Nahko Bear is a multi-instrumental, multi-talented, musician born in Portland, Oregon. Nahko’s songs are categorized as world fusion, and while those words are generally a meaningless catch-all for anything slightly outside Western music, for the singer and his collective Medicine for the People, the term applies. Nahko is of Apache, Puerto Rican, and Filipino descent. He was adopted at a young age and grew up in a white conservative home. The singer brings all of these experiences to his writing and the result is a sound that is unique as Nahko’s background. While initial comparisons start at singer-songwriters like Ben Harper, and expand to the stoner rock of Sublime, and the spirit of Gogol Bordello, Nahko and Medicine for the People sound a bit like all of these things and a bit like none of them. Their catalogue is varied and well worth digging into.
For this installment of The Greatest Story Ever Told, Nahko Bear explains how at a young age he started searching for a home, what he found when he got there, and how this influenced the person he is today.
I was adopted at a young age, and growing up I went to church three to four times a week: twice on Sundays, once on Wednesday, and Thursday was bible memory class. Every morning before we started our home schooling we would read the bible. There wasn’t a lot of room for anything else. It was very boxed in, the lifestyle, but it was all I knew. I didn’t realize that this wasn’t how everybody lived. Being in a white household didn’t actually feel weird until I hit fourteen or so. I began to see how different I was from my parents and I started questioning what I was being taught. In my own way I started rebelling. Little things here and there. Stuff building up. I think I was kind of planning my escape...no one to relate to and feeling very lost in the suburbs. I wanted to seek out my own identity, which is in part why I embraced music, but identity can mean a lot of different things. It relates to everything for me: my story, my music, my ideals, my beliefs and traditions. I find it compelling. I am always shifting and changing to share the current feels. Through the music I have shared an in depth process of becoming myself and part of that is how I was made.
About ten years ago I came in touch with my birth mother. I wasn’t planning on finding her, but the day I got back to Oregon from Hawaii I randomly looked up her name. I was linked to this whole list of posts she had been making online. She had been writing for six years, searching for me. When I came of age my adopted parents had handed over a full stack of letters my birth mother had written to me. They had come through a caseworker. My mother had written to me from the time I was born until I was about five years old. She had started writing at fourteen. She was fourteen when she had me.
In her letters, as a fourteen-year-old girl, she begged me to not be mad at her. She pleaded for me to come find her when I was ready. Seeing the posts online I finally felt ready. I found the info online about where she lived. It was literally down the street from my house. So I jumped in the car and with no plan and rolled up to her house. She was standing in her pajamas with my two sisters, two brothers, and my sister’s kids. She said: ‘Lemme look at you...What do you do?’ and I said, ‘Well, I play music?’ I had long hair, some dreads, no shirt on, no shoes. I had just stepped off a plane from Hawaii. Classic. But we immediately felt comfortable and it was like we were old friends. It was then i discovered the hole in my heart that needed filling. Wow.
Mom was very open with me right away. Pops was twenty-one and in the Navy when she had me, and she ran away from him and took me with her. But she couldn’t keep me. She was wounded for life. He had taken so much from her. I resented Pops for three years for what he did to my mom. It took other experiences in my life to happen to learn grace, empathy, compassion, and forgiveness. Eventually I wanted to seek my father out. I wanted to talk to him about what he had done, but it was too late. Another person had already taken his life. Because I could not talk to my father, I decided to talk to the man who had killed him.
It could have gone either way. The dude could have been a real punk. Instead, he was available to talk and in a clear and pure way. I trusted Creator in a big way and the door was open the whole time, so I walked thru with no plan and spoke from the heart. It was very emotional, getting the other side of the story and hearing about his own heartbreak and loss. I felt a great sense of release as I left the prison that day. Gratitude for the guidance and time to get it all off my chest.
I think about what brought me here and it's gotta be the gift of bridge building. As a bridge, you get walked on a lot, but you also get to see worlds collide. This part of my life has gifted me with a sense of knowing and reliability to people on their journey. I can access people on a very human level, outside their lifestyle, economic diversity, cultural background, etc. It is an art. There is a song in each corner of your story. You just have to learn how to listen and translate. My story directly relates to my music, because it all comes from experience.