Oakulture

Documenting the Oakland cultural renaissance


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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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Dream Day 2015 Honors Oakland Style Master’s Legacy

DJ Apollo throws down

DJ Apollo throws down

The legend of Mike “Dream” Francisco was repainted al fresco at this past Saturday’s Dream Day. An afternoon-long celebration of the aerosol arts and cultural hip-hop, the event was a heartwarming tribute to the TDK Crew member and graffiti-writing pioneer, an inspirational figure and community mainstay, tragically murdered in 2000. This year’s event marked 15 years since Dream passed, yet his memory—and legacy—seem stronger than ever. Not only was this the 5th annual Dream Day, but also the second straight year at its current location, the Greenpeace Yard on 7th St. in West Oakland. The continuity was a nice touch; several of last year’s Dream tributes, including a huge central wall, remained up, while newer pieces were worked on throughout the day.

Dream Day has become a much-anticipated event for Oakland’s cultural hip-hop community, and one which cements the important role aerosol writing plays in it. It’s a day where graf veterans and newbies alike mingle and paint openly during the daytime—a cultural, sometimes-illegal, practice usually held under cover of nightfall in clandestine locations. It’s also somewhat of a High Holy Day for the still-active TDK members, with near-religious significance. And it’s a day where OG rappers, DJs and breakers perform live and maintain their community standing, transmitting authenticity to a new generation, most of whom were drawing with crayons in preschool when Dream and his peers were putting Oakland on the aerosol art map.

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The unquestioned highlight of the afternoon was an emotional appearance by Saafir, the legendary rapper and Hobo Junction member who’s been confined to a wheelchair for the last few years due to health reasons. Saafir was originally scheduled to perform, but alas, his health didn’t permit that. Still, he snuck away from the clinic he’s undergoing treatment (for spinal cancer) for a few precious moments to address the crowd. Afterwards, he was swarmed by well-wishers and posed for a pic with Dream’s son Akil.

Besides viewing a yard full of Dream-themed murals and murals-in-progress, late-arriving attendees were treated to an amazing set by DJ Apollo (TripleThreat/Invisible Skratch Picklz), who threw down hip-hop and breakbeat classic after classic, in turn inspiring veteran Pinoy hip-hop crew Knuckle Neck Tribe (KNT) and other b-boys and b-girls, to pop, lock, strut, show off footwork, and bust headspins and freezes. When you’re watching guys in their 30s and 40s breakdance, you know it’s a good afternoon. More than one person remarked that the spectacle made them think they were in the Bronx, circa 1984 – a good look for Oakland in 2015.

Other highlights were provided by Nump and Equipto, two veteran Bay Area emcees who had nothing but love for Dream. Nump dedicated a song, “Be Like Mike,” to Dream, performed his hyphy-era classic “I Got Grapes,” and said “yadadamean” frequently, to the crowd’s delight.  He also brought out special guests J-Boog and Mac Mall during his set, who performed their hits “Let’s Do It Again” and “Sic Wit Tis,” respectively. Equipto, meanwhile, came to spit bars. The original Bored Stiff member showed why his lyrical rep has remained strong among the region’s indie rap scene for two decades. Zion-I’s Zumbi Zoom also rocked the mic, with a rendition of the now-classic “Don’t Lose Your Head.” Also spotted in the crowd: The Grouch (Living Legends/G&E), Pep Love (Hieroglyphics), and DJ Platurn (45 Sessions/Oakland Faders).

The maturation of the Bay’s hip-hop and aerosol scene was evident from the fact that many attendees brought their kids. Still, there was plenty of adult fun to be had, including a beverage stand which served up cold brews and sangria. Other nourishment was provided by lumpia and chicken from the Lucky Three Seven Filipino food truck.

Along with Hiero Day, Dream Day has become one of the most reverential days of the year for Oakland’s hip-hop community. Its significance was apparent even to those who have no personal memories of Dream, a stellar artist and style master who was an even better person in real life. The cultural ritual of honoring the ancestors who walked before us is a longstanding one, but one which happens too-infrequently in hip-hop. But to see Akil—who was only a baby when the first benefit event honoring Dream was thrown in San Francisco some fourteen years ago—grow into a tall young man, strapping with pride and confidence, not only portends hope for the next generation, but validates the efforts of event organizer Marty “Willie Maze” Aranaydo and the TDK Crew. They’ve taken up Dream’s name like a patron saint of authentic hip-hop, which of course he is. All these years, they’ve nurtured his legacy, refusing to let it fade. In the process, they’ve kept the cultural heart of Oakland hip-hop beating.


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As Development Boom Bubbles, Oakland’s Arts Scene Increasingly Troubled

Community memebrs discuss art at an Oakland Creative Neighborhoods Coalition meeting

Community members discuss art at an Oakland Creative Neighborhoods Coalition meeting

Last January, when Mayor Schaaf proudly preened in a Burning Man-style art car during her inauguration, hopes were high that art would become a priority. After all, Oakland’s much-ballyhooed cultural renaissance had brought national and even international attention to the city, completely remaking an image once invariably linked to crime and blight.

Libby Schaff rode in an art car during her inauguration lat January

Libby Schaaf rode in an art car during her inauguration last January

But perhaps arts advocates should have paid more attention to the fact that the onetime Skyline High cheerleader and Jerry Brown aide was driving around in a motorized snail. Just six months into the new administration, there’s been little, if any, forward progress; the arts community has slid into crisis mode, and city officials’ lack of accountability and direction where the arts are concerned is a big reason why

Two weeks ago, the news from the arts scene was that the Rock Paper Scissors Collective was looking for a new home after it was informed its rent would be rising. Last week, even more portentousness appeared: First Humanist Hall—supporter of underground film festivals, non-profit organizations, and community gatherings—was declared a nuisance due to noise complaints from new neighbors. Then the City Council chose developer Orton for the Henry J Kaiser space over a competing proposal from a group including longtime arts supporter Randolph Belle, which was focused around community benefits (including a workforce development plan, in conjunction with Laney College). Instead of a mid-size arena, hotel, and convention center, the space is now expected to hold tech offices and a brewery.

Detail from Brett Cook's

Detail from Brett Cook’s “Reflections of Healing”

Development vs. Art

But that’s not all: Last Thursday, the Building Industry Association of the Bay Area (BIA) announced it had filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city, alleging the percent for public art requirement, which took effect this past February, violated the First and Fifth Amendments. In a press release, the Pacific Legal Foundation’s Tony Francois claimed the ordinance “harms the public interest,” although it’s unclear how public art, which is by definition beneficial to the community, could be detrimental. BIA’s Executive Officer Bob Glover called the ordinance “irresponsible” and claimed it would further drive up the cost of housing, even though the majority of the development projects in Oakland’s pipeline have no affordable housing component.

Ironically, news of the lawsuit came just one day after San Francisco announced it was committing $50 million to public art on Treasure Island, an initiative funded in part by SF’s own percent for art ordinance.

“Oakland’s hallmark is its diversity, and if we can create arts districts that both celebrate and differentiate the many cultures represented here, we will be successful.” – Steve Huss, former Oakland Cultural Arts Manager

“Public art is an essential community benefit,” says Anyka Barber, founder and Director/Curator of Oakland’s Betti Ono gallery, noting that Oakland is one of many major Bay Area cities that have adopted percent for art ordinances. According to Craig Watson, Executive Director of the California Arts Council, percent for art programs are common throughout the country; there are more than 300 such programs nationwide, he says. Alma Robinson, Executive Director of California Lawyers for the Arts, says lawsuits challenging public art requirements are uncommon, but when cases have been tried, “cities have prevailed.”

Developers, she added, “should be proud to support the enhancement of Oakland through public art, [which] really enriches cities.”

Besides SF, similar percent for art requirements exist in several nearby cities, including Emeryville, Richmond, San Jose, Walnut Creek, Santa Rosa, Sunnyvale, El Cerrito, and San Mateo.  Nationwide, percent for art programs exist in 27 states and territories, including Oregon, Louisiana, Connecticut, Iowa, Washington, D.C., Maine, New Mexico, Rhode Island, Vermont,  Alaska, Maine, Utah, Montana, South Carolina, and Guam. Considering the proliferation of such programs, the lawsuit would seem to have little legal merit. However, it can be viewed as a clear message from developers to elected officials that they run the city, and not the other way around.

Zio Zieglar's recent mural commenorating the 70yh anniversary of the UN charter in downtown Oakland

Zio Zieglar’s recent mural commemorating the 70th anniversary of the UN charter in downtown Oakland

Magnet for Economic Development

As if that wasn’t enough, word is that Steven Huss, Oakland’s Cultural Arts Manager, has resigned to take a less-contentious, better-funded position in Walnut Creek – leaving the fate of an NEA grant to develop an Arts Master Plan for Oakland up in the air.

The cumulative impact of all these developments could strike a crushing blow to Oakland’s cultural arts community, confirming its worst fears about gentrification and displacement and creating a leadership void at the already short-staffed Cultural Arts Department. There’s also a leadership void at the city-funded ProArts gallery, after the forced resignation of Executive Director Margo Dunlap, so Huss’s departure adds more chaos and uncertainty to a muddled situation.

In a 2010 interview posted on the NEA’s website, Huss noted that the arts sector generated $100 million annually for Oakland—a figure which has undoubtedly grown over the past five years—and its overall importance as a “magnet” for economic development.

He went on to say, “In Oakland… the unique character of neighborhoods is best expressed through the arts, and the creation of arts districts can shine a light on the distinctive cultural heritage of these places. Oakland’s hallmark is its diversity, and if we can create arts districts that both celebrate and differentiate the many cultures represented here, we will be successful.”

Detail from Mario Chiodo's

Detail from Mario Chiodo’s “Remember Them: Champions of Humanity”

Despite Accolades, Civic Commitment to Arts Underwhelming

In truth, Oakland’s civic commitment to arts and culture has been anything but robust for years, while diversity has been the first casualty of a rapidly-shifting demographic. The Cultural Arts fund’s annual budget—slashed in the wake of the recession—is less than the amount Public Works spends on abating tag vandalism, and the loss of the redevelopment agency in 2012 eliminated a key funding source for the city’s public artists.

As reported by Bay Area News Group, only a smidgen of the $400,000 approved by the City Council in 2013 for anti-blight murals has been allocated over a two and one-half year period.

The few murals which have been produced via this fund have all but eliminated tagging and blight recidivism, yet some Councilmembers have yet to issue RFPs, even as Public Works spending on abatement has increased 50%, according to KQED.

Detail from CRP's

Detail from CRP’s “Love Arts Music”

Furthermore, city staffers have reportedly lagged in returning calls about mural fund applications, refused to pay artists on time and/or made them jump through unnecessary bureaucratic hoops, even after murals have been completed. The City Attorney’s office has also reportedly inserted new clauses into artist contracts which require them to give up federal protections known as VARA rights, with no explanation for the policy change.

The City Council’s decision to go with Orton over Belle’s group likely means the end of the line for the Kaiser auditorium, a historic venue which hosted concerts by everyone from Elvis Presley to the Grateful Dead to Bob Marley and the Wailers to Public Enemy and NWA, and reportedly was the site of a historic 1962 speech by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., which inspired Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale.

The apparent loss of a potentially-reactivated HJK arena robs the city of a mid-sized venue whose prospective owners had a commitment to the cultural community which cannot be said of the operators of the Fox Theater – you can count on one hand the number of shows per year there featuring local artists. And the displacement of RPS, the last remaining original founding member of the Art Murmur— an organically-developed event which  saved former Mayor Jerry Brown’s 10K plan from failure and made Oakland buzzworthy after years of second-tier status—seems more than symbolic.

Attitudinal Healing connection's Amana Harris (l.) and youth perpare to cut the ribbon on AHC's

Attitudinal Healing Connection’s Amana Harris (l.) and youth prepare to cut the ribbon on AHC’s “Superheroes” mural

‘Sign of the Times’?

“I’m still reeling, wondering how a city doesn’t do everything possible to support education and jobs for low-income communities of color,” said Belle in a Facebook post after the City Council vote on the HJK property. “But then [I] realize it’s the sign of the times,” he added.

While the communities Belle mentions can certainly benefit from investment in the cultural arts, the gentrification wave is impacting everyone across the board – including artists of all ethnicities and anyone not at the upper tier of income levels.

OCNC members discuss art in Oakland

OCNC members discuss art in Oakland

On the surface, economic growth might seem like a positive thing for Oakland; however, the boom—mainly confined to real estate and tech—has been a calamity for the arts scene. A few months ago, at a city-convened arts stakeholder meeting , arts advocates speculated on the irony of Oakland’s artists making the city cool, only to find themselves priced out. Although some advocates felt the percent for art requirement didn’t go far enough, it at least offered a glimmer of hope for the city’s artists. But the announcement of the lawsuit by developers could delay or even rescind any commissions under the ordinance, and casts a pall on any future attempts to redistribute the wealth flowing into the city among the creative community.

It seems cruel to blame a newly-minted public art ordinance for the increased cost of housing, considering that last year, before the ordinance went into effect, Oakland apartments had the highest rental price hikes in the entire nation, while overall rental prices were the second fastest-rising in the country, and have ballooned as much as 300% over a three-year period.

Detail from Dan Corson's

Detail from Dan Corson’s “Shifting Topographies”

Currently, a typical one-bedroom apartment in Oakland rents for around $2000 a month, and landlords have been proactive in trying to get market rate for properties which rented for much less not long ago – putting economic pressure on art spaces, especially those in Uptown, the city’s most-visible arts district. As the RPS collective noted, “We are being priced out of our space not because of anything we have done, but simply due to the cold calculus of gentrification. There is more money to be made in this space from something other than community-driven art, and that is enough and more than enough to push us out the door.”

The one positive amidst all this bad news is that the San Francisco Foundation recently announced it was giving East Side Arts Collective $1 million to buy its building, ensuring many more years of community-oriented programming in the San Antonio district. Yet as welcome as that news is, it does nothing to help the arts community elsewhere in the city.

Keeping Oakland Creative

If ever there was a time to organize Oakland’s creative arts community, this is it. For the past several months, the Oakland Creative Neighborhoods Coalition has been attempting to do just that. Founded by Betti Ono’s Barber—recently named one of the Bay Area’s Top Ten Art Personalities—and artist, teacher, and arts administrator Katherin Canton, OCNC has coined the hashtag #KeepOaklandCreative and holds organizational meetings to try to rally the city’s culture creators around a policy platform which aims to make a sustainable future for artists, by taking a proactive stance against displacement. (Disclosure: Oakulture Editorial Director Eric Arnold is a member of OCNC’s Steering Committee.) OCNC’s stated goal is to get the city to restore the Cultural Arts Commission (CAC)—another casualty of the recession—a necessary first step in developing greater accountability at the civic level for the arts community.

Katherin Canton (l.) and Anyka Barber (c.) lead an OCNC meeting

Katherin Canton (l.) and Anyka Barber
(c.) lead an OCNC meeting

A revised CAC could bring clarity to a confusing, labyrinthine process for artists trying to work with the city. Currently, Oakland’s Cultural Arts Program is under the Economic Development and Marketing department, and its small staff is assisted by an all-volunteer Public Art Advisory Committee. There’s no designated liaison with Parks and Rec (which operates city facilities such as the Malonga Casquelourd Center) or City Council (artists are generally left to facilitate discussions over such things as applying for the anti-blight mural program on their own); almost all direct interaction with the artist community, other than open forum sessions at monthly meetings to review public art projects, is carried out by the department’s one full-time staffer, Denise Pate. Navigating the system is a bureaucratic nightmare at best, compounded by the fact that artists sometimes have to wait up to a year before being compensated for completed projects.

In the case of the percent for art ordinance, the artist community at-large was not asked for input in its drafting, perhaps by design; in the Tribune article, Schaff describes the ordinance as “pro-developer” – a notion which was reinforced during a “stakeholder meeting” also attended by members of the development community and Emeryville city staff this past February.

Fougo Na Roupa dance in front of a CRP mural honoring Brazilian samba legend Jose Lorenzo

Fogo Na Roupa dance in front of a CRP mural honoring ethnic dance legends

At the meeting, stakeholders were asked for suggestions for implementation, yet that seems to have been just a formality. When community concerns were brought up, Schaff’s staff hastily shot them down. There was no review of public art programs in cities other than Emeryville, and the developers—only one of which was based in Oakland—didn’t exactly warm to the idea of having any type of community review or oversight of proposed art projects. Developers, their representative said, don’t like to be told what to do, a statement which now seems ominous in the wake of the BIA lawsuit.

Detail from Brett Cook's

Detail from Brett Cook’s “Reflections of Healing”

OCNC’s next meeting, scheduled for this Wednesday at Betti Ono, will be “an important discussion that is not just about a Percent for Public Art program, but raises critical questions about intersectional issues adversely affecting the most vulnerable Oaklanders today- communities of color, immigrant communities, and low income communities,” explains Barber. “Policies which promote gentrification and displacement, she adds, impact “the vast and deep cultural legacies and traditions of our communities.”

The OCNC, she says, wants the city to implement arts-based initiatives which generate economic development while strengthening community. “We need to see a deeper and more expansive investment in cultural equity across the city in all neighborhoods, and we need to see this investment put into practice as a resource and key strategy for creating a better Oakland and a better Bay Area.”

Detail from AHC's

Detail from AHC’s “Superheroes”

In other words, this isn’t just about art for art’s sake, but leveraging the power of creativity for the greater benefit of the community. That’s a good thing – unless one buys the argument that promoting art is somehow harmful to the public interest.

Meeting #2 of the Oakland Creative Neighborhoods Coalition will be held at Betti Ono Gallery on Wednesday, July 29th at 6:30pm.  Betti Ono is located at 1427 Broadway in downtown Oakland.


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The Unveiling of “Her Resilience”

"Her Resilience"

“Her Resilience”

April 5, 2014 was the first time I’d heard about Kimberly Robertson. Her lifeless body was found early that morning beaten, raped and left for dead in F.M. Smith Park, just two blocks from my house. Initial media reports said she had moved to Oakland six months prior from Texas with her three year old daughter and was last seen around the corner the night before. Later it was reported that she had been waiting for a bus when a man, known to be a vendor of clothes at local farmers markets, picked her up in his SUV where the assault occurred. I kept imagining her brutalized body lying in the park. Thinking about how she was a newcomer to our town, twenty-three years old and here to make a life for herself.

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Pat Parker was another young Black woman who came to the Bay Area from Texas. From the late 60s through the 80s, she became an important revolutionary poet in the Gay Women’s Liberation, Women’s Press Collective and Black Power movements of Oakland. Her influential 1978 poem, “Womanslaughter,” described the murder of her sister as she was leaving an abusive marriage – a particularly dangerous time for anyone trying to end a domestic violence situation – and the immunity from prosecution that the ex-husband received for, Parker wrote, being “a quiet Black man” who “works well’ and “only killed his wife.”

Parker ends the poem resolutely:

          “Hear me now, it has been three years and I am again strong.
          I have gained many sisters and if one is beaten or raped or killed
          I will not come in mourning black.
          I will not bring the right flowers . . .
          I will come to my sisters not dutiful. I will come strong.


Hazel Streete is another Oakland woman who lives only a couple blocks from where Kimberly Robertson’s body was found. In response to yet another heartbreaking womanslaughter, Hazel began speaking to others and looking for a way to respond. She initiated the “Her Resilience” project and invited others to join her vision. They wanted to paint a mural in the park where Kimberly’s body was found, yet it became clear that the city’s restrictions would not allow it, due to the park’s historic landmark status. So they moved the home base of the project to Park Community Garden, the terraced garden maintained by neighborhood volunteers located about five blocks up Park Street. On Saturday March 21, 2015, almost a year after Robertson’s death, the mural was unveiled.

“Her Resilience” is an arts-based and woman-centered inquiry project centered around addressing violence against women in our community. The amount of violence that women experience both on the streets and in our homes leaves very few who don’t have a direct or indirect relationship with this struggle, yet the silence and separation from each other’s struggles contributes to a feeling of powerlessness. Through curating public imagery of women’s struggles and survival, “Her Resilience” highlights the ability of art and ritual to express and transform. Engaging the community through an open call, “Her Resilience” reached out to female-identified artists, survivors, family members and volunteers who wanted to contribute to this project.

"Greshanda" by Magick

“Greshanda” by Magick

Central to the vision of the project is its community outreach coordinator, Gabrielle Rae Travis, who gathered images and stories from families and loved ones of women lost to violence. Some of these stories were related to the artists who then sought to pay honor and witness these women through their art. Other artists addressed the history of violence within their own families.

Sixteen-year old Greshanda, who was killed by a stray bullet, is depicted twice on the wall by two different artists, insistent upon being seen. In her artist statement, one contributor, Magick, asks “What is one to do with these painful and traumatic memories that become stored inside with nowhere to go?” Another contributor, Shana La Reina, reflected on her own artistic process in her artist statement. “Addressing the cycle of violence against the women in Oakland has encouraged me to process what got broken in my own family. To create an active prayer for the five generations of women who have come up. For the ghosts that remain and for the lives that are both vibrant and vulnerable in this wounded town.”

Phase one of the “Her Resilience” public art installation (additional phases are planned) saw twelve individual panels hung on the outside walls of the community garden as well as a large central piece designed by lead artist Nicole Gervacio which was completed at a Community Paint Day, held on March 8th. The twelve artists include Melody Shaiken, Kira Marriner, Shana La Reina, Joanne Ludwig, April Lelia, Adee Roberson, Ines Ixierda, Kindah Khalidy, Angelica Padmavati, Summer “Solstiz,” Kate Klingbeil, “Magick” Monica Santos and Nicole Gervacio. These powerful works of art now hold a strong presence on Park Street as witness, storyteller, and guardians of resilience.

"Her Resilience" on Park Street

“Her Resilience” on Park Street

The day of unveiling was initiated with an opening ceremony by Calpulli Huey Papalotl, an indigenous dance group led by Maestra Pati Juarez. Ceremonial and ritual dances known as Danza Azteca called out the name of Tonantzin, mother earth Goddess of this land, over and over again. It was a prayer and an opening, a sacralizing of the ground and a call to this deity of sustenance for support of women warriors. After burning sage inside the garden and on the street, and honoring the four directions, Calpulli Huey Papalotl danced to honor our ancestors, and for Tonantzin, as well as a dance to plant the corn —  jumping and leaning in low, to nourish the new seeds of what will grow.


Throughout the day, a wide diversity of people came to the community garden, including families, loved ones and community members, who continued to arrive into the late afternoon. Organizers facilitated open dialogues about gender violence, and BAWAR was present to provide counseling. Mamacita’s Cafe–a youth-run economic development project for young women of color– provided fresh donuts and coffee, while Tamales la Qaxaqueña — another woman-run business– offered fresh traditional Mexican fare. It was quite appropriate on this day of birthing the mural project that bathroom facilities were offered by the Bay Area Midwifery Center across the street.

The mural unveiling itself was a testament to women’s memory and to the powerful energy created when women speak up and come together. In her artist statement, Angelica Padmavati spoke to the experience of the day: “this poem reflects on how it feels to be in the women’s skin and go through a transformation into freedom.”

Padmavati, who mixed her son’s ashes with her paint in order to bring forth his presence, said in the poem which she’d written on her mural panel, “my children and i ride the cloud in the sky and we are eternally bonded in the power of love.”

The heartless murder-rape of Kimberly Robertson– whose alleged assailant has been arrested, but not yet tried– motivated a collective reaction from women artivists which could have long-term impact. Thousands of cars a day pass by the Park St. garden on their way to the 580 freeway. They will see the mural panels and perhaps wonder how they came into existence, why has this beautiful art been created, what is the message being put forth?

More than a memorial, “Her Resilience” speaks to the need for public art created by and focused on the lives of women of color — an important consideration for the project’s organizers. Much like the freedom fighters revered on many of Oakland’s murals, the fight against violence towards women must be fed by public recognition, support and an honoring of women’s courage and leadership. “Her Resilience” is a meaningful step in that direction.

Untitled by Adee Roberson and Ines Ixierda

Untitled by Adee Roberson and Ines Ixierda

Visit “Her Resilience” on their FB page at: https://www.facebook.com/herresilience


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Why Black Art Matters

One recent Friday night, Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale addressed a packed house at East Side Arts Alliance. Seale mentioned he was a jazz drummer at age 13, and later acted in plays written by Oakland’s Marvin X. He went on to relate the importance of arts to social movements: “To me, it’s all a revolutionary culture. That’s what this is about.”

Stokely Carmichael and Bobby Seale, 1968. Photo by Henry Raulston

Stokely Carmichael and Bobby Seale, 1968. Photo by Henry Raulston

As Seale, now 78, spoke to an audience which included former Panther Minister of Culture Emory Douglas and Joan Tarika Lewis, the organization’s first female member and a violinist who works with youth, he was surrounded by images of himself taken almost 47 years ago, during a 1968 Panther rally in Defremery park. To look at pictures of Seale in 1968 while being addressed by the 2015 version of the man was the very definition of epiphany.

The photos, which have never before been exhibited publicly, were shot by Henry Raulston, a former Army photographer who joined other local photographers to form the Association of Black Photographers in 1967. Using a Nikon F and Tri-X film, he set out to document rallies, demonstrations, and community gatherings in Oakland. The Panthers, he said, were “doing something to build the people up.” With cultural arts also taking radically progressive turns, activism became infectious: “There was this vibe of, ‘what can we do'”?

Raulston’s exhibit, “Seizing the Time,” presents 35 prints–many of his negatives were lost due to improper storage, he said–which not only capture a young, charismatic Seale, but other Panther leaders like Stokely Carmichael, Eldridge Cleaver, and Kathleen Cleaver, as well as Brown Berets–whose presence emphasizes black-brown unity–who’d traveled up to Oakland from Fresno for the rally. There’s an iconic shot of Carmichael and Seale together, appearing hopeful and determined; another of three Afro’d women raising their fists in front of a banner which reads “Free Huey.” Collectively, Raulston’s unearthed treasures paint a picture of a cultural community for whom activism was intermingled with the creative arts. Even the Panthers’ sartorial choices—dashikis, turtlenecks, berets, leather jackets, sunglasses—reflect a stylistic awareness and implicit coolness which counterbalance their fiery radicalism.

Henry Raulston with a photo of Stokely Carmichael.

Henry Raulston with a photo of Stokely Carmichael.

Curator and ESAA co-founder Greg Morozumi explained how, back in those intense times, with the Vietnam war raging, cities burning all over the world, and the Panthers battling both the Oakland police and the federal government, the Black Arts Movement emerged to catalyze social change through cultural expression. BAM, he said, was “an integral part of the black power movement,” yet is often overlooked by historians, not because it was ineffectual, but “because it had such a big impact.”

Interestingly, Harvard academic Skip Gates downplayed BAM, perhaps prematurely, in a 1994 essay for Time magazine, in which he placed more emphasis on the then-current progenitors of a black cultural renaissance: “It’s not that there are black artists and intellectuals who matter; it’s that so many of the artists and intellectuals who matter are black.”

Malcolm X, patron saint of Black liberation

Malcolm X, patron saint of Black liberation

More than a decade after Gates curiously called BAM “the shortest and least-successful” African American artistic movement in history, the extent to which it represents a critical link in the black cultural continuum has become more clearly visible – in part because there’s a more defined sense of intergenerationality than existed in the Clinton years, in part due to the maturation of the hip-hop generation, but also because of the repetition of some of the same social and political issues which initially informed BAM, such as police brutality and the need to organize communities around unequal justice. It’s also been posited, most recently by Berkeley author Jeff Chang in “Who We Be,” that the election of Barack Obama in 2008 was one of the long-term impacts of four decades of POC-driven cultural movements, of which BAM was both catalyst and seminal influence.

Amiri Baraka

Amiri Baraka in 1972

The movement was a national one. In the Bay Area, Marvin X founded Oakland’s Black House Theatre and SF’s Black Arts/West, while Douglas’ illustrations graced Panther newspapers and political posters. On the East Coast, Amiri Baraka  founded the Black Arts Repertory Theater in Harlem in 1965, following the assassination of Malcolm X – an event which was also instrumental in the founding of the Black Panther Party. Repercussions were soon felt in other “chocolate cities” like Detroit and Chicago, which established their own black threater companies and literary journals by the late ’60s.

Henry Raulston with Emory Douglas

Henry Raulston with Emory Douglas

BAM was multi-disciplinary, covering music, visual art, theater, literature, spoken word, even film. It informed a generation of brilliant poetic, literary, and musical minds, including Nikki Giovanni, Ishmael Reed, Gil Scott-Heron, Sonia Sanchez, Ntozake Shange, the Last Poets, the Watts Prophets, Sun Ra, Archie Shepp, Maya Angelou, and John Coltrane. And its reverberations have continued to echo for five decades, influencing later generations of black artists as well as other marginalized demographics including Latinos, Native Americans, Asians, and LGBTQ folks, paving a creative path for a multicultural, post-millennial arts scene which has given rise to innumerable individual voices in each of the disciplines BAM touched, as well as a collective consciousness which emphasizes community-building along with social activism.

Locally, the combination of BAM, the student-led Third World Movement, and the Black/Brown Power dynamic of the Panthers, Brown Berets and Chicano farm workers created intersectionality between arts and activism which remains one of the defining, if not THE defining characteristic of the Bay Area’s multicultural arts and culture scene, particularly in the East Bay and especially in Oakland. As Morozumi pointed out, the currency and relevancy of BAM can be seen in the current conversation over “race relations” – which he said is really about “systemic racism and oppression” – and the reaction of Oakland’s artivist community to those challenges.

“Black lives do matter,” he said, adding, “black culture matters.”

Henry Raulston and Greg Morozumi

Henry Raulston and Greg Morozumi

Black History Month is always an auspicious occasion, as February’s 28 short days are suddenly filled with an outpouring of African American cultural arts programming which isn’t so visible the other 11 months out of the year. 2015’s BHM seems especially crucial, what with the aforementioned national conversation about race in the wake of the Ferguson situation and the #BlackLivesMatter campaign, as well as the 50th anniversary of the BAM – which will be celebrated in an all-day symposium Feb. 7 at Laney College.

The role art plays in social movements is a crucial one, and part of a cultural continuum. We can trace history to see how visual artists like Douglas inspired contemporary political art by Favianna Rodriguez, Spie TDK, Refa 1, the Dignidad Rebelde and Trust Your Struggle collectives, or how Morrie Turner’s groundbreaking “Wee Pals” comic strip preceded Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition by two decades.  Cultural and social statements, like those rendered by Karen and Malik Seneferu in “Black ❤ Matters,” their current exhibit at Impact Hub’s OMI gallery (which hosts an artists’ talk Feb. 6 ) are just as important as overtly-political imagery.

Art from "Black <3 Matters" by Malik and Karen Seneferu

Art from “Black ❤ Matters”

Black liberation movements have also influenced a wide musical spectrum. The recent tribute to Sly Stone at the Fox Theater served as a reminder that The Family Stone was formed the same year as the Black Panthers (1966), and that Sly’s response to the race relations conversation of his day was the multiculturalism-affirming #1 hit “Everyday People.”

Just as Stone’s “Thank You For Talking to Me Africa” opened up a dialogue with the cultural motherlode, the connection to the Continent has been advanced by Oakland soul singer Candice Antique Davis, who collaborated with native hip-hop artists during a recent trip to Ghana (she’s scheduled to talk about her experiences  in Ghana Feb. 9 at 8pm on KPFA’s “Transitions on Tradition” program ). Antique also recorded her new single, “Freedom Song (This Song),” in Ghana. The song’s lyrics reference Baraka as well as Audré Lorde, Bob Marley, Harriet Tubman, Malcolm X, Kwame Nkrumah and other freedom fighters/revolutionaries/icons. “It seems to me this song is for revolution solution,” she sings. “Freedom is coming,” she promises.

The Panthers’ impact on music is reflected not just in the funk band The Lumpen (chronicled in Rickey Vincent’s book “Party Music”), but also through 70’s soul singers Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, and Curtis Mayfield, who expanded their lyrical topics to address what was going on at that time.

The Panthers also had a direct influence on Fela Kuti and the development of Afrobeat, and established a blueprint for politically-minded, socially-conscious hip-hop from Public Enemy to KRS-1 to Tupac to dead prez to current Oakland artists like The Coup, Kev Choice (who debuts his new album, Love + Revolution, Feb. 5 at Yoshis), and Jahi (who heads up the second iteration of Public Enemy, PE2.0).

The emphasis on theater and literary works which played such a large role in BAM continue through the Laney tribute, which includes a black women writers’ panel and a performance of Marvin X’s play “Flowers for the Trashman,” as well as the African American Shakespeare Company’s adaptation of Sophocles’ “Antigone,” retitled “Xtigone” and starring Oakland emcee/poet/actress RyanNicole in the lead role, directed by Rhodessa Jones and with musical direction from Tommy Shepard (“Xtigone” opens Feb. 14 at the African American Art and Culture Complex in SF).

Aesthetically-speaking, it doesn’t get much more artistic than updating a classic Greek tragedy, and, as West African academic and playwright Wole Soyinka has pointed out, tragic dramas are directly descended from primal sacrificial rituals prevalent in pre-Christian European history, and similarly extant in African culture and mythology. The orisha Ogun, Soyinka has asserted, was the first actor; the ritual-myth tradition the origin of what we now call the dramatic arts.

Ogun: the first actor

Ogun: the first actor

Which brings us to another point about the black history/black art continuum: Not only is the artivist paradigm one of Oakland’s unique features, differentiating it from other similar urban cities, but “The Town” is also a repository of ashé, the universal life force conceptualized by the Yoruba and other West African peoples. Poet/playwright Ishmael Reed and cultural historian Robert Farris Thompson have connected ashé to the development of black art and Afro-Disaporic culture in the Americas and Caribbean (which in turn has informed American popular culture in a multiplicity of ways). Oakland’s vibrant Afro-Diasporic community is perhaps most visible around drumming and dance, but can also be seen in the colorful, Afrocentric visual art of the Seneferus, which creates ritual space and honors tradition.

Art installation by Karen and Malik Seneferu

Art installation by Karen and Malik Seneferu

Ashe also manifests through the music of New Orleans and the Mardi Gras festival, which just happens to coincide with BHM. Mark your calendars now for the two-day Mardi Gras fete, which begins with a second-line parade at Awaken Café followed by a free concert at the New Parish, and continues the next day with a Katdelic show which also features NOLA-style bass bands.

Amiri Baraka in 1970

Amiri Baraka in 1970

All of that is to say, it’s important to recognize that black history isn’t just in the past and is actually a still-evolving, still-living thing. Not only is tradition continually being referenced across the artistic spectrum, but major cultural works are still being created today by contemporary artists. Baraka may have become an ancestor, but his legacy lives on and continues to inform us today. And while artivism is in of itself a form of cultural resiliency against oppression, it’s also important to note that there’s just as much positive, live-affirming creative expressionism as reactionary measures. And all of it matters.

On that note, Hodari Davis, co-founder of the Life is Living festival, has announced a month-long series of events happening during BHM called “Life is Loving” which he says establishes an alternate narrative to the “we’re angry and upset” stance which has framed the African-American dialogue around race. Focusing on love as an aesthetic concept and a manifestation of art transcends politics, and, he hopes, may even ultimately overcome societal and economic barriers which continue to limit the black experience in America.

Got all that? Good. It’s gonna be an incredible month for black art in Oakland and the Bay Area, and Oakulture will try to cover as much of this dynamic ashe, love, and artivism going around as is physically and logistically possible. Bookmark this site now if you haven’t already, and return early and often throughout February for the latest updates.


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2014: The Year in Oakulture

Town Representer: Kev Choice

Town Representer: Kev Choice

2014 started out with a bang, with the release of Kev Choice’s Oakland Riviera album last January. The album, released independently through Choice’s own label, received little national attention. But it was easily one of the best releases of the year in any genre, and one which not only proved that Choice’s progression from sideman to bandleader was complete, but also galvanized Oakland’s urban music scene in the direction of conscious messages and aesthetic quality. Oakland Riviera established a local benchmark for virtuosity and musical intersectionality, as Choice fluidly alchemized hip-hop, R&B, soul, and jazz grooves with a hint of electronic finesse, in the process showcasing not only his own prowess as an emcee/producer/arranger/maestro, but also the considerable talents of a long list of local collaborators, which included Jennifer Johns, Lalin St. Juste, Erk Da Jerk, Viveca Hawkins, Mr. FAB, Phesto Dee, Zumbi Zoom, Howard Wiley, Marcus Shelby and many more. Yet for all the album’s collaborative nature, it was Choice’s solo material which heralded the most praise, from the moody and melodic urban instrumentals named after Oakland streets (“Int’l Blvd,” “MacArthur’s Mood,” “Foothill Dip”) to the uber-socially-conscious, Gil Scott Heron-esque “Crazy Illusions,” which closed the album.

The album’s title, Choice said in an interview, isn’t an actual place, but rather a reflection of his life experiences: “There’s no specific place called Oakland Riviera, but it kind of grew as a concept in my mind and I started thinking how could I express that. With me being a musician from Oakland and traveling around the world and also, me being an emcee and being a pianist and a composer, it’s almost like bringing different elements together to make one world.”

Choice proved to be a ubiquitous presence throughout the year, dominating the live music scene and even weighing in from social media-land on town business and international runnings while touring Europe with The Coup. Some other Oakland music artists who built up strong momentum this year include Jahi, the veteran conscious hip-hopper who is now a part of the Public Enemy family and its next-generation outfit PE2.0, and The Seshen, the retro-futuristic band headed by St. Juste, who signed to the Tru Thoughts label and won Best In Show at the Oakland Indie Mayhem Awards on the strength of their trip-hoppy single “Unravel.”

©Eric K. Arnold 2014

The Shadowbox opens

Speaking of The Coup, not only did they firm up their international credentials, touring France, Germany, Italy, and England, but their frontman Boots Riley also proved fairly ubiquitous, expanding his artistic repertoire with “The Coup’s Shadowbox”—a  performance art piece at the Yerba Buena Center For the Arts featuring installations by Jon-Paul Bail, surprise guest performers, and dancing puppets—and “Sorry to Bother You”—a darkly ironic, infinitely humorous screenplay published in McSweeney’s Quarterly, a segment of which was performed during SF’s Litquake festival.

Boots Riley holds up a copy of his screenplay

Boots Riley holds up a copy of his screenplay

February saw the 51Oakland folks team with the Elevate Foundation and the tsarina of the timbales, Sheila E., for the “Elevate Oakland” all-star benefit at the Fox Theater – one of the few shows at the renovated, iconic venue to prominently feature local artists.

The concert, a benefit for music programs in Oakland schools, emphasized the community-oriented nature of the city’s musician contingent, which sometimes seems to be more weighted toward social awareness and activism than outright commerciality. Not saying that’s a bad thing, but it is a thing you’ll find here.

Sheila E. at the Elevate Oakland fund-raise

Sheila E. at the Elevate Oakland fund-raiser

In addition to Ms. E—fabulous as always—featured artists included Choice (who took the stage with a group of young musicians he’d been mentoring, the Future Shock Quartet), Goapele, Michael Franti, and the Castlemont Choir.

Jennifer Johns performs live at Oakstop

Jennifer Johns performs live at Oakstop

The intersection of tech and culture—played out against a backdrop of encroaching gentrification, reports of displacement, and the influx of silicon-coated dollars into the city’s coffers as well as the dubious new “techbro” demographic—was a definite undercurrent of Oakland in 2014. Two new co-working spaces, Oakstop and Impact Hub, opened within a half-mile of each other and immediately established themselves as Uptown destinations; both went out of their way to emphasize arts  and culture as part of their mission, hosting book release parties by painter James Gayles and vegan soul food chef Bryant Terry, as well as various film screenings, panel discussions, and live performances.

Author and chef Bryant Terry at Impact Hub

Author and chef Bryant Terry at Impact Hub

After taking a month off, First Fridays returned in style in March. While the monthly street party may have jumped the shark in late 2012, when it topped out at 15,000 attendees, it remains an important part of the city’s cultural arts fabric.

First Fridays jam session with Kev Choice, Hassan Hurd, Uriah Duffy, and King Theo Sambafunkquarian

First Fridays jam session with Kev Choice, Hassan Hurd, Uriah Duffy, and King Theo Sambafunkquarian

While many locals may be over First Fridays as a must-be-at happening, the Uptown street crawl is still an important draw for non-residents, and the distillation of all that energy has resulted in more micro-scenes and curation/activation of venues both on and off the Telegraph/Broadway strip. In short, we’re seeing more events, more parties, and more action around FF, which helps to further the notion of Oakland as an arts-friendly town that is starting to overtake San Francisco as a cultural incubator, if it hasn’t already.

One example of a socially-aware happening you probably wouldn’t have seen in SF was the Betti Ono Gallery’s “Stop Telling Women to Smile” exhibition, which combined performance and visual art, documentary and social commentary to address the issue of catcalling.

"Stop telling Women to Smile" at Betti Ono

“Stop Telling Women to Smile” at Betti Ono

As Oakulture wrote at the time, “Envisioned by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, “STWTS” includes both gallery exhibitions and a street art campaign… Fazlalizadeh’s striking large drawings of local women with captions imparting their responses to unwanted attention.” The campaign not only garnered international recognition, but made the front page of the culture section of the New York Times; the fact that Fazlalizadeh debuted the work at an Oakland gallery speaks to the city’s growing cultural gravitas.

Crow twists like a pretzel at Art & Soul.

Crow twists like a pretzel at Art & Soul.

Fast-forwarding to this past August, we saw the first-ever exhibition of turf dancing—the Oakland-originated dance craze which has gone international, thanks to the efforts of the supremely talented Turf Feinz—at the Art & Soul Festival. It’s always interesting to see how an underground-born art form does when exposed to a wider audience, and turf dancing came through with shining colors.

©Eric K. Arnold 2014

Dream tribute

Street art was also huge in 2014. Significant public murals were painted around town by the Attitudinal Health Collective, Community Rejuvenation Project, Vogue TDK, and a collaborative effort in solidarity with Palestine which included Spie, Deadeyes and Emory Douglas.

Dream Day, the annual event celebrating the legacy of Mike “Dream” Francisco, brought out several generations of graffiti artists and their friends and families to a West Oakland location which was then blessed with on-the-spot pieces, as well as live performances from rappers Richie Rich and Equipto. One of the defining characteristics of Oakland’s urban art scene is the crossover between street and gallery mediums, and the intersectionality between art and activism – which revealed itself at galleries like Warehouse 416, Betti Ono, Oakstop, SoMar, and SoleSpace. If you weren’t being exposed to mind-blowing art, much of it aerosol-oriented, this year, chances are you didn’t get out much.

Umoja Festival

Umoja Festival

Speaking of getting out, 2014 was a great year to be out and about in Oakland, thanks in large part to the many festivals around town which built community, offered peeks into cultural windows, and otherwise allowed large crowds to get their groove on simultaneously. In addition to old favorites like Art & Soul, Life Is Living, and the Malcolm X Jazz Arts Festival, relative newcomers like the Ethiopian culture celebration Home Away From Home and the Umoja Festival spotlighted diversity and Pan-African unity, while the Oakland Music Festival transformed the downtown into a large concert venue, complete with massive stage. We can’t forget the Oakland Indie Awards, either, held at the beautiful Kaiser Rooftop Gardens, which again featured an impressive promenade and performance by the SambaFunk Funkquarians, in full carnival attire.

Funkquarians at the Oakland Undie Awards

Funkquarians at the Oakland Indie Awards

©Eric K. Arnold 2014

Hiero Day: 20,000+ strong — and growing

The third annual installment of homegrown hip-hop heroes Hieroglyphics’ free event Hiero Day swelled to more than 20,000 folks this year, representing a triumph for the non-mainstream, underground hip-hop culture Hieroglyphics has helped to cultivate for more than two decades. Highlights included Los Rakas’ simmering performance and a surprise Deltron 3030 set.

ESAA mural in the San Antonio district

ESAA mural in the San Antonio district

It was also nice to see East Side Arts Alliance’s first-ever block party in the San Antonio district, one of the most culturally-diverse neighborhoods in the entire country.

Live performances were part of the fuel which kept Oakland percolating in 2014. Some of the memorable ones Oakulture witnessed in 2014 included:  Queendom, an all-female hip-hop throwdown which established an alternative narrative to hoodrat hip-hop and rachet rap; the Town Futurist Sessions, a progressive, Afrofuturist space where creativity and experimentality freely mingled; Bang Data’s en fuego record release party at SF’s Independent; Jose James’ wonderfully sinuous rendition of Al Green’s “Simply Beautiful” at the New Parish; and the Funky Meters’ ear-pleasing extended jam session, also at the New Parish.

Fantastic Negrito at Town futurist Sessions

Fantastic Negrito at Town Futurist Sessions

Melissa Cruz at Birdland's Oakland Flamenco Sessions

Melissa Cruz at Birdland’s Oakland Flamenco Sessions

Two new music venues, Leo’s Music Club in Temescal, and Birdland Jazzista Social Club in North Oakland, expanded the music scene past the Uptown/downtown nexus, offering everything from legendary New Orleans drummers to up-and-coming jazz acts to international hip-hop and intimate flamenco gatherings.

Quite possibly the best live performance Oakulture saw in 2014, though, also took place at YBCA, whose “Clas/Sick Hip Hop: 1993 Edition” revisited the much-storied Golden Era of hip-hop with a mostly Oakland-based group of emcees performing classic by 2Pac, Souls of Mischief, Saafir, Black Moon, Queen Latifah, and others.

U.N.I.T.Y.: the women of Oakland hip-hop

U.N.I.T.Y.: the women of Oakland hip-hop

Choice, unsurprisingly, was all up in the mix as bandleader, arranger, and occasional rapper, and the emotional crescendo was a mindblowing rendition of the female empowerment anthem “U.N.I.T.Y.,” featuring Zakiya Harris, Aima the Dreamer, Ryan Nicole, Viveca Hawkins, and Coco Peila. As Oakulture wrote at the time,  the performance “evoked a sea of epiphanies, none greater than the notion that Harris and Co. had tapped into hip-hop’s elemental womb and stuck a chord of long-overdue gender balance, releasing a flood of amniotic lyrical fluid which coated the audience’s ears with sticky bliss. Hip-hop may be a mostly male-dominated art form, but in keeping with YBCA’s Left Coast ideology, the Bay Area’s female emcees reigned like queens.

©Eric K. Arnold 2014

Kufu paints for #Ferguson

There was a lot of positivity within Oakland’s cultural arts community, but everything wasn’t all good nationally. Simmering tensions over race, injustice, and the ongoing deaths of young black males at the hands of the police boiled over in 2014, resulting in coast to coast protests and the beginning of a long-overdue conversation which threatened to overshadow every other topic worth discussing. The national reverberations of the Mike Brown and Eric Garner incidents resonated strongly with a community which had already been in activist mode, ever since the death of Oscar Grant on New Year’s Day 2009, and which had also taken last year’s Trayvon Martin situation to heart.

Author Jeff Chang at SoleSpace Gallery

Author Jeff Chang at SoleSpace Gallery

So when the Ferguson decision came down, Oakland’s artivists were ready. Oree Original, Favianna Rodriguez, Refa One, the Dignidad Rebelde collective, and the Trust Your Struggle collective were among those who helped spread the #Blacklivesmatter meme through political art. During the protests, the Solespace Gallery held down much-needed space in what seemed like the eye of the hurricane for a moment, offering a safe place for art and community gathering, and refusing to board up its windows. It also hosted a book release party for Jeff Chang, the Berkeley-based author of “Who We Be” – a timely, ultra-relevant look at the intersectionality between the politics of race and the cultural debate over multiculturalism.

©Eric K. Arnold 2014

Palestine Solidarity mural by Spie TDK

Where national politics are concerned, Oakland represents a bit of a bubble – it’s both more diverse and more progressive than most of the rest of the country, and that progressive diversity informs its culture in many ways, both overt and subtle. The creative arts, it seems, are never too far from what’s happening on the streets, the blocks, and the boulevards. Count Oakulture as among those who wouldn’t have it any other way.

 

 

©Eric K. Arnold 2014


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A Family Affair: Dream Day 2014

Event Review/ Dream Day, Greeenpeace Yard, 8/23/14

©Eric K. Arnold 2014For Bay Area aerosol art aficionados and devotees, there is no name more celebrated than that of Mike “Dream” Francisco. Even though the “computer style” designs of SF graf pioneers Crayone, Raevyn and the TWS crew were the first to gain national attention – when they were featured in Henry Chalfant and James Prigoff’s groundbreaking 1987 book “Spraycan Art” – Dream’s legend has surpassed that of any living Bay Area aerosol artist, with the possible exception of Barry “Twist” McGee (who’s become a gallery/museum exhibitor and no longer does much street work anymore).

©Eric K. Arnold 2014Raised in the hardscrabble streets of East Oakland’s Sobrante Park neighborhood, Dream was a proud Pinoy who fell right in with hip-hop culture as it emerged from NYC boroughs and evolved Westward in the mid-80s. He reportedly studied East Coast graf masters such as Dondi – his trademark “D” bears more than a passing resemblance to Dondi’s version of the letter – but quickly progressed from imitator to innovator to master and mentor, especially to younger artists who frequented the “23” yard where he could often be found painting.

Dream’s art was instantly iconic, from 1996’s “Tax Dollars Kill” mural, to his 1993 portrait of murdered emcee Jesse “Plan Bee” Hall, to the backdrops he painted live for KMEL’s Summer Jam, to the numerous eponymous 3-D burners he authored. His maxim, “Dream… but don’t sleep!” became a rallying cry not only for aerosol practitioners, but for Oakland’s hip-hop subculture as a whole.

 

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Along with Spie, his compadre in the TDK and Irie Posse crews, Dream ushered in a wave of political-themed graf which continues to this day in the Bay. Bay Area aerosol writers were rarely political prior to 1992, when Dream and Spie protested the 500th anniversary of Colombus’ “Discovery” of America with a series of works inspired by the “500 Years of Resistance” campaign uplifting the indigenous struggle. Irie productions often featured the numbers “1492,” a cryptic reference to the onset of colonialism. This led to a well-attended gallery show in 1993 at the Pro Arts Gallery (then located in Old Oakland), “No Justice No Peace,” which addressed police brutality in the wake of the Rodney King beating by LAPD.

It’s been a long time since that show, but I can still remember Dream arriving with the swag of a king dressed in royal finery, though in truth, he was attired in a generic vinyl rainsuit. That was part of Dream’s gift; he could make anything fresh.

In an interview conducted  at the Pro Arts exhibition for the Soul Beat show “Hip-Hop Slam,” Dream explained his moniker: “I get most of my ideas from my dreams.” Graffiti, he said, was “something the mainstream just can’t deal with, so automatically, they’re gonna call it a crime.” The art show’s theme, he said, was a reference to police brutality and oppression, as well as the socioeconomic conditions in “East Oakland, and any other type of ghetto out there… every time i get hassled by the police, i gotta go out and do me a piece.” Spray-painting, he added, was an alternative to violence, while the art contained in the show represented “a dose of reality, something they ain’t never got before.”

©Eric K. Arnold 2014An official member of the Hobo Junction crew — he designed their logo — Dream went on to do graphic design and ink tattoos, and worked at a t-shirt an airbrushing shop at Hilltop Mall for a while. Although he had developed a political consciousness, he never left the street hustle completely behind; on February 17, 2000, a dispute over a minor amount of marijuana resulted in him being tragically murdered in West Oakland, leaving behind an infant son, Akil.

For the past 14 years, Dream’s legacy and memory has been kept alive by the TDK Familia, his crew members and peers, who organized a celebratory event called Dream Day. This year, the event was held at Greenpeace’s yard in West O, on 7th St., next to the People’s Grocery.  Not only was Dream Day a family affair, but it was a perfect example of the type of unique, iconic event which puts the grit in Oakland and the heart in the Bay Area’s hip-hop community.

 

©Eric K. Arnold 2014

Dream Day 2014

After passing through the gates, and putting a little something in the donation box – proceeds benefitted the Dream Book Fund and the Dream Legacy Fund for Akil Francisco, now 14 – I stepped into what seemed like a hip-hop fantasy world. There were about a dozen writers painting pieces, in broad daylight; some had brought their families with them. A selection of top-notch DJs, including Sake One, DJ Fuze, Myke One, Max Kane, and Dulo Dulo, were spinning everything from Bay Area old-school hip-hop and mobb music classics to equally-classic dancehall reggae. Food was provided by the Lumpia Lady and El Taco Bike, and beverages ranged from water to beer to sangria to rum punch. Meanwhile, Marty “Willie Maze” Aranaydo, a Dream protégé who’s become a talented artist, DJ, and graphic designer in his own right, emceed the proceedings.

©Eric K. Arnold 2014The vibe got even fresher, with live performances by Equipto of Bored Stiff (who rapped a song he wrote in honor of Dream) and Richie Rich, the legendary East Oakland rhyme-spitter and game purveyor, who did his classics from the 415 era, “415,” “Sideshow,” and “Groupie,” along with “Let’s Ride,” a Town favorite from his 1996 Def Jam album Seasoned Veteran. It was hella cool seeing all the fam up in the house, especially the older writers who rarely come out to events these days anymore. If you were there, you know exactly what I’m talking about, and if you missed it, you’re probably sorry you did.

Dream’s legacy, however, stretches further than just an annual celebration in honor of his name. What Dream gave Oakland wasn’t just a folkloric legend of a martyred king to brag about in graf circles, but a legitimization of the aerosol artform and a sense of community engagement and social responsibility which extends to public art.

©Eric K. Arnold 2014

Palestine Solidarity mural by Spie

This can be seen in recent highly-visible works by members of the TDK Crew: the “StAy” mural featuring Rickey Henderson on 3rd St. (near Washington); Spie’s contribution to the Palestine Solidarity Mural Project on 26th (near Telegraph); and the “West Side is the Best Side” mural at 17th and Peralta painted by Vogue, Bam and Krash (which gives Dream a boxcar-style shout-out).

©Eric K. Arnold

“Dream” tag on Peralta St. mural

No doubt, were Dream still alive, he would be proud to see the graffiti aesthetic he championed – so underground and rebellious during his era – become more accepted, both in the art world, and by the community at large. -EKA