Nahko Bear Started Out Using Music To Process His Troubled Family History, But Then A Fan Video Went Viral And His Whole World Changed

Nahko’s mother is a human trafficking survivor and he has been to meet his father’s killer in jail, while his music’s blend of folk, hip hop and poetic lyrics has caught the attention of fans looking for new meaning in our connected, yet isolating world, creating a global community and giving his videos millions of views – but can music really be medicine?

RSNG If you had to define your style then what would it be?
NAHKO BEAR, SINGER SONGWRITER
‘[Whispers] Fuckin’ weird! Haha. I don’t know man, there’s something Paul Simon said and his definition of world music. But when you take Paul Simon and Ladysmith Black Mambazo, plus his band, that can be world music as well – it’s making it a whole new sound. I feel like that is a good definition of what we do even though I personally have specific roots in classical and jazz on the piano or folk and – I don’t want to say hip hop – but syllablistic folk music, and then when you throw a band on it, it turns it into something different. It’s malleable.’

RSNG How does being out in nature, surfing or on your farm on Hawaii help with what you do?
NB
‘Your environment feeds everything you do – what you surround yourself with. I’m a really active person and love the outdoors. My relationship with the ocean and animals is really special to me – I’m a horse owner – and I live on the river. Everything that is outside and that speaks a different language.’

RSNG What about your interest in grassroots social movements around the world?
NB
‘I’ve always been fascinated by people power movements. Back in the day when I was younger and more angst filled I had this ‘tear the shit down’ kind of vibe – I don’t have that vibe now because I have more of an understanding of how complex it all is – but all those things inspire what I have to say. I pull from that well.’

‘If I didn’t have music as a way to process I don’t know what I would have done’

RSNG How has your identity being shaped through your music?
NB
’It’s continually developing, but if I didn’t have music as a way to process I don’t know what I would have done. This way of self expression with poetry and melody, and the combination of those things, as well as your presence, how you deliver it all. Being in my 30’s now I can only imagine the transformations that I will go through as I learn more about myself through the work that I do. That’s why it is a gift.’

‘Yes it comes to me first and I try to process it through this way and then you give it out to everyone else, and they get to go through their own thing with it, which is the magic of art and music – it’s really weird and I don’t fully understand it but I just know it’s how it works.’

RSNG Before you started putting songs out you were working on your farm in Hawaii and playing for fun at farmers markets, so was it strange to start putting your music out into the world?
NB
‘The way that I viewed it has changed over the years – in the beginning I was a lot more selfish with it and I didn’t want people to have their own experience with it. When I first started putting songs out people would come to me and tell me all these things about them, I remember being annoyed by it because I was like: “Well that’s not what it means to me.” I also don’t think I fully understood what they meant to me either. Over the years those songs took on so much new meaning.’

RSNG The fan-made video for Aloha Ke Akua has had 9 million views – when did you realise that your music could speak to so many people?
NB
‘In Hawaii there was a bar where we could just show up and play, and I remember that turning from a couple of people to big crowds all the time, so I knew that there was a magnetism happening there between the music and the way it was being received. But it was only when I started to get intel on the world and what it wanted to say to me because of this viral Aloha Ke Kula video that went around, and I was getting messages from the other side of the world, that I was like: “Damn, OK this is really doing something.”’

RSNG So, when did you make the leap and dedicate yourself to your music?
NB
‘When I decided to do this for a life, at around 26 – it was 2012. This is hard to say but it was when it became more attractive than living on the farm. I thought: “I wonder if I can play music? I can always come back to the farm.” The farm was the best lifestyle ever, super healthy, tons of sun and ocean, and great food, being outside and working with animals, it was my dream, so leaving it was a sacrifice to hotels and highways. But that wasn’t a lifestyle I wasn’t necessarily accustomed to either – I knew a bit about what I was getting myself into.’

RSNG Do you ever use humour to get you through?
NB
‘I personally have got a really dark sense of humour. I love humour and I think laughter is medicine – my anxiety was pretty bad, has always been bad, so I will always try to make people laugh at me. A lot of comedians do that too, when you can push the button on how weird and awkward you are then it makes it a lot easier, like “phew everyone knows I’m weird!” you know? Being able to bring that to the table has been really healthy too.’

RSNG You say you’re an anxious person but you seem pretty chilled out – do you think a lot of people are holding down a kind of generalised anxiety?
NB
‘It’s a part of our dysfunction as a whole, a product of society. We are inundated by these pieces that are trying to control us from the day we pop out and the anxiety is created by the pressure of society. Whether you can be conscious of it or not, the fact that you are forced to do X, Y, Z to survive, you have to get a job, pay your bills, feed your kids – we are under pressure all the time and I think that mine isn’t any greater or lesser than anyone else’s it’s just that I have to stand up in front of people every night and talk about my feelings, haha!’

‘As an entertainer you are meant to put a smile on your face and do the thing. Luckily with my music, it is pretty forgiving, I’m not singing sad love songs every night – I am lucky that I can be pretty raw and real with people about how human I am, and how complex it truly is to be, anyone. We all struggle, we all fail, we all rise, we can all be empowered by ourselves too.’

‘Even though we’re more connected than ever before, it’s obvious that we are so disconnected’

RSNG Do you think your music resonates with people who are looking for new ways to find meaning in life?
NB
‘I think there’s an understanding that even though we are far more connected than we have ever been before, it’s quite obvious that on the other hand we are so disconnected. It’s this interesting conundrum because with the touch of anything on this [waves at his smartphone] no one is unreachable, necessarily. No information, no body, right? And yet we have become this walking dead in a way, where we are in 1984; it’s actually being realised.’

‘We often turn to spiritual teachers and text, or you lean into old ways and traditional people’s ways. What I am seeing more now is that people want to feel that they are not alone and feeling really lost. It’s almost like we need an affirmation without projecting it onto the messenger. And to do that is tricky because we’re really human about it, we go: “It’s all you, it’s all because of you.”’

RSNG So, people are perhaps finding new connections in experiences like live music?
NB
‘The gathering space and the container is super-important. It’s so dramatically different at all ends of the spectrum. You go to Beyonce’s concert and there is a container there, for massive amounts of different kinds of people who all have interests at very different levels. You come to my concert and you have a very interesting demographic, specific to each town, and people are flying in from places you didn’t even know. You have your hippies and your 9-5ers and it’s so interesting. You look at it for a minute and you think: “So what are they finding in this?” and it’s like social work, pretty much, you know? You’re up there being a therapist for people and then you think: “Well, I need to see a therapist now,” haha!’

RSNG In terms of your family background, you were raised by foster parents?
NB
‘The family that raised me was really beautiful – the image of what the happy family was supposed to be was painted very well. My Dad was loyal, took care of the family, Mum did too and we were homeschooled so we were always together. Even though the image of the all-American family was there, it was undertones of lots of broken histories too.’

‘Leaving home and being alone out in the world was huge, in the first four years I went to so many different places, learned about what is was like to fend for myself, trying to find direction. Dropped out of college – barely got into college!’

‘Going into a prison and meeting my Dad’s killer – I thought it was crazy for sure’

RSNG What other points in your life were pivotal?
NB
‘Meeting my mother was a whole situation and that was when shit started getting really difficult to process. I didn’t know how to talk about it or what to think. In the second record there’s a lot about that in there. Then meeting my Dad’s family was a whole thing – the courage my Mum had to put us together and go and find them. Then going into a prison and meeting my Dad’s killer. I thought it was crazy for sure, like: “What the fuck am I even doing?”

RSNG What did meeting your Dad’s killer tell you?
NB
‘It told me I was right in my intuition that had been telling me to go and do something about it for a long time. And also that what I had been hearing from him, from my Dad, that it was him talking to me, you know what I mean? I was having all of these fucked up dreams for so long. When I left the prison, feeling that weight lift off me was the clearest thing and then I was: “OK, cool that was where I was supposed to be.”

RSNG What happened in the meeting?
NB
‘Oh, we cried our eyes out for a couple of hours! I also got the perspective, his story, his side so it was interesting. The key was that he had forgiven himself, kinda, after 20 years and that’s big – it’s hard to forgive yourself, you know? Forgiveness is hard, bottom line.’

RSNG What’s the best piece of life advice you have ever been given?
NB
‘Oh, I can see my Mum over there thinking, haha! It’s not like I’ve followed the advice to its fullest because I’m still a little kid, but: “you’re braver than your fears”; “if you can learn to be alone then you will always have a home” – pretty much all the main points of my songs! “Everyone is invited but not everyone is coming.”

RSNG If you could collaborate with any musician who would it be?
NB
‘Alicia Keys! Alicia Keys, Chance The Rapper, Conor Oberst and if I could, Paul Simon. [whispers] It would be fuckin dope!’

WHAT NEXT? Nahko Bear has a new solo EP out now watch the video for Hamakua…

Follow the writer @mattfitnessray