Freedom of Choice

With a musical love letter to his rapidly changing hometown, Oakland's favorite sideman takes center stage

Kev Choice near his home in Oakland's Lakeshore neighborhood.

It's 2:30 on a Thursday afternoon in East Oakland, and on stage in the amphitheater at Castlemont High School, Kev Choice is trying to keep a straight face. Seated behind a keyboard in jeans, a button-down shirt, purple sneakers, and a baseball cap, the musician — who's been Lauryn Hill's bandleader, and the go-to keyboard player and sideman for Lyrics Born, Goapele, Michael Franti, Too $hort, and the Coup, among others — is serving as accompaniment today for a slightly different type of artist than usual: There are about 20 of them, for one, performing solo or in small, nervous groups, and they're all at various stages of puberty.

One young lady sings a respectable SWV cover. Two boys rip wordless electric guitar riffs. Then a young man scream-raps a song about hoes and twerking, to the delight of a dozen or so girls in the front row, and punctuates it by ripping his shirt off — much to the chagrin of his teachers and school administrators (one of whom runs on stage to try to cover him, unsuccessfully, just as the song is coming to a close). In other words, just your average high school talent show.

"I was actually surprised he did that bit," Choice says of the teenager, laughing, a few hours later. The musician began mentoring at Castlemont just a couple months ago, but he already knows some students pretty well. "He can do other things. He came into class singing one of my songs at me last week. But I think he was maybe trying to impress a certain, you know...demographic."

As someone who grew up rapping for his friends in the schoolyard, then going home to study Beethoven's piano sonatas, the pitfalls of trying to appeal to a certain demographic — and the difficulty of not fitting neatly into a given category — is a somewhat familiar topic for Choice. He's an Oakland native who's always had one foot firmly in the hip-hop world, and one in the world of academia, classical music, and jazz; it's a balancing act made all the more delicate by the fact that, regardless of his chops as an emcee or producer, no matter what instruments he plays (and he plays a lot of them), he's always been known predominantly as a sideman. A talented, hard-working, and in-demand sideman, to be sure, but a sideman nonetheless.

It's from the side, then, that he's watched as Oakland has changed around him these past few years. He's seen First Fridays come and blow up, has quietly observed as rent has nearly doubled around Lake Merritt — where he spent his teenage years, and where he currently lives again — and working-class people move elsewhere. He was there at the Oscar Grant protests, he was in the streets for Trayvon Martin, but he's not generally one to get on a bullhorn.

All of which is to say that, when Choice's solo record Oakland Riviera dropped in late January — a warm, lush, ambitious album that swerves fluidly between genres, weaving jazz instrumental interludes named for Oakland streets between tracks of Choice's dynamic, live-band hip-hop — it sounded distinctly like the work of a man with something to prove. Boasting a guest roster that reads like a who's who in East Bay music, with rappers from Zion I's Zumbi to Mistah F.A.B. to local R&B and jazz greats, the album is a determined step into the limelight, drawing a sprawling yet cohesive map and love letter to the town where Choice grew up — a town that's changing very quickly or not quickly enough, depending on whom and where you're asking.

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