Oakulture

Documenting the Oakland cultural renaissance


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Art & Soul Turns 18 (Review/Photoset)

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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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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Orisa Urban World Festival Promises Positive Vibrations and Spiritual Development

Luisah Teish

Luisah Teish

It’s the biggest religion you’ve never heard of. But unlike the Abrahamic religions, Orisa worship is an organic lifestyle and spiritual practice which revolves around ancestral elemental forces. Originally developed in West Africa, where it is also known as Yoruba and Ifa, Orisa came to the New World with the African human cargo transported on slave ships. There, it developed further into variants such as Lucemi, Condomble, Voudun and Santeria, and was often integrated into the imposed religion of Christianity, where Orisas were syncretized with Christian saints. Today, the Orisha tradition links places like Cuba, Trinidad, Haiti, and Brazil with Afro-Caribbean cultures in New Orleans, Miami and New York, as well as in its original home of Nigeria.

Orisa sacred music has long been a part of African, Latin, and Hispanic culture, and there are Orisa-affirming festivals all over the world. But until this weekend, there had never been an Orisa-themed festival in Oakland. That all changes with the Orisa Urban World Festival, a two-day event which kicks off Friday night at Oakstop with “Oro Lati Enu Awon Agba: When the Elders Speak,” a panel discussion of Ifa elders which also features musical performances by Zion Trinity, Charlotte Hill O’Neal & Awon Ohun Omnira, an African marketplace, and DJ Kobie Quashie.

On Saturday, the location shifts to the Uptown Nightclub, and features performances by Afro-Cuban singer and Lucumi priestess Bobi Cespedes, vocal harmony group Zion Trinity, urban world music artist WolkHawkJaguar, reggae-hip-hop fusion group Prosperity Movement, neo-soul vocalist Osunfemi Wanbi Njeri, former Flipsyde emcee Jinho “The Piper” Ferreira, and Afrocentric singer-songwriter  Sistah IMiNAH Orisabukola.

Orisa worship is a way of integrating the energy of the cosmos, the power of nature, the history of human civilization, and our individual and communal inheritance into a practice that engages our creativity and aligns us with our chosen destinies” — Luisah Teish

It’s a truly impressive lineup, and one which connects the spiritual and rhythmic practices of African-American and Afro-Caribbean culture with their elemental roots, through both contemporary and traditional forms.

WolfHawkJaguar

WolfHawkJaguar

Because something like this has never happened before in Oakland – a city known for its love of Afrocentric culture as well as its large black population – Oakulture thought it would be appropriate to ask the performers themselves to describe the significance of the event and explain what Orisa means to them.

According to Obafemi Origunwa, “Orisa lifestyle is sacred science, codified into day to day life. By aligning your life with the divine principles that govern the universe and the natural world, you learn to practice small acts that have a big impact on your life and the lives of those you’re destined to serve.”

Ifa priestess and storyteller Luisah Teish adds, “Orisa worship is a way of integrating the energy of the cosmos, the power of nature, the history of human civilization, and our individual and communal inheritance into a practice that engages our creativity and aligns us with our chosen destinies.”

While Orisa is an established practice, many people are still unfamiliar with ritual-mythic traditions. Origunwa says attendees should be aware that “òrìsà is the natural path. Everyone has ancestors. None of us sent ourselves into the world. We are all here to continue the missions handed down from our family lineages.”

Teish further elaborates: “First they must ask themselves whether their presence here is a response to a deep calling or a mere curiosity. If it is a mere curiosity, there is a lot of material online (a lot of it is pure trash) that they can access to entertain themselves. But if the attendees are impelled by ancestral calling to further investigate this path, I recommend that they connect with these or other elders/teachers who can perform divination, connect them with their ancestors, provide materials for study and guide them on a path of spiritual growth and destiny fulfillment.”

Mama C and members of Prosperity Movement

Mama C and members of Prosperity Movement

Unsurprisingly, there are many misconceptions about Orisa. Perhaps the biggest is that it is evil, or demonic. These misconceptions, Teish says, “were based on Eurocentric, Christian interpretations of our traditions as uncivilized, violent, and ineffective. Through the blessing of enlightenment, those notions are daily being disproven and dispelled.” However, she adds, “Some people fail to realize that Orisha are living entities-energies with real power and consciousness that is both receptive and responsive to human interaction.”

Origunwa notes that “people tend to fear what they do not understand. Because òrìsà tradition is so deeply embedded into Yoruba culture, which few people [in America] have been exposed to, it is convenient to project one’s fears onto practices, images and ideas that seem so foreign at first glance.”

Charlotte O’Neal aka Mama C also weighs in here: “many people look at African traditional spiritual paths in a somehow negative light, even going so far as to relate it to some form of ‘witchcraft’…This is so very obviously because of the brainwashing that continues in so many communities around the continent from the majority religions and missionaries from back in the day to present.”

Bobi Cespedes

Bobi Cespedes

One of the things the Orisa Urban World Festival hopes to clarify is the symbiotic relationship between spiritual and cultural tradition. As Origunwa says, “What we call arts are actually sacred disciplines, from the indigenous perspective. Poetry, music, dance and visual arts are all essential elements of the practice. They blend seamlessly together during rituals, ceremonies and festivals, as expressions of the òrìsà themselves. The arts reveal spiritual values, according to the will of the òrìsà.”

Teish adds that ancient traditions such as storytelling are indeed relevant in these modern times, while the purpose of the cultural arts “is to awaken and nurture the inherited genius each of us received from the Universe through the surviving intelligence of the ancestors. When we express that genius through the arts we affect people and things at an emotional-cellular level that goes beyond mere intellect and helps the person to experience a direct transmission of energy and wisdom to manifest transformation.”

Oakland is a lei line for spiritual development… Also, Oakland needs Orisha’s healing energy to address the challenges of poverty, violence, and pollution” — Luisah Teish

Bringing Orisa to Oakland is both intentional and significant, Teish says. “Oakland is a lei line for spiritual development. In the past we have looked to Cuba, Brazil, Haiti and places outside the U.S. (save New Orleans which is really a culturally Caribbean city inside the U.S.). We now have enough initiated priests in U.S. cities like New York, Miami, Los Angeles, Chicago, etc. to begin to manifest an African-American expression of our inherited genius. Also, Oakland needs Orisha’s healing energy to address the challenges of poverty, violence, and pollution.”

Having previously attended global events such as the Orisa World Congress in Nigeria, WolfHawkJaguar relates that the decision to bring an Orisa festival to Oakland was actually made by the Orisas themselves. “This is ancestor work. It’s what they called for and we give thanks they trusted us to carry out their wishes.” He goes on to note that the goal of the event is “to spread love, peace, prosperity and positive progressive universal vibes through our creations, giving thanks to our ancestors, our head, and our Orisa.”

For more information, or to buy tickets, click here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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15 Reasons to Go to Hiero Day This Year

Hiero Day 2014

Hiero Day 2014

The 2015 Hiero Day lineup looks formidable indeed, especially for fans of West Coast underground hip-hop. With almost 50 live acts and DJs performing, the event—which drew more than 20,000 fans last year—appears to have broken through the stratosphere to major event-status, and is certainly the biggest independent hip-hop festival in the Northern California region. That’s a major plus for folks tired of attending mega-hyped music festivals with a dearth of rap or hip-hop artists, and for underground aficionados who have been underserved by mainstream/commercial-oriented rap tours. Best of all, tickets are less than $20—$19.93, to be exact—which portends a high boom-bap for the buck ratio. Oakulture is pretty hyped about the number of underrated/slept-on fan favorites—several of whom are doing reunion shows—scheduled for this year’s event, which cover a full spectrum of stylistic diversity within the underground hip-hop subgenre. We’re also not mad at the emphasis on Bay Area and Los Angeles groups, nor the inclusion of a few representatives from the Midwest and East Coast for balance.

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With so many groups on the bill, it’s unlikely you’ll see every single act, unless you can be in two places at one time, so we’ve prepared a special guide for the artists we think will make Hiero Day extra-fresh.

  1. Psalm One

With eight albums and a handful of mixtapes released over the past 12 years, Chicago’s Psalm One is one of the most-prolific indie-label female emcees in the industry today. Affiliated with Minnesota’s Rhymesayers crew, she’s also worked with Hiero’s A-Plus. Her recent video, “Free Hug Life” shows her to be an original, creative spirit with an engaging staccato delivery, and topics which offer an intelligent alternative to rachetry.

  1. Phat Kat & Guilty Simpson

This veteran Detroit emcee duo have long collaborated with California’s hip-hop scene – Kat was once signed to SF’s Look Records, while Simpson has released several albums on Stones Throw. Both are authentic Dilla disciples, having cut their teeth working with the legendary producer, and both boast gritty flows which swerve between backpack and hardcore hip-hop flavors.

  1. Foreign Legion

First emerging into the Bay Area’s underground hip-hop scene in the late 90s, the terrific trio of emcees Marc Stretch and Prozack Turner and producer DJ Design built a reputation for notable live shows while releasing several full-length albums (and one short film); Their return to active duty promises to be one of the feel-good stories of this year’s Hiero Day. FL maintain a classic underground hip-hop aesthetic, complete with sampled loops and scratching, but flip the script by balancing braggadocio with honesty and humor.

  1. Cali Agents

Another West Coast group some might remember from back in the day, the duo of Rasco and Planet Asia released three well-received full-length albums between 2000-2006. Each has had solo success: Rasco is remembered for the Bay Area classic “The Unassisted,” while Asia has collaborated with everyone from Grandmaster Muggs to Bun B to Evidence to Ghostface Killah.  As Cali Agents, their remarkable chemistry elevates their individual lyrical deliveries to a higher level.

11. Otayo Dubb & Equipto

Don’t look now, but this SF-to-the-O hook-up is swiftly creeping on an indie hip-hop come up. The pairing of the Bored Stiff lyrical wonder with the versatile Co-Deez emcee/producer is one of the bright surprises of the current Bay Area scene. Their current single “Baby Steps” addresses maturity and growing up, with an arrangement which subtly recalls classic West Coast soul and R&B. The album of the same name features similarly-sublime production and features from the likes of L’Roneous, Pep Love, and Mars Today.

  1. Aceyalone

An original member of Freestyle Fellowship and a prolific solo artist in his own right, Los Angeles hip-hop veteran Aceyalone should need no introduction. The fact that he does lends credence to the oft-cited complaint that lyrical (read: non-gangsta) emcees from the West tend to get slept-on – except by hip-hop nerds who appreciate Acey’s jazz-tinged, highly vocabulistic delivery. Here’s a chance for him to expand beyond his core audience of diehards and reach the ears of a younger generation.

  1. Native Guns

Possibly the closest thing Pinoy hip-hop has come to a supergroup is Native Guns, a trio comprised of emcees Bambu and Kiwi and DJ Phatrick who became celebrated multicultural ambassadors during their heyday in the 2000s. Mixing dexterous lyrics and slapping tracks with a fair amount of political and social commentary, they also dropped science on the Filipino-American struggle, and what it means to be an indigenous immigrant. Though both Bambu and Kiwi have remained active as solo artists, their timing of their breakup always seemed unfortunate, coming so soon after the release of their 2006 album Barrel Men – rightfully hailed as a West Coast classic, one which shows the Bay Area was about so much more than hyphy even during the “hyphy era.”

  1. The Team

Speaking of the hyphy era, Oakland trio The Team were one of the most buzzworthiest groups of that period, helping to define the region’s then-emergent sound as uptempo, party-friendly, and club-ready, with hooks for days. We haven’t heard from them since 2013’s “Slow Down,” so it should be interesting to see them drop classics like “It’s Getting Hot” and “Bottles Up” and hopefully some new material. Added bonus: Clyde Carson, Kaz Kyzah, and Mayne Mannish are some of the best rapper names ever.

  1. Tha Alkaholiks

West Coast OGs since the early 90s, Tha Liks’ 1993 debut album, 21 & Over, is a high-octane hip-hop classic which set a high bar for both lyrics and production. Four subsequent albums followed, the last being 2006’s Firewater, all of which mix hardcore hip-hop with party-oriented themes. One-time disciples of King Tee, they’ve always been a force to be reckoned with in a live context, and there’s no reason to expect anything different from their Hiero Day appearance.

  1. The Luniz

Best known for the all-time cannabis anthem/ Bay Area rallying call, “I Got Five On It,” Yukmouth and Numskull are inner-city griots who’ve lived a wilder life than most of us, and put much of it down on record. It’s somewhat gratifying to see them on a bill so saturated with underground and alternative hip-hop – a confirmation of their lyrical finesse, as well as a shout-out to the streets of East Oakland, where Hiero is from.

  1. Compton’s Most Wanted

This classic Compton gangsta rap group, possibly second only to NWA in terms of influence and reputation, never enjoyed the mainstream success of their Ruthless peers. But their street-level stories had a louder ring of authenticity to them, and it’s safe to call them some of the originators of “reality rap.” Though they didn’t have an overt political agenda, the sociopolitics and socioeconomic content of songs like “One Time Gaffled Em Up” was omnipresent, and often sublime.

  1. Zion-I

Zion-I have held the Bay Area down for 15 years, being one of the most-consistent underground groups in the region, establishing a national and international fanbase, and collaborating with everyone from Deuce Eclipse to Talib Kweli to Too Short. Their long list of classics ranges from “Inner Light” to “The Bay” to “Warrior Dance” to “Don’t Lose Your Head.” Though they’ve experimented with their sound, incorporating everything from EDM to folk, they’ve always maintained strong hip-hop roots. Their latest release, The Rapture: Live From Oaklandia, follows the departure of producer Amp Live, and finds emcee Zumbi Zoom taking things in a more musical direction by featuring a live band led by the incomparable Kev Choice.

  1. Crown City Rockers

In the mid 90s to early 2000s, hip-hop band Crown City Rockers were often called the Bay Area’s version of the Roots – mainly for their uncanny ability to swing jazzy, funky musical elements played on real instruments with the cultural b-boy witticisms of frontman Raashaan Ahmad. They boast a solid, if criminally-underrated, catalog of recordings too, from 2001’s One (recorded as Mission) to 2004’s Earthtones to 2009’s The Day After Forever. Their live shows are legendary, if infrequent these days: the last time they performed as a unit in Oakland, at an Old Oakland Farmer’s Market gig, Levende had not yet become District, so prepare to be blown away.

  1. The Coup

It was only a matter of time before Boots Riley’s subversive funk/rock/rap band the Coup played Hiero Day, and this is the year. That’s an underground hip-hop lover’s fantasy come true. While we are, once again, in-between new Coup albums, Riley has been highly visible of late with a new book of his lyrics and high-profile media appearances discussing activist issues. Though the Coup’s sound—and personnel—has evolved since 1993’s Kill My Landlord, they are one of the few continuously-active groups from hip-hop’s  90s Golden Age on any coast, and thus did not need to be coaxed out of retirement to do this gig. If you’ve never seen The Coup, expect to be revolutionized and entertained.

  1. Hieroglyphics

A member of Hiero recently tweeted that their independent label, Hiero Imperium, has now outlasted the major record label which signed and then dropped them back in the 90s. That’s poetic justice for Oakland’s lyrical laureates, an octagon of obtuse emceeing  and sick beat-making skills, who have given more back to the community from which they came than any other hip-hop artist or group in Bay Area history, while continuing to make more history with each new release and annual iteration of the event bearing their name. Not only do they have more catalog than J. Peterman and Victoria’s Secret combined, but their signature tune, “93 Til Infinity,” never gets old.


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The Oak Q and A: DJ Platurn On The 45 Sessions’ Remarkable Five-Year Run

45 Sessions residents

45 Sessions residents

It’s been said that all things must come to an end.  That being the case, it’s always good to go out on a high note.  The 45 Sessions, a monthly party dedicated to 45 rpm vinyl records, debuted in July 2010 at Oakland’s Layover bar – taking the vinyl-only parties curated by purist DJs to counter the increasingly software-based nature of the club DJ scene one notch higher. This Friday, the 45 Sessions celebrates both its five year anniversary and spins its final record at the Legionnaire Saloon.

The first 45 Sessions party was incredibly fun, as DJ Platurn gathered up some of the area’s best DJs to play records akin to what you might hear at a house party: that is to say, old, vintage, obscure, rare, even novelty songs, all thematically linked by the 7-inch format. The party seemed to inspire the DJ community—vinyl merchants and record traders set up shop and helped to cultivate the ad hoc analog celebration—and continued for a few more Sessions at the Layover before moving to (the since-closed) Disco Volante. Some of the memorable evenings Oakulture witnessed at DV included the three-year anniversary with West Coast turntablist icons Shortkut and Rhettmatic, and a retrospectively heartbreaking set by the late Matthew Africa—as it turns out, his final DJ set before being killed in a car accident while returning from Lake Tahoe.

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The Sessions later relocated to Legionnaire Saloon not long after that venue opened in 2013. It’s a measure of its popularity at its peak that the party’s changing venues was blamed by DV management for the restaurant/nightspot’s shuttering a short time after (although, truth be told, that may have had more to do with inconsistent booking and internal business practices).

Over the past two years, the Sessions has had some epic nights at Legionnaire, but according to Platurn, the party’s attendance has begun to falter in recent months and, perhaps more importantly, Oakland’s club-going demographic has begun to shift. The Uptown section of town, where Legionnaire is located, has become a hangout for hipsters and techbros, and a proliferation of upscale eateries, bars and clubs in the immediate area have attracted a more gentrified clientele. The latter isn’t the fault of any one DJ or party, but no matter the reason, Oakland’s nightlife scene in 2015 is vastly different from 2010.

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Love flowed freely, as did on the house shots of tequila and whiskey (courtesy of Legionnaire proprietor Zack Turner), at an Oakulture photo shoot in commemoration of the final Session. Turner repeatedly said he wanted the party to continue, while Platurn announced that the hiatus wasn’t necessarily a permanent one, but rather a well-earned break which could actually help the party’s branding in the long run – making it less susceptible to be taken for granted. It’s a measure of the family vibe among 45 Sessions residents – the crew includes E Da Boss, Enki, Mr. E, Shortkut and MC/host Jern Eye—that Platurn requested that missing member DJ Delgado be mentioned. Indeed, the camaraderie and mutual respect among Sessions residents is also a big reason why the party continued for as long as it did.

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In an exclusive interview, Platurn explained his reasons for ending the Sessions now, and walked down memory lane with a recap of some of the party’s notable accomplishments.

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Oakulture: Let’s just dive into the thicket here. Why is the 45 Sessions ending now, on its 5th anniversary?

DJ Platurn: Well ideally I’d like to think we’re going out on a high note, and although that is definitely the case, there’s quite a bit more to it. We’ve had a fantastic run and created some amazing memories, but the fact of the matter is keeping the Bay Area music scene interested in a format-based night is not an easy task. The Bay is historically finicky about their nightlife choices, and to have a party based around little records and almost entirely old school music for 5 solid years has been a bit of a struggle (crazy shout out to our die-hards that have been with us from the jump). With all that being said, it’s been a wonderful journey, and we have some exciting new things in store which we’ll be announcing in the next half a year or so.

Oakulture: How has Oakland—and the Bay Area’s DJ and nightlife scene—changed over the past 5 years?

DJ Platurn: The Bay Area as a whole has changed more rapidly than ever in the last 5 years, and the music scene is definitely a reflection of that. Over-saturation of DJs (nothing new around here), the heavy emphasis on modern club music versus simultaneously showcasing the old school, and the struggle to maintain what little of a community supported industry we have tried so hard to hold on to — that’s just the surface. Oakland, for instance, basically had a bare-bones nightlife scene for decades, and then all of a sudden things got out of control in this small area, financially and gentrification-wise, and no one really figured out how to adapt. We lost a lot of control with all this big money coming in, and a lot of old school cats got lost in the transition. We’re not against growth, but shoving the folks aside who were here before you is not what you’d call respecting the soil you’re currently living off of.

DJ Platurn at a 2012 Sessions

DJ Platurn at a 2012 Sessions

Oakulture: Do you feel like 45 Sessions accomplished its mission?

DJ Platurn: To an extent, yes. We never really had much of a mission though to be honest. This whole thing ended up with a life of its own, a totally organic growth process — I think the community was especially drawn to something like the Sessions, mainly because they wanted an alternative to the standard club scenes they were used to seeing everywhere else. I’d like to think that people in general are drawn to authenticity, and if there’s anything the Sessions provided, it was that.

Oakulture: In addition to the residents who always held it down, the list of guest DJs over the past half-decade is particularly impressive. I don’t have space to list everybody here—check the website for a better accounting—but you had famous East Coast superstar producers, West Coast skratch legends, vinyl collectors, international crate-diggers, local mainstays, cultural anthropologists, and literal groove merchants. What do you think this party meant to the DJ community?

DJ Platurn

DJ Platurn

DJ Platurn: There’s always ups and downs with throwing events, and we’ve had just as many downs as ups, but providing an outlet for cats to be creative with their records and to go back to the basics with their sets was always really important to us (and hopefully our guests as well). We’ve had some of the most amazing selectors/spinners come through the party, and most with the basic intention of getting their rocks off with their favorite 45s — you can tell when a DJ is really into what their doing, and I saw quite a bit of that. In that sense, I think it meant quite a bit to our guests (and our fans as well).

Oakulture: What are the 5 most memorable moments from the party’s five-year run?

DJ Platurn: That’s a tough one, but i’ll try…

  1. Estelle, Dan The Automator, Q-Bert, Hiero, and a whole bunch of Bay Area vinyl lovers all under one roof with Just Blaze headlining. Winter Sessions 2012 was something else boy.
  1. Matthew Africa. Can’t say much else. He played what was reportedly his last gig at the Sessions before he passed a couple of weeks later. We still miss him a great deal, not only as a staple and figurehead in our scene, but the fact that he was at the Sessions on a regular basis, hanging out and enjoying the music along with everyone else. Every Sessions since then has been dedicated to him. [*side note: Tha Alkaholiks and The Beatnuts showed up that night after an all-day studio bender and freestyled for a half an hour over strictly 45s instrumentals — yes, that actually happened.]
  1. When we inducted Shortkut into the crew by handing him a personalized Lookwright 45s crate. You can only imagine what that meant to the Sessions to put down such a legend — smiles and shit eatin’ grins all around 🙂 🙂
  1. We’ve had some amazing birthdays and even some wedding related parties come thru to celebrate at the Sessions. Tough to recall specific details, but the fact that someone getting hitched would want to celebrate at an all 45s party says quite a bit about the impression that we left on party goers. I actually recall a bouquet getting tossed during Parliament’s “Flashlight” blasting on the speakers — crazy but true.
  1. It might seem cliche, corny, or predictable to name drop, but the fact that many of our heroes actually came and played a 45 Sessions speaks volumes for the format and how much legendary DJs across the globe love and celebrate the 7 inch record. There’s been multiple times where a DJ that inspired some of our DJ careers solely based on their amazing talent was on stage performing at one of our events and we all just stared at each other buggin’ out — there’s really no greater feeling we’ve achieved at the Sessions than seeing our mentors share a stage with us. Real spit right there.
Shortkut spins at the 45 Sessions

Shortkut spins at the 45 Sessions

Oakulture: How would you describe the 45 Session’s aesthetic?

DJ Platurn: We’ve only had one rule in the last 5 years — it has to be on 7″. Doesn’t have to be 45 rpm, just as long as it exists on that size format. Other than that, it’s been a free for all the whole time. We are traditionally a dance party, so the aim has always been to attain that vibe, but we’ve also had some deeper moments where our guests get down in a much headier and heavier way. There’s no flash, no bells & whistles, and nothing stuffy about the Sessions — our message has always been all about the music.

Oakulture: Do you feel this party helped to contribute to the resurgence in vinyl we’ve been hearing about lately?

DJ Platurn: Inadvertently, undoubtedly. I’ve had folks say to me that it’s just as much my fault for promoting a movement like this and for nurturing the desire to hear DJs play records again as Whole Foods can be blamed for adding a vinyl department. Thing is when we started in 2010 the hype was entirely non-existent. We started something without knowing that people actually still cared about it. And we’ll also be here when the hype dies down, which it undoubtedly will, because vinyl resurgence(s) comes in waves — always has, always will, no matter what new media comes along (that eventually almost always fades into obscurity).

Matthew Africa's last DJ gig was at the Sessions

Matthew Africa’s last DJ gig was at the Sessions

Oakulture: Take me back to when the party began. What was the original idea, and how did that play out?

DJ Platurn: We had zero intention to do anything except start a home for playing all these 45s that we had. We didn’t have a plan, a bigger picture, or any intention or foresight to see it grow into what it became. I’m glad that it became as successful as it did, but I probably would have been just as happy to see it stay a little bar gig with 30-40 people coming out each time, hindsight being 20/20 of course. That’s not gonna last very long tho, especially in the cutthroat Bay Area DJ scene where club owners expect numbers and results. Ultimately i’m just happy and humbled that the scene actually gave a shit, even just a little bit — that was enough for me to feel like I was doing something right.

Oakulture: Tell me some behind-the-scenes anecdotes about the residents who were there every month.

DJ Platurn: No comment. Actually there’s a lot of comments, but i’d like for them to stay my friends after all is said and done 😉

Come to a Sessions and you’ll see antics galore — there hasn’t been a jam yet that didn’t have at least one good piece of fiction tied to it. Best I don’t put any of ’em in print tho 😉

Oakulture: Is there any hope the party will return at some point in the future, perhaps not as a monthly, but as a one-off?

DJ Platurn: Right now there’s thoughts and ideas but no real plans. Unless something major comes along we won’t be doing a show until sometime next year, maybe. We’ll let the public decide how much they want to see that happen.

DJ Rhettmatic, one of many DJ legends to bless the decks

DJ Rhettmatic, one of many DJ legends to bless the decks

Oakulture: If you had to do it all over again, is there anything you would have done differently?

DJ Platurn: Not at all. I’m so proud of what we were able to pull off. The crew, the family, the supporters — it was such a beautiful gathering of amazing folks who simply loved this music and got involved for all the right reasons. Wouldn’t change a thing.

Oakulture:  The big question is where do you go from here? What’s next for Platurn?

DJ Platurn: No idea. As far as the Sessions go, it’s not like it’s dying and no one is allowed to use it anymore. When touring and traveling, folks want to do the Sessions when I come to town all the time, and i’m happy to oblige. We have our Sydney (Australia) chapter that is constantly doing amazing things. Me, i’m just gonna keep working in my garden, running my ass off, buying picture cover 45s, and enjoying my wife and dog’s company while trying to pay these bills in the beautiful Bay Area. I’m not going anywhere, for now.

Oakulture: It feels a little weird to be giving a eulogy for something which hasn’t actually died yet, even though the writing is on the wall and a five-year anniversary is a perfect time to say goodbye. What would you like the 45 Sessions to be remembered for?

DJ Platurn: An outlet. A beautiful and positive outlet for people (and DJs) that still wanted something a little more out of the culture. A place where anything and everything could happen musically and you went along with it because you loved and trusted that the party was in the hands of capable and seasoned DJs that knew what the   hell they were doing. We’re simply fans of this format — the Sessions was created as a way to celebrate that sound. Nothing more, nothing less.

Th-th-th-that's all folks!

Th-th-th-that’s all folks!

Oakulture: Any last words?

DJ Platurn: Thank you Eric for the support over the years, and thanks to each and every individual that attended a 45 Sessions since 2010. We did this for you, for the Bay Area, and for lovers of DJ and vinyl culture worldwide. I’m eternally grateful that it grew into this beautiful entity, and hopefully we can figure out a way to harness what was built and see it evolve into something bigger and better down the line. Much love Oakland, much love Northern Cali, and much love to planet earth for urging us to keep it going. We’ll do our best to let it live in one form or another in the years to come.

The 45 Session’s Five Year Anniversary Finale, featuring the Butta Bros–Skeme Richards and Supreme La Rock–as well as residents Platurn, Enki, Mr. E, Delgado, E Da Boss, and Shotkut, takes place Friday, July 17 at Legionnaire, 8am-2pm, $10.

Limited edition 45 Sessions t-shirts by Mixer Friendly are available here.

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Black Girls Rock and Rule: The Seshen, Bells Atlas, Zakiya Harris (Live review)

Live review/The Seshen, Bells Atlas, Zakiya Harris, May 8 @ New Parish

Black Vocals Matter: The Seshen's Akasha Orr

Black Vocals Matter: The Seshen’s Akasha Orr

Black women are the new rock stars.

That was the take-away from the recent triple-header bill of The Seshen, Bells Atlas, and Zakiya Harris with Elephantine. When was the last time you saw a lineup with bands all featuring black female frontpeople? The bill worked because all three acts have a similar sound; one could call it a trend, but it seems more like an unintended coincidence.

Zakiya Harris

Zakiya Harris

If we are witnessing the birth of a new genre, let’s call it Emo-Soul. That sounds much better than “Trip-Hop, take two” and avoids the awful, inorganic “neo” prefix applied to urban soul music since the late 90s. Emo-Soul is emotive and soulful; it utilizes electronic treatments and ambient soundscapes to counterbalance the plaintive yet raw emphasis on female vocals. Live instruments are a deciding factor in the Emo-Soul sound, distinguishing it from discofied electronic club music. But there’s something else which is created when it all comes together: a tribal-like sense of togetherness, of holding disparate elements together to form a cohesive whole.

It’s rare to see a show where any of the acts on the bill could have headlined, but this was that show.

An obvious reference point for the Emo-Soul sound is 90s act Morcheeba, who contrasted upfront soul diva musings with ethereal, atmospheric backgrounds. Emo-Soul revisits that period, but provides something new. Or maybe it’s just that the context has shifted, and there’s a more recent immediacy with hearing the voices of black women – call it the #blacklivesmatter effect. This show’s trifecta of women straight up handling thangs in a live context served as a reminder that social justice can extend to a cultural platform as well as a political one.

Zakiya Harris has been on a roll recently, but this might have been the best show yet for her band Elephantine. Although Harris is the featured frontwoman, Elephantine’s sound is very much an ensemble sound which relies on vocal interplay between Harris and singers Tossie Long and Solas B. Lalgee, backed up by musicians Kevin McCann, Ajayi Jackson, and Rashad Pridgen. Their Facebook page describes their music as “Afropunk/Afrobeat/Afropop,” none of which are perfect descriptors. Elephantine is too smooth to be punk, too compact a band to be Afrobeat, and too urban and Americanized to be Afropop; The Afro- part of their sound is mainly reflected in their Afrocentric attitude. With Lalgee absent due to a concurrent gig with the Oakland School for the Arts, Long got some extended stage time, which seemed apt, as it was her birthday. What was most impressive, though, about Harris and Elephantine was their ability to create a mood and set a vibe which engaged the crowd. No matter how emotive a band might want to be, it doesn’t mean diddly unless it translates into audience acceptance. Harris and Long were clearly feeling themselves—but so were the people watching them and hearing their music.

Sandra Lawson-Ndu of Bells Atlas

Sandra Lawson-Ndu of Bells Atlas

Bells Atlas came next, and delivered on all the hype surrounding them. They describe their sound as “kaleidosonic soul punch,” whatever that means. In this context, it means they picked up the gauntlet thrown down by Harris and Elephantine and raised the energy level even higher. Frontwoman Sandra Lawson-Ndu was simply divalicious, dropping poetic lyrics which came from a galaxy beyond overly-simplistic R&B, while maintaining a spellbinding stage presence. Fine-tuning the hall’s emotional resonance like aural MDMA, Bells Atlas’ sound made you want to love your neighbor, or at least give them a tight hug. It’s no easy task to make the unfamiliar seem familiar, but Lawson-Ndu was so locked into her groove, she accomplished that with ease, assisted by guitarist Derek Barber, drummer Geneva Harrison, and bassist Doug Stuart. Lawson-Ndu’s fluid voice has plenty of elasticity to twist around lyrical phrases and sounded particularly tasty when trilling the upper register. It’s a potent weapon which was thankfully the focal point of the band’s presentation. If Bells Atlas’ musical backgrounds seemed like a lush rainforest of alternative, yet not inaccessible, tones and melodies, Lawson-Ndu’s vocals were a tropical waterfall of soulful expression.

It’s rare to see a show where any of the acts on the bill could have headlined, but this was that show. The top-billed Seshen are another buzz band who have been building up a following (which extends outside of the Bay; the group has signed to UK label Tru Thoughts), and like the two acts who preceded them, fit into the category of Emo-Soul: a vocal-heavy sound with both electronic and organic elements. At the center of The Seshen’s dynamic is the interplay between vocalists Lalin St. Juste and Akasha Orr. At times, they resemble a Supreme-esque soul duo from the 60s, but with a much more modernistic, even futuristic, take on things. Then again, they could also be called retro in the sense that they do recall the high points of the Trip-Hop era, which, again, revolves around emotional resonance – and in The Seshen’s case, percussion and dub effects instead of electric guitar. On a night when black (female) voices were triumphant and reigning, St. Juste and Orr both wore “Black Lives Matter” t-shirts, emphasizing the point that soulfulness begins with compassion.

Lalin St. Juste of The Seshen

Lalin St. Juste of The Seshen