Oakulture

Documenting the Oakland cultural renaissance


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Hiero Day VII: The Seventh Seal [Review/Photoset]

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This year’s installment of Hiero Day — which  has become one of the most significant hip-hop parties in the nation, if not the globe — may have been the most satisfying iteration to date. By the time evening rolled around and the locally-bred Hieroglyphics crew hit the instantly-recognizable opening notes of “93 Til Infinity,” the experience had become epic.

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It’s always interesting to arrive at a music festival early, when things are just starting. There was a good reason for early arrival, however: an all-to-brief set by Umar Bin Hassan, best known as one of the driving forces behind the Last Poets, the pioneering group who infused spoken word with street-level imagery, cultural nationalism, and a sociopolitical worldview. The Last Poets have been called the Godfathers of rap, and the tradition of “woke”-ness in hip-hop has a starting point in songs like “When the Revolution Comes” and “Mean Machine.” They’ve been sampled by Notorious B.I.G., and covered by Public Enemy, yet their contributions to the artform and the culture aren’t as widely-known as they should be.

Bin Hassan’s set was short but significant, in that it connected rap’s origins with its present-day manifestation.  He closed with “This Is Madness”, the title track of the classic 1971 album. Strangely enough, the song’s dystopian lyrics seemed just as relevant in the Trumpian era as they were during the Nixon presidency.

As host Mistah F.A.B. noted, at the time the Last Poets emerged, “trhey was still hanging us. Let me say that. We was still getting killed for reckless eyeballing. We were still getting locked up like we are today, at higher rates than we was in the South. So for a brother to come out with poems like that, the whole Last Poets, allof the brothers, man, to be here today, I’m honored just to share the stage with him.”

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After his set, Bin Hassan hung out for a while in VIP by the main stage, taking it all in. There was a lot to take in, indeed, Besides the main stage, there were two other stages with full lineups, vendors galore, a food truck area, a kids’ area – a sure sign hip-hop is grown—and live painting by graffiti legend Crayone.

As the day progressed, thousands of attendees began to fill up the staging area, which had a different configuration than the 2016 festival, also held in the general 3rd St. location. The main stage faced westerly, which meant that attendees were looking directly into the sun for most of the afternoon.

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As a veteran of many Hiero Days, one thing Oakulture has learned is, you can’t be everywhere at once. So while forays were made through the vending and food areas, and the two secondary stages, the place to be was around the main stage, where most of the action was – although word has it that Ryan Austin and Chinaka Hodge killed it, as did Chali 2na’s performance and Mannie Fresh’s DJ set.

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For the occasion, F.A.B.  donned a bright red hoodie-and-sweatpants combo advertising his clothing company Dope Era. Never one to under-accessorize, F.A.B. also sported a Dope Era backpack and gold chain. The charismatic host shuttled between exhorting the crowd to get loud, relaying anecdotes, and performing some of his own songs, like the hyphy era anthem,  “Super Sic Wid It”

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A major highlight was Richie Rich’s set.  Before he came on, F.A.B. again contextualized the moment, proclaiming Rich “raised” him. “This dude was one of the first dudes to really show me what it was like to be a real Oakland stunna, to represent the town all around the world… when I heard this dude was on the performance list, I was hella juiced.”

In the Bay Area pantheon, “Dubble R” occupies a rather unique roost. A founding member of 415 who later signed to Def Jam before going indie, he’s among the few OG pioneers of Bay Area rap who’s still actively recording.

Richie Rich’s Hiero Day set was heated. The soil-savvy yet lyrical mic presence he displayed was something up-and-coming artists could learn a thing or two from. The crowd’s energy level jumped significantly when he too the stage. Audible cheers of excitement ensued when he performed the classics “Ain’t Gon Do” and “Let’s Ride.” He appeared to leave the crowd wanting more, until he reappeared, flanked by F.A.B., for a rendition of the all-time Oakland anthem, “Sideshow.”

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Another bright note was Mike Relm’s video turntablism display. Relm—who started out as a member of Supernatural Turntable Artists, then shot to fame with the Blue Man Group—has mastered the art of mixing music videos, mashing up visuals as well as audio. This injects an added sense of excitement into DJ routines because of the enhanced visual component. Relm might appear to be The Nerdiest Guy on the Planet—an image he has carefully cultivated—but he is an absolute beast on the tables, so don’t ever sleep on him.

Relm was followed by a very laid-back Talib Kweli, who recounted a story of coming to Oakland in 1996 and hanging  out with members of Hiero. It was a subtle reminder that Hiero Day is built on relationships in the artist community which extend back decades, as opposed to a corporate festival where money is the only commonality. The phrase “for the culture” gets bandied about a lot, and sometimes in cliched ways, but there is absolutely nothing cliched about a grassroots event which built itself up from its own bootstraps – which could be said about the Hiero organization as well (more on that in a minute).

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Kweli’s set cruised through hits like “The Blast,””Get By,” and “Redefinition,” before the Brooklyn emcee gave way to Southern Cali’s Pharcyde. Now down to just two original members—Imani and Bootie  Brown, the group still was able to muster considerable stage command, especially on their closing tune, “Passing Me By,” which turned into a sing-along with several thousand people – indeed, the staging area had become a dense thicket of bodies.

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By now, the sun’s merciless rays had begun to ease a bit, setting the stage for an otherworldly set by Black Thought. The Roots’ headmaster made his first Hiero Day appearance one for the history books. If you think you have heard dope emcees before, you really haven’t heard anything until you’ve heard Thought do a solo set, backed by just a trumpeter and a give tapping out beats on an MPC.  Tarik Trotter simply put on a rhyme clinic, scoring high marks for subject matter, flow, breath control, vocabulary, tonality, and several other metrics which may come to mind later. He held the mic like a staff, emanating a vibe of hip-hop royalty. Fronting on Thought was simply not an option; he basically exuded greatness from every pore, as he poured on the similes and metaphors.

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The coup de gras was the special guest he brought out, none other than Sa-Roc. Though she looked graceful, even demure, she beasted the mic with an impressive  display of skills and finesse which served as dessert to Thought’s entrée. Definitely keep an eye out for her.

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At this point in the day, the show was running a bit over, which  cut into the headliner’s time. Which is also a testament to Hiero’s aesthetic . Most groups in that position, especially at their own festival, would have cut the time of one of the other acts; to cut your own set speaks to their integrity.

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Their 30-minute slot was cut down to maybe about 20 minutes. But lest anyone complain, they more then made up for it in intensity, bum-rushing the stage like they were hungry for their first taste of success.

If you’ve followed Hiero for a while, you know they function as a collective unit with distinct  personalities: Casual mixes physical and verbal aggression with subtly complex rhyme patterns and battle-rapper bravado; Tajai—who sported a black and gold African-patterned robe straight outta Wakanda—evoked the image of a high priest or wizard of some mystical Afrocentric sect;  the underrated Pep Love is a fount of lyrical dopeness and hip-hop aesthetics; Phesto Dee mixes sporty flair with a subtle sense of humor (he had on some shades with the Hiero symbol on the lenses); and A+ and Opio are deceptively laid-back cats who deliver devastating ninja strikes causing verbal lacerations.  Producer Domino and DJ Toure stoically play the background, but also serve as grounded focal points – the crew likes to move around a lot onstage. Missing in action was Hiero founded Del—a zany character if there ever was one—who is still recovering from a recent illness.

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Hiero’s energetic set went by quickly, but every moment was befitting of a prime-time performance. After seeing them live countless times, the way they complement each other never ceases to amaze. They never get in each other’s way, seeming to employ telepathic commands, or maybe just intuition born from working alongside each other for three decades.  It would have been dope to hear a full set of classics, but the songs we did hear, including two newer songs and the now 20 year-old “You Never Knew” were lapp[ed up like milk by the crowd, leading up to “93 til,” a song whose most enduring quality may be that it never gets old.

Some final thoughts: Hiero Day covers a fair amount of the hip-hop spectrum, and presents the genre as united—as opposed to subdivided by style or region. In doing so, it transcends subjective biases. The mix of up-and-coming and veteran artists not only challenges fans to be open-minded and encourages embracing of groups they may be unfamiliar with, but also means each and every Hiero Day is similar yet different.

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Unlike most rap shows—which tend to either target younger or older audiences—Hiero Day has broad, multigenerational appeal. This also helps explain Hieroglyphics’ longevity: they keep attracting younger fans while retaining longtime listeners, essentially turning over their fan base. It’s a brilliant marketing model.

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While similar festivals like Summer Jam or Rock the Bells have attracted large numbers of hip-hop aficionados over the years, neither event has ever felt truly organic. There’s a DIY mentality afoot at Hiero Day which makes mainstream or overly-commercial rap seem completely irrelevant. From an audience perspective, there may be some performers you especially want to see, but a greater sense that folks are there for the overall experience.

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Art & Soul Turns 18 (Review/Photoset)

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Over the years, Oakland’s annual Art & Soul festival has had its ups and downs. This year’s offering, however, was one of the best in recent memory, with an outstanding all-local lineup which allowed homegrown talent to shine. It’s perhaps easy to take the event for granted, with its familiar array of vendor booths and food stands, bolstered by various stages for live music and dance. It’s not the edgiest summer event, but it is one of the most multi-generational, as well as one of the most venerable festivals in Oakland. While First Fridays, Friday Nights at OMCA, and Third Thursdays at Latham Square have become popular in recent years, when Art & Soul started, there wasn’t really much of a buzz around downtown as a cultural district. All that has changed as Oakland has come into its own and become more of a destination for the rest of the Bay Area.

It seemed fitting that this year’s highlight was a Sunday headlining set by hometown heroines the Pointer Sisters. The group is best known for a string of 80’s pop hits like “Jump,” “Neutron Dance,” “Automatic,” and “I’m So Excited,” but they started out a decade earlier with an intoxicating blend of vocal harmonies and versatile arrangements which ran the gamut from R&B to funk to jazz to country to rock to disco. It would have been cool to hear deep cuts like “Yes We Can Can,” “How Long,” and “Steam Heat,” but the hour-long set concentrated on their best-known material, with a cover of Aretha Franklin’s “Chain of Fools” thrown in for good measure. While the group is down to one original member—Ruth Pointer—it’s still a family affair, with the rest of the trio rounding out with Ruth’s daughter Issa and granddaughter Sadako. Now in her 70s, Ruth looked and sounded amazing, and she led the group through a dynamic live set which had the crowd buzzing.

 

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At the end of the show, there was a special cheerleading performance and an appearance by Mayor Schaaf, who then announced the ”Mayor of West Oakland,” Councilmember Lynette McElhaney, who proceeded to award Ruth the key to the city.  Ruth then gave a small speech bigging up the city, and shouting-out her high school, McClymonds. It was a real Oakland moment.

Earlier in the day, the main stage  featured sets by Grammy-nominated Alphabet Rockers, R&B songstress Netta Brielle, and jazz-hopsters the Kev Choice Ensemble – a strong showing of local flavor whose sets complimented each other well. The music was in the vein of Black music, but had near-universal appeal. This was a marked change from past years which sometimes featured non-local rock acts (which may have been due to former sponsor KFOG). But this year, the co-sponsor was KBLX. As a result, the main stage performances felt more organically and authentically Oakland. While the festival hasn’t always booked all-local lineups, it’s a good look when it does. That’s because doing so allows the event to really be about celebrating and appreciating The Town—in effect, marketing Oakland itself as the main attraction.

It doesn’t hurt that there is plenty of talent bred right here to go around. The Kev Choice Ensemble is a perfect example. If you’ve never seen the KCE live before, you’re missing out on some really good music, as in, actual music played by real musicians. In terms of artistic sensibilities, Choice is a 10 out of 10, and his music bears a high level of aesthetic quality. The mix of jazz, funk, R&B, and hip-hop felt perfect to groove to on a Sunday afternoon. Lyrically, Choice eschews the materialism and self-serving braggadocio common with contemporary rap artists, focusing instead on socially-conscious messages, augmented by the backing vocals of Viveca Hawkins. Choice brought out special guests Sol Development, Netta Brielle, and Jennifer Johns—even more top-shelf local talent—which made the concert seem like an extended family affair.

The previous day, Oakulture managed to catch sets by Jazz Mafia featuring Deuce Eclipse , Ryan Nicole and Martin Luther, and headliner Lyrics Born. Both sets were super-tight. Luther absolutely killed covers of Parliament’s “Stay,” and The Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” and Eclipse ripped dos rap en Espanol numbers, “Ragga Cantor” and “Knock Knock,” which allowed the Mafia to show of their Latin jazz chops

Lyrics Born, meanwhile, continues to put on a hell of a live show. Now on his 10th album, the man has lots of catalog to pull from. Too much, in fact, for a one-hour set. Oakulture was hoping LB would pull out the 2003 gem “Bad Dreams,” but really couldn’t complain about material like “I Like It, I Love It,” “Chest Wide Open,” and the just-released single “Is It Worth It?” The crowd also heard the Latyrx classic “Lady Don’t Tek No,” which never gets old. Another highlight were the b-boy breaking moves of LB’s son, Teo—reppping the next generation of Bay flavor.

There was, as always, a lot going on at Art & Soul. In addition to the main stage, there were dedicated jazz and blues stages, and a turf dance competition. It’s pretty cool that turfin’ has become enshrined into the festival repertoire, as something which primarily appeals to youth. It’s also cool that hip-hop artists are being embraced—almost a decade after Hieroglyphics became the first rap act to play the festival. While rap isn’t always the most appropriate music choice at family-oriented events, rappers  with positive lyrical content who play with live bands makes it a non-issue.

All in all, Art & Soul was an enjoyable and fun time which one hopes will continue to evolve into a world-class showcase for local music. There was also an underlying sense of the need to maintain cultural identity in the face of a rapidly-changing city. One of Choice’s songs, “Never Give You Up”—which personifies Oakland similar to how Common’s “I Used to Love H.E.R.” personifies hip-hop—spoke directly to that. The song  was later referenced by McElhaney. With that being said, having a place where Black cultural forms such as blues, jazz, hip-hop and turfin’ are all visible and audible, where food stands still sell BBQ, and local vendors sell t-shirts with slogans like “I (Heart) Being Black” reinforces Oakland’s longstanding identity against the onslaught of culture and population shift. Perhaps that makes Art & Soul the cultural equivalent of comfort food, but comfort food is comforting for a reason.


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EXCLUSIVE: Sizzla Burns As Babylon Turns (PHOTOSET/REVIEW)

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Sizzla Kalonji

Last Saturday night at the UC Theater, Sizzla Kalonji reigned supreme. With the US democracy continuing to crumble under the weight of Trumpski–a soap opera replete with tabloid-worthy state visits, kangaroo-court government hearings,  flip-flops on election-hacking, and general unrest seemingly everywhere, there couldn’t have been a better time for the fiery roots dancehall artist to make a Bay Area appearance.

Babylon, or at least the present-day version of it, appeared to be (finally) falling. Amidst the chaos of an unstable and uncertain future, Sizzla presented himself as a diplomatic spokesman for the ghetto youth platform and everyone down with it.  It wasn’t hard to catch a contact high from all the spliffs raised in tribute to the music–and the message.

Sizzla’s kinetic live show is not for the faint of heart or slow of foot. For 90 minutes, he let of contagious, infectious flurries of energy, punctuating vocals which were at times sung, screamed, delivered in rapid-fire multi-syllabic bursts. His lyrical gymnastics were accentuated with wild gyrations and raised-fist poses. Performing a mix of deep catalog cuts— among them,  “Azanido,” “Show Us the Way,”“Be Strong,” “Like Mountains,” “Praise Ye Jah” and ”Dem A Wonder”—along with less-celebrated (but no less intense) cuts (and a cover of The Wailers'”Rastaman Chant”),  Sizzla left no doubt as to why he’s remained at the top of the dancehall bunch for more than 20 years.

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The seemingly-ageless Boboshanti dread emerged dressed nattily in a suit jacket, button-down shirt, and signature turban — looking every bit a dignified yardie. His pace was relentless, and bereft of any sense he was biding for time at any point during the show.  At times jumping into the air, at others cocking his turban to the side as if receiving a personal message from the Almighty Jah, Sizzla seemed like an artist who was very much still in his prime.

At an age when many of his peers from the late 90s and early 2000s have hung up their microphones or slowed down their artistic output, Sizzla has remained both prolific and relevant. Recent singles include a blazing, roots-revivalist  duet with singer Jr. Kelly, “All I See Is War,” and a capable excursion on a JonFX-produced trap beat, “My Girl.” Although Sizzla hasn’t appeared on as many remixes as, say, Junior Reid or Bounty Killer, his ability to genre-stretch speaks to both his versatility and longevity.

The UC Theater show, though, was all roots-dancehall, and there was absolutely no cause for complaint from the crowd. The backing band, equally-steeped in reggae aesthetics, made nary a misstep, filling the large hall with the slightly off-kilter rriddims, contrasting melodic guitar runs with pulsating drum-and-bass intersections. Sizzla was preceded by warm-up artists Marlon Asher, Orlando Octave, Meleku Izac King, Zyanigh, and DJs Green B and Young Fyah. Following the lion’s share of the headline set, A gaggle of guest vocalists–including–Oakland emcee Ras Ceylon, who has a current single, “Gunz R Killing Dem,”  with Kalonji– took the stage for the final legs of the show, before Sizzla returned to seal the deal. The crowd was mostly well-satisfied, but seemed like they could have gone for a few encores. The playfulness of the show was evident. Yet it was also apparent Sizzla is d(r)ead serious about being a flagbearer for a rebel culture, a de facto leader of a resistance movement which relies on joyful noise, not drone strikes.

SPECIAL THANKS TO VIDEOGRAPHER JENNY CHU
ALL PHOTOS ©2018 ERIC K. ARNOLD/OAKULTURE.COM


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A Deep Dive Into the Prison-Industrial Pipeline in “Beyond the Bars”

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What does “home” mean? Is home where the heart is? Where the hatred is? A physical location? A state of mind? Can prison be a home? What does it mean to come home? And, can you ever really go back home again? These philosophical questions are at the core of the Lower Bottom Playaz’ production of “Beyond the Bars: Growing Home.”

In “Beyond the Bars,” the prison-industrial pipeline becomes a backdrop for an powerful examination of black masculinity . An array of black men, ranging in age from mid-20s to senior citizen, come together regularly to check in with their feelings. It’s somewhat telling that the vehicle which allows them to gather for this purpose is a re-entry support group; all of them are formerly-incarcerated.

The prison-industrial pipeline becomes a backdrop for an powerful examination of black masculinity

Their check-ins are largely about dealing with the ramification of their imprisonment, from the horrors and injustice they’ve witnessed behind bars, to their own acknowledgement of guilt and responsibility for their actions, to their struggles with social inclusion, employment – and potential retribution by the relatives of their victims. It’s a set-up which allows a murderer to reveal their motivations in one breath, then argue against the perpetuation of cyclic violence in the other.

The cast represent the so-called thugs and black bogeymen vilified in conservative political rhetoric and sensationalistic media portrayals, but such stereotypical perceptions are entirely superficial in this context. The cyclic patters of crime, incarceration, and recidivism are not entirely the result of personal choices these characters have made, but moreso collective examples of how structural inequity plays out. As the play unfolds, we learn more about the characters, which makes it difficult, if not impossible, to dehumanize and demonize them.

The re-entry support group functions as a place where the “cool pose” of black male attitudes are examined and analyzed, revealing a vulnerability and strength rooted as much in resilience as in systemic oppression.

While this is ironic, it’s not a completely-implausible scenario; One in three African Americans are incarcerated in the United States (a statistic which also held true in a post-performance survey of the cast). So, the set-up works. The audience eavesdrops in as a moderator facilitates the meetings, sometimes attended by a doctor who is collecting stories for research.

The cyclic patters of crime, incarceration, and recidivism are not entirely the result of personal choices these characters have made

What follows is a poignant, nearly 90-minute deep dive into how the prison-industrial pipeline has become an integral part of black life. Each of the formerly-incarcerated characters are presented as flawed, yet human. Each has redeeming qualities which can be easily overlooked, or more accurately, swept aside by preconceived notions about the correlation between crime and race.

bb1The play forces viewers to examine those preconceived notions, and to confront the reality of the situation, just as the characters must all confront their uncertain futures outside of jail. “I paid the price. I own the fault… Let me get right,” one of the characters says. It’s a line which suggests redemption is as much about acceptance as repentance. If we believe in rehabilitation, we must allow for re-entry into society, the play argues, undergirding its argument with the alarming statistic than more Africican Americans are incarcerated today than were enslaved in 1863.

A generational dynamic is introduced when a young adult joins the group. His antagonism and apathy create palpable tension; and his impulsiveness leads to a pivotal and climactic conflict which adds a gracenote of gravitas to the already emotionally-laden subject matter.  The older ex-cons attempt to emphasize the senselessness of the “street soldier” mentality: they’ve been down that road before, and know what predictable outcomes await. But ultimately, the younger man must decide for himself whether to choose the path of violence, or turn the other cheek.

“I paid the price. I own the fault… Let me get right,” one of the characters says.

What’s most interesting about this production is the injection of socially-relevant commentary into a theatrical format. It’s the opposite of escapism; instead of zoning out into a fantasy drama, the production locks on to a stark reality, making a point that should be impossible for the audience to ignore.

Two additional elements to the production are the hip-hoppish original score by Young L, and two music videos by WolfHawkJaguar and Prosperity Movement which bookend the show. The former centers the play in a contemporary urban aesthetic, while the latter offers a fantastical, spiritually-grounded vision of aspirational positivity.

The stories themselves are fascinating as well (and are the product of actual research by LBP Executive Director and playwright Dr. Ayodele Nzinga, who also plays the Doctor). The actors all look like guys you might see around town on the streets. Costuming is fairly simple, with characters changing clothes to mark a different day.

bb3Dejon Grant is both venomous and compassionate in the role of Terminal Murder, while Stanley Hunt’s conflicted yet charismatic Young Man nearly steals every scene he’s in. Reggie Wilkins brings wisdom and dignity to the role of OG. That these actors shine is a testament to what they bring to the role, and how easy it becomes for them to inhabit these characters, to make them real in the eyes of the audience. Some of the other roles are less distinctly-individual, or slightly underdeveloped; we never get a sense of what drives the moderator to do this work, and the Doctor seems to be a stand-in for academia in general—a commentary on the poverty-pimp dynamic which throws millions of dollars at the problem of recidivism annually, without making any appreciable headway.

While the characters are all written with some distinguishing characteristics, there seemed to be more commonalities than differences between them. This might be a result of the methodology Nzinga employed to develop the production, gathering stories from multiple individuals which were divvied up between the characters. At times, the characters appear to blend into each other; this effect is reinforced throughout, as several particularly-emphatic  lines are repeated in unison — evoking an Oakland version of a Greek chorus. Much of the dialogue has a prose-like feel (Ms. Nzinga’s research was supplemented by original poetry).

This approach ultimately injects a strong dose of realism and authenticity to the show. The actors all blend into their roles with the ease and comfort of a favorite shoe. The dialogue is accessible and conversational. While the frequent use of the N-word may seem jarring to some, it wouldn’t make logical sense for a group of formerly-incarcerated individuals to dialogue in non-colloquial, speech.

Several particularly-emphatic  lines are repeated in unison — evoking an Oakland version of a Greek chorus

This point bears a little further elaboration. LBP productions, as Nzinga later explained during a post-show talk, honor the tradition and aims of the Black Arts movement, i.e., to create culture which is interconnected with liberation struggles and the push for social justice. So while the staging may be minimalist, it also doesn’t distract from the subject matter. While the costumes may be understated, the low-key aesthetic is consistent with the nature of the story being told. While the dialogue may be down-to-earth, it never comes off as pretentious.

Nzinga and the cast’s breaking of the fourth wall at the end–revealing themselves as activists/reformers—functions as a call to action, intended to stay with the audience as they return to the outside world. It’s the opposite of what can be expected from mindless entertainment, and a reminder that if black lives matter, the plight of the incarcerated and formerly-incarcerated matters a great deal.

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“Beyond the Bars: Growing Home” runs through Sept. 3 at the Flight Deck,  1540 Broadway, Oakland CA

Tickets are here.

LBP website 

 

 


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Sizzla Dazzles as Oakland Sizzles

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I’ve been blessed enough to see Sizzla Kalonji a bunch of times, over the years. There was an amazing set at Reggae Rising – the short-lived offshoot of Reggae on the River – up in Humboldt; a fiery, defiant show at the Independent in San Francisco; and a steamy throwdown at Venue (now called Complex) in Oakland—which may have been the artist’s first time in the East Bay. Those were all special shows in their own way. To that list, I can now add Sizzla’s performance at the inaugural Oaktown Reggae Festival this past weekend.

 

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Temperatures soared into the upper 80s for Saturday’s event. In actuality, it felt much hotter, in part due to the urban heat island effect, whereby surface temperatures can be as much 20-30 degrees warmer than air temperatures, due to heat reflecting off of concrete and asphalt. However, I’m not complaining: this was perfect reggae weather, sort of urban tropical, if you know what I’m saying.

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The festival was inside of Level 13, the former Shadow Lounge and Maxwell’s, now owned by Richard Ali of New Karribean City, a longtime supporter of both reggae and hip-hop live music. The show was co-promoted by Ali and Jonathan Mack, a Trinidadian native and also a longtime supporter of reggae and Caribbean culture whom many Bay Area music fans might remember for his production company Angel Magik (which has been active for more than a decade).

Inside the expansive club, a rotation of DJs spun dancehall classics (always nice to hear Sister Nancy’s “Bam Bam”), as bartenders poured beers and mixed cocktails. The performance stage was in the back, a graffiti-ied-up alley in-between Franklin and Harrison Streets. This proved to be a perfect location for this event.

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It’s one thing to see a major artist at a huge concert venue or a fancy club. At Reggae Rising, huge video monitors projected a live music feed so that the 30,000 people in attendance could see. At the Independent and Complex, the shows weren’t quite as mega, but there’s still a feeling of the artist being somewhat out of their environment. The Level 13 show was easily the most-accessible and intimate Sizzla performance I’ve yet seen, and the locale was perhaps the most authentic. The tag-saturated alley resonated with “yard” vibes – making it almost seem as if it was happening in the Caribbean, not Oakland. I’m not sure whether is had any effect on Sizzla, but he seemed perfectly in his element and extremely comfortable.

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The show itself was pretty off the hook. Sporting the trademark turban of the Bobo Ashanti, a yellow shirt, and various accoutrements, including a silver bracelet and a beaded necklace, Sizzla looked every bit the cultural icon he has become – a symbol of liberation for the ghetto youth. There was little in-between-song patter; evidently the artist just wanted to get right to it. The set list included many of Sizzla’s classic, well-known songs—I think I heard “Praise Ye Jah” and “Babylon Ah Listen”—which went over well with the reggae-loving audience. (I’ve seen shows where artists have concentrated on more recent material and Jamaican singles which audiences may not know, and then be miffed the songs didn’t get the response they expected. Thankfully, that didn’t happen here).

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The set built on earlier performances by Shiloh, Pressure, and Los Rakas, which were also top-notch. Toward the end, which extended past the listed 9pm closing time (are you listening, BottleRock?), Sizzla opened up the stage for some combination tunes with Ras Shiloh, which then evolved into a full-blown reggae cipher, with numerous emcees touching the mic, before returning to take center stage and voice a few more lyrics. Sizzla’s dynamic stage presence oth engaged and excited the crowd, and the overall vibe was one of niceness and irie iration.

 

Sizzla has always presented a fascinating mix of militant stridency and heartfelt compassion — a dichotomy he has leveraged into a long career, which began in the mid-90s. He’s not a pop artist out to make a quick buck off a trendy dance move, but a force of culture who has withstood the test of time, in an industry with a high turnover rate.

On top of that, he’s always been a rebel, unafraid to name exactly what’s wrong with the system, and what the solution should be. It did not go unnoticed that the alley which contained the stage was directly behind the Tribune Tower, the iconic symbol of Oakland. The tower could actually be seen from the stage, and, in this context, it took on a deeper metaphorical significance, as the stand-in for the tower of Babel, the symbol of Babylon (a Rastafarian term for systemic oppression and non-conscious thought). It’s quite possible this also occurred to Sizzla, although it’s equally unclear if this would have made a difference, either way. As long as people showed up, Sizzla was going to do his thing, regardless.

 

Overall, the show was a success. It could have been better-attended, but that would have also meant more crowd density and less personal space (and comfort) for each guest. The crowd was just big enough, without being overstuffed, and one would have to say, that’s pretty good, considering that much of the Bay Area reggae massive was at the Sierra Nevada World Music festival happening the same day.

 

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All in all, it’s good for reggae to have a home in Oakland, and when I say reggae, I mean real, culturally–authentic reggae. The Oaktown Reggae Festival definitely has the potential to become an annual event, and I hope that happens. I don’t know if the niceness of the vibes was connected to the fact that both Ali and Mack are from the Caribbean themselves (and not just a typical Western promoter), but those vibes were very much appreciated in this age of Trumpism.

 

The show also brought back fond memories of day parties at Oasis at nearby 12th St., a longtime sanctuary for reggae and world music, which has now become the gentrified Mad Oak bar. And, the festival also hinted at the possibilities of many more such culturally-themed events within the Black Arts Movement Business District which is just beginning to emerge. (Full disclosure: the author is the Co-Director of BAMBD CDC,a  community development corporation working to promote cultural and economic development within the district, and part of a group working with Councilmember McElhaney’s office to promote BAMBD, along with Ali, the Malonga Advisory Committee, 310 gallery, and others.)

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(Editor’s note: this post has been updated to reflect the contributions of Jonathan Mack, who was inadvertently omitted. Oakulture sincerely apologizes for any misunderstanding or inconvenience caused by this, and wants to further add, “Big Up” to both Ali and Mack for keeping reggae music alive and sizzling in Oakland).

 

 

 


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Dance of the Displaced

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Prince tribute party at Lake Merritt.

A current Oakland Museum of California exhibit, “Oakland, I Want You to Know,” comes off very much as a love letter to The Town. But it’s a weird kind of  love letter, one filled with reminiscence for a paramour you dumped because they weren’t rich enough. The exhibit, which runs until Oct. 30, wants to evoke feel-good memories of a blue-collar city which is unfortunately disappearing right before our eyes – replaced by metrosexual techbros, designer ramen, specialty cocktails, high-rise condos, and spiraling rents. It also wants to weigh in on the ongoing conversation about gentrification. But it does so in a way which is both sanitized and awkward.

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Esther’s Orbit Room sign at OMCA

There’s a recreation of the famed sign from Esther’s Orbit Room, the last holdout of the legendary  7th St. strip in West Oakland – a jumping-off spot for blues, jazz, and R&B, once known as the “Harlem of the West.” But the replica doesn’t replicate the energy or grit of that infamous watering hole. It seems out of place in the brightly-lit OMCA exhibition room.  One archival photo taken outside the venue featuring local music-scene luminaries, hints at the Orbit Room’s significance as a cultural institution of Black Oakland, but can’t make up for the loss of the venue, much less the erasure of the once-thriving strip itself. Over the last decade, West Oakland, though still predominantly-African-American, has absorbed an influx of tens of thousands of urban professionals, creating an uneasy juxtaposition of income disparity and cultural disassociation between new and old residents.

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Mock-up of West Oakland BART at OMCA

In another section of the exhibit, the West Oakland BART station is feted. It’s a strange choice, since the station—just 12 minutes from downtown San Francisco, through the Transbay Tube—is itself a symbol of displacement; its construction caused the forced relocation of thousands of mostly African American residents by the time it opened, in 1974. That fact is briefly noted, as is the station’s current attraction to commuters. Also among the artifacts depicting “Oakland flavor” are two recent posters advocating for affordable housing and tenants’ rights. The allusion to community activism, however, feels more like lip service than actual solidarity with Oakland’s liberation struggles. There’s little of the vibrancy which has fused social justice and cultural expression in Oakland for decades – a vibrancy which is very much a part of the current resistance to displacement and the encroachment of gentrifiers. It’s also telling that a photo collage of an Oakland neighborhood – easily the most poignant piece in the entire exhibition – honors the past, not the present. An OMCA staffer told Oakulture that the photographer no longer lives in the neighborhood; doubtless, many of the residents depicted have moved away as well. And despite the homages to local mainstays like Town Park , Youth Radio, and City Slicker Farms , seemingly thrown together at random, “Oakland, I Want You to Know” feels like it’s intended more for tourists, visitors, and new arrivals than for longtime residents.

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Community activism posters at OMCA.

There’s an attempt at cultural continuity with a wall celebrating classic Oakland artists’ album covers juxtaposed with an audio-visual presentation of retro-futuristic bluesman Fantastic Negrito. But it too misses the mark. An LP by Oakland blues singer Faye Carole is a welcome sight. But Negrito’s connection to the tradition of an earlier era isn’t satisfactorily explained, and the neon logo (borrowed from his studio/gallery, Blackball Universe) looks like a promotional display you might have seen at Tower Records in the 80s or 90s, complete with a looped audio stream of songs from his new album, The Last Days of Oakland. It’s oddly commercial for a museum piece; if the point was to infer that Oakland is still producing great artists, that point could have been made much more pointedly.

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LP cover of a Faye Carol album.

“Oakland, I Want You to Know” might be Town-centric, but ultimately fails for its inability to effectively translate the immediacy of street-level movements into an institutional space. Revolution is never quite that simplified, and though OMCA tried, their Oakland love letter dilutes the heartbreak of displacement and doesn’t present a cohesive narrative. It feels thrown together in places it should be fluid, and errs by attempting to placate both the gentrifiers and those fighting against them.

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Fantastic Negrito.

Thankfully, like a growing number of local artists, Fantastic Negrito can solidly be placed in the latter category. The Last Days of Oakland is fire, but not just because Negrito has the whole blues revivalist schtick down to the cufflinks on his thrift-store blazer. It’s a hot album because the singer-songwriter extracts the essence of blues and African American rock & roll from its dark, skeletal roots, but also because he injects that paradigm with a timely relevancy, much of it inspired by Oakland’s changing landscape and demographic. Another inspirational touchstone is the new push for civil rights, social justice, and police accountability echoing across the country through the #BlackLivesMatter movement. In a new, as-yet-unreleased, video which plays like a short film, Negrito updates the Leadbelly classic “In the Pines” by flipping the lyrics to address black mothers whose children are being killed by cops. Elsewhere on the album, there are skits about the changes Oakland is experiencing, a through-line which also works its way into “Working Poor,” wherein Negrito sings about gentrifiers who step over bodies to “sip fancy coffee.” While many of the classic, pre-civil rights era, blues tunes signified cryptically about social inequality, here Negrito articulates exactly what he means.

I feel like it’s over

Him clean my city

Me sell my soul

Him evil genius

Turns working people to the working poor

–Fantastic Negrito, “Working Poor”

The song goes on to address displacement directly (he moved to Stockton, one lyric casually reveals) while maintaining its retro-roots aesthetic. Social commentary, along with autobiographical testimonials, run through most of the songs on The Last Days of Oakland. Many of Negrito’s laments are about struggling against seemingly-invisible barriers to equity; I been knocking on the door since ’94, but they still won’t let me in, he declares on “Humpin’ Through the Winter.” On “The Worst,” he castigates those watching all the suffering, hiding on a hill. But like all good blues albums, there are also heavy doses of dubious temptation (“Scary Woman”) and self-loathing (“Rant Rushmore”) – which occasionally transform into conscious enlightenment (“Nigga Song”). What makes the entire album so current, though, is its framing around Oakland – which codifies it as a historical document, just as Bobby Seale’s “Seize the Time” stands as a testament to the Panther era.

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Jam session at Lake Merritt.

Negrito’s album could be a soundtrack for music-minded social justice activists – visible this summer in everything from festivals at the Lake Merritt Amphitheater and San Antonio Park to musical protests against anti-drumming NIMBYS to dance-happy Prince tributes – but he’s not the only local artist making socially-conscious music. On his last two albums, Oakland Riviera and Love and Revolution, pianist-composer-emcee Kev Choice offered a highly musical alternative to mind-numbing “mumble rap.”

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African drumming at the Malcolm X Jazz Festival.

On his latest release, 88 Steps to Eternity, Choice delivers an all-instrumental album which gives a name to the struggle: “Dance of the Displaced.” The track recalls late 70s/early 80s jazz fusion, giving credence to Choice’s credo of “real music that will last forever,” with flurry upon flurry of piano and keyboard runs, alternating forward-pushing tempos with somewhat-melancholy moods.

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Kev Choice.

Which seems appropriate. Because nobody, except maybe developers, is too happy about all the displacement going on in Oakland these days. There’s a bit of a contradiction as well, in some of the rhetorical language being put forth by elected officials and some of the actions of city staff. A recent SF Business Times article  on the departure of Planning Dept. head Rachel Flynn confirms she was one of the prime movers behind the acceleration of development in Oakland, which may have come without a full realization of the consequences for the existing population. Mayor Schaaf has convened an Affordable Housing Task Force and City Council President Lynnette McElhaney has officially designated the 14th St. corridor a black arts district. Yet artists and families are getting pushed out of Oakland as the Planning Commission fast-tracks project after project, while neglecting to fight harder for community benefits and affordable housing units.

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A pre-displacement Oakland neighborhood at OMCA.

How that plays out in the community is one of the salient points of “Alice Street Short,” a rough cut preview of the upcoming documentary “Alice Street”  which recently screened at the All Oakland Mini Film Festival. (full disclosure: Oakulture Editorial Director Eric Arnold assisted with research for the documentary.) The short features insightful interviews with members of the Afro-Diasporic community centered around the Malonga Casquelourd Center, as well as cultural practitioners and historians associated with the Hotel Oakland, a sanctuary of sorts for the Chinese and Chinese-American community. If you missed the screening, a slightly different cut will screen October 13 during the Matatu Festival of Stories, along with a panel discussion moderated by Arnold, a dance performance, and audience Q&A. The idea is to continue the conversation around displacement, gentrification, and cultural resistance, and to engage Oakland residents further in what could be the defining issue of this time in the Town’s history. Will the dance of the displaced turn into a funeral dirge or a victory march? That part is still to be decided.
 

 


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Hiero Day 2016: Strength in Numbers

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Return of the Backpack Rapper: Del the Funky Homosapien rocks Hiero’s headline set.

It’s hard to believe it’s been five years of Hiero Day already.  Originally a day-long hip-hop block party held on San Pablo St. in Oakland, the event has gotten bigger every year – in terms of both attendance and prominence – while relocating to an industrial section of West Oakland, where it now commands several city blocks and three stages worth of live music and DJs.

The members of Hieroglyphics — Oakland’s OG hip-hop pioneers, and one of the few still-active crews hailing from the early ‘90s Golden Age  — have stated on the record they started Hiero Day because it was difficult for them to book shows in their hometown (despite the fact they’ve toured all over the country for decades and their shows have never been associated with violence.) There may be some truth to that, but Hiero Day is about so much more than its eponymous founders. True, they close every show with a full crew performance, but the event has already become a cultural institution, a celebration of real hip hop which draws a multigenerational audience to hear both emerging and veteran artists.

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But Hiero Day is not just a concert, it’s a ritual of sorts – an affirmation that hip-hop culture not only still exists, but is still vital and vibrant. One might even go so far to say the day is imbued with spiritual significance; the level of appreciation from both performers and attendees is that high. Even with crowds which now number upwards of 20,000 folks, Hiero Day is overall a super-chill event whose vibe is surprisingly low-key, considering its magnitude

2016’s edition of Hiero Day may have been the best yet.  Advance tickets were available for the quite-affordable price of $19.93, and day-of tickets were a still-reasonable $40. Compare that to the price of any corporate music festival put on by a major concert promoter, and you’ll see quite a difference. We won’t name names here, but some of the larger festivals charge one hundred dollars or more for a one-day ticket for shows which might feature just one or two hip-hop/rap acts amidst a bucketload of indie rock or EDM acts. Even the few national rap fest tours which still exist can’t surpass Hiero Day’s lineup; the most-comparable event in recent memory was probably the on-hiatus Paid Dues Festival. But even that event, which did offer a showcase for underground/indie/alternative/true school hip-hop, didn’t have the grassroots flavor of a 100% artist-produced show which made no concessions whatsoever to corporatism.

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Lockmith freestyles during Just Blaze’s set

There were 43 pre-announced artists, groups, or DJs on the Hiero Day bill – which calls into question one media outlet’s assertion last year that the show was more of a self-serving platform for Hiero and veteran acts than a showcase for up-and-coming artists. That just sounds ridiculous, since roughly two-thirds of the total stage time this year was allotted to newer acts with younger followings. The actual number of performers was actually a bit higher than what was announced, to boot. For instance during Just Blaze’s DJ set, he called up Del the Funky Homosapien, Locksmith, Ras Kass, and Planet Asia to do freestyles. That’s what you call more of what you’re funkin’ for.

That said, for both Hiero fans and hip-hop OGs, it was hard to pass up the allure of the main, “Infinity,” stage for sheer hip-hop flavor. Impressively, the stage featured a solid five-hour block of quality artists leading up to Hieroglyphics closing set: Paris, X Clan, Lyrics Born, Murs, Just Blaze, Invisibl Skratch Picklz, and Too Short. Other stages were graced by the likes of Juvenile, Dilated Peoples, Blu & Exile, the Grouch, Nef the Pharaoh, Rocky Rivera and others;  however, going from stage to stage required an adventurous spirit and a willingness to navigate between crowds of considerable density and brave the late-summer sun. By late afternoon, the crowd swelled to the point where it was quite dense with bodies. Oakulture made one foray out to the “Third Eye” stage, and briefly caught a bit of Blu & Exile’s set, but quickly returned to the Infinity stage in time to catch another Bay Area legend, Lyrics Born. Add to the fact that the Infinity stage offered the best photo opps for candid backstage shots, and it was pretty much a no-brainer to post up there.

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Dan the Automator and Dante Ross

The question remains: Where else are you going to see legendary A&R Dante Ross cold chillin’ with legendary producer Dan the Automator, or such local notables as Hip Hop TV’s Shawn Granberry, Boots Riley, Mystic, Davey D, Chuy Gomez, Bijan Kazemi, DJ D-Sharp, Purple Pam the Funkstress, Councilmember Abel Guillen, and the occasional member of Hiero? Needless to say, many conversations were had, and much game was chopped.

It was difficult to feel too salty about missing Cash Money mainstay Juvenile or LA rhyme-spitters Dilated Peoples, because the Infinity stage was crack-a-lackin all day. Paris got the crowd pumped up with his Black Panther-inspired message rap; the self-proclaimed “hard truth soldier” played new material from his recent album Pistol Politics, but it was the 1990 “conscious yet hardcore” hit “Break the Grip of Shame – which samples both Malcolm X and Public Enemy – that  got the crowd to raise their fists in the Black Power salute. Shout out to DJ True Justice, by the way, who flawlessly recreated Mad Mike’s  frantic scratch solo.

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Still breaking the grip of shame: Paris

It was the pre-mainstream gangsta, pre-mumble rap era all over again when Brother J came out next to play some X Clan classics. Can we just say here that Brother J is one of the most underrated yet crucial emcees of all time? Back in the so-called Afrocentric era, he was no less inspirational and influential than Chuck D or KRS-One — some forget X Clan sold hundreds of thousands of records —  yet has been nearly forgotten as time has advanced. Listening to opuses like “Grand Verbalizer, What Time is It” played live, however, made J’s contribution to hip-hop readily apparent.

By the same token, you can’t front on Lyrics Born, who has amassed a formidable catalog of crowd-pleasing jammy-jams to go along with his crowd-pleasing persona and inimitable rhyming and singing skills. One of the defining artists of alternative hip-hop, LB’s originality shone through yet again on songs like “Don’t Change,” “Lady Don’t Tek No,” and “I Changed My Mind.”

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The inimitable Lyrics Born

It was also good to see that the Invisibl Skratch Picklz are back to playing live sets. Some people might remember how they burst on the scene in the early 90s, with amazing demonstrations of turntable techniques framed around band aesthetics. If they’re somewhat less jaw-dropping in their current incarnation of Shortkut, D-Styles, and Q Bert, it’s only because their innovations have been widely imitated by subsequent generations of turntablists. But anyway, they symbolized the original icons of hip-hop—the DJs—and stayed true to their ethos, with each member rocking a single turntable.

The best performance of the day, however, may have been Too Short’s. The pioneer of Oakland rap as well as independent hip-hop, Short’s predilection for nasty lyrics has overshadowed his undeniable skill as a live performer, as well as his penchant for dropping nuggets of wisdom into his material. He also has quite an affinity for funk, a primary influence on much of his classic material. Short was a commanding presence at Hiero Day, soaking up the proceedings with the air of an emcee claiming his cultural authenticity in a city he basically built from the ground up. And did we mention the man’s got classics? From “Blow the Whistle” to “Gettin’ It,” he played a nice selection of his catalog, rocking the crowd but barely breaking a sweat. (By the way, when was the last time anyone saw Too Short AND X Clan at the same show? Probably the 90s, when diverse bills within hip-hop shows were commonplace.)

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Gettin’ It: Too Short

It doesn’t really get any more “Oakland” in terms of hip-hop than following Too Short with Hieroglyphics. Taken together, the two have defined The Town’s hip-hop culture for three decades.  Both keep making new music, but it’s their respective track records which place them among the greats of all time.

At this point, we’re not even sure what can be said about Hiero which hasn’t already been said over the years.  Some might argue they’ve stayed relevant because they’ve continually reinvented themselves, but one could just as easily say the opposite as well: that in actuality they’ve stayed true to the style they had back in 1992, when they first appeared on the B-side of a Del record. What is undisputed is that they’ve somehow managed to continue to attract a younger audience while also maintaining appeal to longtime listeners. That creates an interesting audience dynamic which seems somewhat universal: Hiero fans cross all racial/ethnic, age, economic and class lines, a diverse bunch united by their love of hip-hop.

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Roll call: Del, Phesto and Tajai

Though Hiero didn’t do a full set, it’s always great to see a whole crew performance by them, especially because their catalog is so thick, they can pull out deep cuts at any time. While Del, the crew’s founder, perhaps gives off the most “star vibes,” sleeping on any member of the group’s lyrical skills or stage acumen would be a huge mistake. There’s not a single member of Hiero, except for maybe producer Domino and DJ Toure, who isn’’t an excellent rhymer. And they’ve all been rocking stages for so long, they’re unlikely to be fazed by much. As dope as Del is, any of the other members – Casual, Phesto, Tajai, Opio, A-Plus and Pep Love – are capable of captivating with intricate wordplay and devastatingly rhythmic tonal patterns. They are quite literally a throwback to another era, when skill and originality were cultural values. As usual, they closed their set with the anthemic Souls of Mischief hit “93 til’ Infinity,” gently bringing to an end a day which reveled in the most positive aspects hip-hop – and Oakland – have to offer. What more can be said? Not much, except there are only 360 or so days until next year’s Hiero Day.