Nahko of Medicine for the People Talks Music, Ego and Wakarusa

Article by: Matthew Cremer|@Cremerica

Mon March 23, 2015 | 00:00 AM

It was Friday afternoon on Day 2 of Wakarusa and I was at the dang-near capacity Revival tent. The place so packed in, lively festival free-for-allers were spilling out into the sweaty air with hopes of catching a direct eye line. With the hope of catching whatever inferno was about to break out. I remember standing next to a couple of eager tweener, bushy-tailed lookin’ kids in the crowd. As the next band took the stage one of the young’ns turned to the other and asked, “Who are those guys?” Bewildered, they looked to me like I was some kind of scholarly sage with all the answers in the freakin’ instruction manual. Perplexed, I shrugged. “Well…don’t look at me, ya big dummies.”

Obviously, I had no clue who the shirtless banshees were either. But we would soon find out – this was not going to be one of those let’s-take-our-sweet-time and build up to a high point somewhere on the happy-ass horizon kinda sets. Apparently there were no bearings to get familiar with. No petty rust to shake off. Eff that nonsense. These fellers were cutting right to the filthy chase. Because in the opening frames of that first song, those guys shot out with a big, raw head of steam – guns-a-blazin’.

Wait a dang minute, now ya’ll got me wonderin’…who are those guys?

These guys, whoever the hell they were, must’ve already been fortified in some ball of celestial heat. And it had absolutely nothin’ to do with the 90-something-degree Ozark rays rustling everyone’s precious little sensibilities. Besides, their jimmies were about to get plenty more rustled.  Turning around to gauge the atmosphere, I saw the tent was a rag-tag, scattershot kind of shit-show and rightfully so. However, I reckoned these festival peoples, whether they signed up for it or not, were primed for a shot in the collective arm. Because at that moment, by golly, out of the corner of my eye I caught a glimpse of something that I will never forget. 

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Photo by Josue Rivas

He had to have been the head honcho of the operation. Boy, did he sure have a look about him: funny haircut, earrings, scalp ink. You know, the whole weird enchilada. And before I could even blink, this wily dude scaled a music speaker in the rear corner of the stage like a gawl dang bear – the super fuzzy kind. Wait, what? Where’d he go? Shit, he’s right there. You can’t miss him. That crazy mofo! Just what the hell is he doin’ up there? C’mon now, git down off that thing before somebody gets hurt!

As if he was one of those professional wrestler types about to body slam some helpless bastard, he commandeered that audio tower like a boss. Except this wasn’t some overly theatrical neon spandex send-off. Heck no. After teetering for what might’ve been one of the longest split seconds you’ll ever take a gander at, he just went for it. Well shit, this was really happening! Ole boy launched himself off the top of that monolith with guitar flung wayyyyy above his head, legs curled up super tight underneath his sprawling torso. Right then, it felt like the air had been sucked right out of that god-forsaken tent into whatever jet stream was thrusting his flight.

Watching in wonder, dang near everyone gulped any gasp of air they could get a hold of before the deliverance. With an extended hang time trajectory nothing short of absurd, that man must’ve exploded out into a trillion particles of searing light before he even hit the damn floor. And then BAM! He touched down on the stage with a full tilt force that could surely put them Van Halen and Townshend boys to shame. Because those pansies had nothin’ on whatever spirit animal had been summoned in real time before us.

It didn’t make a difference whether I looked around or had eyes in the back of my silly head. I already knew what had gone down. Everyone in that space completely lost their shit. Practically bouncin’ off the canvas ceiling, the kids were all cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs, jolted awake from their mid-afternoon stupor. At that crystalline moment, we all could’ve busted through a brick wall together. By golly, if ever there was a fitting time to deem the tent a “Revival” – THAT WAS IT.

But, wait just a darn minute now – who are those guys? What is this, Butch effing Cassidy and the Sundance Kid?

Heck no. Nahko and Medicine for the People – that’s who.

As part of “The (ever shortening) Road to Wakarusa,” (which is speeding towards us, spanning June 4-7) I recently spoke with the weird enchilada man himself, also known as Nahko Bear. Just like the piercing messages in his lyrics, the candor and willingness to share came through loud and clear. Indeed, it was about dang time. Ever since that sweltering Mulberry day back in early June of last summer, I’d been wanting to know what makes this guy – who, to me, seemed part man, part bear, part instigator, part healer, part jokester, part poet warrior – tick.

MC: You ready?

Nahko: I’m ready captain.

MC: You are of Native American, Filipino, Puerto Rican and Chamorro descent. You were also adopted at a very young age. What about your upbringing can you share when it comes to how it made you the individual you are today?

Nahko: It wasn't like I had an alcoholic dad or a neglectful mom or anything like that. I actually had some really awesome parents that took care of me. Nine months old to 17. And their patience and their outstanding care for me is where I feel like the empathy I have for people comes from. Even though there was a good 10 to 12 years of resistance post leaving my home of me lashing out and trying to figure out what it meant for me to be raised that way. And then finding my birth family was a huge change. That's where so much of everything comes from. The process of the unfolding of that story was a huge piece for me. The way they religiously brought me up really helped me to come back to a sense of spirituality and a sense of connectivity to the godhead. Going to church four times a week was just intense. I hated it. But when I finally came back around to wanting to connect and wanting to have that deeper meaning, I was available for it because I'd been there before. I just learned to worship a different way.

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Photo by Stephen Ironside

MC: When did you wake up and what was the kick in the ass that put you on the path to your calling?

Nahko: I would say the wake-up was a slow process. A lot of stuff had to happen over a long period of time for me to really come around to acknowledging my gift. So it was a slow calling. And I personally feel like I'm still evolving and still waking up and still trying to really understand what I'm here for. It wasn't until maybe 3 or 4 years ago that I really started to take myself seriously.

I had to work through my own ego of thinking that I didn't want people to relate to the songs. It was just when I was getting started where people were beginning to recognize me and the songs and they were really connected to them. I had to get through this ownership feeling of, "Oh, well I didn't write them for you. I wrote 'em for me." And then, realizing what good they were doing for people, I got over myself.

And just around the same time I was realizing everything else in my life was changing. The relationship with my land I have in Hawaii. All signs were pointing at "drop it all." Drop everything else and just focus on the music. When that happened and I finally surrendered to it and a million different doors started blasting open.

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Photo by Josue Rivas

MC: I attended the press conference you guys sat in on last year at Wakarusa. Dustin Thomas, your bass player at the time, said something that resonated with me quite a bit. “If you can identify with music and in an instant feel empowered or in an instant feel healing or inclusion, then that goes beyond escapism. Because escapism implies that you are returning to a place of suffering. What we all need to return to is that instantaneous gratification of love, of embodiment, of power, of feeling in it, of feeling healed, of feeling educated, aware and joyful. And I really believe that's how music helps us move forward.” What about the messages in your songs are a catalyst for healing instead of just being a temporary escape vehicle?

Nahko: I think it has a long lasting effect. I feel a lot of mainstream music is more along the lines of dumbing it down. But we're not about escaping. It's this thing where we just hook onto it. I think with everything there is a balance. There's got to be two worlds, in which case you have one world of music that has the intent to it, but to distract you. On the other hand you have music that has content and balances you and helps you become a better person and discover what your role is on the planet. Even with the old religious tunes or the old prayer songs of indigenous people, those things were all created with an intention to pray and praise. I think there are really beautiful long-term effects of lives being turned around and people empowering themselves through the mantras. But you don't really get those kind of effects from music of the mainstream.

MC: There is a song titled “My Country” on your Dark As Night album. The lyrics of this song do not beat around the bush whatsoever. They are brutally honest, raw, damning, humbling and challenging all at the same time. The average American might say, “Well, hold on just a damn minute now. You can’t sing that way about this country!” What is your response to that kind of reaction? How do you diffuse with love and not come from a place of separation?

Nahko: That's kind of my whole totem. I've learned over time that people just hate being challenged about their ideals, patriotism and about America and where we come from. People just don't like being challenged. It’s so important to be able to speak to middle America and a generation right now that's so hungry. Especially when you go out to Wakarusa, those kids are so hungry for real content. Yeah, they want to party. They save all their money to come see their favorite band for the weekend…but I'm just so glad I'm able to offer something which is like a real history lesson but also possible solutions. Possible affirmations. Because it's easy to forget that we can get distracted by materialistic stuff. And we need to remember where the real food is at is spirit. And it doesn't matter if you are black, yellow, white or red. We all come from a place in our ancestry that we care about our planet. And we care about who is standing next to us.

In which case, the tribe is an ever-growing alliance of like-minded people who want to take care of the planet and each other. Being able to turn the patriotic song of "My Country, ‘Tis of Thee" and give it a real truth behind it…yeah, most average middle Americans who hear that song are pissed by it, but that's because they're conditioned into the system so strongly that they forgot what really happened. Or they just refuse to believe the truth. But you know, I'm not here to change everybody's mind. I'm just here to sing my songs and tell a story and the rest is up to you.

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Photo by Josue Rivas

MC: You know, I like to ask this question quite a bit whenever I talk to a musician. I guess you could say it intrigues the golly heck out of me. When it comes to playing up there onstage, I’d imagine each performance can have its own unique rush. If there’s a way to somehow put it into words, what is that “it” feeling like? What is perhaps that transcendent feeling you are essentially chasing after in a way each show?

Nahko: It's when I can look at my team onstage and I can look at the audience in one full swoop and we can all know where we're at. It's that connectivity, you know. It doesn't happen every show. It will happen in moments. I always say I blink at people in the crowd that I know are with me. Even though we're separated by a stage and other people, there's this feeling you can get when you know that everyone is on the same page in that moment. And there's nothing like that. Because that's when you're connected not to just each other, but to the spirit. You're all in the net. In Maori culture there's this symbol of the net that you cast out to pull up the wisdom of the ancients. The ones who pull the knowledge out for the rest of us to see. It's a symbol that I have tattooed a couple of places on my body. And I've always recognized that as a symbol of the messenger. That’s why I'm here. That's why I said I'm from space, bro.

MC: Nor will I ever question that (laughs). I would imagine you guys are playing more than one set this year at Wakarusa – as you darn well better be. This is your chance to rally your fans and prospective fans to come out to see you. What kind of energy do you wish to see them summon when they share the space with Nahko and Medicine for the People?

Nahko: I think what we bring is a roller coaster. There's space for reverence and there's space for praise and there's space for personal reflection. If you're new to Wakarusa or you're new to a festival scene or whatever, there are so many different kinds of people that come. And obviously every person has their own reason for coming. So with having the opportunity to speak to them this way, I would ideally hope that people would come with an open mind. To be challenged perhaps. Ecstatic praise is natural, to where it just comes from the exchange of energy we have. It comes with the willingness to raise hell with us and to rock out and praise creation and recognize the merging of cultures in that way. Because that's really what's happening. I guess it's just this bridge. So let's walk across it together.

Okay, so interview’s over, right? Not quite. In the spirit of good ole fashioned spontaneity, as we were about to get off the phone our conversation caught me off guard just a tad. Or maybe a lot. This isn’t the greatest feeling to have, considering I try to be as dialed in as I can during any interview. But thinking we were done, I’d already turned off my fancy-pants digital audio recorder and walked into another room to get a glass of water. And sure enough, right as we were about to hang up, Nahko wasn’t finished. I guess he needed to get something off his chest at that very moment. Well shit, this obviously was not good timing. Don’t get me wrong – I was definitely humbled and grateful he was willing to express this. After informing him I’d stopped recording and asked for permission to get it on the record, he replied: “You can remember all of this, right?” “Oh yeah, sure. I think so, yeah,” was all I could come up with as I quickly attempted to scribble down anything he was laying on me. Well, here’s goes nothin’.

Nahko spoke of a time recently when he was back home in Hawaii. About being in a vulnerable place where he was in the process of cracking open. Something I reckon we all go through at points in our existence. Before a show one night, he told the rest of the guys in the band what he was dealing with and needed to lean on them for support. Of course, they heartily agreed. So that night they went and played the gig. Letting everything out that had been holding him back, it was a powerful release of an experience for not only him, but all of them. There were definitely tears shed afterwards among the band. He talked about how being in that place in his life and having the opportunity to be so vulnerable with an audience meant the world to him. It was exactly what he needed. It was cleansing. “We were having a completely spiritual experience being guided by spirit.”

Although much of his story was obviously recited from memory, I still felt compelled to pass it along. First and foremost because this is a testament to the raw surrender of energy Nahko and his Medicine hombres bring to the table whenever they step on the floor. It spoke volumes about how even the messenger sometimes needs his tribe to pull him up by the cosmic bootstraps. Because Lord knows the one they call “Little Bear” has shared his abundance of love to those in need of cleansing and then some. Who knows it, feels it.

Heck, come to think of it, maybe this is what I had been “chasing after” all along while we were talking on the phone. Getting disconnected five times, poor cell reception and even my dumb ass turning off the fancy-pants recorder couldn’t get in the way. None of that distortion could block out the very nugget of insight which illuminated what I felt to my core on that Friday afternoon in the Revival tent. Because, I tell you what, there was a purity and an intensity within it still resonating in some way, shape or form to this day.

When you absorb moments like those, get that taste of what it feels like to be alive, there’s no turning back. Those kind of sparks are why we push on through the distractions and the bullshit. Why we push on through the darkness into light. Why we crack open with a vision to keep on pushing even further. And call me crazy, but that might darn well just be why we keep coming back to Mulberry Mountain.