Oakland Collective SOL Development Preserves The 'The SOL Of Black Folk'

Mar 17, 2019

The West Coast music scene has a new group to champion. The music of Oakland's SOL Development has been described as jazz, hip-hop, and, of course, soulful. The four-person collective's style may sound familiar but the member's backgrounds are not. They're teachers and classically trained musicians who use music in the classrooms to promote learning.

Though the group is now based in the Oakland area, three of the group's members met while attending Hampton University in Virginia. After college, one member Karega Bailey spent a few years teaching in Washington, D.C., which helped inform his ideas about how to get heavy subject matter like gun violence, police brutality and institutional racism to young listeners. The members of SOL Development now run the Roses in Concrete Community School in Oakland where they frequently bring their music into classroom conversations. The group's name, which is an acronym for Source of Light, represents a teaching tool the artists use that allows students to transcend everyday strains of being black in America.

"It's this position where I no longer could withhold the observation of living the black experience and I no longer could hold the narrative," Bailey explains. "But I knew there was light in it, I knew there was power in it."

The group's debut album, The SOL of Black Folk, is out now and SOL Development members Karega Bailey and Felicia Gangloff-Bailey joined NPR's Michel Martin from KQED in San Francisco to discuss balancing teaching with music-making, relating their art to their lives — the group wrote the song "Brother" after Bailey's brother was shot and killed in 2014 — and more. Listen to their conversation at the audio link and read on for interview highlights.


Interview Highlights

On balancing teaching and making music

Felicia: It's funny because I never expected this to go this way, with the music. I mean, it's really kind of taken over, but it's been the most effective vehicle in touching students and directly touching their heart. I've been fortunate, and I think it's absolutely necessary considering the content that we are creating, that you stay heavily immersed and grounded in the roots of what you're speaking about.

Karega: Teaching is the practice. We're practitioners of education and the learning spectrum. Think of the music as a report, think of music as report writing. You gotta understand, I'm born in roots and culture reggae. I'm a child of hip-hop, and these have always been ethnographic tools to be able to report the conditions in which we're living in, right? — said Nina Simone. So, my lived experiences in the classroom were worthy of stories and reports being told. The music literally was my way to exist and survive.

On what their students think of their music

Karega: "Helicopter" is written in such a way ... We didn't realize how powerful it was as a tool. Lauren Adams in her songwriting, in her understanding — she's also a brilliant performing artist teacher, so the students love "Helicopter." For a long time, I didn't make the correlation that it has this strong experience with that helicopter children's nursery rhyme. So they love it and they sing it. Nieces and nephews sing it and then older students also love it and sing it. They understand the profundity of what we're talking about. But the younger students just love it. They love the gesture. They love the helicopter, they love the blue and red. They also understand police presence, let's just be clear about that. So it's really fascinating. And nah, they don't think we corny, they rock with us. [Laughs]

They're so harsh, right? But their metrics of music, they hold it similar to a lot of the other music they they digest. They want to know, are we famous and are you doing this yet? But they love the fact that their teachers are touching the world, and creating music that they get to come home and look up on YouTube and share with their family and say "look what my teacher made."

YouTube

Felicia: Those are my favorites when they come, "I saw you on YouTube" and "I saw you here." And then it's an incredible experience to be performing on stages and then they show up.

On how students inspired their music

Karega: At the truest core of the lyric writing, it was my offering to let my students know they're seen. Because when you work in a school system, they can think that you are subject to the system and the way the system treats them. But I want to show them that we see them, that 'I see you.' So the earliest songwriting was actually very much dedicated to honoring their stories, honoring their lives and unpacking that, and that's what gave us the glue in the classroom. My classroom became significant to them once they realized that their stories mattered in the classroom.

On the song "Brother"

Karega: Our suffering is connected. Our suffering is so connected and so is our love. And having the opportunity to choose love and choose a path of freedom, paid for by love and liberation ... This idea is, if I have a path to freedom, if I have an inception, an idea of better circumstances, I have to love you enough to make sure that you're included and not excluded. It's the exclusion that creates the crime, the harm. It's the feeling unseen or unknown and needs unmet. So really, [I'm] opening this up to say, our love is connected and so is our pain. At some level, I have to understand that I was connected to the person that took my brother's life.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Finally, today, we tap into the West Coast music scene to check out a new group.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NO INDICTMENT")

SOL DEVELOPMENT: (Singing) It's evident I'm militant. That don't mean I'm violent. Contrary to your rights, it ain't right to remain silent - not when all our kids are dying.

MARTIN: SOL Development has been described as jazz, hip-hop and, of course, soulful. And their style may sound familiar, but their backgrounds are not. They are teachers, some classically trained musicians. They work with grade-school children, and they are using their music in the classrooms to promote learning. The band's debut album, "The SOL Of Black Folk," is out now. And two members of the group, Karega Bailey and Felicia Gangloff-Bailey are with us now from KQED in San Francisco.

Thank you both so much for joining us.

KAREGA BAILEY: Absolute pleasure to be here. Thank you so much.

FELICIA GANGLOFF-BAILEY: Thank you for having us.

BAILEY: Absolutely.

MARTIN: I mentioned that you are teachers. You run the Roses in Concrete Community School in Oakland. The name is a nod to a book of poetry by the rapper Tupac Shakur. And, Felicia, do I have it right that you have a doctorate in education?

GANG;OFF-BAILEY: Yes, educational psychology.

MARTIN: And so you're Dr. Gangloff-Bailey in addition to...

GANG;OFF-BAILEY: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...Being an artist. Now, I have to say, look. A music career is hard. Running a school is hard.

GANG;OFF-BAILEY: (Laughter).

MARTIN: I mean, please. How on earth?

GANG;OFF-BAILEY: It's funny because I never expected this to go this way with the music. And it's really kind of taken over. But it's been the most effective vehicle in touching students and in directly touching their heart. I've been fortunate, and I think it's absolutely necessary considering the content that we are creating that you stay heavily immersed and grounded in the roots of what you're speaking about.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HELICOPTER")

SOL DEVELOPMENT: (Singing) Exactly. Helicopter, helicopter over my head. I see them lights. They're flashing blue and that red. They chase us down the street, and they shootin' us dead 'cause they don't understand that we are more than they said, more than they said.

MARTIN: Do your students think you're cool? Or are they all like...

BAILEY: (Laughter).

MARTIN: ...Students everywhere, who think you're just so lame and corny that...

BAILEY: Oh, man. You know what? It's so funny because "Helicopter" is written in such a way, we didn't realize how powerful it was as a tool. And, for a long time, I didn't make the correlation that it has a strong experience with the, you know, the helicopter children's nursery rhyme, right? And so they love it, and they sing it. Nieces and nephews sing it. They understand police presence. Let's just be clear about that. And, nah, they don't think we corny. They rock with us.

(LAUGHTER)

BAILEY: They're so harsh, right? But, like, their metrics of, like, music - they hold it similar to a lot of the other music they digest. They want to know - are we famous? Are you doing this yet, right? But they love the fact that their teachers are touching the world and creating music that they get to come home and look up on YouTube and share with their family and say, look what my teacher made.

GANG;OFF-BAILEY: Oh, that - those are my favorites, when they come. I saw you on YouTube. I saw you here. And then, it's even incredible experience to be performing on stages, and then they show up.

MARTIN: We just listened to "Helicopter," which has this delightful, you know, melody and this beautiful pacing. But the subject is heavy. I mean, it's police brutality and racism, so I wanted to ask how you decided that this is what you wanted to say.

BAILEY: It's this position where I no longer could withhold the observation of living the black experience, but I knew that there was light in it. I knew there was power in it, in having these opportunities to have these encounters and kind of transition into your next level of purpose. So it was my it was kind of my way of creating - our way of creating the conditions to give ourselves permission to transcend that moment. We understand the helicopters. We understand police brutality, but we also understand greater hour-light within and what our response can be to these circumstances.

MARTIN: I wonder, though, if they just appreciate the fact that you see them, that you understand...

GANG;OFF-BAILEY: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...The things that are on their minds are not separate and apart from what's on your mind. I wonder if, in part, their - your music makes them feel seen.

BAILEY: Wow, I love that observation. At the truest core of the lyric-writing, it was my offering to let my students know their scene because when you work in a school system, they can think that you are subject to the system and the way the system treats them. But I wanted to show them that we see them, that I see you. My classroom became significant to them once they realized that their stories mattered in the classroom.

MARTIN: Well, speaking of that, I want to - there's another song I want to play. It's called "Brother."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BROTHER")

GANG;OFF-BAILEY: (Singing) For the past 14 years, I've been waiting, waiting upon this man's explanation of why he couldn't fly, why he couldn't divide the sky and he couldn't save me when I cried...

MARTIN: Karega, I know that you lost your brother to gun violence in 2014. It's my understanding that he was shot in Sacramento by another African-American man. And how - first, I want to say I'm very sorry for your loss. And I wanted to ask - what is it that you poured into this song that you wanted us to hear?

BAILEY: Our suffering is connected. Our suffering is so connected, and so is our love. And having the opportunity to choose love and choose a path of freedom of - paid for by love and liberation. Say, peace, king, am I not my brother's keeper?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BROTHER")

BAILEY: (Rapping) Am I not my brother's keeper? With all this education, how could I not be a teacher? With all this liberation, how could I not try to free? I can't race against my race and then tell my people to keep up.

This idea is if I have a path to freedom, if I have an inception, an idea of better circumstances, I have to love you enough to make sure that you're included and not excluded. It's the exclusion that creates the crime, the harm. It's this feeling of feeling unseen or - and needs unmet. So, really, opening this up to say our love is connected and so is our pain - and, at some level, I had to understand that I was connected to the person that took my brother's life.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BROTHER")

GANG;OFF-BAILEY: (Singing) Brother, don't you let them take you 'cause you know that long vacation you said you're on? You're kid, he knows the truth.

MARTIN: That was Karega Bailey and Felicia Gangloff-Bailey. They are two of the four members of SOL Development. They were kind enough to join us from KQED in San Francisco. And, Karega, Felicia, thank you so much for talking to us.

GANG;OFF-BAILEY: Thank you for having us.

BAILEY: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BROTHER")

BAILEY: (Rapping) Peace, king. Am I not my brother's keeper? With all this education, how could I not be a teacher? With all this liberation, how could I not try to free? I can't race against my race and then tell my people to keep up. That's weak, bro. And since you always rap about your paper, if you've got it like you say you do, then take care of your neighbor. Spend your bread or something greater... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.