Oakulture

Documenting the Oakland cultural renaissance

Background and History

Historically, the city of Oakland has always been what can be described as a cultural mecca. In the 30s, 40s, and 50s, West Oakland’s 7th street was known as the “Harlem of the West,” and supported a thriving jazz and blues scene. In the 60s and 70s, Oakland was instrumental in the development of the funk sound through artists like Rodger Collins and Johnny Talbot, as well as the connection between music and social justice movements — exemplified by the Black Panther Party’s “house band,” The Lumpen – a legacy which continues to this day through socially-conscious artists and “artivists” like Boots Riley and The Coup, Kev Choice, and Jennifer Johns.

Oakland music culture has produced everything from the “East Bay Grease” funk sound of Tower of Power, to Latin percussionist extraordinaire Sheila E., to pop-hip-hop phenomenon MC Hammer, to independent rap legend Too $hort, to the urban R&B of Tony! Toni! Toné!, En Vogue, Raphael Saadiq, and Keyshia Cole. It’s no accident that Tupac Shakur, quite possibly the most celebrated rap artist of all time, spent the formative years of his career in Oakland, or that legendary hip-hop collective Hieroglyphics claim Oakland as their home base.

Visual art has also been a huge part of Oakland culture; the city claims to have the most artists per capita of any city in the country, which has manifested through the internationally-recognized Art Murmur, as well as the proliferation of street-oriented visual artists and aerosol art practitioners upholding the legacy of Mike “Dream” Francisco.  Somewhat lesser-known is Oakland’s contribution to the film genre, which includes famous actors Danny Glover and Ted Lange as well as recent discoveries like director Ryan Coogler.  Similarly, Oakland’s spoken word scene, one of the best in the country, has provided a supportive platform for emerging talents like playwright Chinaka Hodge.

Although Oakland is the center of the Bay Area from a geographic standpoint, for many years its arts and culture scene was overshadowed by San Francisco. But things have changed recently. Gentrification, skyrocketing rents, and the influx of tech workers displaced dozens of artists and musicians from SF; many of whom settled in Oakland. That change has not gone unnoticed by the media: the New York Times named the city one of the USA’s top 5 destinations, San Francisco magazine dedicated an entire issue to its East Bay neighbor, and the Bay Guardian declared Oakland was “cooler” than SF. Meanwhile, the proliferation of new and interesting restaurants has made Oakland a hot topic in the foodie world. It seems the media has finally discovered Oakland, much in the same was as Columbus “discovered” America.

While all the recent national media attention has been gratifying for a city which for years was unfairly maligned for negative portrayals, much of the press coverage can be accurately described as coming from an outside perspective, looking in at Oakland. As current Oaklanders brace themselves for a wave of newcomers with no connection to the city’s rich cultural history, raising concerns of gentrification and the displacement which comes along with it, Oakland finds itself in the midst of a cultural renaissance which has brought new life into the downtown area, symbolized by the First Friday parties which have attracted as many as 15,000 people, and made the city a destination for nightlife seekers.

Oakulture began as a cultural initiative masquerading as an arts and culture column in hyperlocal website Oakland Local. The mission was simple: to document the cultural renaissance in words and pictures as it was happening, from the perspective of an Oakland resident and longtime Bay Area scribe, Eric K. Arnold – a writer/photographer with an institutional memory of the region’s arts and culture scene. Particular attention was paid to spotlighting emerging new talent, to identifying cultural trends – such as the intersection of tech and arts — as they were breaking, and to covering artists of color who were typically underserved by both national and local media.

Oakulture took a radically innovative approach to arts coverage: rather than segregating music from film from visual art from spoken word, as conventional media outlets typically did, Oakulture amalgamated them all together, thus presenting a Big Picture view which was a more honest representation of Oakland’s cultural dynamic – illustrating how the city’s diversity is reflected through the intersectionality of artistic disciplines and cultural manifestations. The column also used the online platform to present more photographs than a typical print story would, giving it a unique visual look which distinguished it from all competition.

Oakulture ran for more than a year in Oakland Local, covering 60 columns in all, and routinely amassing page views 5-10 times the views of typical OL stories in the arts & culture section. Despite outperforming its peers to such a degree, OL’s publisher suggested cutting back on the column due to financial considerations, which made little sense, considering not only the analytics numbers, but also the fact that Oakland’s cultural renaissance was in full bloom, and that more coverage, if anything, was needed.

The choice was made to become an independent site, serving the progressive, diverse arts and culture community, and expanding coverage to become a comprehensive source and resource.  Oakulture isn’t just hyperlocal, it’s hyperfocal, zeroing in on the arts and culture niche which informs every aspect of Oakland’s dynamicism, from lifestyle to politics. While currently existing on an online platform, Oakulture isn’t a static representation of the city’s cultural paradigm by any means; Oakulture isn’t just a website, it’s a lifestyle, a movement and a way of being, with plans to expand into other mediums when the time is right.

Right now, Oakulture’s goal is to document Oakland’s incredibly talented, historically slept-on scene and to promote the city’s artists locally, nationally, and internationally. All from an Oakland perspective. After all, Oakland is known for creating revolutionary movements, so why wouldn’t the city’s cultural arts be anything less?

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