Considering the tragic circumstances surrounding his birth and the doubtless emotional fallout of discovering these circumstances, there’s a surprising amount of positivity radiating from HOKA, the third studio album from Nahko and Medicine for The People.
Nahko, who is of Apache, Puerto Rican, and Filipino descent, was adopted by a white middle-class American family from birth and only came to learn of his true parentage as a teenager, after his disillusion with the world (as well as his admiration of Americana vagabond musicians like Bob Dylan, which middle track ‘We Are On Time’ is a clear nod to) caused him to pack his bags up in search of adventure and self-discovery. Sadly it turned out his mother had been forced into human trafficking (the two of them now work together to advocate for the anti-trafficking movement of indigenous men and women), while his father was murdered in 1994 – the track ‘San Quentin’ actually comes from Nahko’s visit with the man responsible for his father’s death, whom he ultimately forgave.
Forgiveness is indeed just one of the many themes that run deep in HOKA. ‘We Shall Overcome’ also employs the sentiment, only this time in more general regards to the countless atrocities that Nahko and his people have had to face over the years: fusing elements of jazz and hip hop, he repeatedly acknowledges that he “remembers” every injustice, but that he also “forgives”. Religion is also explored through the orchestral rap sounds of ‘Love Letters to God’ as well as the folksy ‘Great Spirit’, the latter of which Nahko again conveys the idea that peace and forgiveness will always triumph over hatred through his prayers to the titular figure.
It’s heavy stuff, yet Nahko hasn’t allowed any of it destroy him; instead he’s been able to transform his experiences into an uplifting blend of hip hop and folk rock that spread a stirring call to action for the empowerment of marginalised people and the bridging together of different cultures, be it race, religion or social class. ‘Directions’, the album’s second track wherein he repeatedly calling out to his grandparents for “guidance”, is perhaps one of the strongest examples of this: on the one hand, it’s a very personal and emotive track which sees him paying tribute to his native roots, yet it still manages to be huge in sound and wholly accessible to a wider audience, a talent which he further displays in tracks such as ‘It Is Written’, ‘Build a Bridge’ and the Earth Day single ‘Make a Change’, all of which see Nahko pour his heart out over his heritage and ideological beliefs through hip hop-influenced verses within a massive big band soundtrack. Closing tracks ‘Runner’ and ‘The Wolves Have Returned’ are especial highlights that swell with a triumphantly communal feeling of solidarity and love, the latter in particular serving as a fittingly powerful collaborative finale.
HOKA spans nineteen tracks and almost eighty minutes, yet not once does it ever feel boring or overlong. It’s clear from the word go that Nahko’s voice is something special, and not just in the musical sense; with every track, be it a six minute long anthem or a sixty second long instrumental piece with spoken word poetry, Nahko has something to say. Sometimes it’s emotional; sometimes it’s exultant, but it’s always important.
Words by Samantha King