money, sex, drugs, and other subjects that aren't positive," he said. "I definitely feel we need more of a balance again."
2020 looks like a big year for Kev Choice. With production projects on the way with big names like Wiz Khalifa and forming a new band with Mike Blankenship and Howard Wiley called Black London — which is playing a 20-year anniversary tribute to D'Angelo's Voodoo at Yoshi's on January 24 — the composer is on the precipice of yet another apex of progression of the Oakland sound.
"We come together to celebrate Black music," Choice said. "I'm always about our local music scene. I appreciate the love The Town has always given me, and I make my music to give it back."
Kola: An Afro Diasporic Remix of The Nutcracker runs through Dec. 22, $10-20, Castlemont High School, 8601 MacArthur Blvd., Oakland, ThePeoplesConservatory.org