Live review: Life is Living Festival, Oct. 11, DeFremery Park.
Trying to describe Oakland’s Life is Living Festival is like trying to describe life itself. On a sunny, warm day, with every part of West Oakland’s DeFremery park activated—with people everywhere, listening to live hip-hop music well past dusk, sitting on the grass in front of Brett Cook’s large paintings of inspirational Oakland folks, skating or BMXing at Town Park, participating in kids’ activities with the little ones, perusing the wares of local artisans and artists, standing in line for a plate of yummy jollof rice and ndole from A Taste of Africa, or just having a parkside picnic with family members or loved ones—it seems absolutely perfect.
To call Life is Living a much-anticipated event would be an understatement. Every year since its inception, the Youth Speaks-produced festival is something to look forward to, a day of being surrounded by community, friends old and new, of being outside on what usually amounts to the last days of Indian Summer, just before the weather shifts and Fall begins in earnest. It’s also no exaggeration to call Life is Living a cultural institution, one which honors and celebrates local artists, musicians, and the community itself, in a completely sincere, open, and non-elitist way. Along with Oakland’s other open-air, music-filled community gatherings (among them Art & Soul, Malcolm X Jazz Arts Festival, Umoja Festival and Hiero Day), Life is Living has become part of the cultural fabric which holds the Town together, an event where the intersectionality of the city’s fabled diversity is on full display.
There’s always spoken word poetry, music and plenty of art at Life is Living, and this year was more of the same. Each year the lineup is a little different—last year, headliners dead prez rocked the main stage with revolutionary rap; the year before that, Pete Escovedo, Los Rakas and DJ Questlove threw down—but it always showcases and spotlights the cream of local talent.
New this year was a reggae sound system stage, with yard-style exposed speaker grills and a succession of dancehall-inclined emcees chanting down Babylon all afternoon. Progressive hip-hop collective Town Futurists also held down a main stage slot, offering up conscious, lyrical beats and rhymes and forward-looking soul grooves. The “Front Porch” stage hosted spoken word, an “MC Olympics” freestyle rhyme cipher, and various local emcees—including the Beats Rhymes and Life crew, Madlines and the Queen Emcees, former Lunar Heights mic-slanger Spear of the Nation, and longstanding socio-politically-aware rhymer Jahi, who recently joined the Public Enemy family as PE2.0. Meanwhile, the kids’ stage featured performers Emily Butterfly, Theobekile “Thobs” Mbanda, and Young, Gifted & Black, along with gymnastics, tumbling and Zumba. While the absence of female performers from this year’s Hiero Day was a valid gripe among the artist community, no such complaint could be made about Life is Living: there was hardly any gender imbalance, if at all, at any of the stages.
The highlight of this years’ event, hands-down, was the “Soul Sessions” all-star revue assembled by pianist/composer/emcee Kev Choice. Choice and his band remained on stage while a succession of uber-talented singers and rappers passed through to swap spit and channel soulful emotions. These included Candice Antique Davis of Antique Naked Soul, who murdered a rendition of Stevie Wonder’s “For You,” which had the crowd singing along to the “na na na na na na na” chorus; Erk tha Jerk, who dueted with Choice on “Forever Again” (one of the favorites from Choice’s latest solo release, Oakland Riviera); Netta Brielle, a homegrown contemporary R&B songstress who’s been living in Atlanta after signing to Atlantic Records; soul powerhouse Jennifer Johns (who brought up Ryan Nicole of Nu Dekades for a spirited run-through of “Town’d Out,” a song from Johns’ long-rumored,yet-to-materialize, third album; surprise cameos from Phesto Dee of Souls of Mischief/Hieroglyphics, and 1-O.A.K.; and a set-closing posse jam with Johns, Nicole, Kev Omoaghe Akhidenor, and Jahi which left the stage smoking. Credit must be given to Choice’s band— drummer John Omayga Adams, guitarist Bnai Rebelfront, keyboardist Doug Jones, bassist Drew, and sax players Ranzell Merritt and Roger Cox, who made the wide-ranging stylistic shifts seem easy and effortless—something they couldn’t possibly have actually been. While it’s great to see such talent play locally—especially in a space which holds as much memory as DeFremery (the onetime stomping ground of the Black Panthers)—the onstage energy was so combustible, it would be a shame for Choice not to take this revue on the road, so folks living outside of Oakland can see how it really goes down here.
Another first this year was the extension of the live performances past the daylight hours. This portion of the event featured Digital Underground frontman and hip-hop legend Shock G—yes, the one who put the satin on your panties—who seemed to be trying his best to channel his fallen friend and onetime bandmate Tupac Shakur. Shock switched between microphone and piano during his set, assisted by just a bassist and a DJ, and alternated between telling ‘Pac anecdotes, segueing into ‘Pac songs like “So Many Tears” and “I Get Around,” and lyrically referencing the formerly Oakland-based rap icon on “Keep It Beautiful”: His special special gift was his love side/ So many try’na be Pac but only cop the thug side/ How come yall don’t wanna be Shock? I survived/ And I ride for everyone/ It’s what you make it, so I made mine fun/ Yeah it’s bad now, don’t make it worse/ You wanna be happy? set that energy in motion and offer a smile first/ They don’t get it? try it again, breathe baby, breathe/ You really wanna be like Pac? read shorty, read.
There’s a lot which could be said about how the commercial rap industry has gone straight downhill since Tupac’s death 18 years ago. And to be honest, there’s little that’s appealing about commercial rap nowadays to those who identify as hip-hop generationers. But if Life is Living is anything, it’s a testament to the fact that good hip-hop is still being made, and that some of the best hip-hop being made is being made by community-oriented artists on a grassroots level who welcome the chance to take their show to the people in the park.
It’s no mistake that the organizers of Life is Living include Hodari Davis and Marc Bamuthi Joseph, both of whom are card-carrying members of the hip-hop generation who present this festival like an offering to the orishas, with ritualistic purpose and complete integrity. These past few years, they’ve not only put on an enthralling annual event, but created a cultural legacy which uplifts community. Life is Living not only gives hope to future generations that hip-hop—and other urban genres—can stay positive and inspirational, but just might keep old heads who witnessed hip-hop’s evolution back in the day from becoming jaded and bitter about where the artform is at these days.