Documenting the Oakland cultural renaissance


“Xtigone” Reimagines Sophocles as Urban Ritual-Myth

In Nambi Kelley’s “Xtigone,” the ancient Greek city-state of Thebes is replaced by Chicago’s south side – an urban killing field marked by gang rivalry and drive-by-shootings. The protagonist, Tigs, wages a one-woman crusade to expose the truth, challenging patriarchy and political corruption, even at the expense of her own well-being. Kelley’s urban myth recasts Sophocles’ classic morality play about pride into a blood-soaked examination of gun violence and inner-city PTSD. The characters still make lengthy soliloquies, but they speak in contemporary vernacular. There is a hip-hop soundtrack (composed by Tommy Shepherd aka Soulati), references to social media, and several musical numbers. The Greek chorus now chants about police brutality and HIV. It’s an amazing show.

RyanNicole as Tigs

Ryan Nicole Austin as Tigs

The play was originally scheduled to debut in 2012, but was postponed until this year. The current African American Shakespeare Company production, thus, marks the official world premiere of “Xtigone” – a different production is scheduled for Chicago later this year—a play with a message, whose already-relevant subject matter has gained only more currency with the emergence of the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

Drew Watkins and AeJay Mitchell play rival gang leaders

Drew Watkins and AeJay Mitchell play rival gang leaders

A strong cast from top to bottom anchors the production, with the younger actors more than holding their own with veteran stage performers.  As Tigs, Oakland’s Ryan Nicole Austin is a revelation. Her role is one requiring inner strength, conviction, and compassion, qualities she evokes seemingly effortlessly. It’s not easy to portray a woman who is emotionally vulnerable, and physically and mentally strong at the same time. Austin thankfully lets Kelley’s prose come to her, without overreaching. A gifted poet, rapper, and singer, she brings a feminist hip-hop swagger to the part, which is exactly what’s called for.

Naima Shalhoub and RyanNicole

Naima Shalhoub and Ryan Nicole Austin

In one scene, Tigs is chastised for her activist ambitions by her sister Izzy (played by Tavia Percia) — a woman who has accepted subservience along with fake hair. Defiantly, Tigs announces, “we stand on the shoulders of Herstory. I am the amazons of Dahomey, the queen called Nefertiti,  Coretta, Obama’s mama, and if I stand still, Mama Till.”

Naima Shalhoub as Tea Flake

Naima Shalhoub as Tea Flake

Another Oaklander, Naima Shalhoub, practically steals every scene she’s in as Tea Flake, a character who functions much like a griot, singing the praises of patriarchal leader Marcellus Da Man, as well as offering a running narrative commentary as events unfold. Shalhoub’s character often has something serious to sing about, but there are also comedic elements which make her somewhat of a jester in Marcellus’ court.

Michael Wayne Turner and RyanNicole

Michael Wayne Turner and Ryan Nicole Austin

The third youthful standout is Michael Wayne Turner, who plays Tigs’ boyfriend, Beau. This guy can straight-up act, and his dynamic rendering of the character doesn’t lack for energy at all. Also good is AeJay Mitchell as Tigs’ murdered brother E-Mem, whose ghost hangs around watching –and sometimes commenting on—the proceedings after his unfortunate death in the play’s opening scene.

Jasmine Strange and Dwight Dean Mahabir

Jasmine Strange and Dwight Dean Mahabir

As Marcellus, Dwight Dean Mahabir has gravitas. His is a pivotal role, and he tiptoes the fine line between the arrogant bluster of political ambition and the more humanistic concerns of a father. His character isn’t completely sympathetic, but the audience is left with an understanding of why he’s made the choices he has. Yet another Oaklander, Jasmine Strange, plays his wife, Fay, who has devoted her life to his career, even at the expense of her own soul. Strange is also a gifted singer, and the scene where she and Shalhoub alternate verses resonates with vibrancy.

Awele Makeba plays Old Blind Woman

Awele Makeba plays the Old Blind Woman

A crucial part is that of the “Old Blind Woman/Spirit,” played by Awele Makeba. As the Old Blind Woman, Makeba replaces Sophocles’ seer Tiresias, and functions as the conscience of the play.  She sets in motion the cathartic transformation which first tests and then redeems Marcellus, ultimately causing him to rethink his actions. Yet Marcellus’ redemption can’t prevent further tragedy from happening.

As the "spirit," Awele Makeba grounds "Xtigone" in ritual

As the Spirit, Awele Makeba grounds “Xtigone” in ritual

As the Spirit, Makeba grounds the play in ritual, connecting the spiritual world to the physical one, using African dance moves in place of speech throughout most of her scenes. Towards the end, she does speak a few times, signifying a breach of the wall separating the two worlds, implying the transcendent process the characters have undergone.

The "Greek chorus" raps, sings, and offers social commentary

The “Greek chorus” raps, sings, and offers social commentary

The production is anything but static, with fluid choreography and several scenes where characters enter the stage from the audience.  There is constant motion, reflecting a chaotic state of being. The Greek chorus—symbolizing the community—dances, raps, sings, and witnesses a failed attempt at a gang truce, followed by bodies piling up, as Marcellus strives to give the appearance of normality and order, by word of law.

Tavia Percia and Ryan Nicole Austin

Tavia Percia and Ryan Nicole Austin

The lighting and stage design are kept simple for the most part, yet the sparseness is surprisingly effective: in an early scene, Tea Leaf sings against a backdrop of projected pictures of child soldiers from different countries holding rifles. Simple props like a chair, a handgun, and basketball sneakers are amplified for maximum symbolic effect.

Jasmine Strange and Dwight Dean Mahabir

Jasmine Strange and Dwight Dean Mahabir

As a theater production, “Xtigone”—directed by veteran Rhodessa Jones—is very much in the tradition of the Black Arts Movement, from which Jones has drawn inspiration throughout her career. Not only does “Xtigone” recast Sophocles in a contemporary light, but it does so through an African American lens – addressing the issue of youth violence, but also of societal responsibility.

Ryan Nicole Austin and Awele Makeba

Ryan Nicole Austin and Awele Makeba

The play is also in the tradition of Yoruba ritual-myth – it evokes the blood/iron rituals of the orisha Ogun, whom playwright/author Wole Soyinka has called “the first actor” –and emphasizes spirituality over sensationalism, making its point through repetition of a few well-honed memes.

Tweets detail the tragedy of gun violence in "Xtigone"

Tweets detail the tragedy of gun violence in “Xtigone”

Tigs references Mamie Till—whose insistence on an open casket funeral for her murdered son Emmett catalyzed the Civil Rights Movement—on more than one occasion, and the couplet of “unearth the truth/thank the ancestors” voiced by E-Mem in the opening scene becomes a theme which underscores the entire play. By the end of the show, E-Mem himself has transitioned from gangbanger to “ancestral brother.”

Awele Makeba, Dwight Dean Mahabir, and AeJay Mitchell

Awele Makeba, Dwight Dean Mahabir, and AeJay Mitchell

“Xtigone” functions on two levels: on one hand, it revisits a classic Greek tragedy from a black feminist perspective. In that respect, it posits that a “change of heart” is possible for misguided male leaders like Marcellus – a stand-in for authoritarian politicians who have failed to address the roots causes of gun violence. But it also has a deeper purpose: to restore ritual into lives which have become devalued. It does this by offering glimpses into what Soyinka defined as the three stages of human existence—the world of the ancestors, the world of the living, and the world of the unborn—while setting its scenes in Soyinka’s fourth stage, the cthonic domain of Ogun.

AeJay Mitchell and Drew Watkins

AeJay Mitchell and Drew Watkins

This is a place where conflict and chaos recur without resolution, where love is overcome by hate, which only blood sacrifice can quell. That sacrifice is offered symbolically and metaphorically onstage, so that we, the audience, can be the change which needs to happen. By the end of the almost two-hour performance, it becomes clear that “Xtigone” has succeded in creating the ritual space. Now it’s up to us to do the rest.

“Xtigone” runs until March 8th at the AAACC’s Buriel Clay Theatre, 762 Fulton, SF. >> Buy Tickets.


12 More Days of Black History Month! Fall in Love with Black Beauty

So far, 2015’s Black History Month has been an amazing whirlwind of cultural goodness, especially here in the Bay Area — proving the point that Black Art Matters. Here at Oakulture, we thought you might appreciate a handy-dandy guide to the remaining BHM events this month, which include some incredible visual art representations, art workshops, kid-friendly events, musical appreciation nights, tributes to Black Power and Civil Rights martyrs, global reggae, movement-inspired jazz, spoken word, discussions of black love, reflections on Africa, dance exhibitions and classes, second-line parades, drum lessons, food/wine, and much more!!!


Black Artists on Art Legacy Exhibit celebrates the 46th anniversary of Black Artists on Art Volume 1 and commences a series of activities that will surround the new books in their development phases, Through 3/28, Free Admission, Oakstop, 1721 Broadway, Oakland.

"Heirloom" art by Bryan Keith Thomas

“Heirloom” art by Bryan Keith Thomas

Joyce Gordon Gallery presents “Heirloom” by Bryan Keith Thomas. “Heirloom” is the celebration of the Black experience through its historic symbols; cotton, roses and the African and African American image. Through 2/28. Free Admission. Joyce Gordon Gallery, 406 Fourteenth St, Oakland.

Jeff Blankfort’s ‘Fight the Power!’ photography exhibition. ‘FIGHT THE POWER‘: Exploring similarities in the lived and photographed expressions of Black American and Palestinian resistance movements against ethnic persecution. Through 2/28. Free admission. African American Arts & Culture Complex (AAACC), 762 Fulton Street, SF.

Ryan Nicole Austin stars in "Xtigone"

Ryan Nicole Austin stars in “Xtigone”

African-American Shakespeare Company presents Xtigone with Ryan NicoleEmerging Chicago playwright Nambi E. Kelley’s contemporary urban adaptation of Sophocles’ tragedy Antigone is an impassioned response to the recent untimely deaths of children in her native city as a result of gang violence, which has risen sharply in the past several years. Through 3/8, $15-34, Buriel Clay Theatre, African-American Art & Culture Complex, 762 Fulton Street, SF.

Motown on Mondays (MOM). This popular weekly dance party plays one thing: music from Motown, the groundbreaking Detroit label which gave us Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, Diana Ross and Stevie Wonder. Of course, that also includes cover versions and rare gems. With resident DJ Platurn and special guest DJs. Monday evenings, 9pm-2am, Free admission, Legionnaire Saloon, 2272 Telegraph Ave, Oakland.

"Palestine Solidarity," by Deadeyes

“Palestine Solidarity,” by Deadeyes

“Mindful Visions”Seven black male visual artists offering positivity as a way from ambiguous obstacles during life’s stage. Featuring Deadeyes, Jarvis Corner, Jimi Evins, Raymond L. Haywood, Raymond Holbert, Bryan Keith Thomas, and TheArthur Wright. CD release party 2/17 for Sound Oasis: Composer Darryl Pulley, Keys Dave Moltzen, Bass Gearon Crockett. Suggested Donation $5/adult. Through 3/3, Public Viewing Hours Mon-Fri 12:30-4:30. Contact (510) 208-5651 or receptionist@prescottjoseph.org. Prescott-Joseph Center for Community Advancement, 920 Peralta St, Oakland.

Oakland is Hellzapoppin #4 Lindy Hop Intensive with legendary Norma Miller and other special guests. Ms. Miller is again inspired to share with the black community the rich legacy of dances from the Harlem Renaissance through dance workshops, films and history talks. All levels welcome. Feb 15-25, Eastside Arts Alliance, 2277 International Blvd, Oakland. Buy Tickets.

The Arts Council of San Leandro presents “The Mind’s Eye” a group photography exhibit by Oakland Renaissance Photographers Collective. The show features the work of Kamau Amen-Ra, Edward Miller, Tasin Sabir, Tumani Onbiyi, Jim Dennis, Malaika H. Kambon and Asual Kwahuumba and is a continuation of a series of exhibits that document the life experience of people from Africa to the Americas and beyond. Free Admission. A reception with the artists will be held on Feb 22nd 12-3pm, San Leandro Main Library Auditorium, 300 Estudillo Avenue, San Leandro. Exhibit extends thru Mar 31st. Contact Missy Brooks (510) 567-2621.



MJ's Brass Boppers

MJ’s Brass Boppers

Feb 17th
MARDI GRAS DAY PARADE will start at 5:30 pm at Awaken Cafe (1429 Broadway) and proceed towards The New Parish (579 18th St) including the following groups: East Bay Brass Band, MJ’s Brass Boppers, BatalaBlue Bone Express, Dimensions Dance TheaterSambaFunk! Carnaval Explosion, and more. Family-friendly event.

Fat Tuesday with Katdelic, MJ’s Brass Boppers, East Bay Brass Band & DJ ManCub. 9pm, $10-15. New Parish, 579 18th St, Oakland.

Feb 19th
Afia Walking Tree
 & Drum Mobile Kick-off FunDRUM Raising Party provide the snacks, drinks, irie ambiance, and great experience. You bring your phone, laptop or ipad and come network, sing, and dance! The DRUM MOBILE will provide self-sufficiency skills for people (including peoples of African descent with limited resources) to feed themselves through learning hands-on permaculture practices and bringing the experience of music (drum, dance, songs of the African Diaspora) to children who would otherwise not have access. Free Admission, 5-9pm, Urban Drum Ranch, 320 Oakland Ave., Oakland.

The Nile Projectmore than a dozen instrumentalists and vocalists from Sudan, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Uganda have collaborated to use the power of music to raise awareness of the cultural and environmental challenges along the world’s longest river. The result is a new sound of a shared Nile identity, resulting in the album Aswan, and a world tour which comes to Berkeley in time for BHM. $18-$36, 7:30pm, Zellerbach Hall (UC Berkeley campus).

The Nile Project After-Party: Balkan & Beyond Presents: A Benefit for the Nile Project. Join the Nile Project in a post-Zellerbach homecoming night of celebration with East African music and DJ Zeljko. Proceeds will benefit the Nile Project’s university programs in Africa. Bissap Baobob Oakland, 381 15th St.



Sonido Baylando y Kulcha Latino present ALIKA & NUEVA ALIANZA with Andrés DJ-Stepwise, Deuce Eclipse, DJ EL Kool Kyle, Orlando Torriente, Ras Rican, Erick Santero y mas, Pre-sale $10, 8pm-2am, Berkeley Underground, 2284 Shattuck Ave, Berkeley.

Mau-Mau Tech: The Making of a Black University at Oakland’s Merritt College. On March 15, 1971, Black students took over the administration building at Oakland’s Merritt College to protest the relocation of the campus from the city’s flatlands to the hills. This presentation by journalist and scholar Rasheed Shabazz will cover Oakland history and education politics in the 1950s and 1960s, leading up to the relocation of Merritt College, but will primarily focus on the vision for what might have been called, “Huey P. Newton College.” Free admission, 8pm, Quilombo, 2313 San Pablo Ave.

Feb 20th
“Speeches of A Dream: Black History Month Celebration”: A Night of Poetry, Art, and Music celebrating Black History Month. Open Mic welcomed, Free Admission, RSVP Required. 6-8pm, Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Arts1428 Alice St, Oakland.

50th Anniversary of the Martyrdom of Al-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, 1-10pm, Lighthouse Mosque, 620 42nd St., Oakland

Brass Magic,  Zakiya Harris, the Jurassic: Zakiya Harris’ future soul is not to be missed! $7-$10, 8pm, Awaken Cafe, 1429 Broadway, Oakland.

Zakiya Harris

Zakiya Harris

February 21-22nd 
The Art of Living Black (TAOLB) Open Studios 2015 is the Bay Area’s longest running annual African American exhibition of its kind showcasing a wide range of visual media. Artists include Tai BelizeAjuan ManceKaren Oyekanmi, Atiba Sylvia Thomas, Howard Mackey, Valerie Brown Troutt, Lyn Rockwell, and AJ. 11am-5pm, Mills College Student Union, 5000 MacArthur Blvd, Oakland.

February 21-22nd
The 11th Annual Black Choreographers Festival:
Here & Now celebrates the legacy of African & African American dance, art and culture with performances, master classes and special events. Weekend 1 features Byb Chanel Bibene, Antoine Hunter in collaboration with Ellen Sebastian Chang, Brontez Purnell (Sat only), Carmen Roman, Phylicia Stroud, Nafi Watson, Kharyshi Wiginton & Jene Levine-Snipes (Sun only), Jamie Wright (Sun only) 7:30pm. Tix $10-20. Dance Mission Theater, 3316 24th St, SF.



Feb 21st
Learn to Jook with Ladia Yates
. She is a youtube sensation, has danced with Missy Elliott and was most recently featured in Janelle Monae’s music video “Tightrope.” Currently she is dancing with Usher. 12-1:30pm, $15 Advance TixMargaret Jenkins Dance Lab, 301 8th St, San Francisco.

Turf Inc. dancers at Art & Soul Festival

Turf Inc. dancers at Art & Soul Festival

Feb 21st
TURFinc 14 x The LAB present TURFIN AGAINST THE WORLD Part II All Styles Dance Battle. A 2 on 2 All Style Tournament hosted by Phat Boi & Johnny 5. Special Performances by Oakland Boogaloo Conservatory (OBC) BRYCE – OGMIKE -DOC with special guests YAK Films. All Ages, Family Friendly, Cover $15. 1-8pm, THE LAB, 2948 16th Street, SF. 

Amir Sulaiman

Amir Sulaiman 

Feb 22nd
Amir Sulaiman I & I Poetry Workshop Spend a day with Amir Sulaiman, Visiting Harvard Fellow, Def Poet, author & performer explores how identity and perception impact the creative process. This workshop is not just for writers and artists, but for everyone interested in exploring the spirituality of creativity. Advance Tix. 10am-4pm, Islamic Cultural Center of Northern California,1433 Madison Street, Oakland.

Honoring El Hajj Malik Shabazz (Malcolm X), 1-4pm, Oakland Islamic Community Center, 7901 Oakport St., Ste. 4400, Oakland.

Feb 25th 
Opening Night of sfnoir Wine & Food Festival: Shrimp, Grits & Greens. Celebrate Black cuisine, culture, and contributions to the arts. The region’s best in Black Cuisine showcases time-honored dishes with fresh adaptations from within the Diaspora. $30-50. 7-10pm, Impact Hub Oakland, 2323 Broadway.

Afro-vegan chef Bryant Terry

Afro-vegan chef Bryant Terry

Feb 26th 
In Defense of Food: A Spoken Word Affair. Hosted by Bryant Terry – Chef, Educator, Author and Food Justice Activist. The spoken word artists this evening all speak about food in very different ways: its power to create and help define culture, how certain life experiences are shaped around the act of coming together to break bread, or the injustices found in people’s access to healthy and nutritious foods. Advance Tix $15. 7-10pm, Museum of the African Diaspora, 685 Mission St, SF.

Feb 27th
MoAD After Dark in Conversation presents Collaborating Across the Aisles: Continuing the Civil Rights Movement with #BlackLivesMatter featuring keynote speaker Dr. Clarence Jones, Dr. King’s speechwriter, advisor & attorney. Panel and discussion with Dr. Joe Marshall, Dr. Mary J. Wardell-Ghirarduzzi, Ms. Neva Walker, and Mr. Jarvis Givens. 6-9pm, Tix $10-75Museum of the African Diaspora, 685 Mission St, SF.

Feb 27-28th
Yemanja Festival 2015
celebrates the spirit of Yemanja, the African deity that honors the essential, beautiful and sometimes dangerous nature of water. Inspired by the original Yemanja Festival celebrated in Bahia, Brazil the Yemanja Arts Festival brings together celebrated artists and dancers as interpreters of art forms from the African diaspora (Brazil, the Caribbean, and the United States) that pay homage to Yemanja through their respective folkloric and spiritual traditions. Featuring Conceisao Damasceno, Kimberly Miguel Mullen, Tania Santiago, Danda da Hora, Ramon Ramos Alayo, Renni Flores, Wagner Santos, Mestre Beicola, Curumins & Borboletas Dance Group. 8pm. Saturday after-party 10pm. Tix $10-22Casa De Cultura, 1901 San Pablo Ave, Berkeley. 

YGB Gold

YGB Gold

Feb 28th
Black Voices in Love: Africa ft. Marc Bamuthi Jospeh, Antique, YGB Gold, Dayo Milon and Keba Konte. Panel discussion featuring slides from recent journeys to Ghana, Rwanda, South Africa, and Ethiopia, African dance and drumming, and Ethiopian coffee ceremony. 6pm. Tix $12Malonga Casquelord Center for the Arts, 1428 Alice St, Oakland.

Concha Buika On her latest and most diverse album, La Noche Más Larga, the Spanish-bred singer of African descent continues to break down the walls that surround flamenco, the root source of everything she does, but a tradition that can’t contain her ever-evolving vision. 8pm. $35-100, 8pm, Nourse Theatre, CIIS, 275 Hayes St, SF.

Black History Month Celebration with Terrence Brewer. The American improvised musical art form called jazz doesn’t exist without the roots of the African-American experience and, particularly, without gospel music. Terrence Brewer will explore gospel compositions through the eyes of a modern jazz improviser and share his own stories of growing up playing in the church and how he was inspired by sacred music and the large role gospel music played in his development. Featuring Terrence Brewer on guitar, Kevin Wong on piano and organ, Dan Parenti on acoustic and electric bass and Deszon Claiborne on drums. Tix $15California Jazz Conservatory,
2087 Addison St, Berkeley.

Feb 28-Mar 1st
The 11th Annual Black Choreographers Festival: Here & Now  celebrating the legacy of African & African American dance, art and culture with performances, master classes and special events. Weekend 2 features Christal BrownGregory Dawson, Mauya Kerr, Robert Moses, Reginald Ray Savage, and Raissa Simpson. 7:30pm. Post-performance Q & A  on Mar 1. Cake & Chat following every BCF performance. Tix $10-20. Dance Mission Theater, 3316 24th St, SF.




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.