Nothing silently screams louder than a face tattoo. A signifier of both the deeply committed and highly impulsive, face tattoos typically indicate that the recipient is intensely serious about what the tattoo represents. It is, after all, on their face.
Nahko Bear — yes, this is his name; we’ll get to that later — has three black lines of ink extending from his temples toward his dark brown eyes. They’re one of the most recent additions to a body increasingly covered in permanent art, which altogether links Nahko — known professionally, for the most part, by his first name — to the Filipino Four Waves tattoo tradition, and serves as both the visual summation of his pantheistic worldview and a symbol of his deep dedication to it.
“World above, world below, father sky, mother earth. The thin line in the middle is for the horizon,” Nahko says, rattling off the meaning of this facial ink. According to Four Waves, the lines are meant to enhance the abilities of whatever body part they’re placed on. It’s no mistake that Nahko’s are near his eyes.
Tattoos continue up onto his skull, down his neck and under the collar of the white T-shirt he wears today at the velvet-walled Hollywood recording studio where he and his six-piece band, known as Nahko and Medicine for the People, are rehearsing for their upcoming tour. Several of the guys are barefoot. One offers me some dried mango “from Hawaii.” A transport case on the floor is slapped with a faded “Bernie 2016” bumper sticker. Lyrics such as “As we come of age, may love become our compass” are delivered with full earnestness.
If you have pegged Nahko Bear for a nouveau hippie Venice type, you are correct. He lives off of Rose and incubated his musical career, which began in Hawaii, in the crystal-healing, ayahuasca-drinking, transformational festival-attending new age scene. Since forming in 2008, Nahko and Medicine for the People have risen slow and steady, playing benchmark conscious-community fests including Lightning in a Bottle and Electric Forest this past summer and doing the obligatory stop at Colorado’s ever-heady Red Rocks Amphitheater in June. Released in 2016, the band’s third LP, Hoka, explores subjects including spirit guides, letting go of limitations and learning from your mistakes.
But the songs being played here today have more to do with boyish observations than the themes of the human potential movement. That's because the latest release from the Nahko camp is their leader's first solo album, My Name Is Bear, and the now-31-year-old musician wrote the LP’s 16 songs more than a decade ago, when he was a teenage nomad named David Bell.
Nahko was raised in the Portland suburb of Clackamas, Oregon, by conservative Christian parents who adopted him at birth. His birth name was Joel Miguel Nahkohe-ese Parayno, a nod to his Puerto Rican, Filipino, Mohawk and Apache ancestry. After the adoption, the newly christened David Joel Nahkohe-se Bell lived a “supportive, loving, awesome, super-privileged” middle-class existence that included a decade of piano lessons. The summer he turned 18, he got a gig playing piano for a dinner theater in central Alaska. It was there that David Bell, as he was at the time, discovered mushrooms, LSD and the allure of nature and the open road.
“It was like
He soon landed in Hawaii, supporting himself by working on farms and writing music in his off hours. He spent years driving around the States in a van with his dog, playing coffee shops and farmers markets, exploring national parks and writing the songs that would become My Name Is Bear. The subject matter — first love, endless skies, the beauty of the sun — was far from the socially and spiritually conscious material that now makes up the bulk of NMFTP’s output.
But the personal became political when David Bell experienced his own transformation. He was 21 when he met his birth mother, a member of Puerto Rico’s Taíno tribe who had given him up for adoption when she was 15. This meeting opened Nahko to the depth and meaning of his ancestry. “Shit got hard,” he says, as he sought to identify with a new family and culture.
“As I traveled in my van around the country, I was looking for a connection to Native American culture,” he says during a rehearsal break. “It was like, ‘Am I Native enough?’ Eventually I realized I needed to stop feeling like I needed to be validated. That’s when the doors opened and the rainbow of people began to come and listen.”
Back in Hawaii a few years later, the band that would become Medicine for the People began to take shape. Guitarist Chase Makai picked up Nahko while he was hitchhiking on the Big Island. Drummer Justin Chittams was the bartender in town. The band’s bass player, who goes only by Pato, came into the fold during a trip to Bali, as did their tour manager, Melissa Gibson. Violinist Tim Snider and horn player Max Ribner joined shortly thereafter.
“These people arrived supernaturally,” Nahko says between bites of salad. “That was when the band really started to take off, when the right people dropped in.”
It was during this period that David renamed himself Nahko, a shortened version of his middle name Nahkohe-se, and chose the last name “Bear” after its English translation (“friendly little bear”). Nahko and Medicine for the People first hit with the 2012 video for “Me and Mr. Washington,” in which Nahko sings about the perils of democracy while traipsing through a redwood forest. The video went viral (1.5 million views, currently) and opened doors.
Their debut, Dark as Night, was released in 2013. Nahko says it and every subsequent album has been about meeting his birth mother and the implications of that event. He's heavily influenced by Broken Social Scene, Arcade Fire and Bright Eyes (fans of the latter band's LP Cassadega will recognize the intro to Hoka), groups that include many musicians, make big, anthemic songs and play potent live shows. On Oct. 14, Hoka won Album of the Year at the Native American Music Awards, an achievement that would likely please the younger version of Nahko worried about whether he was “Native enough.”
He's been spending time in Native American communities and has witnessed the socioeconomic disparities between those worlds and the $12 cold-pressed juices of the circles in which he got his start. “I guess the place I’m at with the new age community is that I support everyone in their awakening,” he says. “It doesn’t mean I have to hang out with them.
“Sometimes I feel they’re way out here,” he continues, gesturing toward the sky. “I like being out there too, but there’s also this 'down here' situation where there’s a whole community of people who don’t get to be 'up here' in that way.”
He's been walking the walk, raising money to fund tribal youth scholarships, building awareness about the diminishing salmon population in Northern California, performing at benefits and riding hard for Bernie Sanders during the election. It's been a lot of movement with little time off, and Nahko experienced burnout over the summer after squeezing in too many activist endeavors between shows. This exhaustion, combined with the ugly state of politics, inspired him to release material from his more carefree years.
Released earlier this month, the video for My Name Is Bear’s lead single “Dragonfly” made headlines via its star, Paris Jackson, the daughter of Michael and a friend of Nahko’s. (During our interview, tour manager Gibson announces that the song has been placed on Spotify's “Most Beautiful Songs in the World” playlist, and everyone agrees this is “rad.”) Nahko says it's surreal to see his work on mainstream outlets like People next to Kardashian gossip but acknowledges that spreading his message of healing, truth and beauty to unexpected places is kind of the point.
“We are, of course, on a basic level, providing a show with songs and words and poetry,” he says. “But on a metaphysical level, what we bring onstage is a ceremony for me, because it’s so healing for me. That’s what I’m bringing to the people. It doesn’t have to be all airy fairy either; it’s just what happens when you hear music. Transformation is happening.”
He sets down his salad, gives me a hug, returns to the rehearsal stage and silently waits for the band to join him. Nahko’s music expresses much about his vision of a better world, but even when he’s not making any noise, the black lines on his face say it all.
Nahko's My Name Is Bear comes out Friday, Oct. 20, via all major music services.