Documenting the Oakland cultural renaissance


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

Life Is Living festival

Life Is Living festival

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

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

"Oakland Superheroes" mural in progress

“Oakland Superheroes” mural in progress

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

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

Altar for Antonio Ramos

Altar for Antonio Ramos

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

Antonio Ramos dedication at mural site

Antonio Ramos dedication at mural site

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

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

"Oakland Superheroes" mural in progress

“Oakland Superheroes” mural in progress

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

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

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

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

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

Life Is Living festival

Life Is Living festival

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

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

Life I Living Festival

Life Is Living Festival

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

Life Is Living festival

Life Is Living festival

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

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

In solidarity: Ieumsae

In solidarity: Ieumsae

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

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

#SoulOfOakland rally at City Hall

#SoulOfOakland rally at City Hall

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

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

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

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

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

Indigenous noise: Manny Lieras and George Galvis

Indigenous noise: Manny Lieras and George Galvis

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

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

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

Shefali Shah's Bomba troupe in action

Shefali Shah’s Bomba troupe in action

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

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

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

Well-played, Sambafunk. Well-played.

Dancers at the SoulOfOakland rally at the lake

Dancers at the SoulOfOakland rally at the lake

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The Born Supremacy: Lyrics Born’s Galactic Funk Mafia Revue

Lyrics Born

Lyrics Born

Live music review/ Lyrics Born/October 9, 2015/ New Parish

When it comes to live rap performers, audience expectations tend to be on the low side. One can probably count the list of stellar live emcees with both hands. That number might drop in half if you throw in the caveat: must be able to rock with live musicians. It may come as no surprise to diligent Bay Area hip-hop fans that Lyrics Born’s recent blowout show at the New Parish exceeded expectations. What’s eye-opening, though, is just by how much.

Oct 09 2015 273bw

LB, as he’s often abbreviated, has always followed the beat of his own drummer.  (Read the Oakulture Q&A here and here.) Emerging way back in the early 90s as an original member of the Solesides (later Quannum) collective, the Berkeley High/Skyline alum went from alternative hip-hop pioneer to eccentric experimentalist to funky radio hitmaker to international sensation to cagey OG veteran status in the course of, oh, almost 25 years. Mixing tongue-twisting colloquialisms and an appreciation for both quirky individuality and funky, phat grooves, he’s ripped more guest appearances and collabs than you can shake a rhythm stick at, in addition to producing a solid catalog which includes four studio albums, two Latyrx full-lengths (with Lateef the Truthspeaker), a couple of remix albums and EPs, several mix tapes, a live album, and a few compilation albums. But as deep as his recorded history is, he’s straight-up supreme when it comes to live shows with live musicians, with whom he’s been working with since the early 2000s.

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LB released his latest album, Real People, a few months back, but hadn’t done an East Bay date until his rendezvous at the Parish last Friday night.  Wait, it gets better. Not only had LB never previously appeared at the venue, but his special guests included members of New Orleans funksters Galactic and Bay area jazzbeaux Jazz Mafia, along with musical director (and former Whitesnake bassist) Uriah Duffy, and his Latyrx spar Lateef. If that’s not a recipe for an amazing musical evening, we don’t know what is, and the show was even better in practice than it sounds on paper, er, computer monitor or mobile screen.

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Let’s just get this out front: the new album has some bangers on it, and benefits from the collaborative association with Galactic, with whom LB recorded with in New Orleans. But songs that just sounded ok on the studio disc were absolute monsters in a live context.  That’s all LB, right there: if you like his studio recordings, you’ll absolutely love his live stuff.

Oct 10 2015 136The set list contained a blend of old and new, but newer stuff like “Chest Wide Open,” “$ir Racha,” “Rockaway” and “All Hail the Queen” never struggled to keep pace with more familiar material like “Do That There,” “Top Shelf,” or “Hott 2 Deff”, and in many instances accelerated the evening’s intensity.  Another major factor in the live goodness is LB’s wife and background vocalist, Joyo Velarde. They’re just so comfortable together on stage there were no real moments of uncertainty during the 24-song set. It was more like, ‘we got this,’ throughout the entire evening. Thankfully, Joyo not only took a solo turn on “Unwind Yourself,” but also supplied the “hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo” backgrounds which take 2003’s “Bad Dreams” –one of LB’s signature tracks–into the ethereal.

Joyo Velarde

Joyo Velarde

LB’s confidence was such that his biggest hit, “Callin’ Out,” was rather casually tossed off during the last quarter of his set; the five-song encore included a James Brown cover, two new songs, and two fairly obscure yet sublime tunes: the 2013 Latryx single “Exclamation Point” and “Coulda Shoulda Woulda,” from 2010’s As U Were. It’s a given that the ‘Message’-esque bassline of “Lady Don’t Tekno” still causes convulsions after more than 20 years, but then the idea to lay the James Brown/Fred Wesley classic “The Payback” under the naughty yet urbane “I’m a Phreak” was unforeseen yet very welcomed.

Oct 10 2015 159What makes Lyrics Born so good? As was the case with the Blackalicious show at the Fillmore awhile back, he just puts on a master class in emceeing. His flows are beyond stupid fresh, and his refusal to embrace stereotypical rap cliches is always refreshing. But more to the point, besides displaying incredible technical prowess on the vocals, he adds the charismatic stage presence of a seasoned performer who is impeccable when in his element, as well as an enviable rapport with his band members which lends itself to seamless musical communication. On this evening, they appeared to be one of the best bands on the planet, locked tight into seemingly endless grooves which somehow didn’t lack for elasticity.

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Bay Area Vibez Makes the Most of Oakland’s Glow [Review/Photoset]

Nas performs at Bay Area Vibez

Nas performs at Bay Area Vibez

Concert Review/ Bay Area Vibez, Sept. 26-27, @ Middle Harbor Shoreline Park

Location, location, location. For a very long time, Middle Harbor Shoreline Park has been one of Oakland’s best-kept secrets. But after this past weekend’s inaugural Bay Area Vibez festival, that’s no longer the case: word is out about the spot, which offers stunning views of the bay and the San Francisco skyline, similar to Treasure Island, except it’s less windy. Both days, the location was a constant source of chatter. “How come no one ever held a music festival here before?” was a frequently-repeated refrain.

Picturesque views added much to the festival's user experience

Picturesque views added much to the festival’s user experience

In retrospect, the location proved perfect for such an event, and went a long way toward a user experience which was much more amenable to comfort than many music festivals we’ve covered over the years. There was plenty of room for people to lay out picnic stuffs and chairs for a day of music in the sun, and just beyond the concert grounds, plank walkways led directly to even more chill-worthy spots on the shoreline. Such stunning natural surroundings made some of the inevitable production glitches associated with a first-time festival less of a big deal than they could have been, although the overlapping of sets between the two concert stages occasionally subtracted from the artists playing on the smaller, less-loud stage.

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The music was fairly well-curated, with more than 40 artists and DJs overall, with a heavy concentration of reggae, electronic music, and hip-hop, with the occasional funk and jazz band. That made for an interesting demographic mix of millennials as well as perennials.

The audience feeling the "Vibez"

The audience feeling the “Vibez”

The unquestioned highlight was Sunday’s flawless one-hour set by Nas, who appeared to have been auditioning for a spot in the hip-hop Hall of Fame. The Queensbridge emcee, one of the last artists to emerge from hip-hop’s 90s Golden Age, delighted the crowd with a strong concentration of material from his classic 1994 debut album Illmatic, which he peppered with songs from later albums like God’s Son, Hip Hop Is Dead, It Was Written, and I Am… . Honestly, it was one of the best live rap performances Oakulture has ever seen, driven mainly by the strength of Nas’ personality and his puissant lyrics. At one point, Nas shared an anecdote about Michael Jackson allowing a then-unknown rapper to sample “Human Nature” on the remix of “It Ain’t Hard to Tell,” then went into the song:

My mic check is life or death, breathing a sniper’s death
I exhale the yellow smoke of buddha through righteous steps
Deep like The Shinin’, sparkle like a diamond
Sneak a uzi on the island in my army jacket lining
Hit the Earth like a comet, invasion
Nas is like the Afrocentric Asian, half-man, half-amazing

It ain't hard to tell.

It ain’t hard to tell.

The show felt big, even though Nas was only accompanied by DJ Green Lantern. The location also contributed, as did the fact that he hit the stage right as the sun was going down, and thus had the benefit of a picturesque sunset with iridescent colors, known to locals as the “Oakland Glow.” Watching Nas perform, SF native and rap artist Sellassie Blackwell offered his own assessment of what made him so great: “he’s saying something.” Indeed, the content of his rhymes, as well as his delivery, is a big reason Nas is considered one of the best rappers ever to come out of New York.

Magical dancehall unicorn: Supercat

Magical dancehall unicorn: Supercat

The second-best highlight was unquestionably the return of an artist one observer called a “magical dancehall unicorn”: Supercat, a late 80s-early 90s hitmaker who reportedly hasn’t performed in the Bay Area since 1992. For longterm dancehall aficionados, this was a dream come true, and to top that off, Supercat still had the quick-tongued lyrical finesse  which made him a favorite in the first place. While he didn’t perform any new material, it didn’t really matter because tunes like “Vineyard Style,” “Dem No Care” and “Ghetto Red Hot” fired up the crowd with enthusiasm.

Stephen "Ragga" Marley

Stephen “Ragga” Marley

Supercat kicked off a top-ranking block of reggae programming Saturday night furthered by roots revivalists Morgan Heritage and two members of the Marley clan, Stephen and Damian, who kept the vibes simmering and the ganja clouds lifting.

Damian "Jr. Gong" Marley

Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley

Other highlights from earlier in the day included a super-tight set by the criminally-underrated Fishbone which dug deep into their catalog for songs like “Everyday Sunshine,” “Junkie’s Prayer,” and “Party At Ground Zero.” The manic energy of frontman Angelo Moore was complemented by excellent musicianship and particularly-compelling horn arrangements.

Angelo Moore of Fishbone

Angelo Moore of Fishbone

There was also an energetic main stage turn by The Grouch and Eligh, two members of the Living Legends crew (who got their start in a San Leandro St. warehouse and have grown into their moniker two decades later). Although both are veteran solo artists, they worked well as a duo on songs like “The Bay to LA.” Mid-day sets by Taurrus Riley, Cut Chemist and Aloe Blacc were pleasant but mostly unremarkable.

The Bay to LA: The Grouch and Eligh

The Bay to LA: The Grouch and Eligh

Oakulture arrived a bit later on the second day, just in time to catch a fantastic outing by the Kev Choice Ensemble which became an impromptu Bay Area Hip Hop All-Stars performance, as Choice’s already-tight band—featuring bassist Uriah Duffy, guitarist B’nai Rebelfront, and vocalist Viveca Hawkins—was accentuated by Zumbi Zoom of Zion-I, Deuce Eclipse of Bang Data, vocalist Jennifer Johns, Young Fyah and Sellassie. Their collar-popping performance, which included a blazing freestyle cipher, was almost enough to make up for the relative lack of other local artists on the celebrity-heavy bill. Almost.

Kev Choice Ensemble

Kev Choice Ensemble

It was also great to see the sublime set by Meshell Ndegeocello, a bassist and vocalist who is a bit of a musical chameleon and can play everything from abstract jazz to funky soul and R&B. Ndegeocello began her set with an amazing cover version of Ready For the World’s “Love You Down,” and also brought new life to the Whodini classic “Friends.” Her band was in perfect synch, too, but it was a little disappointing that Nas’ set started before hers was done. Unfortunately, the same thing happened to Kev Choice, whose set overlapped with a louder and much less musically-interesting set by DJ Z-Trip — whose biggest bright point was a freestyle by emcee Supernatural who was handed objects by the audience, including a baby, and worked them into his flow.

Meshell Ndegeocello

Meshell Ndegeocello

Overall, though, the experience was a positive one, and feedback from attendees were that they would not only return next year, but were looking forward to it.


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Matatu 2015 Packs A Year’s Worth of Culture Into a Week

Still from "Asni"

Still from “Asni”

Ever wonder what youth in Richmond, CA and youth in Johannesburg, South Africa have in common, as well as what separates them? Or what Ethiopian Afro-futurist sci-fi looks like? How about a Senegalese political uprising which received scant media coverage in the US? What about an underground NY hip-hop radio show which became a cultural institution?

These questions and more will be answered by the 2015 Matatu Festival of Stories, the third installment in founder and director Michael Orange’s mission to bring easily-overlooked independent films and documentaries, many of them addressing Afrocentric themes or relating to black culture. This time out, the Matatu—an East African Swahili slang word meaning passenger taxi or minibus, similar to the jeepneys of the Philippines—makes its rounds through the Diaspora, touching the West and East Coast of America, the Netherlands and its former colony Suriname, as well as East, West, and Southern Africa. The ride is rife with adventure and rich in cultural capital, and this year, the festival’s cinematic selections are enhanced by live performances, meet-ups, special guest performers, and a Matatu-inspired art show.

The Opening Night selection, “Necktie Youth,” examines a fast-emerging post-apartheid South Africa, as seen through the eyes of wealthy, suburban, Jo’Burg youth who struggle to find themselves within a newly-open society which still grapples with issues of race and class. “Necktie Youth” is a coming-of-age story which sometimes plays like the African version of “Kids” – there are graphic descriptions of sex and of drug and alcohol consumption. Viewing contemporary Johannesburg through the lens of privileged yet haunted young adults, the film has a semi-documentary feel—nearly all of it is shot in black and white. It is in some ways a perfect bookend to “Dear Mandela,” a 2013 Matatu selection, which examined the bittersweet legacy of Nelson Mandela through the eyes of the poor and politically-unfortunate.

Still from "Necktie Youth"

Still from “Necktie Youth”

But this is a South Africa we haven’t seen before. In “Necktie Youth,” there are no overt politics at play, and interracialism has become a natural course of events, yet the grip of the past hasn’t completely loosened. Promiscuous white women from Pretoria fetishize their black lovers while drawing boundaries between their lustful trysts and their conservative Afrikaaner parents. It’s interesting to see African youth adopt black American slang to their own, and observe their mannerisms, which speaks to the universality of youth culture as well as its regional variations.

“Romeo is Bleeding” also focuses on youth, in this case the young black people of Richmond, CA, who struggle with their own issues—a multi-generational turf war from which there seems to be no escape, the inevitable reality of violence which has become recidivist, and their abandonment by an older generation who fell prey to incarceration and/or substance abuse. The documentary ‘s narrative arc tells the story of Donte Clark, a product of Richmond’s streets whose family members are feared soldiers in the conflict between North and Central Richmond. Clark turns to spoken word poetry as a way of expressing emotions threatened with permanent numbing by losing friends to jail or bullets. He becomes a teacher and mentor to young adults, even though he’s not much older himself in calendar years. When a white friend starts a theater company, they decide to adapt Shakespeare’s “Romeo & Juliet” into a Richmond-centered tale, with the town’s two warring factions substituting for the Capulets and the Montagues.

The movie reveals the oft-held belief that the black community is unconcerned with stopping intra-hood violence to be a glaring misconception. Clark’s commitment to being a positive, shining example in the face of adversity is tested by the cyclic nature of violence itself; still he pushes forward, on a mission to prove that “love in Richmond is possible.”

Speaking of love, it’s the central theme of “Crumbs,” a wonderfully-realized story set in a post-apocalyptic future which employs elements of magical realism, like Octavia Butler and Guillermo Del Toro’s progeny. A scavenging dwarf, his love interest, Santa Claus, a shifty pawn shop owner, plastic children’s toys and Michael Jackson album covers highly valued as mystical artifacts, second-generation Nazis, and a mysterious UFO populate this madcap tale, shot in Ethiopia. The film has much to say, even if some of it is cryptic. Like most heroes, the dwarf takes a journey. But instead of achieving the stated goal of his quest, in the end, he finds something far more precious was in his possession all along. A surreal comedy, “Crumbs” is ultimately an affirmation of human compassion and emotion which posits that the future is only as bleak as we allow it to be.

Meanwhile in Senegal, reverberations from the Egyptian uprising which saw the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak echo throughout “Incorruptible,” a documentary tracing the 2012 election which toppled the government of Abdoulaye Wade. The conditions are similar; Wade’s administration, once revered by the Senegalese people, has become a hotbed of corruption and nepotism, falling out of touch with the demands of the long-suffering underclass for better living conditions. After Wade changes the constitution to run for a third term, a protest movement begins to gather steam. Efforts by the government to quell the insurgency using tear gas and even live bullets backfire as the Senegalese take to the streets to demand regime change. Even as mosques are targeted and tanks brought in, the opposition insists it is not seeking violent confrontation with the government, but a democratic election process. After a field of candidates, including singer Youssou N’Dour, whittles down to a run-off between Wade and challenger Malky Sall, state-backed militias engage in political violence as the government tries to tighten its grip on power – “the truth is under attack,” N’Dour says. A Wade speech where he insists the dissent is unimportant is effectively contrasted by footage of protesters throwing rocks at a billboard of the President. Y’en a Marre, a youth activism group which uses rap music as a consciousness-raising tool, helps propel Sall to victory, but warns him that their loyalty is to Senegal, not to any one politician.

Still from "Marga Weinans"

Still from “Marga Weinans”

“Incorruptible” offers an eye-opening view into an African Muslim population which is more interested in dialogue than terrorism – a revelation to an American mindset inundated with Islamophobic propaganda. It effectively captures a historical moment in time which may be seen as a turning point for African democracy. A sense of urgency is conveyed through handheld footage of protesters being tear-gassed; there are many poignant looks at of the faces of the Senegalese people, while a beautiful score by Akon (who also executive-produced the film) and Mark Batson captures the emotion, idealism and dignity of a revolutionary movement all but unknown to the West.

Other highlights of the festival include “Stretch and Bobbito,” a documentary about the long-running hip-hop radio show notable for breaking major hip-hop artists like Nas, Notorious B.I.G., Jay-Z, Eminem, and Wu-Tang Clan; “Fashion House: Marga Weimans,” a black designer who makes waves in both the Netherlands and Suriname; “Asni: Courage, Passion and Glamor in Ethiopia,” a documentary about Asnaketch Worku, a trailblazing female vocalist who became an East African pop culture icon; and “Red Leaves,” an Ethiopian/Israeli film which addresses immigration and cultural assimilation and retention, as seen through the eyes of a 74-year old falasha, Meseganio Tadela.

As if a whole program of inspired films wasn’t enough, the Matatu concept also manifests through an equally-rich schedule of festival-related events to engage your brain, your mouth, and your body. These include a dinner at Miss Ollie’s featuring a book reading by Saul Williams, artist talks with Mahader Tesfai and Donte Clark,  and jazz records spun by chef Bryant Terry; a happy hour hosted by Souls of Society, followed by performances by Williams and avant-garde outfit Black Spirituals; an evening of experimental music with Shafiq Husayn and Mark de Clive-Lowe; an excursion into “four-part communication” with Afro-jazz group Democratics; kora music by Zéna ft. Amaranth String Quartet;  a live set by emerging Eritrean-American artist Eden Hagos; and a dance performance by Alonzo King Lines Ballet.

Shafiq Husayn

Shafiq Husayn

Not only is this the most action-packed Matatu to date, but the level of programming is beyond ambitious, and borders on the insane: a full week’s worth of visceral, intellectual and visual stimuli which may test your stamina. It’s almost as if Orange and festival producer Maria Judice tried to make up for the relative lack of access to Afro-futuristic culture the other 51 weeks of the year, by overstuffing the Matatu to an extreme capacity. Fasten your seat belts, Oakland, and enjoy the ride.

The Matatu Festival runs September 22-26 at various locations, including Miss Ollie’s, Flight Deck, and Starline Social Club.

A complete list of Matatu 2015 films is here

A complete guide to Matatu events is here

For more information about Matatu, visit here

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“East Side Sushi”: A Tasty Film About Female Empowerment

Diana Elizabeth Torres plays aspiring sushi chef Juana

Diana Elizabeth Torres plays aspiring sushi chef Juana. Photo courtesy Anthony Lucero

Great films are often a collection of little moments which form a larger gestalt. A case in point: The sushi chef competition scene in “East Side Sushi.” It’s one of the best sequences you’ll see in any film this year. Like the rest of the movie, it’s a smart scene, played with equal parts comedy and drama, as four sushi chefs, three of them Japanese, vie for the title of “Sushi Champion.” The fourth chef is our heroine, Juana, a single mom of Mexican ancestry who has improbably yet amazingly ingratiated herself into the male-dominated, highly-traditional, world of sushi chefs.

Watching the scene unfold, there’s an emotional investment in Juana’s character and the outcome of the competition. It’s the movie’s defining moment; We’ve followed the journey of Juana, played by Diana Elizabeth Torres, from abandoning her father’s Fruitvale fruit cart business after a violent robbery, to working at jobs which offer no possibility of advancement – or health benefits – to being hired as an assistant prep cook at a fictional Japanese sushi restaurant, Osaka (a stand-in for the real-life Coach Sushi, on Grand Ave.). Despite being told, “we don’t usually hire women,” she gets the job.

Juana’s a quick learner, and the knife skills she developed peeling fruit and working in Mexican restaurants serve her well in cutting sashimi and ngiri. She’s taken under the wing of Aki (Yutaka Takeuchi), an amiable sushi chef, and practices her craft on her family — substituting poblano for nori, using chile relleno, pico de gallo, and Tapatio hot sauce as ingredients — but runs afoul of Mr. Yoshida (Roji Oyama), the restaurant’s traditional-minded boss, who’s worried Osaka’s authenticity will suffer if he allows Juana to join the other chefs at the front of the restaurant.

Yukata Takeuchi and Diana Elizabeth Torres in a scene from "East Side Sushi." photo courtesy of Anthony Lucero

Yukata Takeuchi and Diana Elizabeth Torres in a scene from “East Side Sushi.” Photo courtesy of Anthony Lucero

The larger subtext—of a patriarchal man afraid of female empowerment – is evident. Yet Juana is not only determined, she’s the fastest, most inventive sushi chef at the restaurant. With Aki’s encouragement, she sets her sights on her goal, and enters the competition as a way to prove her worthiness. She also earns the support of her initially-skeptical father (Rodrigo Duarte Clark), the film’s other patriarchal figure.

Stories like the one “East Side Sushi” tells are the reason why people love indie films. The storyline is refreshingly non-Hollywood, and non-cliché, the characters are personable and realistic, and the writing and direction of Oakland native Anthony Lucero (making his directorial debut) never hits a false note.

Juana is a feminist heroine without an academic background, a real-seeming person who embraces an adopted culture without diluting her own. Her passing resemblance to Frida Kahlo makes it easy to imagine her as a rebel and visionary. Her ideology, however, comes down to one of social inclusion: “in every great restaurant, there are great Latinos in the back, prepping the food… I don’t want to be in the back,” she says at one point.

Stories like the one “East Side Sushi” tells are the reason why people love indie films. The storyline is refreshingly non-Hollywood and non-cliché, the characters are personable and realistic, and the writing and direction of Oakland native Anthony Lucero (making his directorial debut) never hits a false note. Amazingly, the film was made for less than $35,000, yet it feels rich in storytelling, unlike films with exponentially-higher budgets and empty souls.

The other main theme of the movie is one of cultural intersectionality and embracing diversity, for which Oakland proves the perfect backdrop. Mexican sushi may seem like an oxymoron, but Juana’s “Mayan Sun roll” is a hit with customers, and her signature roll, the poblano-infused “Green Diablo,” plays with the idea that traditional culture can and should be updated and innovated upon.

Juana (Diana Elizabeth Torres) works at a Fruitvale fruit cart. Photo courtesy Anthony Lucero

Juana (Diana Elizabeth Torres) works at a Fruitvale fruit cart. Photo courtesy Anthony Lucero

Part of the fun for local audiences will be in identifying all the Oakland locations referenced in the film, which include KTOP, Tacos Sinaloa, the Main Library, Aztek dancers, the salsa dancers at the Lake Merritt pillars, and cultural murals in the Fruitvale District. Foodies, especially sushi aficionados, will also enjoy all the focus on the behind-the-scenes food prep, such as the correct ratio of rice, vinegar, sugar, and salt to make sticky rice. Be forewarned, though, that watching this movie can stir a powerful craving for sushi which may cause a post-film run to your favorite spot.

“East Side Sushi” opens today (September 18) at the Grand Lake Theater in Oakland, the Elmwood in Berkeley, and the Kabuki in San Francisco. For more information, visit www.eastsidesushifilm.com.





Blackalicious Is Back and “Blacka” Than Ever

Jumbo, Gift of Gab, and Lateef

Jumbo, Gift of Gab, and Lateef

Live Review/ Blackalicious, Zion-I, Martin Luther, Raw-G/ Sept 10, The Fillmore

A week before the release of Imani Vol. 1, their first album in 10 years, Bay Area hip-hop veterans Blackalicious blessed fans with a statement show. Their message? We’re back and “Blacka” than ever. That’s a reference to their new single, a hard-hitting lyrical banger (“blacker than a panther, blacker than Atlanta/ open like the dark starry background of Saturn”) which hints they’ve got plenty left in the tank.

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The new song was one of the highlights of a set which was pretty much a clinical demonstration of how to rock a crowd. It may have been the best Blackalicious show I’ve ever seen out of the dozens of times I’ve seen them live. Although they didn’t have the two female soul singers, Qween and Erin Anova, who toured with them during the 2000s, they made up for it with guest appearances by Fantastic Negrito, Jumbo and Vursatyl of the Lifesavas, and frequent collaborator Lateef the Truthspeaker — a constantly-animated presence whose kinetic energy helped enliven the proceedings considerably.

Lateef the Truthspeaker

Lateef the Truthspeaker

It’s easy to see why Blackalicious have been a fan favorite for three decades now. Along with their Solesides/Quannum brethren Lateef, DJ Shadow, and Lyrics Born, they were pioneers of the alternative hip-hop genre who have consistently set a high bar for innovation and creativity while maintaining a high degree of technical virtuosity and stylistic aesthetics. Emcee Gift of Gab is probably your favorite rappers’ favorite rapper, a man blessed with seemingly-infinite amounts of breath control, which he channels into amazing lyrical patterns and rhyme flows. Producer Chief Xcel is one of the most underrated beatsmiths in hip-hop history, who has evolved from the simple sample-and-loop ethos of 1993’s “Swan Lake” to create complex, nuanced soundscapes which refute the notion that “conscious” hip-hop acts have underwhelming musical tracks.

Gift of Gab

Gift of Gab

Take, for example, the “da-de-da-da-da-da-da-da” chorus from “Deception,” the classic song from the Nia album which gives the tune a hooky, accessible feel without overly pandering to mainstream sensibilities. That’s a song Blackalicious fans never get tired of hearing, along with “Rhythm Sticks” – a standout from 2005’s The Craft. Both of those songs sounded great at the Fillmore, but it was especially good to hear some new material as well. In addition to “Blacka,” the audience was treated to “That Night”— on which Gab, Jumbo and Vursatyl pass the mic like a hot potato while detailing some N’Awlins hijinks, and “Love’s Gonna Save the Day” – a simmering, soulful track which continues the meteoric rise of Fantastic Negrito, who supplies the inspirational hook.

Fantastic Negrito

Fantastic Negrito

Blackalicious’ headlining performance capped an eventful and momentous evening which seemed to forward the momentum generated for Bay Area hip-hop by Hiero Day, which took place just three days prior. Two of the artists on the undercard, in fact, were carryovers from the Hiero Day lineup: Zion-I and Martin Luther. Zion-I are another act who deliver a great live show, whether for 10s of thousands of fans or a few hundred. Joined by Bang Data’s Deuce Eclipse, emcee Zumbi Zoom showed he’s got classics for days too – the set list included “Bird’s Eye View,” “Hit Em,” “Don’t Lose Your Head” – which segued into a long freestyle session between Deuce and Zumbi – and the regional anthem “The Bay,” which seems to grow in stature with every rendition. Martin Luther is technically not a rapper, but for a soul singer, the SF native’s streetwise persona ironically contrasts his frequently emotionally-resonant material. Along with the always-beautiful “Rise” (which dates back to the neo-soul era), he pulled off a cover of Bob Marley’s “Crazy Baldheads,” to the crowd’s delight.

Chief XL

Chief XL

Early birds got a special treat: opener Raw-G, the bilingual Mexican emcee with the razor-sharp staccato delivery, performed a short but potent set highlighting songs from her new album Sangre. Whether opining about immigrant rights (“all that shit needs to change,” she said), busting a cappella flows over beatboxed rhythms, or leading a trio of backup singers (including Naima Shalhoub and Lila Rose) into an updated version of the Latin music classic “Guantanamera,” she was an engaging presence who bears further watching (and listening to). The show also featured some pretty good in-between set DJing by Davey-D and D-Sharp.

Martin Luther

Martin Luther

While hip-hop shows are somewhat rare at the Fillmore, when local artists get the opportunity to rock the historic venue, they tend not to disappoint. The Blackalicious show more than upheld that maxim, and Oakulture would like to think that the group – currently wrapping up a string of Pacific Northwest tour dates before heading to France, England, Austria, and Switzerland in October – put a little something extra on it for the hometown.

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Hiero Day 2015: Bay Area Hip Hop’s High Holy Day Was Hot AF

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An excited Hiero Day crowd

The Bay Area’s Indian Summer was in full swing, as temperatures hit a high of 90 degrees for Monday’s Hiero Day. Now in its fourth year, the annual Labor Day hip-hop extravaganza was both a celebration of an indie hip-hop aesthetic, and the ongoing legacy of the Hieroglyphics, the veteran Oakland crew the event is named for. To a certain extent, the two are interchangeable; over the past 20-plus years, Hiero have branded themselves as indie hip-hop incarnate – when you see their “third eye” logo, it brings to mind not only dedication to the art of rhyming and sub-mainstream stylistic sensibilities, but a cultural lifestyle which doesn’t revolve around materialist bling nor sensationalized violence and misogyny.

With Hiero Day, the collective’s members not only pay tribute to themselves and their hard-to-define-but-tangible impact over the decades, but also to like-minded groups with similar sensibilities – many of them either from the Bay or Southern California. It’s a smart piece of marketing, and one that ensures Hiero’s freshness and relevancy, since every Hiero Day offers an opportunity to connect with younger audience, some of whom were not yet born when the crew made its first appearance, on “Burnt,” the flip side of Del’s “Sleeping On My Couch” single back in 1991.

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Hiero Day furthers the sense of being and belonging so important to a relatively isolated region like the Bay. It’s a day when hip-hop truly lives, one that not only validates artists who may be underrepresented through traditional channels like commercial radio, but also validates fans who follow the culture, and not the trends.

What was especially cool about this year’s lineup was the proliferation of indie hip-hop reunions by onetime local favorites: Cali Agents, Foreign Legion, Crown City Rockers, the Luniz, and Native Guns all made appearances, reminding listeners why the late 90s and 2000s were about more than hyphy for the Bay’s hip-hop scene. Joining them were still-active Bay standard-bearers The Coup, Zion-I, and Martin Luther, and SoCal legends the Alkaholiks, and Compton’s Most Wanted (featuring MC Eiht). All in all, there were almost 50 live acts and DJs, not including guest appearances and cameos (from Deuce Eclipse, Dru Down, Kimiko Joy, King Tee, Kev Choice and others).

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Deuce Eclipse and Zumbi Zoom of Zion-I

With short live sets, the actual performances took a bit of a backseat to the magnitude of the event itself: there were moments of elevation here and there, but mostly it was about being there, holding space and being surrounded by folks who shared the same cultural tastes as you – whether you were 18 or 38. The population density was not as thick as the previous year, when admission was free (this year’s advance tickets were $19.93), but that led to a slightly less-congested experience overall. It says something about Hiero Day’s audience that in an era where big festivals with high ticket prices and/or only a handful of rap or urban acts often don’t turn out truly diverse demographics, the folks who showed up Monday ran completely counter to this trend. The many-hued, intergenerational, and reasonably gender-balanced crowd represented the oft-mythologized, rarely realized, American “melting pot.”

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Silk-E of the Coup

Strolling through the festival grounds, one could dip into any of three stages to catch live acts or DJs, witness b-boy ciphers, turf dancers and live graffiti painting, browse wares ranging from vape pens to t-shirts to food trucks, or espy a shady spot for a brief respite from the sweltering heat. Backstage, the mood—enhanced by Elation hemp-flavored vodka and numerous spliffs being passed around—was one of peacefulness and joy, two words rarely heard in conjunction with hip-hop these days. Despite the heat, everyone was chill. The wall separating artist and fan was frequently broken down, as well-known local celebs gathered for group photos or cheesed for candid shots with CMW’s Eiht, Heltah Skeltah’s Rockness, or Hip-Hop TV’s Ed Lover.

There was a lot of networking going on, which lends credence to the notion that Hiero Day’s greatest impact might be that it provides the Bay Area hip-hop scene with a modicum of industry infrastructure not seen since the heyday of the Gavin Convention some twenty years ago. Hiero Day furthers the sense of being and belonging so important to a relatively isolated region like the Bay. It’s a day when hip-hop truly lives, one that not only validates artists who may be underrepresented through traditional channels like commercial radio, but also validates fans who follow the culture, and not the trends. The fact that it’s become a cultural institution in just a few short years – evolving organically and from a place of integrity – speaks to just how much something like this was needed to counterbalance the corporate commodification of hip-hop which has become the rule and not the exception. And from all appearances, Hiero Day appears to be structurally solid and poised to remain a High Holy Day for hip-hop disciples for the foreseeable future.

photo by Rod Campbell

photo by Rod Campbell



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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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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Janelle Monae brings “Hell You Talmbout” to San Francisco

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The current #BlackLivesMatter/ #SayHerName/ #SayHis Name movement has been compared to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, a time when African Americans practiced social assembly and civil disobedience to put an end to racial discrimination and Jim Crow laws. The freedom rides, rallies and marches immortalized in PBS’ “Eyes on The Prize” series were set to a soundtrack which included anthems of social protest, including the Staple Singers’ “I’ll Take You There,” Sam Cooke’s “A Change Gon’ Come,” and “We Shall Overcome.”

Five decades later, Janelle Monae’s “Hell You Talmbout” gives credence to the comparison by supplying the nascent movement with its own anthem. The song itself, released last week, has been called “visceral” by NPR, but it’s much more than that. The song’s sparse arrangement—it’s just percussion and call-and-response vocals—harks back to the sanctified roots of Black American music, the field hollers which predate jazz, blues, rock, funk, house, and rap. But the power of the song comes from the repetitive mention of Black lives lost, mostly at the hands of police—in the recorded version, they include Walter Scott, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Miriam Carey, Sharonda Singleton, Sandra Bland, Tommy Yancey, Jordan Baker, Amadou Diallo, and Emmett Till.

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The juxtaposition of arrangement and message suggest a cultural continuum as serpentine as the Mississippi river, a context in which the souls of black folk never change, although the environment in which the field hollers resound has shifted from rural slave plantation to highway chain gang to modern-day, urbanized city—bright lights and all. “Hell you Talmbout” takes the listener back like the movie “Sankofa,” reminding those with ears to hear that the liberation struggle is not only very real, but its lifeblood is literally the death throes of  innumerable murdered brothers and sisters, extinguished by the long shadow of the dark side of American history.

Monae performed the song on the Today show on August 14, but her speech about #BLM was reportedly cut short.  No biggie; her response to corporate America restricting her message was to take it to the streets. Currently on tour with her artist collective Wondaland, Monae has been connecting with local activists at every stop, lending her celebrity presence to the cause of justice. To her credit, she’s seemed less interested in self-promotion than in building with an activist community who share her ideological leanings.

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This past Sunday, prior to a show at SF’s Independent, Monae and Wondaland were the guests of honor at a demonstration/rally against “police terror” in solidarity with the Stop Mass Incarceration Network . Also present were the families of Alex Nieto, Oscar Grant, Pedie Perez, and Oshay Davis, as well as supporters of transgender victims of violence including Kandis Capri, Ashton O’Hara, and Elima Walker. More placards were visible in the audience, bearing the names of Alan Blueford, Ramarley Graham, Michelle Cusseaux, Nate Wilks, and many others. Each of the families of police victims present were given an opportunity to speak, to mourn, to lament, to call for justice. And the Black transgender community showed up to make the point that their lives mattered as much as anyone’s. Another group, calling themselves the Last 3%, bemoaned the whitening of San Francisco due to the disappearance of its once-healthy Black population, now reduced to a single-digit demographic. There were also performances, including drummers from Loco Bloco and a conscious/political rapper who delivered fiery lyrics in the vein of Public Enemy’s Chuck D.

The highlight was a ten-minute version of “Hell You Talmbout,” preceded by a brief statement by Monae. “What we see right before our eyes is the unity that’s happening right now. There’s so many different shades that we’re all looking at right now, we’re coming together. We don’t believe in a red state or a blue state. This is a purple state. It’s all together.  I send my condolences to everybody’s family, everybody’s loved one that’s here today.

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“We created a tool, because we believe that sound is our weapon. And silence is our enemy.” With that, she introduced “Hell you Talmbout,” adding, “we commend everyone on the frontlines, protesting, day in and day out, and we want you to be able to use this song for whatever community. It doesn’t just plague one community, but it’s all of our problems. So join us as Wondaland, as we sing this song that we have given to you the people, as well as ourselves, to remind us that we have to keep speaking up.”

The energy in the 24th St. BART plaza was electric as Monae started out by name-checking Maya Holm, Aiyana Jones, and Sandra Bland. “Say Her Name!!! Say Her Name!!! Say Her Name!!!, Say Her Name!!!, Say Her Name!!!, Say Her Name!!!, Say Her Name!!!,” Say Her Name!!!,” the entire crowd—which looked to be several hundred people—shouted. More names followed:  Nate Wilks, Sean Bell, Alicia Walker, Alex Nieto, Oscar Grant, Sharonda Singleton, Ramarley Graham, Pedie Perez, Alex Martinez, DeWayne Ward, Fred Hampton, India Clarke, Oshay Davis, and David McCarter.

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The names themselves hold power, adding a directness to “Hell You Talmbout” which the vaguely-worded liberation anthems of past generations lacked. One might say the song journeys even deeper into ritual tradition than even Sam Cooke or Mavis Staples dared at that time. It makes for an interesting dichotomy, advancing the methodology of social protest music while maintaining a stripped-down, retro sensibility. The fact that Monae and Wondaland are doing this all over the country makes it even more fluid, since at every stop, different names are said.

After the song concluded, Monae led a peaceful yet vocal procession through the Mission which felt like a civil rights movement is supposed to feel – minus the direct antagonism of Alabama police dogs or Oakland tear gas. Being alive, being visible, being vocal, and being in solidarity with a movement which is growing larger by the minute was a good feeling.

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