Given the tragedy woven into front man Nahko’s story you’d expect his music to be dark and depressing, but it is exactly the opposite. Nahko sings songs that mirror the positive, resilient, forgiving, and grateful person that he is despite all that he’s faced in life. Nahko is Apache and of Puerto Rican and Filipino descent, but he lost touch with that heritage for nearly two decades after he was adopted by a white family in Portland. Although he was adopted into a loving household where he was introduced to music and learned piano, Nahko couldn’t shake his disillusionment with the world and need for self-discovery. As a teen, he packed his bags, and his guitar, and set out to travel and uncover his roots only to find that his mother had been forced into human trafficking and his father had been murdered in 1994. Despite all of this, Nahko never let anger take over, but instead today works with his mother to advocate for the anti-trafficking movement. He even went to visit his father’s murderer in prison and forgive him. This compassion and inner-strength shines brightly through Nahko’s music, especially in his band’s third album, “Hoka.” The word, hoka, is an indigenous word and a call to action. Nahko says, “my call is to put action to the words that I speak and the lyrics that I sing. Not just to talk, but to do.” Spanning nineteen tracks, “Hoka” is a musical, and spiritual, journey filled with profound lyrics and a unique fusion of jazz, hip hop, and folk influences that is inspired by many cultures.
The album opens with title track ‘Hoka.’ Native drums and chanting contrast with vocals that speak of gathering the nations. The opening track is the “call to action,” and quickly the journey of the album begins with a piano intro and Nahko’s pure, emotional vocals on ‘Directions.’ The song quickly becomes deeply powerful as the guitar, drums, and horns come in and Nahko sings cries for guidance from our ancestors. The next two tracks: ‘It is Written’ and ‘All Can Be Done’ pick up the groove, bringing in the jazz influence as well as Nahko’s signature fast-paced, rap-like singing. However, despite the funky vibes, the songs’ lyrics still hold heavy meaning, touching on themes of healing and spirituality. The fifth track on the album, ‘San Quentin,’ may be the most touching, telling the tale of how Nahko visited and forgave the murderer of his father. The song is surprisingly upbeat as Nahko sings of letting go in the process of forgiving. ‘Build a Bridge’ is an interesting coupling of reggae and salsa influences with some hip hop sprinkled in, truly building a bridge between cultures and genres. “Hoka” ends climactically with ‘The Wolves Have Returned’ which features Trevor Hall, Xavier Rudd, Leah Song, and Joseph. This beautiful collaboration with celebratory, earth-praising lyrics ends the album in solidarity. By the end of the album, you’ll feel a strong urge to get up and put love, forgiveness, and gratitude into the world. Nahko and Medicine for the People truly succeeded in their call to action.
The word “powerful” is used often to describe music, but Nahko and Medicine for the People have given that word new meaning and have taken it to the next level. Brilliant musicianship paired with raw, emotional lyrics creates music that truly is medicine for the people, as well as medicine for the mind, body, and sould. Nahko has taken his hardships and turned them into something strong and beautiful, and he’s urging people to do the same. Nahko has something important to say, and his music says it, so we should listen. 10/10.