LATASHA HARLINS was 15 when she was killed in a South Central convenience store by Soon Ja Du, the shop's owner. Harlins, a black girl, put a bottle of orange juice in her backpack, and a scuffle ensued. Harlins hit Du, a Korean immigrant, and tried to leave. Du shot her in the back of the head. Security cameras showed two dollars—enough to cover the cost of the juice—crumpled in Harlins' dead hand.
The incident, on March 16, 1991, came 13 days after the Rodney King beating. Du was charged with voluntary manslaughter and served no prison time. The treatment of Harlins and her killer further inflamed racial tensions that would boil over the following year in the LA riots.
Soon after, Harlins was memorialized in song. In 1991, Ice Cube released "Black Korea," a violent, xenophobic response to tensions between the black community and the many Korean shop owners in black neighborhoods. Tupac, who dedicated 1993's "Keep Ya Head Up" to Harlins, remembered her more tenderly. He sang and spoke of her frequently.
To that list of tribute payers, add Gabriel Kahane, a 33-year-old songwriter from New York who was born in LA. Kahane's take—a multi-part, nine-minute opus—is an idiosyncratic composition. Electric guitars, chamber strings, charging drums, and backup choirs peel in and out as Kahane weaves the tragedy's many threads.
"Empire Liquor Mart (9127 S. Figueroa St.)" is both factual and haunting. Kahane assumes multiple vantages, becoming an omnipresent observer floating through time and space, from in and out of the murder scene to the lives it touched. Rather than the immediate, visceral responses of Ice Cube and Tupac, Kahane's piece is a historical exhumation—a document of feeling and posterity, particularly relevant in the wake of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner.
"Empire" is a chapter in Kahane's wide-ranging, multifaceted story of Los Angeles, The Ambassador. The album and its title track, "Ambassador Hotel (3400 Wilshire Blvd.)," are named for the hotel in which Robert Kennedy was assassinated in 1968, and which became controversial in the mid-'00s as conservationists and developers struggled over the land. The developers won, but Kahane saw a flashpoint.
"That was sort of the moment where it felt like Los Angeles could look back and think, 'Holy fuck, we have this incredible cultural tradition and we need to think about preserving it,'" says Kahane.
That moment provided Kahane a concept around which to construct a well-researched, highly literary, and far-ranging record. Most songs on The Ambassador are anchored in actual places and titled by their addresses.
"I wanted to find a way to understand that ache of the city," Kahane says, "and to understand how it is that a city has a reputation that really reflects only a tiny fraction of the life that actually goes on in that city."