The Center for Black Student Success (CBSS) and California State University, Monterey Bay (CSUMB) hosted a virtual event with Bay Area hip-hop artist Kev Choice on Sept. 9. Choice, an Oakland-based rapper, pianist and activist spoke with CBSS’ Umi Vaughan about his musical experiences working with hip-hop legends, as well as working with kids in Oakland’s schools and how music can be used as a form of social justice activism.
Vaughan began the event by discussing the services CBSS provides to CSUMB students such as mentorships, supplies for academic success and resources for conducting research. This event kicks off CBSS’ first installment of the Katherine Dunham African Diaspora Art Series for the semester.
After giving a brief introduction of CBSS, Vaughan introduced Choice, while he opened the event with a live performance of his song “Countin Blessings.”
“Countin Blessings” is a dedication to one of Choice’s former students that was tragically killed while studying at the University of Southern California.
“I was feeling a lot of pain, but we still have to count blessings,” Choice said. “We have to live on. The people that we lose, we have to live on in their memory and keep pushing.”
Choice’s fascination and introduction to music began when he was child, his exposure to the church choir and music that his family or neighbors were playing intensified his musical passion. Growing up in Oakland, Choice was often listening to Too Short, Prince, The Beastie Boys and Run-D.M.C.
While in school, Choice had the opportunity to take a music class and his love for the piano was born. In the seventh grade, Choice took formal piano lessons to further his training and artistic skills.
Lyrical verses came natural to Choice who, under the guidance of his uncle, was taught how to write bars. Choice began writing poetry and putting it in bar form for rap verses.
“At the junior high age, I was around a lot of cats and we would just be rapping,” Choice said. “We saw who was who, you rap and you do music. We all started hanging out with each other.”
Choice furthered his musical repertoire in high school, ciphering lyrical verses every day after each class period. Working on beats and freestyling with other classmates and friends was something Choice took pride in.
“We would jump on the bus and freestyle battle anybody,” Choice said. “That was the culture back then. It was all fun, but competitive for sure.”
After high school, Choice made the move to New Orleans for college, where he often participated in the underground rap scene – reminding him of home back in the Bay Area. Upon completing his bachelor’s degree, Choice began his graduate studies in Chicago, where he formed influential relationships and began implementing the soul music style of Chicago into his own practices.
“Hip-hop introduced me to jazz,” Choice said. “To me, the connection of the music is the Black diaspora – it’s music from our culture, it’s music from the streets, it’s the music from our people and it helps tell our stories and express ourselves.”
Throughout his music career, Choice has traveled to Europe and worked with various artists from Lauryn Hill to Mos Def.
“Trying to stay true to my vision and pushing through is a daily challenge,” Choice said. “When you believe in yourself and the intention of what you’re doing, then you push through all obstacles.”
As an independent artist, Choice values music and the space it creates for collaboration. Travelling and interacting with people from other countries, Choice has been able to recognize his own privilege, as well as break down barriers and stereotypes.
Using music as a platform to give voices to the oppressed, Choice finds it his civic duty to inform others of key issues plaguing the country such as police brutality, lack of voter awareness, education and housing crises and violence within his own community.
“If you have a platform, that is an opportunity to speak up for something,” Choice said. “If I was out here struggling to survive, I would hope someone would speak out for me and that would encourage me to speak out – that’s how you start a movement.”
Concluding the event with a live performance of “That Life,” Choice reflects on the experiences and opportunities he has been granted from music, utilizing music as an outlet for self-expression and activism.
“It’s all about being influenced by where we are and where we go,” Choice said.
Choice will be releasing a video of his work with the San Francisco Symphony across all digital platforms on Sept. 24. Choice will also be performing in the Bay Area on Oct. 1 at Oakland’s jazz venue Yoshi’s.
Leaving viewers with the advice to have faith and develop spiritual connections – not necessarily pertaining to religious beliefs – Choice finds that having a strong sense of self and spiritual connections are crucial for moving past adversity.
“When you remember that power and divine connection we all have, I feel like there’s anything that you can get through in life,” Choice said.
CBSS will be hosting a “Black Money Matters” event on Sept. 23 with financial coach Byb Bibene. Bibene will be giving Otters helpful tools on how to make effective money decisions.