Oakulture

Documenting the Oakland cultural renaissance


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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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Life, Death, and Rhythm: Cultural Resiliency and Anti-Displacement Efforts Gaining Momentum in Oakland

Life Is Living festival

Life Is Living festival

So, let me get this straight: According to the New York Times, gentrification is going to save Oakland? That’s funny, almost, because that’s not the conversation Oaklanders are having about the Town they live in.

To recap: On October 3, journalism’s Grey Lady showed her true colors in an article ostensibly about the tragic murder of muralist Antonio Ramos, slain by a random act of violence while ironically working on a mural designed to heal trauma and beautify the hood. When we say ‘hood, we’re talking about freeway underpasses in West Oakland, which are typically not the parts of town you would show off to Marin socialites and international jet-setters.

"Oakland Superheroes" mural in progress

“Oakland Superheroes” mural in progress

Yet in the Times’ view, the killing of a muralist was a blip on a forward march of foodie guidebook ratings, North Bay one-percenters mingling with pierced and tatted urchins during First Friday, and tech invaders annexing downtown, signaling Oakland’s arrival as – what, exactly? The Times didn’t specify.

What they did say was this: “the death of Antonio Ramos… was a reminder of the stubborn grit and crime that still cling to the city despite the gentrification boom that has fueled its reputation as Brooklyn by the Bay.” (emphasis added.)

Altar for Antonio Ramos

Altar for Antonio Ramos

The Times article went on to quote OPD Chief of Police Sean Whent as saying, “people are worried about gentrification because, I think, it does enhance conflict.” Yet, maybe because that point conflicted with the article’s insistence that gentrification is a desired and entirely serendipitous outcome for all, the writer just sort of let that comment hang. She went on to quote Mayor Schaaf, who seemed apologetic that she had to deal with the reality that good people like Ramos are sometimes murdered over nothing. “That’s the life of an Oakland mayor,” she said.

Antonio Ramos dedication at mural site

Antonio Ramos dedication at mural site

Neither Schaaf nor the Times seemed to be able to grasp the essential dichotomy, that the mural Ramos was working on before he died was not about gentrifying Oakland for newcomers able to afford skyrocketing rents, but about beautifying an area whose primary demographic is black and poor, a woebegone, dark, and foreboding passageway which, prior to the mural, was primarily characterized by homeless people, birdshit, and carbon emissions – for the benefit of current residents.

As muralist Pancho Peskador, who witnessed the shooting, said, “This fucking freeway is pretty shady. It’s dark. It’s ugly.” But in doing the work, he added, “I see the transformation of it. It’s progress for the whole community.”

"Oakland Superheroes" mural in progress

“Oakland Superheroes” mural in progress

Ramos’ death, sensationalized by the media, has catalyzed the mural project – the third in a series developed by non-profit Attitudinal Healing Connection. I hesitate to use the word martyr, but there’s been a tremendous outpouring of love for the fallen 27-year old artist, from candles, flowers, and altars which cover almost the entire 200 feet of sidewalk at the mural site, to a tribute piece painted in his honor by his art teacher Eric Norberg, to a renewed dedication to the mural’s mission by the surviving artists. Even before the mural has been completed, the effect is tangible: a once foreboding piece of turf is now a sanctified, hallowed ground. It’s as if Ramos was a blood sacrifice to the gods. That’s a hard price to pay, but one which will hopefully bring more peace and less violence.

A wreath for slain muralist Antonio Ramos hangs in front of the mural site

A wreath for slain muralist Antonio Ramos hangs in front of the mural site

Antonio Ramos didn’t die because Oakland isn’t being gentrified fast enough; he died because systemic  inequity and internalized oppression among people at risk of displacement  — on top of income gap, on top of daily pollution exposure, on top of police misconduct, etc., etc.,  — have degraded respect for life. As Project Director Dave Burke said, “that’s America” – not just Oakland.

The answer for Oakland isn’t more gentrification, although that seems fairly inevitable. The answer for Oakland is more art and culture which reflects, respects, and engages the community, celebrates diversity, and improves the quality of life in parts of town where cold-blooded murder can happen as quick as a furtive glance.

Life Is Living festival

Life Is Living festival

Speaking of life, there was plenty of it, in abundance, at this year’s Life Is Living Festival. Although there was some talk of the repercussions of not having a big headliners as in years past, that didn’t matter at all. Essentially, no one cared, because big headliners aren’t what people go to the festival for; the main reason to attend LIL is to be immersed in community and culture.

That was well-evident last Saturday. In the space of just a few hours, Oakulture experienced an African drum and dance circle; an amazing group of young Haitian musicians playing original compositions; an eye-popping demonstration of turf dancing; powerful sangin’ sistahs; equally powerful youthful spoken-word sheroes;  Town Park youths perfecting ollie grinds; and a streetful of people filling up the asphalt of 18th Street, dancing joyously to a baile funk DJ as the sunset glowed with iridescent hues of orange and red.

Life I Living Festival

Life Is Living Festival

Earlier, in a conversation with artist Brett Cook, I remarked that LIL seemed to embody the fulfillment of the Black Panthers’ vision of community-oriented social services intermingled with Afrocentric-leaning culture – a vision which began almost 50 years ago, and frequently utilized that same location (DeFremery Park, aka Lil Bobby Hutton Park). There were no overt politics on display, and the ideology being pushed essentially amounted to, celebrate life, the sunshine, and the people. It was a concrete example of what LIL producer Hodari Davis called “black joy in the hour of chaos.”

Life Is Living festival

Life Is Living festival

If LIL was a subtle anti-displacement initiative, somewhat less subtle was the Samba Funk-led #SoulOfOakland rally protesting a recent transplant’s attempt to shut down a drum cipher in honor of the Blood Moon, which ended in multiple citations and allegations of racial profiling and false accusations of assault. You may have heard about it; not only has reportage by Davey-D and others gone viral on social media, but Chronicle columnist and perennial Oakland hater Chip Johnson even weighed in, predictably defending OPD while chiding SambaFunk for riding the “racism train. “

To even go there, one has to ignore all the disturbing reports, not just of racial profiling by police, but of noise complaints against black churches, the non-profit-friendly Humanist Hall, and the Malonga Center—home to Oakland’s Afro-Diasporic dance and drum community—as well as the closure of the Burrito Shop on Lakeside and the Rock Paper Scissors collective on Telegraph, and reports that Uber’s relocation to the Sears building will accelerate gentrification even more.

In solidarity: Ieumsae

In solidarity: Ieumsae

As Oakulture previously noted, Oakland’s recent percent for art ordinance was hit with a lawsuit by developers before it could commission even one work, and a proposal for an arts-friendly project on the Henry J. Kaiser Auditorium site was rejected by the City Council. Since then, more ominous news on the development front has come from the announcement of the Downtown Oakland Specific Plan and a SPUR report on the area — which specifically mentioned art in just one of 30 recommendations.

All of these are signs of the times, and if you connect the dots, it’s clear that what mainstream media calls a “gentrification boom” clearly means displacement for the have-nots.

#SoulOfOakland rally at City Hall

#SoulOfOakland rally at City Hall

But Samba Funk isn’t having that. Not without a fight. And by fight, they mean, drums, lots of them. And dancers. The rally at the lake followed a successful action on the steps of Frank Ogawa plaza, within earshot of City Hall, which was followed dutifully by a TV news crew. Samba Funk Artistic Director Theo Williams later spoke up at the City Council meeting; the vibrant drumming from outside the building was clearly audible as he testified about the original incident.

The momentum generated by the action coalesced into the “#SoulofOakland movement, whose first action was Sunday’s rally at the Lake. In the course of two incredibly full hours, participants were treated to First Nation drummers Manny Lieras and George Galvis doing indigenous songs of resistance, Korean drummers Ieumsae playing traditional instruments in the Poongmul style (a folk art associated with working class people and social justice), a Puerto Rican Bomba troupe led by Shefali Shah complete with long-skirted dancers, Haitian troupe Rara Tou Limen led by master drummer Daniel Brevil, and a Brazilian outfit.

SambaFunk's Theo Williams and Rara Tou Limen's Daniel Brevil lead the drumline

SambaFunk’s Theo Williams and Rara Tou Limen’s Daniel Brevil lead the drumline

It was a bit cute, light-hearted even, to see signs on people’s backs announcing “More Drumming, Less Gentrifying.” But there were serious undertones to the entire event. Cultural resilience is embedded into every beat of ethnic drums, and to experience a world-class exhibition of cultural diversity which was so much more than a drum circle – really, it was an anti-displacement ritual, and all that embodies – had a resonant impact. To hear tales of the Haitian defeat of Napoleon along with stories of the Ohlone village of Huichin gave a certain perspective which put gentrification, displacement, and cultural resistance in a historical context.

Indigenous noise: Manny Lieras and George Galvis

Indigenous noise: Manny Lieras and George Galvis

Councilmembers Desley Brooks and Abel Guillen professed support for the cause, but microphone pontification was kept at a bare minimum, and; instead of long-winded speeches, the focus was on building and engaging community through drumming and dancing.

According to Lieras, “Drums and voices were the first instruments. Some of you who have been drumming for a long time understand the healing powers these drums possess. We believe inside these drums, there’s spirits… when we use this drum, it has ceremonial healing practices and purposes.”

As an Ieumsae spokesperson said, “Drumming is an act of resistance. What happened last week with SambaFunk is not ok, it’s a problem. It’s gentrifying the soul of Oakland, so we’re here in solidarity.”

Shefali Shah's Bomba troupe in action

Shefali Shah’s Bomba troupe in action

“We’re gonna be drumming here on a regular basis,” said Williams, adding that he was renaming the amphitheater “freedom center.” Every time we’re here, he said, “we’re gonna exercise our freedom.”

“This is what makes Oakland great. It’s our culture and our arts,” said Guillen, who reaffirmed his intention to reinstate the city’s now-defunct Cultural Arts Commission.

By the end of the day, nearly all of the audience had joined the dance section; off to the side, the percussion contingent, most wearing white, supplied the music as the dancers supplied the movement. If Williams had wanted to emphasize that cultural diversity and rhythmic expression are indeed the soul of Oakland, he succeeded. This was a mini ethnic dance and drumming festival, in a public space, which engaged community in interactive, inclusive activities and championed an inspired cause. All one needed to participate were a percussion instrument and/or your two feet.

Well-played, Sambafunk. Well-played.

Dancers at the SoulOfOakland rally at the lake

Dancers at the SoulOfOakland rally at the lake


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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.