Documenting the Oakland cultural renaissance

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Umoja Festival Heats Up Oakland’s Pan-Africanism

The large Umoja banner became a photo opp backdrop

The large Umoja banner became a photo opp backdrop

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

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

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

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

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Dream Day 2015 Honors Oakland Style Master’s Legacy

DJ Apollo throws down

DJ Apollo throws down

The legend of Mike “Dream” Francisco was repainted al fresco at this past Saturday’s Dream Day. An afternoon-long celebration of the aerosol arts and cultural hip-hop, the event was a heartwarming tribute to the TDK Crew member and graffiti-writing pioneer, an inspirational figure and community mainstay, tragically murdered in 2000. This year’s event marked 15 years since Dream passed, yet his memory—and legacy—seem stronger than ever. Not only was this the 5th annual Dream Day, but also the second straight year at its current location, the Greenpeace Yard on 7th St. in West Oakland. The continuity was a nice touch; several of last year’s Dream tributes, including a huge central wall, remained up, while newer pieces were worked on throughout the day.

Dream Day has become a much-anticipated event for Oakland’s cultural hip-hop community, and one which cements the important role aerosol writing plays in it. It’s a day where graf veterans and newbies alike mingle and paint openly during the daytime—a cultural, sometimes-illegal, practice usually held under cover of nightfall in clandestine locations. It’s also somewhat of a High Holy Day for the still-active TDK members, with near-religious significance. And it’s a day where OG rappers, DJs and breakers perform live and maintain their community standing, transmitting authenticity to a new generation, most of whom were drawing with crayons in preschool when Dream and his peers were putting Oakland on the aerosol art map.

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The unquestioned highlight of the afternoon was an emotional appearance by Saafir, the legendary rapper and Hobo Junction member who’s been confined to a wheelchair for the last few years due to health reasons. Saafir was originally scheduled to perform, but alas, his health didn’t permit that. Still, he snuck away from the clinic he’s undergoing treatment (for spinal cancer) for a few precious moments to address the crowd. Afterwards, he was swarmed by well-wishers and posed for a pic with Dream’s son Akil.

Besides viewing a yard full of Dream-themed murals and murals-in-progress, late-arriving attendees were treated to an amazing set by DJ Apollo (TripleThreat/Invisible Skratch Picklz), who threw down hip-hop and breakbeat classic after classic, in turn inspiring veteran Pinoy hip-hop crew Knuckle Neck Tribe (KNT) and other b-boys and b-girls, to pop, lock, strut, show off footwork, and bust headspins and freezes. When you’re watching guys in their 30s and 40s breakdance, you know it’s a good afternoon. More than one person remarked that the spectacle made them think they were in the Bronx, circa 1984 – a good look for Oakland in 2015.

Other highlights were provided by Nump and Equipto, two veteran Bay Area emcees who had nothing but love for Dream. Nump dedicated a song, “Be Like Mike,” to Dream, performed his hyphy-era classic “I Got Grapes,” and said “yadadamean” frequently, to the crowd’s delight.  He also brought out special guests J-Boog and Mac Mall during his set, who performed their hits “Let’s Do It Again” and “Sic Wit Tis,” respectively. Equipto, meanwhile, came to spit bars. The original Bored Stiff member showed why his lyrical rep has remained strong among the region’s indie rap scene for two decades. Zion-I’s Zumbi Zoom also rocked the mic, with a rendition of the now-classic “Don’t Lose Your Head.” Also spotted in the crowd: The Grouch (Living Legends/G&E), Pep Love (Hieroglyphics), and DJ Platurn (45 Sessions/Oakland Faders).

The maturation of the Bay’s hip-hop and aerosol scene was evident from the fact that many attendees brought their kids. Still, there was plenty of adult fun to be had, including a beverage stand which served up cold brews and sangria. Other nourishment was provided by lumpia and chicken from the Lucky Three Seven Filipino food truck.

Along with Hiero Day, Dream Day has become one of the most reverential days of the year for Oakland’s hip-hop community. Its significance was apparent even to those who have no personal memories of Dream, a stellar artist and style master who was an even better person in real life. The cultural ritual of honoring the ancestors who walked before us is a longstanding one, but one which happens too-infrequently in hip-hop. But to see Akil—who was only a baby when the first benefit event honoring Dream was thrown in San Francisco some fourteen years ago—grow into a tall young man, strapping with pride and confidence, not only portends hope for the next generation, but validates the efforts of event organizer Marty “Willie Maze” Aranaydo and the TDK Crew. They’ve taken up Dream’s name like a patron saint of authentic hip-hop, which of course he is. All these years, they’ve nurtured his legacy, refusing to let it fade. In the process, they’ve kept the cultural heart of Oakland hip-hop beating.

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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.

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As Development Boom Bubbles, Oakland’s Arts Scene Increasingly Troubled

Community memebrs discuss art at an Oakland Creative Neighborhoods Coalition meeting

Community members discuss art at an Oakland Creative Neighborhoods Coalition meeting

Last January, when Mayor Schaaf proudly preened in a Burning Man-style art car during her inauguration, hopes were high that art would become a priority. After all, Oakland’s much-ballyhooed cultural renaissance had brought national and even international attention to the city, completely remaking an image once invariably linked to crime and blight.

Libby Schaff rode in an art car during her inauguration lat January

Libby Schaaf rode in an art car during her inauguration last January

But perhaps arts advocates should have paid more attention to the fact that the onetime Skyline High cheerleader and Jerry Brown aide was driving around in a motorized snail. Just six months into the new administration, there’s been little, if any, forward progress; the arts community has slid into crisis mode, and city officials’ lack of accountability and direction where the arts are concerned is a big reason why

Two weeks ago, the news from the arts scene was that the Rock Paper Scissors Collective was looking for a new home after it was informed its rent would be rising. Last week, even more portentousness appeared: First Humanist Hall—supporter of underground film festivals, non-profit organizations, and community gatherings—was declared a nuisance due to noise complaints from new neighbors. Then the City Council chose developer Orton for the Henry J Kaiser space over a competing proposal from a group including longtime arts supporter Randolph Belle, which was focused around community benefits (including a workforce development plan, in conjunction with Laney College). Instead of a mid-size arena, hotel, and convention center, the space is now expected to hold tech offices and a brewery.

Detail from Brett Cook's

Detail from Brett Cook’s “Reflections of Healing”

Development vs. Art

But that’s not all: Last Thursday, the Building Industry Association of the Bay Area (BIA) announced it had filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city, alleging the percent for public art requirement, which took effect this past February, violated the First and Fifth Amendments. In a press release, the Pacific Legal Foundation’s Tony Francois claimed the ordinance “harms the public interest,” although it’s unclear how public art, which is by definition beneficial to the community, could be detrimental. BIA’s Executive Officer Bob Glover called the ordinance “irresponsible” and claimed it would further drive up the cost of housing, even though the majority of the development projects in Oakland’s pipeline have no affordable housing component.

Ironically, news of the lawsuit came just one day after San Francisco announced it was committing $50 million to public art on Treasure Island, an initiative funded in part by SF’s own percent for art ordinance.

“Oakland’s hallmark is its diversity, and if we can create arts districts that both celebrate and differentiate the many cultures represented here, we will be successful.” – Steve Huss, former Oakland Cultural Arts Manager

“Public art is an essential community benefit,” says Anyka Barber, founder and Director/Curator of Oakland’s Betti Ono gallery, noting that Oakland is one of many major Bay Area cities that have adopted percent for art ordinances. According to Craig Watson, Executive Director of the California Arts Council, percent for art programs are common throughout the country; there are more than 300 such programs nationwide, he says. Alma Robinson, Executive Director of California Lawyers for the Arts, says lawsuits challenging public art requirements are uncommon, but when cases have been tried, “cities have prevailed.”

Developers, she added, “should be proud to support the enhancement of Oakland through public art, [which] really enriches cities.”

Besides SF, similar percent for art requirements exist in several nearby cities, including Emeryville, Richmond, San Jose, Walnut Creek, Santa Rosa, Sunnyvale, El Cerrito, and San Mateo.  Nationwide, percent for art programs exist in 27 states and territories, including Oregon, Louisiana, Connecticut, Iowa, Washington, D.C., Maine, New Mexico, Rhode Island, Vermont,  Alaska, Maine, Utah, Montana, South Carolina, and Guam. Considering the proliferation of such programs, the lawsuit would seem to have little legal merit. However, it can be viewed as a clear message from developers to elected officials that they run the city, and not the other way around.

Zio Zieglar's recent mural commenorating the 70yh anniversary of the UN charter in downtown Oakland

Zio Zieglar’s recent mural commemorating the 70th anniversary of the UN charter in downtown Oakland

Magnet for Economic Development

As if that wasn’t enough, word is that Steven Huss, Oakland’s Cultural Arts Manager, has resigned to take a less-contentious, better-funded position in Walnut Creek – leaving the fate of an NEA grant to develop an Arts Master Plan for Oakland up in the air.

The cumulative impact of all these developments could strike a crushing blow to Oakland’s cultural arts community, confirming its worst fears about gentrification and displacement and creating a leadership void at the already short-staffed Cultural Arts Department. There’s also a leadership void at the city-funded ProArts gallery, after the forced resignation of Executive Director Margo Dunlap, so Huss’s departure adds more chaos and uncertainty to a muddled situation.

In a 2010 interview posted on the NEA’s website, Huss noted that the arts sector generated $100 million annually for Oakland—a figure which has undoubtedly grown over the past five years—and its overall importance as a “magnet” for economic development.

He went on to say, “In Oakland… the unique character of neighborhoods is best expressed through the arts, and the creation of arts districts can shine a light on the distinctive cultural heritage of these places. Oakland’s hallmark is its diversity, and if we can create arts districts that both celebrate and differentiate the many cultures represented here, we will be successful.”

Detail from Mario Chiodo's

Detail from Mario Chiodo’s “Remember Them: Champions of Humanity”

Despite Accolades, Civic Commitment to Arts Underwhelming

In truth, Oakland’s civic commitment to arts and culture has been anything but robust for years, while diversity has been the first casualty of a rapidly-shifting demographic. The Cultural Arts fund’s annual budget—slashed in the wake of the recession—is less than the amount Public Works spends on abating tag vandalism, and the loss of the redevelopment agency in 2012 eliminated a key funding source for the city’s public artists.

As reported by Bay Area News Group, only a smidgen of the $400,000 approved by the City Council in 2013 for anti-blight murals has been allocated over a two and one-half year period.

The few murals which have been produced via this fund have all but eliminated tagging and blight recidivism, yet some Councilmembers have yet to issue RFPs, even as Public Works spending on abatement has increased 50%, according to KQED.

Detail from CRP's

Detail from CRP’s “Love Arts Music”

Furthermore, city staffers have reportedly lagged in returning calls about mural fund applications, refused to pay artists on time and/or made them jump through unnecessary bureaucratic hoops, even after murals have been completed. The City Attorney’s office has also reportedly inserted new clauses into artist contracts which require them to give up federal protections known as VARA rights, with no explanation for the policy change.

The City Council’s decision to go with Orton over Belle’s group likely means the end of the line for the Kaiser auditorium, a historic venue which hosted concerts by everyone from Elvis Presley to the Grateful Dead to Bob Marley and the Wailers to Public Enemy and NWA, and reportedly was the site of a historic 1962 speech by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., which inspired Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale.

The apparent loss of a potentially-reactivated HJK arena robs the city of a mid-sized venue whose prospective owners had a commitment to the cultural community which cannot be said of the operators of the Fox Theater – you can count on one hand the number of shows per year there featuring local artists. And the displacement of RPS, the last remaining original founding member of the Art Murmur— an organically-developed event which  saved former Mayor Jerry Brown’s 10K plan from failure and made Oakland buzzworthy after years of second-tier status—seems more than symbolic.

Attitudinal Healing connection's Amana Harris (l.) and youth perpare to cut the ribbon on AHC's

Attitudinal Healing Connection’s Amana Harris (l.) and youth prepare to cut the ribbon on AHC’s “Superheroes” mural

‘Sign of the Times’?

“I’m still reeling, wondering how a city doesn’t do everything possible to support education and jobs for low-income communities of color,” said Belle in a Facebook post after the City Council vote on the HJK property. “But then [I] realize it’s the sign of the times,” he added.

While the communities Belle mentions can certainly benefit from investment in the cultural arts, the gentrification wave is impacting everyone across the board – including artists of all ethnicities and anyone not at the upper tier of income levels.

OCNC members discuss art in Oakland

OCNC members discuss art in Oakland

On the surface, economic growth might seem like a positive thing for Oakland; however, the boom—mainly confined to real estate and tech—has been a calamity for the arts scene. A few months ago, at a city-convened arts stakeholder meeting , arts advocates speculated on the irony of Oakland’s artists making the city cool, only to find themselves priced out. Although some advocates felt the percent for art requirement didn’t go far enough, it at least offered a glimmer of hope for the city’s artists. But the announcement of the lawsuit by developers could delay or even rescind any commissions under the ordinance, and casts a pall on any future attempts to redistribute the wealth flowing into the city among the creative community.

It seems cruel to blame a newly-minted public art ordinance for the increased cost of housing, considering that last year, before the ordinance went into effect, Oakland apartments had the highest rental price hikes in the entire nation, while overall rental prices were the second fastest-rising in the country, and have ballooned as much as 300% over a three-year period.

Detail from Dan Corson's

Detail from Dan Corson’s “Shifting Topographies”

Currently, a typical one-bedroom apartment in Oakland rents for around $2000 a month, and landlords have been proactive in trying to get market rate for properties which rented for much less not long ago – putting economic pressure on art spaces, especially those in Uptown, the city’s most-visible arts district. As the RPS collective noted, “We are being priced out of our space not because of anything we have done, but simply due to the cold calculus of gentrification. There is more money to be made in this space from something other than community-driven art, and that is enough and more than enough to push us out the door.”

The one positive amidst all this bad news is that the San Francisco Foundation recently announced it was giving East Side Arts Collective $1 million to buy its building, ensuring many more years of community-oriented programming in the San Antonio district. Yet as welcome as that news is, it does nothing to help the arts community elsewhere in the city.

Keeping Oakland Creative

If ever there was a time to organize Oakland’s creative arts community, this is it. For the past several months, the Oakland Creative Neighborhoods Coalition has been attempting to do just that. Founded by Betti Ono’s Barber—recently named one of the Bay Area’s Top Ten Art Personalities—and artist, teacher, and arts administrator Katherin Canton, OCNC has coined the hashtag #KeepOaklandCreative and holds organizational meetings to try to rally the city’s culture creators around a policy platform which aims to make a sustainable future for artists, by taking a proactive stance against displacement. (Disclosure: Oakulture Editorial Director Eric Arnold is a member of OCNC’s Steering Committee.) OCNC’s stated goal is to get the city to restore the Cultural Arts Commission (CAC)—another casualty of the recession—a necessary first step in developing greater accountability at the civic level for the arts community.

Katherin Canton (l.) and Anyka Barber (c.) lead an OCNC meeting

Katherin Canton (l.) and Anyka Barber
(c.) lead an OCNC meeting

A revised CAC could bring clarity to a confusing, labyrinthine process for artists trying to work with the city. Currently, Oakland’s Cultural Arts Program is under the Economic Development and Marketing department, and its small staff is assisted by an all-volunteer Public Art Advisory Committee. There’s no designated liaison with Parks and Rec (which operates city facilities such as the Malonga Casquelourd Center) or City Council (artists are generally left to facilitate discussions over such things as applying for the anti-blight mural program on their own); almost all direct interaction with the artist community, other than open forum sessions at monthly meetings to review public art projects, is carried out by the department’s one full-time staffer, Denise Pate. Navigating the system is a bureaucratic nightmare at best, compounded by the fact that artists sometimes have to wait up to a year before being compensated for completed projects.

In the case of the percent for art ordinance, the artist community at-large was not asked for input in its drafting, perhaps by design; in the Tribune article, Schaff describes the ordinance as “pro-developer” – a notion which was reinforced during a “stakeholder meeting” also attended by members of the development community and Emeryville city staff this past February.

Fougo Na Roupa dance in front of a CRP mural honoring Brazilian samba legend Jose Lorenzo

Fogo Na Roupa dance in front of a CRP mural honoring ethnic dance legends

At the meeting, stakeholders were asked for suggestions for implementation, yet that seems to have been just a formality. When community concerns were brought up, Schaff’s staff hastily shot them down. There was no review of public art programs in cities other than Emeryville, and the developers—only one of which was based in Oakland—didn’t exactly warm to the idea of having any type of community review or oversight of proposed art projects. Developers, their representative said, don’t like to be told what to do, a statement which now seems ominous in the wake of the BIA lawsuit.

Detail from Brett Cook's

Detail from Brett Cook’s “Reflections of Healing”

OCNC’s next meeting, scheduled for this Wednesday at Betti Ono, will be “an important discussion that is not just about a Percent for Public Art program, but raises critical questions about intersectional issues adversely affecting the most vulnerable Oaklanders today- communities of color, immigrant communities, and low income communities,” explains Barber. “Policies which promote gentrification and displacement, she adds, impact “the vast and deep cultural legacies and traditions of our communities.”

The OCNC, she says, wants the city to implement arts-based initiatives which generate economic development while strengthening community. “We need to see a deeper and more expansive investment in cultural equity across the city in all neighborhoods, and we need to see this investment put into practice as a resource and key strategy for creating a better Oakland and a better Bay Area.”

Detail from AHC's

Detail from AHC’s “Superheroes”

In other words, this isn’t just about art for art’s sake, but leveraging the power of creativity for the greater benefit of the community. That’s a good thing – unless one buys the argument that promoting art is somehow harmful to the public interest.

Meeting #2 of the Oakland Creative Neighborhoods Coalition will be held at Betti Ono Gallery on Wednesday, July 29th at 6:30pm.  Betti Ono is located at 1427 Broadway in downtown Oakland.

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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.

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Anna Deavere Smith’s “Prison Pipeline” Play: Brilliant, Yet Conflicted.

Anna Deavere Smith’s “Notes From the Field: Doing Time in Education,” is more than a play. Part documentary, part drama, it encourages audience members to become activists against the “school-to-prison pipeline,” which connects our failed education system with the prison-industrial complex. The show’s program also contains a “toolkit” which describes the racial inequity of zero tolerance school discipline policies and presents alternative methods such as the restorative justice program currently in place in the Oakland Unified School District and other proactive behavioral approaches which address the reality of post-traumatic stress syndrome among school-age children. But the show doesn’t stop there. It devotes its intermission to interactively engaging attendees in advocacy, with Youth Speaks-trained facilitators pushing small workshop groups to make a commitment to action (more on this later).

Anna Deavere Smith

Anna Deavere Smith

The first part of the show effectively reveals why Deavere Smith’s one-woman shows have won many prestigious awards: her methodology, which involved interviewing 150 people on both sides of the pipeline, then honing their verbatim accounts into character studies and ultimately, monologues, is absolutely brilliant. This approach one-ups the “one-woman, many characters” style of Sarah Jones by using non-fictional source material, which is technically much more difficult to pull off. Deavere Smith uses simple stage props, varying speech patterns, and gesticulations to bring each character to life, with vocal inflections which range from the crisp articulation of a multi-degree holder, to the guttersnipe syntax of a high school dropout.

The vignettes, which feature education professionals, judges, lawyers, parents, students, and chronic truants (who have become fodder for the prison system), connect thematically, presenting a multi-faceted inquiry from almost all sides of the paradigm – we don’t specifically hear from any law enforcement professionals or correctional facility employees – and segue with musical help from acoustic bassist Marcus Shelby, who provides jazzy textures throughout. In addition to supertitles identifying each interviewee, video clips which play on screens above the stage add further context.

There is both a sense of urgency and topical relevancy, especially when Deavere Smith recounts the stories of the videographer who filmed Freddie Gray’s arrest and a man charged with a $500,000 bail for protesting Gray’s death. Another story, of a Native American man who was never enfranchised by public education and becomes a violent ex-con who is now a concern for tribal authorities, resonates with poignancy.  Though there are numerous comic moments, laughing at them felt a little awkward, since the overall tone is so serious.

Anna deavere Smith as NAACP lawyer Sherrilyn Ifill

Anna Deavere Smith as NAACP lawyer Sherrilyn Ifill

Watching the show, the connections between Oakland and Baltimore seem obvious and apparent – we’re not dealing with a unique problem faced by individual cities as much as one on a national scope, institutionalized by years of economic investment into building prisons, instead of education – which has predictably resulted, Deavere Smith tells us, in the types of outcomes we’re seeing now. 85% of incarcerated people in Maryland, it is revealed, were Special Ed students. (In California, 75% of the prison population are high-school dropouts — an even higher number than the nationwide average of 68 %. Meanwhile, the private prison industry has grown at a staggeringly exponential rate over the past 25 years.)

“Notes From the Field” is ambitious in its reach, to be sure. But these types of problems can’t be solved in a couple hours. The intermission workshop felt a little like drop-in activism for a constituency which has not had to deal personally with any of these issues, such as having an incarcerated family member, or being racially-profiled by police, in their lifetimes.

It’s counter-intuitive, to say the least, to announce —  with all the pomp and circumstance of a critically-acclaimed theater performance — that the system is broken, while simultaneously helping to promote a company complicit in the economic exploitation end of the pipeline.

The reality is a little bit thornier: Whole Foods, who has recently been all over the Internets for utilizing prison labor, is listed as a sponsor of the production.

However, when Whole Foods’ connection to prison labor was pointed out in one of the workshops, one attendee reacted with an angry glare and sputtering disbelief, and the workshop’s facilitator seemed to have difficulty grasping the implications of what that meant. It’s counter-intuitive, to say the least, to announce —  with all the pomp and circumstance of a critically-acclaimed theater performance — that the system is broken, while simultaneously helping to promote a company complicit in the economic exploitation end of the pipeline.  That may not be the fault of Deavere Smith, but it does illuminate the inherent conflicts of even doing a production of this nature. If we’re going to go there, identify the problem in no uncertain terms, and break the fourth wall to demand action be taken, as “Notes From the Field” does, we’ve got to be willing to address how deep the issue really goes, and realize that effecting substantive and meaningful change might just be incompatible with doing business as usual.


Anna Deavere Smith portrays videographer Kevin Moore

If we were to further nitpick, we’d point out that another of Berkeley Rep’s sponsors, Wells Fargo, owns Wachovia, which was investigated and fined by the Justice Department for laundering money for Mexican drug cartels  – whose influx of illegal narcotics is reportedly a causal factor in the hundreds of annual murders in Chicago, mostly of young black men. Even worse, Wells Fargo also has invested tens of millions of dollars in private prisons , making it complicit in economic exploitation, sexual and physical assault, denial of health services, and racially-disproportionate practices.  Again, this kind of disingenuousness undercuts Deavere Smith’s message, through no fault of the messenger.

The play closed with a coda which transposed two short monologues: one drawn from Deavere Smith’s earlier work, of a Latino man expressing his feelings about race in the aftermath of the 1992 LA Uprising, and another from a 1970 interview with James Baldwin. Both hit expected gracenotes, but for different reasons. The irony of a brown person insisting he’s not racist because he has white friends while describing how he’s been racially stereotyped his entire life isn’t exactly subtle.  And Baldwin seems prescient, as if anticipating #blacklivesmatter, when he said, some 45 years ago, “The police in this country make no distinction between a Black Panther or a black lawyer or my brother or me. The cops aren’t going to ask me my name before they pull the trigger.“


Anna Deavere Smith as West Baltimore student India Sledge

That’s not the exact quote Deavere Smith used, which came from a seven-hour conversation with Margaret Mead called “A Rap on Race,” but in this context it suggests that until we fix our fractured education system and retool our discombobulate criminal justice system, we will not, and cannot, possibly evolve into a “post-racial” society, no matter how many Confederate flags are torn from F-150 trucks.

It’s fitting that “Notes from the Field” is being presented just a few miles from Oakland, the spiritual center of the “New Civil Rights Movement” that #BLM has been called. In one of the interviews, Deavere Smith recounts how a teacher thought she missed the boat on civil rights activism by being born at the wrong time, until she realized that a new movement could happen at any moment.  That statement apparently resonated with a silver-haired white woman seated one row up, who felt compelled to comment to Oakulture about it – seeking the approval of one of the few black men in the room, perhaps.  But only time will tell whether that woman is willing to forgo prison-farmed organic tilapia and artisanal cheeses, for the movement’s sake – or whether a war on bankers would yield better results than the war on drugs.

“Notes From the Field: Doing Time in Education” runs through August 2 at Berkeley Rep. For tickets, visit here or call 510-647-2949.

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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.

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

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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.



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

This is what 1.1 million people look like

This is what 1.1 million people looks like

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

photo by Steve Snider

photo by Steve Snider

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

Draymond Green

Draymond Green

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

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

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

Klay Thompson with the NBA Championship trophy

Klay Thompson with the NBA Championship trophy

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

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

Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala and Harrison Barnes

Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala and Harrison Barnes

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

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

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

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

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


The “Mac Tre” mural by Crayone and the Illuminaries

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

Original Scraper Bike Team

Original Scraper Bike Team

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


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

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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
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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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