Documenting the Oakland cultural renaissance

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Women Runnin It: Interview with Lalin St. Juste

Lalin St. Juste can sing. In a way that your ears cannot fail to hear. A young Haitian-American woman, Lalin fronts The Seshen, an electronic/soul band whose sound emphasizes emotional resonance. After rising to the top of the Bay Area music scene, they were recently signed to Tru Thoughts, a record label out of England, and are earning a national and international following. This September, they launch “Love, Oakland,” a month-long Tuesday residency at Leo’s Music Club which also spotlights some extremely talented local artists. According to St. Juste, “Love, Oakland” is about celebrating “a place, a community, and an artistry which is hard to ignore.”

I first heard Lalin sing when she was with Rara Tou Limen, a powerful Haitian dance company and culture keepers here in Oakland. She was part of the small choir of Haitian singers who would change the chemistry in the room everytime they’d sing the souful, deep music for performances, classes, and rituals. She has also played with an indie rock band, St Tropez. Now with The Seshen, Lalin has performed with acts such as Macy Gray, Les Nubians, Thundercats, Hiatus Kaiyote, and Tune-Yards. She also did the vocals on Karen Seneferu’s potent and searing video “From Fruitvale to Florida: Strange Fruit No More.” In addition to her own songwriting and singing, Lalin tells us that she is launching a therapeutic songwriting group for young girls. In this interview, Lalin is forthright and open about the power of music in her life and what moves her.


Lalin St. Juste

Oakulture: What is the concept behind your upcoming September residency at Leo’s named “Love, Oakland”?

Lalin: Love, Oakland is about celebrating a place, a community, and an artistry that is hard to ignore. Oakland is powerful and I found my voice in it. I played at BART stations and started a couple bands until The Seshen was formed with my partner Aki and close friends. Being an artist is a vulnerable existence and the love Oakland has shown to The Seshen is, to me, what dreams are made of. So, in turn, we are reflecting this love back by curating a show every Tuesday that features artists who are passionate and who have big, beautiful hearts.

Each night, you step into a different world with heavyweights like Kev Choice, Naima Shalhoub, Lila Rose, a new band called Meernaa. Beyond the music, we’re also offering chances to win gift cards and gear from a few different Oakland spots such as Kingston 11, OwlNWood, Oaklandish and a gym called Four Elements Fitness as a way to highlight and support local businesses.

Oakulture: I used to hear you sing with Rara Tou Limen, and every time, your singing would crack the sky open. Can you speak about the influence of Haitian music on you?  

Lalin: Rara Tou Limen has been a blessing in my life. The influence of traditional Haitian music is basically like a missing puzzle piece. It fulfills a hunger that had existed within me. It creates a reckoning with what I’ve known but have forgotten and with what I love but have been distanced from. It has challenged me, it has brought me to tears, it has moved me to heights previously unknown. Haiti and Haitian culture is special . . . and in Oakland with Portsha Jefferson and Daniel Brevil and the company of Rara Tou Limen, I finally delved into it in ways I hadn’t before.

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Oakulture: Many of your songs and the projects you have supported over the years address pain, loss and human suffering. What role does spirituality play in your music?

Lalin: A few years ago I realized that my first time singing was in tribute to my maternal grandmother, Vertulie Dame Valbrun, who had just passed away. I had been devastated by her death. I was five and had spent most of my days with her. But what I hadn’t realized up until recently, was that she had given me my voice. I was a quiet child, but I have always loved to sing. The spirituality in my music is related to my connection with my ancestors, with the earth, with what is beyond me. I feel it all when I sing. I feel the sense that there is a force that lifts me up.

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Oakulture: Who are your role models? Who do you admire artistically and why?

Lalin: I admire artists who are unafraid to be vulnerable and authentic. Erykah Badu is a huge example of this. I can feel her heart as she sings. Bjork is another role model for her infinite expansiveness.

Oakulture: Do you have any Oakland heroines?

Lalin: There are so many powerful women that I could name but just a couple would be Karen Seneferu because her art and mere presence rocks my world. And I get chills just thinking about Zakiya Harris . . . she’s quite a changemaker who can really rock the stage. There are countless others.

“From Fruitvale to Florida: Strange Fruit No More” by Karen Seneferu Productions. Music by Lalin St. Juste and The Seshen


Oakulture: As a songwriter and frontwoman, what leads your artistic process?

Lalin: I’m compelled by the world around me. I’m fascinated by how we view each other, by our various stories and identities.  I’m moved by injustice but also by our beauty.  It all pushes me to write and sing. My artistry has also paved the way for me to be my truer self, to speak when for so long I never thought I could be heard. It’s continuously healing.

Oakulture: When can we expect a full-length album from The Seshen? Do you have any upcoming side projects?

Lalin: We’re planning to release our next album in 2016!  In the meantime we’ve got a remix ep out now on Tru Thoughts.  I’m also inching myself towards performing solo again, which you may get a sneak peek at during our residency!  So look out for me and my guitar.

The Seshen Residency: “Love, Oakland”

Tuesdays in September
9/8 with Kev Choice
9/15 with Naima Shalhoub
9/22 with Meernaa and Naytronix

9/29 with Lila Rose
Doors 8pm, Show 9pm, Adv Tix $8
Leo’s Music Club, 5447 Telegraph, Oakland

Connect with The Seshen:



Get to know the women previously highlighted in the series, including Candi Martinez, Chaney Turner, Nina Menendez, Gina Madrid aka Raw-G, DJ ZitaSoulovely crew Lady Ryan, Aima the Dreamer and DJ Emancipacion, Ramona Webb, Naima Shalhoub, Joanne Ludwig, Tracie Collins and Effie Tesfahun.

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Women Runnin It: Interview with Effie Tesfahun

Africa is coming to Oakland this weekend. The Umoja Festival celebrates three successful years this Saturday in Lowell Park with two stages, music, dance, art, vendors, the only inter-African soccer tournament in the Bay, and a youth soccer clinic. The secret ingredient behind the scenes? Effie Tesfahun. The festival’s project director, Effie is a local leader in community-based economic development through a focus on communities of the African diaspora and the arts.

The vision of creating a festival which could celebrate Pan-African unity first came to Effie when she moved to Oakland many years ago. She credits the Town with teaching her the way to create such a festival, whose goal is “to inspire a mutual understanding and cultural dialogue through the celebration of music, art, and physical wellness.” Already having tripled their attendance from the first Umoja in 2013, this year promises to show even more exponential growth with an impressive line-up of artists, including Addis Gold Band, Nu Dekades, Jah’Mila, Piwai, Samba Guisse, Tsedi, DJs Emancipacion, Nina Sol, Mena, K-la-V, and Mpenzi, and dance companies Shabbal, Iron Lotus and SambaFunk! –  all hosted by Master of Ceremonies Jennifer Johns – along with children’s art activities, African food and of course, the SuRu soccer tournament.

Effie was born in Addis Abba, Ethiopia and grew up in Nairobi, Kenya. She moved to the Bay Area as a young woman eighteen years ago and later brought her parents and sister, local DJ and musician Tsedi Tesfahun, with her. She has a degree in Business Administration and over the years has curated many community events such as “Oakland in the Black,” an effort to support local businesses and sustainable development. A community organizer committed to cultural knowledge and nurturing the development of African communities here in Oakland, Effie recently returned to Africa, where over the course of five months she traveled throughout Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and South Africa.

For Effie’s photo shoot for this article, Oakulture met her at the intimate Ethiopian restaurant and cafe Anfilo, near the corner of Broadway and Grand, while the owner roasted and prepared traditional coffee beans. Coffee drinking itself is a beloved and sacred ritual originating in Ethiopia. Well-rooted in a culture that honors the love and importance of sharing, Effie explained the meaning of sustainable community: “A Gursha is the act of feeding another from one’s own plate as a symbol of love and respect. A selfless dining etiquette epitomizing community and the need for us to give of what we have.” Effie’s parents had a food booth named Gursha selling injera (traditional Ethiopian flatbread) during the early First Friday years — the booth is rumored to be returning soon as TeruTesfa (their names combined to mean “Good Hope”). Effie now shares some of her inheritance in the saying, “those who eat from the same plate will not betray each other.” With an understanding of this recipe for both community development and sharing space, Effie leads through modeling community engagement and giving what one loves. Usually most comfortable behind the scenes, Oakulture was able to learn a bit more about what feeds this woman’s remarkable spirit.


Effie Tesfahun

Oakulture: You were born in Ethiopia and spent time in Kenya before coming to Oakland. What does Pan-Africanism mean to you?

Effie Tesfahun: Pan Africanism to me is the idea that those of us within the African diaspora function more as a unit, regardless of where our birth happened. Many of us have similar struggles, but what we have in common is even more and it is beautiful.

Oakulture: You recently returned to Africa for several months. What new perspectives do you bring back to your life in Oakland from those travels?

Effie Tesfahun: I think more than new perspectives, what I bring back is a renewed energy. My trip back encouraged me to do more for my community and even more to continue to support and uplift my people. I was so uplifted by the people I met through my travels and so many spoke of the idea of unity and collaboration.

Oakulture: Since 2012 you have organized “Oakland in the Black,” encouraging local holiday shopping to support independent businesses. What is your perspective on what is needed for economic development in Oakland, particularly for small and micro-businesses to thrive and expand?

Effie Tesfahun: I’m not the first nor the last to really focus in on small businesses, but supporting small/local businesses is a way to create a more sustainable economy. When a group of people got together to start “Oakland in the Black,” it was not only to support independent businesses but to support the black-owned businesses in the area, and even since 2012 we have seen a big decline in black-owned businesses in the downtown area. If we can be there to support our own growth then we don’t rely on some big corporation for our livelihood.

Oakulture: What led you into organizing and promotion?

Effie Tesfahun: Oakland was the inspiration to any organizing that I’ve done or been a part of. This town is so inspiring and people here don’t just sit and watch, but actively participate in their communities. I’ve learned and grown a lot by living here. I’ve always been a passionate person, but to be able to actively do something that actually helps or supports my passions is something I’ve learned here in Oakland.

Oakulture: Why did you start Umoja and what does unity mean to you personally?

Effie Tesfahun: Umoja was an idea I had when I first moved to Oakland, but didn’t see how it could happen even though I was always encouraged to do it. I wanted to see more events that brought various African cultures and flavors and sounds and to celebrate our diversity and beauty. I didn’t know how to even begin and start organizing an event back then, but in 2013 I was ready and with a team of six we got it going. I wished for a space where I could be Kenyan and Ethiopian at the same time. I wanted to collaborate, laugh with, eat with, dance with and work with my people all at the same time.

Unity to me is where we can come together despite our differences and see more of our likeness. Where we drop the stories that are told to us and tell our story.

Ben Okri says it best . . . “The strange thing about Africa is how our past, present and future come together . . . The most authentic thing about us is our capacity to create, to overcome, to endure, to transform, to love and to be greater than our suffering.”

Oakulture: How has Umoja grown since its inception three years ago and what can we expect from it this year?

Effie Tesfahun: Umoja has really grown since the first year. We’ve had an increase in attendance that’s tripled since 2013. This year we have a similar concept to last year, except we have more than one stage and will have more dance elements and more of our wonderful local artists and DJ’s. We are excited about how each year we add more elements of the various cultures within the diaspora. We get to meet more people each year that come from the various communities and to collaborate with groups that we did not know about last year. Our vendors, food and artisan, will wow you with all the colors and flavors of African cultures. To be African is to love family, and I can’t tell you how I’m so humbled by our elders and youth and all the love that they have given us. There will be a soccer tournament for adults, soccer clinic for youth, a youth-run arts booth, various non-profits within the community that do really great work, and so much more . . .

Oakulture: You work closely with both Stephani McGrath and your sister Tsedi Tesfahun as the ladies of Umoja. What have you learned from working closely with other women in a community context?

Effie Tesfahun: Working with women as a sisterhood is one of the most amazing experiences. We lead with compassion and heart. While this sometimes can make it a challenge for business, it helps with what the goal is at hand for this event in particular. Umoja is about love and is about heart, so we get to infuse the part in us that comes so naturally, to the spirit of the event.

Oakulture: Who are your role models and why?

Effie Tesfahun: Honestly I would have to say my role models are my parents. My parents dedicated their lives in service to people. Their faith in God is what fueled their lives and work. They have risked their lives because of their faith and God never let them down. They raised us to love and respect all of God’s creations and to believe in the purpose that was placed in each of us. We were always encouraged to dream big and to be proud. They encourage me and all the things that I do, even if at times it may seem like I’m making a mistake. Their love and prayers always keep me together.

Oakulture: Any Oakland projects you are particularly excited about right now?

Effie Tesfahun: This question is a tough one, there is always so much exciting stuff that happens in Oakland. I think what I was recently most excited about is the EMS Corps project that I learned about. These guys will actually be at the festival on Saturday, but this program really touched me.

Here’s a video about them:


Umoja: African Festival + SuRu Soccer Tournament
Saturday, August 15th 10am-7pm
Lowell Park, 1180 14th St.
Free Admission
All Ages

Learn more about The Umoja Festival:



Get to know the women previously highlighted in the series, including Candi Martinez, Chaney Turner, Nina Menendez, Gina Madrid aka Raw-G, DJ ZitaSoulovely crew Lady Ryan, Aima the Dreamer and DJ Emancipacion, Ramona Webb, Naima Shalhoub, Joanne Ludwig and Tracie Collins.

Follow Oakulture by entering your email above
and Like Us on Facebook to keep up.

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Women Runnin It: Interview with Tracie Collins

When Oakulture scheduled a photo shoot with Tracie Collins, she requested the location be the ‘Welcome to Oakland’ mural at 109th and Bancroft. Tracie’s mix of fierceness and grace came across in the shoot, especially when she posed in front of a sign reading “Beast Oakland.” Since October 2013, when Tracie made her directorial debut with “The V Monologues: A Black Woman’s Interpretations,” she has written, directed and produced three more productions, all within the course of a year and a half – many of those to sold-out shows. Her online store sells a t-shirt which says “God is from Oakland.” From the soulful womanist inquiries that are her works to her history as a professional doula who helps women to give birth, Tracie clearly is on intimate terms with that God.

With a specialization in bringing provocative and soul searching works to the stage, Tracie has quickly established herself as a beloved playwright and director of Oakland, becoming a force in the theatrical scene in the space of just a few short years. In March of 2015, Tracie produced “Cold Piece of Werk,” a catalyzing theatre production focused on the young girls caught in the dangerous track of International Boulevard. On opening night, the city of Oakland proclaimed March 12th to be Tracie Collins Day. The proclamation states, “She is an avid activist on issues surrounding equality for women and race relations. Her ability to draw from the many changes happening in Oakland allows her to write, direct and produce entertainment that opens a forum for dialogue and self-awareness.”

“Cold Piece of Werk’s” dramatic activism aligned Tracie with a burgeoning movement of self-named abolitionists making moves to combat the sex trafficking epidemic in Oakland, the second largest hub in the U.S. for sexual slavery. Many of these community leaders are survivors and/or women of color who continue to unveil new non-profits, businesses and artistic projects to raise awareness and interventions, a grassroots community effort which has seen results in the City Attorney taking action against notorious motels. But Oakland’s well-established pimp culture won’t give up that easily, and despite giving lip service to the cause, its politicians haven’t made getting girls off the street a top priority. In the city’s most recent budget, $30 million was allocated to police overtime–a large portion of which was spent covering #BlackLivesMatter protests–but a $600,000 request to fund transitional housing for human trafficking victims received only $110,000 annually. Noel Gallo, whose district includes parts of International Blvd, aka “The Track,” was the only Councilmember to vote against the budget. “We pimp on the street and we pimp at City Hall,” he is quoted as saying. When asked about this, Tracie declined to answer, explaining that she was so upset and angry, she wasn’t quite sure how to respond.

At this time, Oakulture is very honored to catch up with Tracie Collins, a self-professed “voice of the urban woman,” to hear her perspectives on using art to stir social conversations and the issues she addresses. Current projects include a film adaptation based on “Cold Piece of Werk” as well as a stage production in Atlanta in early 2016. Upcoming projects include television and several stage productions including a thriller, “The Midwife,” “Divorce: Black Woman Style” and “Dressing Room” about exotic dancers in Atlanta. Originally an actor by training, Tracie also shared with us that she is currently writing a one-woman show.


Tracie Collins

Tracie Collins

Oakulture: Your productions have consistently been focused on subjects which have been both relevant and taboo in black women’s lives. Why is it important to focus on black women’s experiences?
Tracie Collins:
Today now more than ever with Sandra Bland’s death, we need to focus on Black Women’s Lives. We are the first teachers and the givers of life; however, we are often overlooked, unless we are naked in music videos. I’m a black woman, and I will continue to touch on issues that are relevant to us.

Oakulture: How did “The V Monologues” differ from “The Vagina Monologues?” What changed when you took that topic into a black female cultural space, and what didn’t change?
Tracie Collins:
With “The V Monologues: A Black Woman’s Interpretation,” I gave a voice to us as black women and our experiences with our bodies in relation to our culture. I also incorporated music by Nina Simone and eventually Chaka Khan, two iconic women not only in music but in the African American culture. I married subject matters of sexual intolerance, sexual abuse, body image celebration and our journey as Black Women and intertwined that with our music.

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Oakulture: This past spring the city of Oakland officially proclaimed March 14th to be “Tracie Collins Day.” To what do you attribute this honor and do you have any plans for March 14, 2016?
Tracie Collins:
Lol, well, March 2016 I’ll be in production mode, so I’ll be working. As for the proclamation, I feel it was attributed to my work in arts & entertainment in Oakland and bringing forth or reigniting the love of live theater in a city that isn’t known for it.

Oakulture: Your efforts to raise awareness of sex trafficking in Oakland has gained you recognition by the city for your leadership. How big of a problem is sex trafficking in Oakland?
Tracie Collins:
Huge. E14th or International Blvd is the largest track in the intercontinental United States. Girls are brought here from all over and trafficked up and down International Blvd.

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Oakulture: How much of that can be attributed to the glorification of the pimp as an icon?
Tracie Collins:
I believe initially the glorification [came] from the movie The Mack, which was filmed in Oakland. However, fast forward to current day, the glamour isn’t as prevalent because these girls come from various different circumstances which have led them to this choice or moment of time in their lives.

Oakulture: How much of the problem comes out of cultural or linguistic isolation and economic disparity?
Tracie Collins:
Unfortunately, rap music — and I say “rap,” instead of hip hop for a reason — rap music makes millions of dollars off the degradation of women and objectification of our bodies. And when the multi-million dollar industry glamorizes this, our youth will only emulate what they hear. Well, a whole list of issues and problems come from economic disparity. But in relation to sex trafficking, when one feels that their choices are limited when it comes to gaining economic stability and/or growth, then one may resort to matters that we would consider illegal or unethical. Also, social media places things at our fingertips. So women or pimps don’t have to walk the streets to “work” and make a viable income from that industry.


Oakulture: In your opinion, does the city do enough to address sex trafficking effectively? What should they be doing that they aren’t?
Tracie Collins:
No. They need to educate these children in schools about the pitfalls and traps into and of this lifestyle. They need to add more resources and rescue and recovery agencies and arrest, shame and prosecute the pimps and Johns and not the young girls/women in these circumstances.

Oakulture: Your most recent production, “Cold Piece of Werk,” focused on the realities of young women’s lives caught in the sex trafficking industry here in Oakland. Did you speak with any young women in the game? If so, did any of them see the production or have any opinions on it?
Tracie Collins:
No, unfortunately when I reached out to rescue and recovery agencies they were nonresponsive; that includes the District Attorney’s Office and Oakland Police Dept. They only joined in later after they saw all the attention my work was getting. Several mothers whose daughters were “caught up” in the game contacted me, and my publicist made sure that I was able to meet them personally.

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Oakulture: What has the community response to your efforts to raise awareness around this issue been?
Tracie Collins:
The community, on the other hand, has been amazing, extremely supportive and responsive. They either didn’t know or weren’t aware of the impact sex trafficking is having in the city of Oakland. I had mothers who brought their daughters to see CPOW to start the conversation. I brought awareness to a community that wants change, but wasn’t fully educated on the issue. I’m proud of that.

Oakulture: You’ve said that since producing “Cold Piece of Werk” you have been contacted by citizens when they’ve suddenly been confronted with sex trafficking in their own lives. What do you do with that information and those stories when they come to you?  How do those stories impact your art moving forwards?
Tracie Collins:
I listen. Anything relating to young girls and women will always impact my womanhood and, in turn, impacts my artistry. Never know what topic I will choose to spread awareness on next.

Oakulture: What are your influences as a storyteller?
Tracie Collins:
I’m a huge fan of director Antione Fuqua, director of Southpaw, which will be in theaters this Friday, July 24th. He also directed The Equalizer, Training Day and Olympus Has Fallen. He’s exceptional and unrecognized by Hollywood standards.

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Oakulture: How do you specifically approach discussing difficult or taboo topics in your work?
Tracie Collins:
Not specifically; it just comes out. But I enjoy making people think. People don’t think. Way too much tunnel vision going on, especially in the black community. We have got to stop sweeping things under the rug and pretending issues don’t exist and hoping they’ll go away if ignored. We need to open our hearts first, our minds second, and our ears third to facilitate change and healing. My writing takes me on my own journey, but one thing that is consistent is that I write from my heart, so that I speak to the hearts of others. That’s when I know I’ve done my job.

Oakulture: How do you hold yourself personally accountable to your community and to the women which you seek to speak for?
Tracie Collins:
I hold myself accountable to myself first, my children second, and my sisterhood third. I will share with you something I recently posted on Facebook in regards to the celebration of Frida [Kahlo] in San Francisco that just passed. “I am such a proud FEMINIST!!!! That’s who I am. There’s no escaping it, and I surround myself with strong women. Everything I do is to empower and strengthen women. I don’t care about your color, your background, your sexual identification, your health history or should I say HERstory, your relationship status, how others see you, the texture of your hair, if you’re PHat or skinny, a professional woman, a stay-at-home mom, what level of education you have or don’t have. Whatever! Because to me, we are all BEASTS!!! We are the givers of LIFE; it’s that simple. I see it every day. And until a man can say that, they can have several seats to me. I’m not a man hater, but #IJS ‪#‎FRIDA‬ has been my favorite artist for many years. She was before her time as many of us forward-thinking women are. She embraced her difference. Her uniqueness set her apart. As does yours!”

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Oakulture: Role models? Who do you admire artistically and why?
Tracie Collins:
I wouldn’t say “role models;” however, I do admire women who go against the status quo. I believe as an artist, if Im not pissing people off, I’m not doing my job. I believe that silent women don’t go down in history, or as i like to say, HERstory.  As an artist, you are given a platform to invoke change. And let’s just say, I plan to exercise mine loudly. The larger my platform, the louder I’ll become for positive growth and progressive change for women.

Oakulture: Any Oakland heroines in particular?
Tracie Collins:
I believe my heroines are those in my everyday circle: women who are mothers and still making things happen. I want to live my life to be a heroine for my daughters. We duplicate what we see. I want them to see power!


The mission of Tracie Collins Productions “is to finding, developing and producing works that highlight diverse experience with a focus on developing productions centered on women.” Current projects include a film adaptation based on “Cold Piece of Werk” as well as a stage production in Atlanta in early 2016. Upcoming projects include television and several stage productions including a thriller, “The Midwife,” “Divorce: Black Woman Style” and “Dressing Room” about exotic dancers in Atlanta. Originally an actor by training, Tracie also shared with us that she is currently writing a one-woman show.

Follow Tracie Collins:



Get to know the women previously highlighted in the series:
Candi Martinez, Chaney Turner, Nina Menendez, Gina Madrid aka Raw-G, DJ ZitaSoulovely crew Lady Ryan, Aima the Dreamer and DJ Emancipacion, Ramona Webb, Naima Shalhoub and Joanne Ludwig.

Follow Oakulture:
Enter your email above
and Like Us on Facebook.

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Women Runnin It: Interview with Joanne Ludwig

In “Time is Irrelevant,” her current solo show at Solespace, Joanne Ludwig decided to dive deep into a process of mystery revealing itself. The Oakland-based visual artist’s seeming irreverence for convention mixes with an incredibly potent playfulness manifested through large abstract works. Mixed media pieces use collage and paint in gestural brush strokes to create a loose, raw background. Simplified chalk and marker line work show portraits of faces, animals, elemental spirits and a magician. There is a focus on eyes and lips, and the visceral aspect is reinforced by textured fabrics.

Most impressively, Joanne created all thirteen of the new works featured in the show in just 27 days; the show’s title refers to her artistic process during this period. While exploring new directions, the show feels like a thematic continuation of a 2014 multi-disciplinary all-women art show and zine she created and curated entitled “Til Death Do Us Part.” The “Lady Warrior” themed project produced five issues of the zine, one for each of the five exhibitions/events she produced, consecutively titled “Honor,” “Loyalty,” “Faith,” “Courage” and “Love.” The feminine heroism of that ambitious show and zine, which featured sixty women artists, remains present, but in Joanne’s singular vision, risk, spirituality, and abstract expression coexist with bravado.

The show represents a coming-out of sorts for the shy yet hustle-minded artist, who has been a focal point over the years for building community around women artists, inclusivity, and pushing boundaries from the sacred to the erotic. Earlier this year she was a featured artist in the “Her Resilience” women’s mural project addressing violence against women in Oakland. She also has a history of working in and out of the music industry in the Bay such as distributing vinyl for Rap A Lot and other labels back in the day, throwing parties and events with NewTrendz, Local 1200, Rasheed Bawlout, her own “Jojo’s Dojo” with live jujitsu demonstrations, “The Artists Lounge,” and her recent AFRO DEEP events. There is a multicultural dynamic about Joanne’s work which cannot be ascribed to any one influence, yet seems fitting considering her background.

Born to a Thai mother and American military father, in her youth Joanne lived in San Francisco’s Presidio, Colorado and Hawaii. As she grew a little older, she relocated several times around the Bay Area, before settling in Oakland in 1998. Joanne studied painting and sculpture at CSUEB where she was awarded scholarships and graduated with honors. She maintains an impressive schedule exhibiting her work in both solo and group shows all over the SF Bay Area as well as being included in group shows in New York and Berlin. In addition, she continues to uphold a dynamic leadership position in Oakland’s art scene through curating group shows and gathering artists together to nurture a supportive, creative environment.

“Time Is Irrelevant” has just been extended through the month of August at Solespace; the conversation which follows will be continued with an artist talk, this Wednesday (July 15), which i am honored to host.



Artist Joanne Ludwig

Artist Joanne Ludwig

Oakulture: The title of your current exhibition is “Time is Irrelevant.” Why did you name the show this?

Joanne Ludwig: This year I made a promise to myself that I would allow myself TIME to rest, heal, reflect and to dream.  With SoleSpace opening up a second location on Grand Avenue some changes are in effect and Jeff asked if I wanted to wait until 2016 to have a show or take July. I’m not the type of person who believes that tomorrow is ever guaranteed, so I said “let’s do it!,” not realizing that it was less than a month away, but the creative is all about risks and the possibility of failure. I had to sike myself out and tell myself “Time Is Irrelevant.” The importance is SPIRIT.

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Oakulture: The short timeline for this show highlighted one of the consistent qualities I see in you as an artist – your commitment to the raw and improvised moment. During the course of your month of preparation for this show, you posted a #27DayCountdown in which you shared your artistic process with the works. Can you speak about that process and the decisions you had to make?

Joanne Ludwig: In this series of work I really let the emotion dictate my brush work and scale. I posted the #27daycountdown on Instagram so I wouldn’t be totally isolated in the studio and I needed the interaction to stay motivated. Most days I’d get up early in the morning, drink my coffee, put on a DJ Kobie Quashie or Denitia and Sene house mix from Soundcloud, then lay down the expressive color brush strokes with a brush that was 10 inches wide. The brush is heavy so I had to throw myself at the canvas. I’d be slipping and sliding around the room in my slippas just dancing to the music. Then I’d run off to my full time job, come home tired, have some wine (sometimes Mezcal ;), I’d chill out just staring at brushwork until I saw something appear, then I’d attack it and lay the line work. One night I came home tipsy from a Warriors’ game at SomaR Bar and that’s when I wrote sayings or “poetry” on the three #heal pieces. It was a good release and as an artist you have to let yourself be expressive and real. I almost wiped it away the next day but why not – all or nothing?

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Oakulture: Some of the subjects in your paintings are so alive they exist larger than the canvas. In this show we are surrounded by Orishas, eyes, and sacred, deep knowledge. Can you speak about the role of Spirit or ritual in your work?

Joanne Ludwig: My art education focus at CSUEB was under Dr. Levy who inspired me with his courses on the Philosophy of Art, which taught me about magic and ritual surrounding art, especially shamanic and tantric art. Ancient and tribal art speaks to me the most.  As a child I was always fascinated with nature and the supernatural so naturally I was drawn to ancient and indigenous folk art. I remember when I first moved to Oakland, I would love going to the Ashby flea and buying masks and sculptures from different cultures. After a few years of playing with styles I wanted to get out of my head, away from modern influences and am trying to get in touch with the intuitive.

I have much respect for spirit and the sacred. It influences my work, but I don’t ever plan on making a painting and say, “this is going to be Yemaya or Quan Yin.” I don’t enjoy that kind of control when I am creating. I like the possibilities to be open. For this series, the balance in my personal life really influenced my work. I’ve been meditating, enjoying nature and silence. Having ritual, a warm home and setting up the home studio allowed me to lose myself in the process and try to let the piece speak to me leading me where it wants to go. I’m honored if people relate such beauty and ase to my work but I would never claim to capture such spirit in my imagery. It is up to the viewer what is reflected back at them through a piece.

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Oakulture: In your promotion for this show you posted a series of hashtags – #heal, #grow, #extend, #evolve and #be – as your month of painting progressed. Can you tell us about what those themes meant for you? How were these themes represented in the paintings?

Joanne Ludwig: Some artists are so talented, they can plan a piece and/or a series, sketch it out and then execute it. I have a hard time staying interested or repeating anything twice. I tried my best to stay in one lane, but it doesn’t tell a story for me or allow me to evolve. Change and transformation is what inspires me. So I’d do about three pieces and then need to break out of that style… then another three or four… and so on. I saw in the first three, I was honest, hurt and reflective… I was healing. The next three, I really freed up and got loose… this was me growing… The next three I came with some new geometric shit I never done before… I was evolving… and the last two “eye people” I did… this was me returning. #heal #grow #evolve #return

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Oakulture: Eyes are a consistent presence in your work. Often times they evoke the evil eye or other sacred imagery. In this show two large eye people greet us as we walk in the door, like guardians. Can you speak more about this?

Joanne Ludwig: The eye is a positive symbol that represents to me both protection and The All Seeing Eye (GOD). There are two large eye figures that greet you when you walk into the show. They represent twins or a couple, and they are the pillars/anchors of the show. Across from them on the right wall there is one other eye figure and he is a shaman or magic man holding a drum and a staff. He is the time keeper.

Oakulture: In recent years, you curated an all women’s group show that I was very inspired by. What do you enjoy about working with women artists?

Joanne Ludwig: I like working with both women and men. Producing the all-women artist, “Til Death Do Us Part Art Show,” I wanted to remove men from the conversation to see what women would produce. Would it be more honest, less competitive, female-centric?  I really enjoyed the different stories and the individual edge each artist displayed. I was proud to include a diversity that often isn’t represented – ethnicity, age groups, subject matter, styles and mediums. Originally I was intimidated to ask artists for their work to include in the accompanying “Til Death Do Us Part” zine. As artists started saying yes and sending me images I began to ask for more until we had 60 women artists, the eldest being 70+ years old. The experience helped me overcome a huge obstacle in my growth of being afraid to ask for help. The most memorable experience was the Artist Talk and hearing the empowerment come thru each artist’s story. The room felt like no other room I’ve been in before. It was tingling, honest and bad-ass.

Oakulture: In your curating and promotion of art exhibits, what approach or strategies do you use for creating and maintaining an inclusive space?

Joanne Ludwig: I was an art teacher at EOYDC for 4 years and I have a background in sports so I’ve always been a team player and motivator. I’d rather shine with others. You have to be humble and inclusive to reflect the community around you. My motto is to do it for the love and save a little bit of time for yourself and your health. Do it for the love and do it with those you love and admire. This isn’t a hustle for me. I do art, music and community events for the collaboration, to be around other creatives and fun people. I do it to challenge myself, to learn and grow. I want to be a better me.

Oakulture: Much of your work has played with courage, vulnerability and women warriors. As an artist how important is vulnerability to you? As a woman, how important is courage to you?

Joanne Ludwig: My painting teacher at CSUEB, Dickson Schneider, mentioned to me after three years of instruction that he still didn’t know who I was. That resonated with me and since then I’ve tried to dig deep and to be less of a superhero and instead be open to being vulnerable and honest in my work. I wanted to ask myself how my voice or art could be significant to the community. It made me question my purpose and my identity. What was I, beside a woman, besides being Thai, or an artist? Who was I when I stripped these labels away?  It took courage to remove my armor and lay down my sword.

Oakulture: How does your cultural, ethnic or spiritual heritage inform your work as an artist?

Joanne Ludwig: I didn’t grow up in a very religious family. My mom is from Thailand which means she grew up in a Buddhist community, but we don’t consider Buddhism a religion. In fact Thailand has a very shamanic cultural history.  When I was in high school, I moved in with my friend Iliana and her family from Honduras. This was my first introduction to ancestor worship and the Orishas via her mother. I related the candles and offerings to what I saw growing up visiting SF Chinatown and the shrines I saw which were set out for Gods, nature spirits, or ancestors. I started seeking out more information on ancestor worship in different cultures. When I moved to Oakland in ’98, I was immersed in the spirituality out here.  However, I was taught not to speak on the sacred in order to keep it magical. So this is new to me sharing sacred with the public.

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Oakulture: Your work reminds me of Audre Lorde’s infamous essay “Uses of the Erotic,” in which she spoke about the erotic as a creative and spiritual force in women’s lives. How do you stay engaged and honest with the erotic in your work?

Joanne Ludwig: I associate the erotic with power. When I draw a nude woman she is powerful and claiming her body. It’s not necessarily enticing or sexualized. It’s an expression of power. I’m actually pretty shy with my sexuality but I enjoy looking at Japanese Shunga (erotic print art) and adult manga. I think my art was coined feminine and erotic after I did a series of women that had fruit as torsos and long slender limbs. I was trying to relate the womb and life to that of a fruit. I was making a nod to Vanitas art and addressing my own womanhood and aging.

But my pieces weren’t meant to be erotic. It was a dialog I was having about my own femininity and my womanhood and finding my purpose. In one of my paintings there is a nude woman examining her vagina (which I drew as an eyeball). I was posing a philosophical question to myself: What am I if not a women? How do I fit in and find purpose besides from having a womb? Am I still significant if I am not a mother?

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Oakulture: Role models? Who do you admire artistically and why?

Joanne Ludwig: My role models are innovators and mavericks. A few favorites are the late bassist Jaco Pastorius who was the first to play melodies on bass as the lead. I also admire Bruce Lee and Jimi Hendrix who I share my birthday with. They remind me not to follow others on their path but to make my own. Do not follow the masters before you. Be your own master.

Oakulture: What is exciting to you about Oakland culture right now?

Joanne Ludwig: I’m excited by the amount of culture and growth we have here. I’m enjoying the shift from the Too Short pimp mentality to the Women Runnin It movement.

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Oakulture: Any upcoming projects or collaborations you’re particularly excited about in Oakland right now?

Joanne Ludwig: We have the Artist Talk for “Time Is Irrelevant” on Wednesday July 15th at SoleSpace from 7-9pm with selections from Cyn Digs. And then a closing dance party for “Time Is Irrelevant” with AFRO DEEP DJs Kobie and Dedan on Saturday July 25th from 8pm-Midnight.

After that I’m looking forward to hanging out with my pit Bella, getting some much needed beach time and exercise before we dip into another AFRO DEEP party. Art wise, the multi-talented Paris Delawarr has something up her sleeve with me in her Skill Series and I am curating another group art show at SomaR Bar in October with artist Melody Shaiken. If Oakland Flamenco Sessions would have me, I’d love to improvise with the musicians and dancers again. The energy was so amazing.

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Artist Talk with Joanne Ludwig
Wednesday, July 15th 7-9pm

First Friday Fete Dance Party
August 7th, 8-12pm

Guided Art Making Workshop
August 19th, 7-9pm

All events located at:
Solespace Shoestore + ArtsLab
1714 Telegraph Ave., Oakland

Follow Joanne Ludwig:


Get to know the women previously highlighted in the series, including Candi Martinez, Chaney Turner, Nina Menendez, Gina Madrid aka Raw-G, DJ ZitaSoulovely crew Lady Ryan, Aima the Dreamer and DJ Emancipacion, Ramona Webb, and Naima Shalhoub.

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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.


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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Women Runnin It: Interview with Naima Shalhoub

Naima Shalhoub found inspiration in an unlikely place: SF County Jail. For a year now, the Oakland-based singer-activist has been facilitating live music sessions with incarcerated women, and recently recorded a live album, Borderlines, behind jail walls. Her commitment to women’s voices at the intersection of arts and the jailhouse places Naima’s work within the long and expansive history of creative cultural responses and expression in the face of oppression.

This week Naima Shalhoub releases her first single off her upcoming album, a rendition of the iconic American Civil Rights movement song “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize.” The song opens with a beautifully soulful oud placing us first in the desert homelands and long memory of the Middle East. In the context of #SayHerName, American activists traveling to Palestine to collaborate with freedom fighters there, and the ever-revolving door and burgeoning profits of the prison-industrial complex, Naima’s inspired version emphasizes upliftment from oppression and resonates with the famous anthem’s core theme of freedom. To hear the female inmates in the live audience getting all riled up and singing to the repetitious chorus “hold on” is riveting and soul-stirring. Naima’s version situates itself right here in our modern civil rights movement.

As a Lebanese-American woman with a MA in Postcolonial Anthropology, Naima easily sidesteps the misconception that Middle-Eastern women are passive and controlled. Rather she bespeaks the strong herstory of women-centered culture, leadership and spiritual power which is largely overlooked by the West. Also an actress, this spring Naima had a role in “Xtigone,” produced by the African-American Shakespeare Company in SF. Significant in the production was the focus on ritual and the sacred while dealing with the subject of urban violence. Our own Oakulture review said of her performance, “ . . . Naima Shalhoub practically steals every scene she’s in.”

Prior to interviewing Naima, I read every article, listened to every interview and researched her search results on Google. Yet when I saw her perform live recently as she opened up for Nneka at the New Parish, I was unprepared for the immediacy of her performance. When she covered Erykah Badu’s song “Certainly” I heard the lyrics, addressed to a date rapist, more direct and real than I have in a long while. What struck me most and yet hadn’t been conveyed in anything I’d read or listened to, was that she sang as a woman committed ultimately to letting loose her raw power. Her work is admirable. Her politics are on point. But what I recognize most strikingly about Ms. Naima Shalhoub hearing her perform live and on this single is a deep personal commitment to freeing her own voice, an instrument which she uses to connect with other women.

Her upcoming album, Borderlands, which will feature some of the women inmates from the jailhouse music sessions, is due to be released late Summer/early Fall. Putting her money where her heart is, fifty percent of the profits from the single and the album will go towards re-entry programming and support for incarcerated women.


Naima Shalhoub

Oakulture: How long have you lived in Oakland? What is exciting to you about Oakland culture right now?

Naima Shalhoub: I moved to Oakland 5 years ago and since day one I’ve learned and felt a deeper understanding of community than anywhere else I’ve lived. From what I’m learning, Oakland continues to experience its own borderland, facing a surge of gentrification while those born and raised here still continue to hold its culture down strong. Even though culture is a moving force that shifts with time and different influences (and to me it’s never a singular thing) there are power dynamics in those influences. What’s exciting about Oakland is learning about the rich legacy of people and movements that have claimed and reclaimed Oakland as a town in the face of a lot of pressure to collapse or water down its history because of racism, classism, etc. And its complex because I don’t think it’s a clear binary divide between gentrifier and cultural worker for most. Oakland is in an interesting time because of the fluidity and hybridity of many cultures here, and I’m constantly moved by the beauty of cultural resistance and rebirth that communities continue to participate in and create. I feel really blessed to live and be a part of some of these communities and to stay open and learn about what my part is in all of it.

Oakulture: What do you do in the music sessions in jail? What are your goals for this project?

Naima Shalhoub: I didn’t have many expectations of where the work would go when I first started volunteering over a year ago in SF County Jail. I just felt called as an artist to do something to intervene on the confinement and isolation of the prison-industrial complex and was inspired by others who have done similar work for years before me. The first session we had together was simple yet profound. As an introduction I sang a few songs on my ukulele that I felt might relate to their experiences, but was not prepared for how deeply that meant to the women in the room. The gratitude and appreciation was overwhelming. The music sessions moved me in a deep way and showed me how powerful music and story-sharing can be in spaces of confinement – how it could be a time and space that is safe and reaffirming of one’s value, even within a context that is opposite of that.

I had it in my heart to create a collaborative space with incarcerated women for many reasons. One being that women are currently being incarcerated at the fastest rate. Two being that the reasons most women are incarcerated are for non-violent offenses. So the complexity of that alone has been staggering to me, especially hearing the stories why they are there or in and out of jail. I don’t believe that a retributive punishment system does anything to improve society. I’ve only learned that it makes things worse. So I’ve been asking myself and learning from others what it could look like to create spaces that are restorative and transformative rather than the way things are now in the criminal justice, education and health system, as they are all related.

Oakulture: On May 5th, you recorded your forthcoming debut album, Borderlands, within the SF county jail with a live audience of the women inmates with whom you have been facilitating the music sessions. This was a different set-up than the sessions which you and the women were accustomed to. What are some of the lessons learned from that recording project?

Naima Shalhoub: Because the Borderlands recording was in a context of me collaborating with many of these women for the past year, the album performance and Mother’s Day celebration that we had was one of the most powerful days of my life. Even though it was clear we were in a jailhouse, there were very rich moments of resistance, beauty and community as the spirit moved through the space. The dichotomy felt like a borderland and for a moment I felt a sense that spaces can be transformed with community, art and a lot of hard work.


Rhodessa Jones, founder of The Medea Project: Theater for Incarcerated Women, graced us with her presence by opening up with a ritual of poetry and call and response. None of it would have happened if it wasn’t for Angela Wilson, program coordinator in the B Pod of the Sheriff Department with whom I’ve been working. She has been in The Medea Project for 16 years and is a huge advocate of these women and became one for me. Angela introduced Ms. Jones and after she blessed the space we performed our set for an hour. The amazing musicians who played with me were Isaac Ho on Keyboard, Tarik Kazaleh a.k.a Excentrik on oud, guitar and tabla, Aaron Kierbel on Cajon and drum kit, and Marcus Shelby on bass. To close the whole event after our set, we had an open mic and several women came up to share their poetry and words. It was profound and felt like a spirit-filled, soulful, collaborative experience in the least expected place.

Oakulture: What is it like to perform for that crowd?

Naima Shalhoub: It was powerful to sing freedom songs in the context of a jailhouse – to record them with the women’s voices present in the recordings. Opening the set with “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize,” an arrangement of the the Civil Rights resistance song, with lyrics like “the jail doors opened and we walked right out” in call and response with women who are incarcerated was unforgettable. There were several moments like that on the recording day, moments that felt like expansion beyond the confines of the jailhouse where our voices created a unity beyond the barriers of the system and those we carry inside ourselves. To see the energy of the women participating and collaborating with me and the band during the songs was immense and moving. I’ll never forget it.

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Oakulture: Why does voice matter for women? What is important about working for freedom with a group of all women?

Naima Shalhoub: I asked a question in one of my music sessions in SF County Jail after we read Maya Angelou’s poem “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”: Do you feel you have a voice? Half the room said “yes” and half said “no.” We discussed the various feelings and experiences of having a voice yet not being heard, and if that means that one really has a voice at all. We discussed the possibilities of still having a voice even when dominant social systems may not recognize you as having one that is worthy. I still grapple with this question.

On a personal level, I’ve come to a place in my life where I have to believe I have one, even though in some spaces I may not be heard. And in the spaces I am heard I try to think of whose voices I could carry with me that may not be heard. I often think about how the voice is haunted by justice and ask myself how I can sing in a way that gives voice to the stories, places and people that may not be recognized as worthy in mainstream histories or systems. The voice can be a complex thing, but when I sing it feels the most simple because the soul can be expressed through music in a way it’s difficult otherwise. All this to say, the conversation matters. The voice can be an expansive tool in spaces of confinement–through music, poetry, speech, movement, etc. That’s what moves me most about freedom and the voice, the ability to express oneself even in spaces of so-called un-freedom.


Learn more about Borderlands: Singing Through the Prison Walls
Follow Naima Shalhoub:


Get to know the women previously highlighted in the series, including Candi Martinez, Chaney Turner, Nina Menendez, Gina Madrid aka Raw-G, DJ ZitaSoulovely crew Lady Ryan, Aima the Dreamer and DJ Emancipacion, and Ramona Webb.

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The OAKQ&A: Judith Smith of AXIS Dance Company

AXIS dance Company. photo by David DeSilva, courtesy www.axisdance.org

AXIS Dance Company. photo by David DeSilva, courtesy http://www.axisdance.org

Since its inception back in 1987,Oakland’s AXIS Dance Company has been a pioneer in the field of physically-integrated contemporary dance. Almost 30 years later, the idea of pairing disabled and non-disabled dancers is no less revolutionary than it was when the company started.  Although tremendous strides have been made in terms of legal and civil rights in that time, not to mention societal perceptions, when we think about what a truly-inclusive society would look like, disabled people are often the last marginalized group we consider.

After Judith Smith became wheelchair-bound at the age of 17, her desire to dance turned her into an activist. She co-founded AXIS in 1987, along with Thais Mazur and Bonnie Lewkowicz, and in 1997 became its Artistic Director. In 2000, AXIS scored three Isadora Duncan Awards, signaling that physically-integrated dance was not only a legitimate art form in the dance world – but an innovative, dynamic one at that. Since then, under Smith’s leadership, the company has notched three more Izzies, performed in more than 60 cities, and been the subject of serious critical review in major publications – exceeding previous expectations and raising the bar of what cultural inclusion looks like for the disabled community.

Though they’ve earned their place in the dance world, AXIS performances aren’t just for dance aficionados, however. The strong theater elements make their shows more universal than one might think; in addition to the unique movement dynamic physically-integrated dance brings to the table, there’s a cerebral element present which causes viewers to rethink what it means to be human and how much of human expression is a kind of adaptation. Not to mention an emotional element which can lend an intense sense of poignancy and urgency in how it makes you feel. Based in the Malonga Center in downtown Oakland, AXIS opens up its home season with tonight’s premiere of “Onward,” featuring works by Sonya Delwaide, Joe Goode, Alex Ketley, and Bobbi Jene Smith.

Oakulture recently caught up with Smith during a rehearsal, and she was gracious enough to share her artistic process and wise words of wisdom with us – and you. Check it out:

Judith Smith

Judith Smith

Oakulture: What’s the least-challenging aspect of being artistic director of a physically-integrated dance company?

Judith Smith: Probably finding great choreographers and composers to work with is the least-challenging, because there’s so many great people out there. That’s the fun part, looking at other people’s work and trying to figure out how it would match AXIS and our aesthetic with our particular combination of dancers.

Oakulture: You took over as Artistic Director of AXIS in 1997. How have perceptions of the company changed over that time?

Judith Smith: Well, I think the big driver for me was increasing the artistic quality of our work and the professionalism of the company. So I would say that when we started commissioning work from really well-known choreographers and composers, that really changed how people looked at the work. Because when critics would come to review us, it was hard for them to talk about the work. When we started working with other choreographers, they could review us in the context of what they knew about that choreographer’s work. So I think also the fact that our first repertory show, our first home season, in 2000 after I took over, was Bill T. Jones, Joe Goode, Joanna Haigood, Sonya Delwaide, you know, it was a pretty impressive lineup. So, I think it gave us a stamp of validity that we didn’t really have: ‘Oh yeah, these people are really dancing, and they’re really doing dance. And they’re serious about their work. It’s not therapy.’

Oakulture: At the recent Othering and Belonging conference, you spoke about how AXIS wasn’t intended to be political, but you realized that there was an inherent realpolitik in what you’re doing. Can you elaborate on that? Why is it political? And would you consider yourself an activist?

Judith Smith: I am definitely an activist. I am an activist by default in some ways. I didn’t grow up in a politically-active family. I became disabled when I was 17 and that was a long time ago at this point. And we didn’t have the ADA, we didn’t have the 504 and we didn’t have all of these laws that we have today. So, advocating for myself, advocating for my community, had just been something Ive had to learn to do.  We didn’t start AXIS with the intention that we were going to go out and change people’s minds about disability. We really just wanted to dance. But we realized that we still, until recently, rarely saw a disabled person on TV. Or in a music video. Or in an advertisement. And, when we started dancing, it was very very rare to see a disabled person onstage, let alone collaborating with non-disabled people in a way that was equal. There are still theaters in San Francisco that we can’t get into, because they’re up a flight of stairs. We’re 25 years into the ADA. How are people even getting away with that now? They wouldn’t be in a theater where somebody that was gay couldn’t get to, or somebody that was black couldn’t get to, or someone that was Muslim couldn’t come to. So, we’re still systematically discriminated against in terms of our little small community here, our little dance community. And I think we really have done a lot of educating here, with presenters and funders. When we started writing California Arts Council grants, in the demographic breakdown, there wasn’t a box for ‘disabled.’ So I’d make a box and I’d check it and I’d write it in. So now disability is, not always, but often included in the demographics that people are collecting. And it’s, not always, but often included in the list of what multiculturalism is. I think Barack Obama was probably the first president to mention people with disabilities, as part of the multicultural part of his speech. There’s buses we can’t even get on. It’s just part of trying to have a life and be active in the world, I think you have to be an activist if you’re disabled.

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“We have dancers who use power wheelchairs in this company, we’ve had dancers who use prosthetics, and they’ve danced with and without prosthetics, or they’ve used crutches. So you necessarily expand, and inherently radically expand, the possibilities of movement. And I know that’s what excites me, that’s what excites the dancers, and that’s what excites the choreographers when they’re coming in to work with us. It’s that our movement vocabulary is much more expansive because of the physicalities that we embody.” – Judith Smith

Oakulture: AXIS productions aren’t just dance. They embody aspects of spoken word and theater, and employ both social and personal commentary. For example, Joe Goode’s “To Go Again” is about veterans, and addresses the need for resiliency in the face of life-changing events. Why is it important to you to have these kind of multifaceted productions?

Judith Smith: Well, it became important because I saw Joe Goode’s work and I really liked his work. And he’s a dance theater person, so he does like to use song, and he does like to use text. Our early works were often about disability, very directly. We made a choice to not do things specifically about disability. Our early works were [also] very narrative, so it’s kind of something… we’ve used text from our first piece, that we performed at Calvin Simmons in 1998. In the Dance Brigades dance festival, the Furious Feet Festival for Social Change. So I just feel it’s, being a contemporary dance company, doing dance theater and doing pieces that include text and narrative, it just makes sense.

AXIS Dance Company. Photo by David DeSilve, courtesy www.axisdance.org

AXIS Dance Company. Photo by David DeSilve, courtesy http://www.axisdance.org

Oakulture: In the description of one of your video clips on Vimeo, it says, “these works were chosen as examples of the movement vocabulary, virtuosity, partnering and theatricality” of AXIS.  What do each of these concepts mean to you?

Judith Smith: Well, movement vocabulary, our vocabulary is obviously very different than most contemporary dance companies, because most contemporary dance companies have dancers that are all moving relatively similarly. We have dancers who use power wheelchairs in this company, we’ve had dancers who use prosthetics, and they’ve danced with and without prosthetics, or they’ve used crutches. So you necessarily expand, and inherently radically expand, the possibilities of movement. And I know that’s what excites me, that’s what excites the dancers, and that’s what excites the choreographers when they’re coming in to work with us. It’s that our movement vocabulary is much more expansive because of the physicalities that we embody. Virtuosity, I love seeing very very virtuosic dance, you know, the dance that is at the level of San Francisco Ballet or Lines or ODC or the non-disabled dancers of AXIS. And disabled dancers’ virtuosity is often very different. It’s one of those things where you cant watch somebody walking across the stage and it can be completely  mesmerizing, because it has to do with their presence, and their intention. Virtuosity for me, its not just physical. And all of our dancers work on whatever their virtuosity is, to keep growing that and improving that.

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But it’s different for every dancer, I think. Partnering, well, again, because we have so many different ways of moving, the options for partnering and the abilities for partnering are just expansive. It never ceases to amaze me. When we first started working with outside choreographers, it was the way they would see us partnering that was so much fun and so exciting and took us to places we couldn’t see. They’d be like, I’d like to see this and you’re kinda like, ok, well, we’ll try it. The partnering is just so exciting when you’re utilizing the way a wheelchair travels, or the way a crutch handles weight, you know the architecture that a cane or a crutch makes… the partnering options are really expanded. Theatricality kind of speaks for itself. Some dance pieces are much about the movement, about the music, about the timing, whatever. And then some, like Joe’s piece, are theatrical. I think Sonya Delwaide’s work is always very theatrical, even though it’s often abstract, she brings a theatricality into her work.

Tickets for AXIS’ 2015-16 Season are here.