Nahko: Power To The People

Dean Budnick on July 19, 2018


Tonight Nahko and Medicine for The People return to Central Park SummerStage for the second of two dates with Dispatch. Here’s our 2016 conversation with Nahko Bear that has not previously appeared online.

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“I don’t come from a big hippie background but, as I’ve learned over the years, what I’m really doing is energy work. People’s energy is malleable and you can work with them to do so much.” Nahko Bear is referencing his performance ethos, but this statement could apply to almost every facet of his life, which seamlessly blends music and activism.

The Nahko and Medicine for the People frontman, who is of Apache, Puerto Rican and Filipino descent, named his band’s latest record, HOKA, after the Lokota expression “Hoka, hey.” This phrase is a call to action that venerable chiefs such as Crazy Horse bellowed before entering battle, and it translates to: “Today is a good day to die.”

As Nahko expounds in a mission statement he has shared with his fans, “Within our global community, we have access to the tools needed to make changes, take action and spread awareness of how to live in harmony with Mother Gaia herself. We are honored to be a force of attraction for positive and creative minds during these often-corrupt times. With your trust and support, we humbly accept this role and speak our prayers of intention to take direct action. ‘Hoka, hey’ means ‘Today is a good day to die,’ but perhaps with your help, it could transform into a ‘Better day to live.’ Thank you again for your love and support. Tribe members, let us come together today to be the change that we wish to see tomorrow.”

The tribe he is referencing extends beyond those of Native American heritage and reflects the growing community Nahko has nurtured during a personal journey that has carried him from Portland, Ore.—where he grew up—to Alaska, Hawaii and then around the globe.

Nahko Parayno most assuredly did not come from a hippie background. He was raised by a conservative Christian family who adopted him at 9 months old and subsequently homeschooled him. He would go on to admire the life and art of Ken Kesey, but although the musician lived 100 miles from Kesey’s homebase in Eugene, he did not discover the writer’s work until relocating to Alaska at age 18. (The state is also the setting of Kesey’s novel Sailor Song.) As Nahko, who is now 30, notes, “My uncle had grown up in that era and was in the same circles as Kesey. He was also a Deadhead and he hung out with Janis Joplin. After I left home, he was finally able to talk to me about it. When I was with my family, he wasn’t able to talk to me about it because my mom wouldn’t let him, and I was like, ‘Oh my God. All this happened in the state where I was from.’ I’m just fascinated with the lifestyle of living in a van or hitchhiking around the country. I started doing all that stuff and I learned how to do it all.” He pauses and then adds one qualification: “I never hopped trains, but you can’t do everything.”

The new record was produced by Ted Hutt (The Gaslight Anthem, Old Crow Medicine Show, Lucero, Dropkick Murphys) and also features band members Chase Makai (guitar), Justin Chittams (drums), Pato (bass and kora), Tim Snider (violin) and Max Ribner (horns). Unlike Nahko and Medicine for the People’s first two studio records, Dark as Night (2013) and On the Verge (2014), the group devoted some time to the preproduction process, honing the material, which spans the past seven years of Nahko’s life.

“I took a lot of care in picking the songs, and I spent a lot of time talking to Ted about the songs and playing them for him. I have a back catalog—a lot of songs that just didn’t get recorded and I’d just uploaded them to YouTube, which is why I say we work backward a lot,” he explains. “As a band, we spent about a month rehearsing before we recorded, and we reworked some of the songs, but it was also really fun. That’s what it’s about: You’ve got to keep it fun. I have a big love for hip-hop records that really tie songs together with little pieces of audio and accentuated stories, and that’s what my intention was with this record: to have different little pieces. You see 19 tracks on there, but there are really only about 14 songs.”

HOKA’s narrative relates Nahko’s personal journey through a series of revelatory songs that often aspire to achieve communal catharsis.

For instance, “San Quentin” reflects a profound encounter that the musician shared with the man who murdered his father. Nahko’s birth mother was only 14 years old when she was forced into human trafficking. He learned of her story years later, along with the account of his father’s death, which led him to visit the individual responsible for the crime, who was then incarcerated in the California prison of the song’s title.

“There’s actually another side of that story that’s not done yet,” Nahko reveals. “He was released from prison that year because my brothers and sisters were so moved by the story that they spoke up on his behalf. He was deported back to the Philippines on Christmas Day, which was the day that he killed my dad, 20 years later. What he had told me was that, if he ever got out—which at the time I thought was impossible—he wanted to go reconcile with his dad who was dying of cancer. He hadn’t had a visitor in that whole time, so he was looking forward to going back home and saying to his father, ‘I’m sorry I shamed my family.’

“Another thing he told me before I left him that day was that, if he ever got out, he’d like to take me fishing. He told me he wanted to do that to give back because, he said, ‘My dad would take me fishing and our dad never got to do anything with you.’ So now that he’s out, finishing the story to me would be finding him in the Philippines and having him take me fishing.”

Nahko hopes to visit the country, which is currently in the midst of political turmoil, at some point in the near future. As he discloses, “A woman named Robin Lim reached out to me. She’s a Filipino who lives in Indonesia. She started a birthing center teaching women how to be midwives. The Indonesian government has this policy where, if you have a baby in the hospital and you can’t affo d to pay the fees, then they keep your baby. A number of babies die as a result of this, so she opened a birthing clinic and also began teaching people to become midwives so they can get around that law. She started an organization [Bumi Sehat, which means ‘Healthy Earth Mother’] to address this problem. I know I have work to do in the Philippines that may have to do with midwifery or Robin Lim, or it may be something else entirely. I just know that I feel called to be there.”

As he shares his account via phone from Mount Shasta, Calif., Nahko is astride a horse, relaxing with a ride on the day before he will travel to the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota to join a protest against the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, which has been opposed by the Standing Rock Sioux along with other tribal nations and environmentalists. He continues to push for renewable energy and also prides himself on his ability to “create a safety net through music and serve as a bridge to bring people together, because there are so many tribal people who just don’t talk to each other but are all suffering from big oil.” In Mount Shasta, he is working with the Winnemem Wintu Tribe on their Run 4 Salmon campaign, bringing awareness to the impact of the Shasta Dam, which flooded their village and resulted in the disappearance of Chinook salmon from nearby spawning grounds.


Do you feel that musicians, particularly in this day and age, have a responsibility to use their platform to express their views on politics or social reform?

I would hope that could’ve been something we learned from the ‘60s, but it’s obvious that’s not the case. Everyone’s got opinions, but they all don’t necessarily feel that it’s their place to share those opinions on the stage. That’s fair—not everybody is made for that. But I view it as an amazing place to share information, and it’s one of the most powerful places to share opinions and have a solution-based atmosphere with people. Rather than talk about how fucked up things are, let’s talk about how we can solve things.

Moving away from activism, I’m fascinated by your time as the music director at an Alaskan dinner theater. How did that come about?

When I was 17, I left home and went to community college. I wasn’t feeling it and, at that time, I was working as a music director at a community theater just outside of Portland. I was there for four or five months when this woman came in from Alaska and said, “I just left a job after 25 years; I think you’d be great for it.” I had never left Oregon. I told her, “Yeah, if you want to recommend me…” They hired me and, about three months later, I was flying up to Alaska. All of a sudden, I was in charge of this theater group. I was barely 18 and had never left home.

I come from a really conservative background. I had never really drunk alcohol before and had never done drugs before. When I got up there, the first thing a kid said to me was, “Hey, man, you want a beer?” I told him I was only 18 so I couldn’t really drink beer, and he told me he didn’t care about my age. So I said, “Oh, sure, I guess I’ll have a beer.” Things sort of went from there.

I’d work from 3–11 p.m. just playing piano. It really worked my chops up, got my on-the-fl y playing going. The play was about Denali National Park. There would be two shows a night for 500 people. I had to play music from the 1920s to the 1940s, and I was the emcee.

Meanwhile, I was exploring as well. It was the middle of nowhere Alaska, and it was the first time I had ever been charged by a moose and seen bears in the wild and all this crazy stuff. That was really formidable for me— it showed me how small I was in the world.

I started reading Jack Kerouac. I met a lot of travelers and they showed me the kind of lifestyle that I became accustomed to—that vagabond, living o˜ pennies kind of way. It was a seasonal job, so I was there for about six months and, right after that first season, I bought a van in Northern California and drove to Louisiana. I had never been there before and I lived in this three-story house with 12 other people who didn’t have jobs. There were massive amountsof psychedelics involved. I was traveling by myself—learning what it was like to be away from home, finding yourself and learning the ropes of the road.

When I went back that next spring to Alaska, I decided I would drive my van this time, packed full of bikes, skateboards and all this summer stuff. When I got up to about the Yukon territory, with snow still on the ground, my van broke down. I had to hitchhike and ditch everything. I showed up empty-handed but I had a job waiting for me. They wouldn’t hire me back as the music director because I was so loose that previous year. I was really going for it—showing up to work tripping. I was a kid, I was exploring and I had no understanding of the responsibility required to do a job like that. So I worked that summer just washing dishes and working at a restaurant as a cook.

I wrote a lot of songs in those times, and I discovered the WWOOFing program [World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms], a work-trade program, and I bought a $200 ticket to Hawaii and left Alaska behind. When I got to Hawaii, I was finally able to get y work ethic in shape.

You eventually were invited to purchase land to start a farm?

It was completely divine. It’s a lease-to-own. We’re going to buy it outright in the next fi e years. My land partner and I basically knew zilch about farming at the time, but this guy met my buddy and said, “I think you guys should take a piece of land and see what you can do with it.” Then, my friend called me up like, “Dude, I don’t know what I’m doing.” I showed up and we spent the next seven or eight years building this little farm, and it’s one of those places that’s paying its own rent at the moment. We started a business growing a grass from Haiti called vetiver. It’s great—it’s a soil-erosion solution for tropical regions. We plant it around people’s houses where they have possible erosion because the houses are on the hillside.

The roots also are amazing for aromatherapy, so we sell the oils. We also sell eucalyptus and lemongrass oil [at vetiverfarmshawaii.com]. I haven’t been as involved during the past four years because I’ve been touring a lot, but I like to go once or twice a year just to check on the place and see how it’s going. It’s a slow build, but it’s a really fun place to have a project.

You mentioned Kerouac earlier. To what extent is he still in the back of your mind, informing your songwriting?

I think he’s there as an overarching piece. It wasn’t about his idealism or even about the adventures he went on; it was more about his way of being and how he was able to go with the fl w so well. At the same time I was reading him I was listening to Paul Simon and Bright Eyes and Neil Young and Talking Heads. I was getting this flood of information from the kids I was hanging out with in Alaska who sort of took me in and educated me.

Do you remember the first song that you wrote?

Absolutely, it was horrible. I think I still have it on VHS. The fir t open mic I ever went to was at the theater I ended up working at before I went to Alaska. I had this video camera that I bought, and I recorded it. It’s somewhere in my mom’s attic, I think.

This is how conservative my family was: I couldn’t have girlfriends. I couldn’t get a girl’s number and I couldn’t call a girl from my mom’s phone. It was just really strict. Eventually, there was this one girl who I just wanted to go hang out with, and I went and had a coffee date with he . She wanted a raspberry Italian soda, and I was so infatuated with her afterward. She had cool wingtip shoes and a really rad record player with a huge record collection—she was that kind of girl. So afterward, I wrote this song called “Raspberry Charm.” How bad is that? [Laughs.]

I have a black book at home that has all the songs I used to write when I was a teenager. The lyrics are there and the chord progressions are there— that’s how organized I was.

You have a special relationship with your fans, one of whom created a video that really introduced you to the world.

It was funny—we had actually made another video ourselves for “Me and Mr. Washington” and, that same week, somebody posted the “Aloha Ke Akua” video on my page. I thought, “Oh, cute, a fan video—I’ll check it out later.” A couple of days later when I finally watched it, I just cried and was very emotional. It was so cool and I couldn’t believe they had done that.

It was one of the songs I hadn’t officially recorded yet— it was a demo that I played on piano. My way of doing things back in the day was I would burn CDs with random tracks I recorded on GarageBand or at a show or on my phone, and I would throw those on a CD. I probably burned a couple thousand of those over a few years. I’d give them out to people when I would play at farmers’ markets or at coffeehouse . Somewhere along the way, he got one of those CDs, then he bought some of this stock footage for commercials and put the music to it.

When I first watched it, it only had 50 views and, now, it has 6 million views. Over the course of that year, people would write to me from Norway or Bermuda or Morocco or wherever and tell me: “I just watched ‘Aloha Ke Akua’ and it’s so amazing—it changed my life.” And I thought, “Wow, that’s so crazy—what a gift.” That became the song that really helped people discover us, and also created transformations through the song and video.