Oakulture

Documenting the Oakland cultural renaissance


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Umoja Festival Heats Up Oakland’s Pan-Africanism

The large Umoja banner became a photo opp backdrop

The large Umoja banner became a photo opp backdrop

Now in its third year, Oakland’s Umoja Festival is well on its way to becoming an Oakland cultural institution. Originally started in 2013 by community organizers Effie Tesfahun and Stephani McGrath, Tesfahun’s sister Tsedi, DJ/photographer Juan Gomez, and fashion designer/futbol aficionado Baba Afolafi, Umoja—which means “Unity” in Kiswahili—was conceived of as a music festival and soccer tournament celebrating Pan-Africanism and Afro-Diasporic culture.

On Saturday, as record temperatures soared unto the low 90s, West Oakland’s Lowell Park even felt a little bit like the African savannah, sending folks scurrying for shade and hydration. A row of vending tents ringed the park’s perimeter, offering everything from fresh-squeezed ginger/tamarind juice and Cameroonian ndole to colorful fabrics from Mali and chiropractic massages. Two soccer fields had been chalked, one for young people (courtesy of My Yute), and another for an adult tournament hosted by Afolafi’s SURU brand. There were also two stages for musical performances, as well as a large “Umoja” banner.

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The musical acts were a highlight. Early on, the conscious hip-hop duo of Kev Omoage Akhidenor and Ryan Nicole, collectively known as Nu Dekades, rocked a set which exemplified the Oakland meets Africa theme. Nicole is simply fierce on the mic, and should be regarded as one of The Town’s hottest emcees regardless of gender. Akhidenor matched her for intensity and lyrical content, as they unleashed a blistering demonstration of revolutionary, social justice-oriented lyrics over boom-bapping beats. Akhidenor took the time to explain the “pata pata” chant in Fela Kuti’s classic “Upside Down” before he and Nicole launched into an updated version, which he dedicated to all his “Najas” (Nigerians). A mid-afternoon set by Piwai and the Zimbabwe Mystics offered world-class world beat which incorporated traditional East African rhythms along with Afrobeat influences, as Piwai alternated between singing lead vocals and playing the hypnotizing harmonics of the mbira. And a closing set, by Kingston, Jamaica-born Jah’Mila, kept the vibes irie with an exquisite cover of Judy Mowatt’s reggae classic, “Black Woman.” In-between, emcee/hostess Jennifer Johns supplied fiery energy and kept the crowd amped, while a succession of DJs including Emancipacion, Nina Sol, Mina, Mpenzi, Aebl Dee, Xander and K-la-Vee played music in line with the Diasporan theme. SambaFunk also made an appearance, dancing in a line around the vendor tents, pausing at the second stage, then making their way back to the main stage.

This year’s crowd was the festival’s biggest yet – a turnout which in and of itself made a strong statement in the midst of a rapidly-gentrifying Oakland. Many folks rocked dashikis or African prints, as Ethiopians, Kenyans, Nigerians, Zimbabweans, Sudanese, Senegalese,  and Ugandans freely mingled with Oakland’s African Americans as well as people of other hues who share a deep appreciation for African culture, music, and food. It was especially nice to see Lowell Park, an underutilized West Oakland gem, be activated for such a vibrant event, even if the space wasn’t completely filled. But then, the location is so expansive, it would likely require at least two or three thousand people to maximize the capacity. That gives Umoja something to aim for in years to come.


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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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The Warriors’ Million Fan March Validates Oakland as A Championship City

This is what 1.1 million people look like

This is what 1.1 million people looks like

It’s been called, somewhat cleverly, the “Million Fan March.” Last Friday’s Warriors Parade drew an estimated 1.1 million people to Oakland to celebrate the city’s newly-minted NBA Championship trophy. The parade capped a dream season which saw the Dubs rise to legendary status, compiling one of the best records ever in NBA history, and convincingly out-Splashing four other playoff teams to earn the title.

photo by Steve Snider

photo by Steve Snider

The parade meant everything to the Dub Nation, who descended on the Eastlake lawn in a swarming sea of gold and blue, but it might have meant even more to Oakland, a perennial underdog who finally emerged from the long shadow cast by San Francisco to recast its identity as a winner. Though the Warriors’ surname says “Golden State,” this was an Oakland team, through and through, exemplified by the trash-talking, swaggering Draymond Green, a classic overachiever who backed up his lip service and attitude with on-court bravado when it mattered most.

Draymond Green

Draymond Green

Throughout the season, longtime Dubs fans traded war stories about the days of Run-TMC, and 2006’s “We Believe” squad, or even the 74-75 unit captained by Rick Barry which was the last Warriors team to win an NBA championship, some 40 years ago. Those with even longer memories might have harkened back even further, to the shortlived American Basketball Association’s Oakland Oaks.

oakland oaksBut never in the team’s history as the Bay Area’s professional basketball franchise had it had a team as talented as the 2014-15 edition. Perhaps even more important than talent, though, was the team’s unselfishness and chemistry; in a league where sniping at teammates is par for the course, the Warriors played nice with each other all year long.

To win the championship, the Dubs overcame a slew of doubters, none more prominent than TV analyst Charles Barkley, who predicted incorrectly that jump-shooting teams don’t win championships. What Barkley didn’t realize, though, was that prolific offenses who also play excellent defense have historically had a statistical advantage in winning NBA titles. (But then again, as Green pointed out,$ir Charles never won a ring, so how would he know?) In any event, it’s likely their success will alter pro basketball trends, as teams seek to match their versatility and assemble lineups which can excel in small-ball finesse.

Klay Thompson with the NBA Championship trophy

Klay Thompson with the NBA Championship trophy

The Warriors also had to overcome their own doubts. A young team, they lacked significant playoff experience, and it showed at times. But they adjusted to adversity and overcame obstacles both real and imagined, even down to the final showdown with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Like a boss battle in a video game, the Warriors figured out a way to beat LeBron James, the self-proclaimed “best basketball player in the world.” They won, ultimately, by rising to the challenge at critical times, and by playing as a team – a message to other ego-driven, superstar-oriented NBA franchises.

Sure, there were some dazzling displays of ballhandling and shooting by league MVP Steph Curry, but it’s completely Oaklandish that renaissance man Andre Iguodala, a force at both ends of the court, won playoff MVP honors. In the final game, “Iggy” hit just as many three-pointers (three) as Curry, a testament to the emotional leadership he provided all year.

Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala and Harrison Barnes

Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala and Harrison Barnes

The massive turnout for the parade and rally was almost three times the size of Oakland’s population – an indication that the Dubs’ bandwagon had swelled with every thrilling victory in an 83-win season. Many in attendance had not even been born the last time the Warriors won an NBA title. While sports fans can be brutish and belligerent, especially after drinking since 5 am (which is when crowds began to arrive at the rally site), the assembled masses on Friday were generally well-behaved, even though the crush of population density threatened to flare tempers and/or result in claustrophobic episodes.

“The parade meant everything to the Dub Nation, who descended on the Eastlake lawn in a swarming sea of gold and blue, but it might have meant even more to Oakland, a perennial underdog who finally emerged from the long shadow cast by San Francisco to recast its identity as winners.”

One example of the compassion Warriors fans hold in their hearts came on the Lake Merritt Drive overpass. When the parade concluded, the overpass was packed with people, including young children and babies in strollers. There was scant elbow room. As the rally started, it became apparent that not only were the people on the bridge not going to be able to move any further forward, but only those up in the front would actually be able to see what was happening. At that moment, several hands appeared to hoist up a young wheelchair-bound fan above the heads of the crowd, so he could view the proceedings. That right there says all you need to know about the nature of the Dub Nation.

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The championship and the parade take on an even greater significance because of the very real possibility that this is the Warriors’ last season in Oakland. Talk about going out on a high note. Yet the season and the celebration will continue to live on, quite possibly in mythical terms. It’s something, as Iguodala pointed out in a post-Finals interview, that can never be taken away. This championship, it must be said, belongs to Oakland.

Oakulture has already pointed out the cultural significance of the Warriors, and their resonance has grown exponentially with them securing the trophy. It’s a measure of how exciting they were that this year’s Finals garnered the highest TV ratings in 17 years; their deeds won’t soon be forgotten.

The

The “Mac Tre” mural by Crayone and the Illuminaries

Like folkloric heroes, the Warriors have been celebrated in song—mostly rap songs, which is another Oaklandish trait—as well as in visual art, through the creation of the now-famous “Mac Tre” mural in West Oakland, painted by Crayone and the Illuminaries, which has become a must-visit location for Dubs aficionados. They’ve also made an impact on fashion, and inspired entrepreneurship from a score of independent artisans and designers – some of the various t-shirts include Hiero– and Wu-Tang-themed designs, Eesuu Orundide’s “Oaktown Splash,” and one proclaiming “East Oakland Warriors” in the old-school font they used during the 74-75 season. They even inspired the Original Scraper Bike Team to paint their rides in team colors.

Original Scraper Bike Team

Original Scraper Bike Team

No longer are the Warriors the laughingstock of professional sports, the team nobody wanted to play for. The days of wondering who the team would pick in the draft lottery—only to see that player either fail, or become a star on another team—are over.  Children will grow up with the memory of this season and be inspired to achieve great things. Heck, Curry’s daughter Riley not only already runs the world, but also inspired a cute reinterpretation of the Fairyland sign.

“Rileyland”

That’s quite fitting, because this dream season resembled nothing so much as a fairytale. As to where the story goes from here, well, there is much left to be told. If they keep winning, the Warriors could add more hardware to their trophy case. In the meantime, they have provided the most concrete proof to date that Oakland is a major-league city, one which breeds champions.


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MC Olympics Showcases The Next Generation of Hip-Hop Performers

MC Olympics participants at Betti Ono Gallery

MC Olympics participants at Betti Ono Gallery

Live Review/ Youth Speaks MC Olympics, May 22 @ Betti Ono Gallery

Poetic language and oral tradition lie at the root of hip-hop. But in a culture that’s been turnt up and trapped-out, is there still room for innovation and creativity? Watching a qualifying round of Youth Speaks’ recent MC Olympics competition, the answer seemed to be yes.

According to Youth Speaks’ website, in the MC Olympics, participants are “required to demonstrate a diversity of lyrical skills including but not limited to free styling, ripping their best 16 bars, or writing a verse on the spot.” The objective is to emphasize skill while bridging the gap between spoken word and rap, and to bring a hip-hop edge to the organization’s youth development work.

Host D.O.D.A.T. explains the rules to contestants

Host D.O.D.A.T. explains the rules to contestants

Ten contestants, all between the ages of 14 and 19, vied for the honor of competing in a battle to determine the Bay Area champion, who will then compete in the Finals in Atlanta, along with winners from 64 other regions. The ten emcees included D-Soul, AMC, Casper, Molly (the lone female representative), A Fi Fuego, Antihero, HD, Vic Johnson, C-Mac, and REU. Unlike other rap battles, in the MC Olympics, the entrants don’t directly take on each other; there’s no dissing of competition, which introduces a totally different dynamic into the proceedings.

Casper spits bars

Casper spits bars

The first test, of Hot 16s, required the emcee’s hottest bars – delivered over beats supplied by DJ Treat U Nice. “Shots fired,” remarked host D.O.D.A.T. (of Ensemble Mik Nawooj), after a blazing start by last year’s champ AMC. Vic Johnson, meanwhile, was told to edit his content after unleashing an epithet-laced string of NSFW words.

AMC rips the mic

AMC rips the mic

For the second test, a freestyle challenge, random words (“brave”; “narrative”; “ambition”) were selected. This seemed particularly challenging, since the emcees had to incorporate the words into their rhymes mid-flow, and not all syllables matched. A couple of times, the emcee didn’t know the word in question. But when the rhymers were able to find their flows, they rode them like surfers catching breaking waves.

Molly gets swaggy with it

Molly gets swaggy with it

The final round could be freestyles, writtens, or a combination of both. “Gimme the most turnt up beat,” said Molly, before launching into a swag-filled throwdown which didn’t earn her many technical points for lyrical finesse but captivated the crowd. D-Soul, meanwhile, asked for a bass-heavy beat but “none of that trap shit.” Outsider Y, who whiffed on the previous round because he doesn’t freestyle, showed an unforeseen capability for rapid-fire triplets. A Fi Fuego, HD, and Casper all went a cappella, while Antihero delivered his most impressive rhyme to date. AMC, however, proved commanding.

The judges panel

The judges’ panel

Just before the judges announced their decision, two of them left the judges’ table and took the stage, where they delivered impromptu performances. Hailing from North Oakland, Rico G dropped a Native Tongue-worthy rhyme, then told the up-and-comers, “don’t be afraid to spit a track like this in the turnt up era.” His fellow Mind Oakland crew member Najee Amaranth followed, accompanied by backup singer Omi.

Antihero in the midst of flow

Antihero in the midst of flow

The judges then returned their scores. A Fi Fuego placed third, Vic Johnson second, and a first place tie ensued between AMC and C-Mac. The two top scores made sense, as the two had been the most consistent throughout the competition, but on Oakulture’s unofficial scoresheet, Antihero could have easily supplanted either Fuego or Johnson.

Mind Oakland's Najee Amaranth and Omi

Mind Oakland’s Najee Amaranth and Omi

After the battle was over, we asked some of the emcees their thoughts.

“I’ve really been rapping since Kindergarten. I’ve been rhyming the words, picking up the beat. Music has been my life since day one,” said Molly, who hails from “East Oakland – Fruitvale.” The MC Olympics, she says, are her first official competition. “I always come prepared. I’m a very confident person,” she said.  “Crowds, they don’t scare me. I get up there and I do what I do. In order to be original, you have to be yourself.”

The evening's winners: A Fi Fuego, C-Mat, AMC, HD

The evening’s winners: A Fi Fuego, C-Mat, AMC, Vic Johnson

Being the only woman in the competition wasn’t an issue for her, she says. “You just don’t think about it. You think about, oh, we’re all emcees. It don’t matter if you’re a boy or a girl in this competition going forward.”

For AMC, who claims the Lake Merritt area and has been rapping “seriously” for five years, the competition was his fourth. His preparation involves “listening to music, rapping every day.” To stand out from other emcees, he says, “It begins with knowing your audience.” Reading the crowd, he says, helps him decide “how to attack, how to form your lines, when to bring energy, when not to bring energy. It just depends on the venue. You walk in, you get a feeling, then you deliver based on how you feel.”

The MC Olympics Finals take place May 30, 8-10pm at Impact Hub Oakland.

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Desert Rock Oasis: Tal National’s Stripped-Down Saharan Highlife

Tal National

Tal National

Live Music Review/Tal National, May 6 @Leo’s Music Club

I have a new favorite African band. It’s Tal National, a group from the Sahara lands of Niger, a country which has been severely underrepresented in terms of Western musical exports. The relative obscurity of their homeland makes Tal National’s sound, which incorporates influences from the various tribal ethnicities of its members, a bit of a revelation: it contains elements of Tuareg trance-rock and Malian desert blues, along with the nimble fretwork and uptempo melodies commonly associated with West African highlife. Indeed, highlife’s blisteringly intricate guitar patterns can sometimes be overshadowed by the emphasis on ensemble-driven arrangements. But Tal National’s focus on the interplay between guitar and drums results in a more stripped-down sound which concentrates on the music’s essential core, while appealing to indie rock audiences as well as world music aficionados.

Guitarist/bandleader Almeida (r.)

Guitarist/bandleader Almeida (r.)

Tal National’s recent Oakland debut at Leo’s was a case in point. Their live set-up consisted of one guitarist, a bassist, a kit drummer, a talking drummer, two vocalists, and a dancer – a much more minimal crew than the Afrobeat orchestras of neighboring Nigeria, which can have as many as 20-25 musicians. The musical communication was immediate and upfront, the movement-enhancing quality of the rhythms impossible to ignore; If you weren’t dancing by the midpoint of the show, you were likely dead or paralyzed.

Tal National

Tal National

The band’s experience—one of Niger’s most popular acts, they’ve been around for a decade and have been known to play five-hour sets—showed in their relentless intensity. Every time it appeared they had reached a plateau, they upped the ante and shifted into an even more-inspired gear. Bandleader/guitarist Almeida not only handled his instrument with virtuoso-like prowess, effortlessly shifting between supplying jangly rhythmic backgrounds and jaw-dropping lead runs, but also proved an effective conductor and narrator for Tal National’s musical journey. At one point, he informed the audience it was time for a trance interlude, during which the (female) dancer took a solo turn as the band veered into a long instrumental–and likely highly-improvisational–section.

Tal National

Tal National

Tal National are only on their second US tour (in support of their most recent album Zoy Zoy), and are still building up an international fan base. But while they may be playing small halls like Leo’s this tour, their stage show is impressive enough to handle much bigger venues. It wouldn’t be surprising to see them play Coachella or Outside Lands in years to come, and I fully expect that to happen, since word of mouth on this band is going to be amazing.

Tal National

Tal National

While many African bands face an uphill battle in terms of being accessible to Western audiences, Tal National have a distinct advantage in that department. Though they don’t compromise on the traditional aspects of their music—many of which have their origins in folk songs dating back hundreds or even thousands of years—their minimalist approach should win them over converts a bit easier. Just a taste of talking drums goes a long way, especially when it’s wrapped around infectious guitar-and-drum-centered songs and expressive vocal harmonies. This is a band which must be experienced live to be believed, and it’s likely that everyone inside Leo’s that night felt lucky to have caught such an inspired performance.


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La Cultura Cura Cultural Arts Café Opening Adds Flavor to San Antonio District

Aztec dancers outside La Cultura Cura Cafe

Aztec dancers outside La Cultura Cura Cafe

To many Americans, Cinco de Mayo is a drinking holiday, an excuse to imbibe tequila shots, drink Corona and Dos Equis beers, and maybe wear a sombrero if you get tipsy enough. But for people of ethnic Mexican descent, the 5th day of May is a day to celebrate cultural resilience and victory over colonialism (the date denotes the anniversary of the defeat of the French army at the battle of Puebla, not Mexican Independence Day, which its often mistaken for).

This past May 5th marked the grand opening of La Cultura Cura Cultural Arts café, a new economic and cultural initiative of Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice (CURYJ), a non-profit organization dedicated to disrupting cycles of violence and poverty which impact youth by taking a restorative justice approach. The event was also an official celebration marking the repeal of Oakland’s gang injunctions, the issue CURYJ originally organized around back in 2011. Many of the defendants placed under gang injunction by the Oakland City Attorney’s office in the highly-publicized, now-abandoned effort now work with CURYJ, who raised $15,000 with a successful kickstarter campaign to open the café, situated next door to East Side Arts Alliance in the San Antonio district. In addition to employing youth—including those formerly incarcerated—La Cultura Cura claims to be empowering communities, promoting positive economic development and offering an alternative to gentrification by reopening indigenous trade routes; their free trade organic coffee is reportedly grown by Zapatista Mayan descendants in the state of Chiapas.

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The café’s grand opening event was a joyous occasion, featuring a full performance by Aztec dancers in full regalia on the sidewalk and street in front of the café. It was a little surreal to see the juxtaposition of the Aztecs in their colorful traditional garb against a backdrop of cars and AC transit buses, symbolizing the dichotomy between modern civilization and ritual culture. The traffic flowed in both directions, marking a type of unintended urban dance which contrasted the purposeful movements of the native dancers – who sought to bless the space by honoring the ancestors.

the La Cultura Cura logo

the La Cultura Cura logo

Inside the café, every wall was decorated with political art posters by Dignidad Rebelde’s Melanie Cervantes and Jesus Barraza, which spoke to the cultural resistance of Hispanic and Chicano peoples, as well as their solidarity with other liberation struggles – Steven Biko and Angela Davis were among those featured, along with Zapatista women, Arizona immigration activists, and musicians depicted with accordions or guitars. Tamales la Oaxaquena served yummy plates of rice, beans, salsa and cooked chicken, washed down with mint-infused ice water. A full house of community members, many of them parents with young children, attended, and there were live performances from local hip-hop artists as well as a short speech by CURYJ’s George Galvis. It was an auspicious opening for a much-needed space in one of Oakland’s most ethnically-diverse districts, one facing increasing encroachment from the forces of gentrification.

Dignidad Rebelde’s exhibit, “La Cultura Cura,” runs until June 30th, at 2289 Int’l Ave., Oakland.

 


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Fantastic Negrito’s Voyage into Voodoo Soul

Fantastic Negrito

Fantastic Negrito

Live music review/Fantastic Negrito, April 17th @ New Parish.

If Nina Simone was the “high priestess of Voodoo Soul,” who was the high priest? Some may point to Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, he of the wailing baritone, bugged-out eyes, and bones-through-the-nose gris gris shtick, complete with skulls for accoutrements. Others might mention Jimi Hendrix, the self-appointed “voodoo chile” of the psychedelic era, whose mellow hippie vibe contrasted his aggressive infusion of the blues with lysergic mojo. Still others might say D’Angelo, the falsetto crooner whose 2000 post-neosoul opus Voodoo is equally suitable for making love, sweaty juke joint boogie sessions, or sacrificing goats to. Miles Davis might even get a nod for “running the voodoo down” on his Bitches Brew album, a potent stew of experimental jazz-funk fusion. But the current title-holder may be none other than Oakland’s Fantastic Negrito, who has seemingly come out of nowhere to captivate audiences with his reloaded take on bluesy rock-n-roll, delivered with a hefty helping of N’Awlins-style boogie-woogie piano.

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Only a few months ago, Fantastic Negrito, aka Xavier Dphrepaulezz, was performing in small rooms like Oakland’s Legionnaire Saloon (as part of the Town Futurist Sessions). Prior to that, he busked in front of Colonial Donuts and at Broadway and 25th and could be found regularly hosting informal jam sessions at his Blackball Universe gallery-headquarters in the jack London Square warehouse district. But after beating out thousands of other unsigned, indie entrants to win NPR’s Tiny Desk contest, which led to a much-hyped SXSW appearance and an SF Chronicle Datebook cover story, the 46-year old Dphrepaulezz now finds himself headlining sold-out shows at the New Parish, attracting a crossover audience who had never heard of him until very recently.

Although nowhere near as dramatic as Hawkins (or Simone for that matter), Dphrepaulezz has more than a little bit of voodoo in him. He describes his music as “black roots,” and “blues with a punk attitude,” and his bio talks about his creative rebirth after failed record deals and near-death experiences (he spent several months in a coma after a car accident and had to teach himself how to play instruments again) which catalyzed into a cathartic transformation following the birth of his son. The concept of resurrection is a central one in African-based spiritual traditions like voodoo, as is the notion of cyclical time and ancestor worship. Dphrepaulezz’s drawing of inspiration from field hollars, Delta blues and early rock & roll is as much as a tribute to the pioneers of American black music as it is a refutation of the superficiality of modern R&B. Fantastic Negrito’s sound is all about going as deep as possible into the soul-affirming paradigm of these music forms, creating original blues without being derivative.

During Friday night’s show, even Dphrepaulezz seemed a little surprised at the recent turn of events which revived his dreams of music industry fame. At times, he seemed to be wondering if someone was going to pinch him and wake him up. Mainly, though, he was content to take his blessings in stride and just roll with his current situation.

There was quite a contrast between Mara Hruby’s somewhat restrained performance at the same venue the previous evening and Dphrepaulezz’ engaging stage presence Friday evening. He cut a strikingly dapper figure in a silk shirt, silk tie, and red vest, a nappy, spikey Afro crowning his head. Like a classic soul man, he was in constant motion, striking frequent poses, turning to all corners of the stage, and doing his own dances when he wasn’t singing, pleading, testifying, or cajoling. He rapped with the crowd in-between numbers in a way which seemed more sincere than slick. Though not as raw or profane as Hawkins, he belted out vocals with a similarly intense urgency, albeit a much smoother delivery. There was an improvisational quality to his performance, like, what is he going to do next? Having finally gained our attention, he seemed determined to earn it.

It’s perhaps not surprising that Fantastic Negrito’s sound would be embraced by a wider – and whiter – audience than was imaginable six months ago. After all, African American music and pale hipsters go together like bread and butter – Hawkins once released an album called Black Music for White People – and the New Parish’s robust ticket sales were a testament to Dphrepaulezz’ current buzzworthiness.

What was interesting, though, was that the NPR crowd was multi-generational, if not terribly multicultural, encompassing both youthful 20-somethings and grey-haired aficionados. There’s also a certain irony in the fact that here, we have a black man as the frontman of a black rock & roll and modern blues outfit, genres in which legitimate voices are unfortunately infrequently found in this day and age. At the end of the day, though, what matters is the music, and on tracks like “Night Has Turned to Day,” “An Honest Man,” and “Lost in a Crowd,” Dphrepaulezz not only sounded authentic, but made his retro stylings seem relevant.

Though Dphrepaulezz is mining a rich vein of gospel-soaked handclaps, talking blues, and workman chants, there’s no cliché in his songs, which balance their throwback framework with brilliantly postmodernist lyrics which blend evocative imagery with self-referential humility. One need look no further than “An Honest Man” – a song which grapples with the realities of dependence and addiction –  to see what all the hype’s about:

Now I’m in love again
No this time it’s not with my hand
Wandering murdering
Every time that I get the chance
I’m a human but remember first I’m a man
You painted pictures for me
that I refuse to understand
Cause I want everything for no reason
Cause yesterday it felt so good
But today it feels so bad

Afterwards, Dphrepaulezz held court at an after-party at Blackball Universe, as he mingled with fans and friends, winding down from the show. The chances that sudden fame might go to his head seemed slight; for all his spectacular freakiness under the stage lights, he’s a laid-back cat offstage who appeared grounded in his renewed purpose. The same might not be said of someone who wasn’t on their third act, who hadn’t been spiritually and physically reborn, who hadn’t learned not to take the adulation of an enrapt audience for granted.

A final comment: while Fantastic Negrito might seem like an anomaly, the reality is the talent level of Oakland’s underground indie music scene is quite high. What artists lack isn’t skill or originality, but exposure. When given a chance to be heard and seen, they tend to win people over, if not blow their minds outright. A case in point was the bro in the New Parish courtyard who couldn’t stop raving about opener Antique Naked Soul’s innovative mix of a cappella vocals and looped beatbox rhythms.  Suffice to say that Dphrepaulezz is just the tip of the iceberg; one hopes NPR and similar outlets will discover other Oakland artists, just as they have Fantastic Negrito.

For more info, visit http://www.fantasticnegrito.com/ ; Purchase Fantastic Negrito’s EP here


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“Blackademics” Offers An Afro-Surrealist Examination of the Myth of “Post-Racial America”

Stop me if you’ve heard this before: two black female professors walk into a café.

Ok, so maybe that’s a new one, and seemingly not the most appealing set-up for a theater production; academia can be a rather tedious topic, given to boring pretentiousness, dry long-windedness, and a tendency to take itself too seriously. Add a dialogue-heavy script and a sparse set design which places the two main characters in one room for the duration of its one hour run time, and you have a recipe for a potentially claustrophobic experience.

Instead, the Crowded Fire Theater production of “Blackademics” — a new work by Idris Goodwin making its West Coast Premiere —  uses the intimate space of the Thick House’s small room to delve into an Afro-surrealist examination of the myth of “post-racial America” and classism within a black feminist sphere. It’s surprisingly engaging; even when “Blackademics” appears to gasp for breath, it never actually runs out of oxygen, as it jabs, pokes, and kicks its way toward a dramatically-thrilling conclusion which is anything but anticlimactic.

Lauren Spencer and Safiya Fredericks in "Blackademics." photo courtesy Crowded Fire Theater

Lauren Spencer and Safiya Fredericks in “Blackademics.” photo courtesy Crowded Fire Theater

Directed by Mina Morita, Goodwin’s play, first developed in a 2012 Chicago production, seems perfectly at home in the Bay Area in 2015 – a time when an emergent social discourse around race and identity has become not just a frontline issue, but a virally-trending topic. So much is made of the struggles black men face, particularly with law enforcement, that it’s safe to say that the tribulations of black women academics are often an afterthought.

“Blackademics” suggests that tension over tenure is as real and compelling an issue as racial profiling, as is the contraction and reframing of ethnic studies departments. Institutional bias is unavoidable, given that most of the canons academics are expected to study are Eurocentric, which begs the question of where identity lies for people of color (and particularly black folks) with advanced degrees. There’s a funny bit where the two main characters, Ann (Safiya Fredericks) and Rachelle (Lauren Spencer) engage in a rapid-fire name-dropping competition, each attempting to one-up the other by mentioning famous figures in literature – all of whom happen to be European.

At its best, “Blackademics” aims for the canon of wit-driven social comedy exemplified by Neil Simon and Noel Coward, before a dark turn into the unexpectedly macabre turns it into something else altogether.

As characters, Ann and Rachelle aren’t completely filled in – a seemingly-intentional choice on Goodwin’s part. Each is a bit of a cipher, and their experiences in academia appear intended to be symbolic; they are more sounding boards for the black academic experience as a whole than detailed character studies. We are told that Ann teaches at a university, while Rachelle is at a state college – a dividing line in terms of career status. Much of their conversation concerns their career-first focus; we don’t learn too much about their social lives, other than that Rachelle – the more “ghetto” of the two – has a brother who deals drugs and quotes “The Wire.”

Michele Apriña Leavy, Lauren Spencer, and Safiya Fredericks in "Blackademics"; photo courtesy Crowded Fire Theater

Michele Apriña Leavy, Lauren Spencer, and Safiya Fredericks in “Blackademics”; photo courtesy Crowded Fire Theater

Ostensibly brought together to celebrate Ann reaching a career milestone, the discussion quickly becomes rife with conflict at the urging of a third character, Georgia, the waitress at the exclusive café chosen for their rendezvous. That the Georgia character (played by Michele Apriña Leavy) is a metaphor for societal and career acceptance, if not the Ivory Tower itself, becomes obvious when Ann and Rachelle are forced to spar intellectually for a seat at the dinner table, silverware, and plates of food. Initially innocuous, Georgia’s quirky machinations become increasingly sinister as the play goes on, setting the stakes for a final showdown, in which the back-and-forth banter crystallizes into physical action.

Fredericks and Spencer have a natural chemistry which makes it easy to see them as friends and colleagues. When they start tearing into each other, there’s a sense of, how far will they go? To their credit, each is able to make middle-class black angst seem nuanced, although the lack of specific depth may be more reflective of the script than the actors. Are we really supposed to believe that black academics sit around dissing Michael Eric Dyson for writing too many books?

As Georgia, Leavy has the most difficult acting task of the three stage performers. She not only has to convey a polite veneer, but also intentional vagueness about her true motivations. When the sparks begin to fly, Leavy plays it off with a goofy smile which, we later learn, is a mask for her real agenda.

Lauren Spencer and Safiya fredericks in "Blackademics"; photo courtesy Crowded Fire Theater

Lauren Spencer and Safiya Fredericks in “Blackademics”; photo courtesy Crowded Fire Theater

That Goodwin is a gifted playwrite is evident in the extent to which “Blackademics” balances lighthearted humor with denser social commentary, continuously circling around the intersectionality between race and class – a difficult theme to correctly outline. The play’s zinging one-liners (“fuck Tennyson!,” one character says) are one of its high points; at its best, “Blackademics” aims for the canon of wit-driven social comedy exemplified by Neil Simon and Noel Coward, before a dark turn into the unexpectedly macabre turns it into something else altogether.

“Blackademics” runs through May 2; to purchase tickets, call (415) 746-9238 or visit www.crowdedfire.org.

 

 


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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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Flamenco En Vivo Brings Spain’s Passionate Dance to Oakland

Dance/Music review: Flamenco en Vivo, March 20, Bissap Baobab Oakland

Flamenco isn’t just a dance, it’s a culture. Also known as Gitano music, it developed around the Romani peoples (Gypsies) in Andalusian Spain, and is typified by rapid-fire acoustic guitar runs, a dance form which alternates between expressive hand motions, acrobatic twirls, and foot-stomping percussion,  syncopated hand-clapping (called palmas), and passionate singing, often with sad or ironic lyrics.  One of the most-key aspects of flamenco is its devotion to improvisation – which leads to a feeling of being “in the moment” during live performance.

Yaelisa enters the flamenco zone

Yaelisa enters the flamenco zone

Last Friday saw the debut of “Flamenco en Vivo,” a new monthly flamenco party at Bissap Baobab Oakland, an African-themed restaurant and burgeoning center for global culture which is an offshoot of its sister venue in San Francisco. The force behind “Flamenco en Vivo” is Yaelisa, one of the Bay Area’s most accomplished flamenco choreographers, teachers, and performers, who told Oakulture the new party replaces the now-defunct “Caminos Flamencos” night at Duende.

Melissa Cruz and Yaelisa

Melissa Cruz and Yaelisa

Yaelisa assembled a formidable team for “Flamenco en Vivo”’s debut: dancer, teacher (and LoCura member) Melissa Cruz, guitarist Jason McGuire, percussionist Marlon Aldana, and singer Jose “El Grillo” Blanco. That’s truly a world-class lineup, with more than one hundred years combined experience (!).

Yaelisa and Jason McGuire

Yaelisa and Jason McGuire

Still, it remained to be seen how the music would do in BBO, a venue which is slightly larger than the typical intimate environs preferred by flamencos. The answer? Very well indeed. Yaelisa and Cruz began the performance with a duet which spotlighted their ability to move in rhythmic unison. Then each performed a solo dance. This pattern repeated throughout the night, with short break in-between (which allowed the dancers to change outfits).

Melissa Cruz

Melissa Cruz

No two flamenco dancers dance the same, and it was interesting to note the contrast between Yaelisa’s style—which emphasized flamenco tradition, with graceful hand motions and dramatic pauses—and Cruz’ energetic take on the form, which relied more on sudden twists and turns. Both were exquisite in their technique and powerful in their footwork, lifting their skirts from time to time so the audience could see what their feet were doing.

Yaelisa

Yaelisa

McGuire was on fire throughout the evening, tapping his guitar like a cajon when he wasn’t displaying a ridiculously-quick fingerstyle worthy of (recently departed master guitarist) Paco de Lucia. El Grillo and Aldana added to the sublime-ness of the show, adjusting to the tempo—which the dancer calls out, signaling with foot-taps—as necessary, and making the entire thing look easy. In truth, though, the level of musicianship was as elevated as the level of dancing. It’s not an overstatement to say that you’d have to travel to Spain to see an equal or higher level of flamenco performance.

Melissa Cruz

Melissa Cruz

The crowd appeared to be fairly evenly-split between hardcore flamenco devotees and newcomers to the art form. But even if the technical aspects of what was happening on the floor went over their heads, the visual thrill of watching the dancers was tangible; particularly-impressive movements were punctuated with yells of “Ole!,” as Yaelisa and Cruz summoned up what must have been incredible inner strength to stack frenzied flurry on top of frenzied flurry. Just when you thought they’d expended all their moves, they’d flow into another eye-popping sequence (pro tip: in flamenco, the dance performance isn’t done until the dancer returns to her chair), extending the excitement level.

Melissa Cruz

Melissa Cruz

They even got the crowd into it at the end, bringing up several audience members, some of them flamenco students, onstage to strut their stuff. All in all, it was a great introduction to flamenco for the Baobab Oakland crowd, and something which should not be missed!

An audience member joins the dance!

An audience member joins the dance!

The next “Flamenco en Vivo” is April 17 at Bissap Baobab Oakland. More info about Yaelisa’s classes and upcoming performances is here. More info about Melissa Cruz’ classes and upcoming performances is here.