Rap music has become heavily materialistic lately, but true “MC-ing” resurfaced on San Quentin’s Lower Yard, as visiting artist Kev Choice Ensemble and an array of young San Quentin lyricists moved crowd.
At the August 24 yard show had a mosh pit of young prisoners “turned up,” as their generation calls it. They danced wildly, pumped their hands in the air and popped invisible collars on their state blue shirts, as they surrounded the makeshift stage.
The multi-talented pianist and rapper Kev Choice was the definition of positive vibrations. He provided love, inspiration and social consciousness for each song in an hour-long set.
“The word of the day is ‘expansion’—expanding the mind,” said Kev Choice. “We came to bring love and light. I got into music to uplift the people in my community. And I’ve always wanted to do this [perform in prison].
“I have family and friends in the system [prisons or jail]. I thank Raphaele [Casale] for making this happen,” he added. Casale, who works in the warden’s office, is the music program sponsor.
Kev Choice’s first song, “That’s Life,” was an autobiographical track that dealt with his childhood and his journey through the music business, all layered in a smooth-jazz hip-hop tune.
“I was looking for a sign from the divine/All I had to do was look inside/Thank God for life,” Kev Choice rapped.
The Oakland-based musician has toured with singer/rapper Lauryn Hill, Too $hort, Soul of Mischief and Goapele, among others.
Kev Choice’s ensemble was a perfect musical mix. Their instruments and vocals blended the same as the diverse flavors and spices of your favorite dish. Band members consisted of singers Viveca Hawkins and Jennifer Johns, drummer Dame Drummer, guitarist Andrew Levin, bassist Kayshay and Daniel Rivera on flute, saxophone and electric wind instrument.
“There were so many beautiful brown faces,” Hawkins said. “I’ve never been to a prison before, but coming here is life-changing. I’m leaving with my heart full of love.”
Kev Choice’s music touches on police brutality, disenfranchisement and marginalization without being preachy or depressing. All the songs delivered words of triumph. He performed “I’m Thankful for It All,” “Can’t Be Free” and “Bring the Love.” But “I Be the Greatest” and “Born Conquer” set the youngsters off. The infectious beats and sing-along punch lines had the large crowd on its feet.
‘I be the greatest’. I want you to wake up and say that to yourself every day. I don’t care what they say about you,” Johns said. “People don’t think there is light and love in prison. But I’ve filled up on everyone’s light, and I’m taking it back to the community.”
Both female vocalists sang solo pieces. Johns sang “Bridge over Troubled Water,” and Hawkins, paying tribute to the late Aretha Franklin, sang “Natural Woman,” stirring the crowd with emotion.
Young SQ artists took to the stage after Kev Choice had electrified the audience. Philippe (Kells) Kelly and Thanh Tran performed “To Hell and Back,” a lyrical duel between Satan (Tran) and Kelly, trying to turn his life around.
“His punishment is contagious/Can’t escape it because my life is on the line/But I’m impatient/ face my master of disaster or bow to the maturation,” Kelly rapped.
“I see myself as a vessel of all the knowledge that I’ve studied and got from my elders,” Kelly said. “I can convey knowledge to a certain demographic that they feel like they might not reach.”
Tran also performed “Glass House,” an ode to his sister. “If you was out, you’d be able to help/The cards we was dealt,” rapped Tran.
“Music is therapy; it allows me to speak about my deep emotions. I’m an introvert really,” Tran said. “It’s my way to heal—when it’s out—it’s out.”
Mike “The Lyrical Assassin” Mackey dazzled the crowd with vicious word play on “The One You Overlook” and “Draw First Blood.” His laid-back flow had more punch than a heavyweight fight.
Antwan “Banks” Williams, a seasoned word technician, performed “Powerful,” capturing the pitfalls of the younger generation’s bad decisions. David Jassy and Joshua (JB) Burton did “Precious,” letting a woman know that, no matter what, she is perfect.
The young musical geniusYoung SQ sang “Feel Me,” dropping wisdom that captured the whole show’s experience.
“Reporting live from a modern plantation/A product of a system succeeding ceasing the nation/By breaking generations and taking liberations/They took down the OGs, so my generation ain’t laced with the knowledge to see what’s going on in front of their faces.”
“It’s about education through the music,” Abercrombie said. “This way I can use my gift to move people forward.”
Kev Choice added, “The world needs to hear the real music being produced in San Quentin.”