Oakulture

Documenting the Oakland cultural renaissance


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A Deep Dive Into the Prison-Industrial Pipeline in “Beyond the Bars”

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What does “home” mean? Is home where the heart is? Where the hatred is? A physical location? A state of mind? Can prison be a home? What does it mean to come home? And, can you ever really go back home again? These philosophical questions are at the core of the Lower Bottom Playaz’ production of “Beyond the Bars: Growing Home.”

In “Beyond the Bars,” the prison-industrial pipeline becomes a backdrop for an powerful examination of black masculinity . An array of black men, ranging in age from mid-20s to senior citizen, come together regularly to check in with their feelings. It’s somewhat telling that the vehicle which allows them to gather for this purpose is a re-entry support group; all of them are formerly-incarcerated.

The prison-industrial pipeline becomes a backdrop for an powerful examination of black masculinity

Their check-ins are largely about dealing with the ramification of their imprisonment, from the horrors and injustice they’ve witnessed behind bars, to their own acknowledgement of guilt and responsibility for their actions, to their struggles with social inclusion, employment – and potential retribution by the relatives of their victims. It’s a set-up which allows a murderer to reveal their motivations in one breath, then argue against the perpetuation of cyclic violence in the other.

The cast represent the so-called thugs and black bogeymen vilified in conservative political rhetoric and sensationalistic media portrayals, but such stereotypical perceptions are entirely superficial in this context. The cyclic patters of crime, incarceration, and recidivism are not entirely the result of personal choices these characters have made, but moreso collective examples of how structural inequity plays out. As the play unfolds, we learn more about the characters, which makes it difficult, if not impossible, to dehumanize and demonize them.

The re-entry support group functions as a place where the “cool pose” of black male attitudes are examined and analyzed, revealing a vulnerability and strength rooted as much in resilience as in systemic oppression.

While this is ironic, it’s not a completely-implausible scenario; One in three African Americans are incarcerated in the United States (a statistic which also held true in a post-performance survey of the cast). So, the set-up works. The audience eavesdrops in as a moderator facilitates the meetings, sometimes attended by a doctor who is collecting stories for research.

The cyclic patters of crime, incarceration, and recidivism are not entirely the result of personal choices these characters have made

What follows is a poignant, nearly 90-minute deep dive into how the prison-industrial pipeline has become an integral part of black life. Each of the formerly-incarcerated characters are presented as flawed, yet human. Each has redeeming qualities which can be easily overlooked, or more accurately, swept aside by preconceived notions about the correlation between crime and race.

bb1The play forces viewers to examine those preconceived notions, and to confront the reality of the situation, just as the characters must all confront their uncertain futures outside of jail. “I paid the price. I own the fault… Let me get right,” one of the characters says. It’s a line which suggests redemption is as much about acceptance as repentance. If we believe in rehabilitation, we must allow for re-entry into society, the play argues, undergirding its argument with the alarming statistic than more Africican Americans are incarcerated today than were enslaved in 1863.

A generational dynamic is introduced when a young adult joins the group. His antagonism and apathy create palpable tension; and his impulsiveness leads to a pivotal and climactic conflict which adds a gracenote of gravitas to the already emotionally-laden subject matter.  The older ex-cons attempt to emphasize the senselessness of the “street soldier” mentality: they’ve been down that road before, and know what predictable outcomes await. But ultimately, the younger man must decide for himself whether to choose the path of violence, or turn the other cheek.

“I paid the price. I own the fault… Let me get right,” one of the characters says.

What’s most interesting about this production is the injection of socially-relevant commentary into a theatrical format. It’s the opposite of escapism; instead of zoning out into a fantasy drama, the production locks on to a stark reality, making a point that should be impossible for the audience to ignore.

Two additional elements to the production are the hip-hoppish original score by Young L, and two music videos by WolfHawkJaguar and Prosperity Movement which bookend the show. The former centers the play in a contemporary urban aesthetic, while the latter offers a fantastical, spiritually-grounded vision of aspirational positivity.

The stories themselves are fascinating as well (and are the product of actual research by LBP Executive Director and playwright Dr. Ayodele Nzinga, who also plays the Doctor). The actors all look like guys you might see around town on the streets. Costuming is fairly simple, with characters changing clothes to mark a different day.

bb3Dejon Grant is both venomous and compassionate in the role of Terminal Murder, while Stanley Hunt’s conflicted yet charismatic Young Man nearly steals every scene he’s in. Reggie Wilkins brings wisdom and dignity to the role of OG. That these actors shine is a testament to what they bring to the role, and how easy it becomes for them to inhabit these characters, to make them real in the eyes of the audience. Some of the other roles are less distinctly-individual, or slightly underdeveloped; we never get a sense of what drives the moderator to do this work, and the Doctor seems to be a stand-in for academia in general—a commentary on the poverty-pimp dynamic which throws millions of dollars at the problem of recidivism annually, without making any appreciable headway.

While the characters are all written with some distinguishing characteristics, there seemed to be more commonalities than differences between them. This might be a result of the methodology Nzinga employed to develop the production, gathering stories from multiple individuals which were divvied up between the characters. At times, the characters appear to blend into each other; this effect is reinforced throughout, as several particularly-emphatic  lines are repeated in unison — evoking an Oakland version of a Greek chorus. Much of the dialogue has a prose-like feel (Ms. Nzinga’s research was supplemented by original poetry).

This approach ultimately injects a strong dose of realism and authenticity to the show. The actors all blend into their roles with the ease and comfort of a favorite shoe. The dialogue is accessible and conversational. While the frequent use of the N-word may seem jarring to some, it wouldn’t make logical sense for a group of formerly-incarcerated individuals to dialogue in non-colloquial, speech.

Several particularly-emphatic  lines are repeated in unison — evoking an Oakland version of a Greek chorus

This point bears a little further elaboration. LBP productions, as Nzinga later explained during a post-show talk, honor the tradition and aims of the Black Arts movement, i.e., to create culture which is interconnected with liberation struggles and the push for social justice. So while the staging may be minimalist, it also doesn’t distract from the subject matter. While the costumes may be understated, the low-key aesthetic is consistent with the nature of the story being told. While the dialogue may be down-to-earth, it never comes off as pretentious.

Nzinga and the cast’s breaking of the fourth wall at the end–revealing themselves as activists/reformers—functions as a call to action, intended to stay with the audience as they return to the outside world. It’s the opposite of what can be expected from mindless entertainment, and a reminder that if black lives matter, the plight of the incarcerated and formerly-incarcerated matters a great deal.

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“Beyond the Bars: Growing Home” runs through Sept. 3 at the Flight Deck,  1540 Broadway, Oakland CA

Tickets are here.

LBP website 

 

 

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“Xtigone” Reimagines Sophocles as Urban Ritual-Myth

In Nambi Kelley’s “Xtigone,” the ancient Greek city-state of Thebes is replaced by Chicago’s south side – an urban killing field marked by gang rivalry and drive-by-shootings. The protagonist, Tigs, wages a one-woman crusade to expose the truth, challenging patriarchy and political corruption, even at the expense of her own well-being. Kelley’s urban myth recasts Sophocles’ classic morality play about pride into a blood-soaked examination of gun violence and inner-city PTSD. The characters still make lengthy soliloquies, but they speak in contemporary vernacular. There is a hip-hop soundtrack (composed by Tommy Shepherd aka Soulati), references to social media, and several musical numbers. The Greek chorus now chants about police brutality and HIV. It’s an amazing show.

RyanNicole as Tigs

Ryan Nicole Austin as Tigs

The play was originally scheduled to debut in 2012, but was postponed until this year. The current African American Shakespeare Company production, thus, marks the official world premiere of “Xtigone” – a different production is scheduled for Chicago later this year—a play with a message, whose already-relevant subject matter has gained only more currency with the emergence of the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

Drew Watkins and AeJay Mitchell play rival gang leaders

Drew Watkins and AeJay Mitchell play rival gang leaders

A strong cast from top to bottom anchors the production, with the younger actors more than holding their own with veteran stage performers.  As Tigs, Oakland’s Ryan Nicole Austin is a revelation. Her role is one requiring inner strength, conviction, and compassion, qualities she evokes seemingly effortlessly. It’s not easy to portray a woman who is emotionally vulnerable, and physically and mentally strong at the same time. Austin thankfully lets Kelley’s prose come to her, without overreaching. A gifted poet, rapper, and singer, she brings a feminist hip-hop swagger to the part, which is exactly what’s called for.

Naima Shalhoub and RyanNicole

Naima Shalhoub and Ryan Nicole Austin

In one scene, Tigs is chastised for her activist ambitions by her sister Izzy (played by Tavia Percia) — a woman who has accepted subservience along with fake hair. Defiantly, Tigs announces, “we stand on the shoulders of Herstory. I am the amazons of Dahomey, the queen called Nefertiti,  Coretta, Obama’s mama, and if I stand still, Mama Till.”

Naima Shalhoub as Tea Flake

Naima Shalhoub as Tea Flake

Another Oaklander, Naima Shalhoub, practically steals every scene she’s in as Tea Flake, a character who functions much like a griot, singing the praises of patriarchal leader Marcellus Da Man, as well as offering a running narrative commentary as events unfold. Shalhoub’s character often has something serious to sing about, but there are also comedic elements which make her somewhat of a jester in Marcellus’ court.

Michael Wayne Turner and RyanNicole

Michael Wayne Turner and Ryan Nicole Austin

The third youthful standout is Michael Wayne Turner, who plays Tigs’ boyfriend, Beau. This guy can straight-up act, and his dynamic rendering of the character doesn’t lack for energy at all. Also good is AeJay Mitchell as Tigs’ murdered brother E-Mem, whose ghost hangs around watching –and sometimes commenting on—the proceedings after his unfortunate death in the play’s opening scene.

Jasmine Strange and Dwight Dean Mahabir

Jasmine Strange and Dwight Dean Mahabir

As Marcellus, Dwight Dean Mahabir has gravitas. His is a pivotal role, and he tiptoes the fine line between the arrogant bluster of political ambition and the more humanistic concerns of a father. His character isn’t completely sympathetic, but the audience is left with an understanding of why he’s made the choices he has. Yet another Oaklander, Jasmine Strange, plays his wife, Fay, who has devoted her life to his career, even at the expense of her own soul. Strange is also a gifted singer, and the scene where she and Shalhoub alternate verses resonates with vibrancy.

Awele Makeba plays Old Blind Woman

Awele Makeba plays the Old Blind Woman

A crucial part is that of the “Old Blind Woman/Spirit,” played by Awele Makeba. As the Old Blind Woman, Makeba replaces Sophocles’ seer Tiresias, and functions as the conscience of the play.  She sets in motion the cathartic transformation which first tests and then redeems Marcellus, ultimately causing him to rethink his actions. Yet Marcellus’ redemption can’t prevent further tragedy from happening.

As the "spirit," Awele Makeba grounds "Xtigone" in ritual

As the Spirit, Awele Makeba grounds “Xtigone” in ritual

As the Spirit, Makeba grounds the play in ritual, connecting the spiritual world to the physical one, using African dance moves in place of speech throughout most of her scenes. Towards the end, she does speak a few times, signifying a breach of the wall separating the two worlds, implying the transcendent process the characters have undergone.

The "Greek chorus" raps, sings, and offers social commentary

The “Greek chorus” raps, sings, and offers social commentary

The production is anything but static, with fluid choreography and several scenes where characters enter the stage from the audience.  There is constant motion, reflecting a chaotic state of being. The Greek chorus—symbolizing the community—dances, raps, sings, and witnesses a failed attempt at a gang truce, followed by bodies piling up, as Marcellus strives to give the appearance of normality and order, by word of law.

Tavia Percia and Ryan Nicole Austin

Tavia Percia and Ryan Nicole Austin

The lighting and stage design are kept simple for the most part, yet the sparseness is surprisingly effective: in an early scene, Tea Leaf sings against a backdrop of projected pictures of child soldiers from different countries holding rifles. Simple props like a chair, a handgun, and basketball sneakers are amplified for maximum symbolic effect.

Jasmine Strange and Dwight Dean Mahabir

Jasmine Strange and Dwight Dean Mahabir

As a theater production, “Xtigone”—directed by veteran Rhodessa Jones—is very much in the tradition of the Black Arts Movement, from which Jones has drawn inspiration throughout her career. Not only does “Xtigone” recast Sophocles in a contemporary light, but it does so through an African American lens – addressing the issue of youth violence, but also of societal responsibility.

Ryan Nicole Austin and Awele Makeba

Ryan Nicole Austin and Awele Makeba

The play is also in the tradition of Yoruba ritual-myth – it evokes the blood/iron rituals of the orisha Ogun, whom playwright/author Wole Soyinka has called “the first actor” –and emphasizes spirituality over sensationalism, making its point through repetition of a few well-honed memes.

Tweets detail the tragedy of gun violence in "Xtigone"

Tweets detail the tragedy of gun violence in “Xtigone”

Tigs references Mamie Till—whose insistence on an open casket funeral for her murdered son Emmett catalyzed the Civil Rights Movement—on more than one occasion, and the couplet of “unearth the truth/thank the ancestors” voiced by E-Mem in the opening scene becomes a theme which underscores the entire play. By the end of the show, E-Mem himself has transitioned from gangbanger to “ancestral brother.”

Awele Makeba, Dwight Dean Mahabir, and AeJay Mitchell

Awele Makeba, Dwight Dean Mahabir, and AeJay Mitchell

“Xtigone” functions on two levels: on one hand, it revisits a classic Greek tragedy from a black feminist perspective. In that respect, it posits that a “change of heart” is possible for misguided male leaders like Marcellus – a stand-in for authoritarian politicians who have failed to address the roots causes of gun violence. But it also has a deeper purpose: to restore ritual into lives which have become devalued. It does this by offering glimpses into what Soyinka defined as the three stages of human existence—the world of the ancestors, the world of the living, and the world of the unborn—while setting its scenes in Soyinka’s fourth stage, the cthonic domain of Ogun.

AeJay Mitchell and Drew Watkins

AeJay Mitchell and Drew Watkins

This is a place where conflict and chaos recur without resolution, where love is overcome by hate, which only blood sacrifice can quell. That sacrifice is offered symbolically and metaphorically onstage, so that we, the audience, can be the change which needs to happen. By the end of the almost two-hour performance, it becomes clear that “Xtigone” has succeded in creating the ritual space. Now it’s up to us to do the rest.

“Xtigone” runs until March 8th at the AAACC’s Buriel Clay Theatre, 762 Fulton, SF. >> Buy Tickets.


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This Week in Oakulture: Alta California & Sonido Baylando Sound System, Xtigone World Premiere, Kahil El’Zabar & The Ethnic Heritage Ensemble, Con Brio & The Seshen, Kyle Abraham in Conversation with Alicia Garza (Feb 11-17)

Alta California & Sonido Baylando Sound System

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Sonido Baylando is a new weekly Latin-themed music night at Berkeley Underground, the new night club venue Oakulture reviewed a little while back. Hosted by Baylando Records‘ DJs El Kool Kyle, Ras Rican and Erick Santero, event goers will be treated to all-vinyl music sets throughout the evening. Tonight’s installment of Sonido Baylando features live musical guest Alta California. The all-star Oakland band calls their take on Latin music “Rumba Esquina” — a mix of Afro-Cuban, Rumba, Flamenco, Salsa, Samba and soul. The 11-piece ensemble, fronted by vocalists Piero Amadeo Infante and Orlando Torriente,  includes dancers Melissa Cruz and Anya De Marie, who compliment the infectious rhythms with graceful, emotive interperative movements. Come as early as 7 p.m. for salsa lessons with Nicholas Van Eyck (complimentary with admission). The full music program kicks off at 8 p.m., with Alta California taking the stage at 9:30 p.m.

Alta California & Sonido Baylando Sound System, 2/11, 8 p.m., $8 Advance, 21 and over, Berkeley Underground, 2284 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley. » Buy Tickets.

Xtigone (World Premiere)

Xtigone

From an artivist perspective, art is used a tool to communicate ideas and inspire action around issues of social justice. Today’s contemporary artivists are empowering communities and building movements through music, film, dance and theater. Nambi E. Kelley, an emerging playwright from Chicago, was inspired by the murders associated with gang violence in her hometown to revisit Sophocles’ “Antigone,” renaming it “Xtigone.”  In Kelley’s contemporary urban adaptation of the classic Greek tragedy, music plays a big part of telling the story of violence in our communities. The Bay Area’s Tommy Shepherd is the play’s musical composer, and the cast includes Oakland’s RyanNicole. Directed by Rhodessa Jones, and presented by the African American Shakespeare Company, “Xtigone” opens this Valentine’s Day at AAACC’s Buriel Clay Theatre in San Francisco, with weekend shows on Saturdays and Sundays through March 8th.

“Xtigone” (World Premiere), Sat-Sun 2/14-3/08, 8 p.m. (Sat), 3 p.m. (Sun), $15-$34, Ages 9 and over, Buriel Clay Theatre at the African-American Art & Culture Complex, 762 Fulton Street, San Francisco. » Buy Tickets.

Kahil El’Zabar & The Ethnic Heritage Ensemble

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This St. Valentine’s night,  Oakland’s EastSide Cultural Center will host a celebration for the 50th anniversary of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). Founded and based in Chicago, AACM is one of the oldest collectives of Black musicians indentified with the influential Black Arts Movement. The musical program will feature Kahil El’Zabar and the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble, featuring percussionist and composer El’Zabar, with Ernest Dawkins on saxophone, Corey Wilkes on trumpet, and special guest conguero John Santos.

Kahil El’Zabar & The Ethnic Heritage Ensemble, 2/14, 8 p.m., $20 ($30 for Couples), All Ages, EastSide Cultural Center, 2277 International Blvd., Oakland. » Buy Tickets.

Con Brio Kiss the Sun EP Release with The Seshen

con_brio

SF’s super-sexy soul-funk outfit Con Brio has just released their latest EP, Kiss the Sun, and they want you to celebrate with them at The Independent on Valentine’s Day evening! Having built quite a buzz around town, including playing the recent Sly and the Family Stone Tribute at the Fox, the Ziek McCarter-fronted band seems poised for big things. Opening for them are another buzzworthy local outfit, East Bay electro-soul The Seshen, whose wonderfully trip-hoppy live show is worth getting to the venue early for.

Con Brio with The Seshen, 2/14, Doors 8:30 p.m., Show 9 p.m., $15-$18, 21 and over, The Independent, 628 Divisadero St., San Francisco. » Buy Tickets.

The Movement of Movement: Kyle Abraham in Conversation with Alicia Garza

movement_of_movement

Alicia Garza, Oakland-based co-founder of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, joins dancer and choreographer Kyle Abraham for a conversation about “The Movement of Movement.” With such a powerful title, we have high hopes for the discussion, which revolves around interconnectivity between artistic and social justice movements – a topic Oakulture recently explored in Why Black Art Matters. The talk will be presented at Impact Hub Oakland and is hosted by Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (where “ABRAHAM.IN.MOTION: PAVEMENT” will have its Bay Area Premiere from February 19-20).

“The Movement of Movement: Kyle Abraham in Conversation with Alicia Garza,” 2/16, 7 p.m., Free with RSVP to rgutierrez@ybca.org, All Ages, Impact Hub Oakland, 2323 Broadway, Oakland. » Facebook Event Page.

This Week in Oakulture is curated by Zsa-Zsa Rensch.  Connect with Zsa-Zsa on Twitter at @zsazsa.

Subscribe to receive Oakulture blog posts directly in your inbox (click “Follow” to subscribe), and stay in touch on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Thank you for reading!


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Why Black Art Matters

One recent Friday night, Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale addressed a packed house at East Side Arts Alliance. Seale mentioned he was a jazz drummer at age 13, and later acted in plays written by Oakland’s Marvin X. He went on to relate the importance of arts to social movements: “To me, it’s all a revolutionary culture. That’s what this is about.”

Stokely Carmichael and Bobby Seale, 1968. Photo by Henry Raulston

Stokely Carmichael and Bobby Seale, 1968. Photo by Henry Raulston

As Seale, now 78, spoke to an audience which included former Panther Minister of Culture Emory Douglas and Joan Tarika Lewis, the organization’s first female member and a violinist who works with youth, he was surrounded by images of himself taken almost 47 years ago, during a 1968 Panther rally in Defremery park. To look at pictures of Seale in 1968 while being addressed by the 2015 version of the man was the very definition of epiphany.

The photos, which have never before been exhibited publicly, were shot by Henry Raulston, a former Army photographer who joined other local photographers to form the Association of Black Photographers in 1967. Using a Nikon F and Tri-X film, he set out to document rallies, demonstrations, and community gatherings in Oakland. The Panthers, he said, were “doing something to build the people up.” With cultural arts also taking radically progressive turns, activism became infectious: “There was this vibe of, ‘what can we do'”?

Raulston’s exhibit, “Seizing the Time,” presents 35 prints–many of his negatives were lost due to improper storage, he said–which not only capture a young, charismatic Seale, but other Panther leaders like Stokely Carmichael, Eldridge Cleaver, and Kathleen Cleaver, as well as Brown Berets–whose presence emphasizes black-brown unity–who’d traveled up to Oakland from Fresno for the rally. There’s an iconic shot of Carmichael and Seale together, appearing hopeful and determined; another of three Afro’d women raising their fists in front of a banner which reads “Free Huey.” Collectively, Raulston’s unearthed treasures paint a picture of a cultural community for whom activism was intermingled with the creative arts. Even the Panthers’ sartorial choices—dashikis, turtlenecks, berets, leather jackets, sunglasses—reflect a stylistic awareness and implicit coolness which counterbalance their fiery radicalism.

Henry Raulston with a photo of Stokely Carmichael.

Henry Raulston with a photo of Stokely Carmichael.

Curator and ESAA co-founder Greg Morozumi explained how, back in those intense times, with the Vietnam war raging, cities burning all over the world, and the Panthers battling both the Oakland police and the federal government, the Black Arts Movement emerged to catalyze social change through cultural expression. BAM, he said, was “an integral part of the black power movement,” yet is often overlooked by historians, not because it was ineffectual, but “because it had such a big impact.”

Interestingly, Harvard academic Skip Gates downplayed BAM, perhaps prematurely, in a 1994 essay for Time magazine, in which he placed more emphasis on the then-current progenitors of a black cultural renaissance: “It’s not that there are black artists and intellectuals who matter; it’s that so many of the artists and intellectuals who matter are black.”

Malcolm X, patron saint of Black liberation

Malcolm X, patron saint of Black liberation

More than a decade after Gates curiously called BAM “the shortest and least-successful” African American artistic movement in history, the extent to which it represents a critical link in the black cultural continuum has become more clearly visible – in part because there’s a more defined sense of intergenerationality than existed in the Clinton years, in part due to the maturation of the hip-hop generation, but also because of the repetition of some of the same social and political issues which initially informed BAM, such as police brutality and the need to organize communities around unequal justice. It’s also been posited, most recently by Berkeley author Jeff Chang in “Who We Be,” that the election of Barack Obama in 2008 was one of the long-term impacts of four decades of POC-driven cultural movements, of which BAM was both catalyst and seminal influence.

Amiri Baraka

Amiri Baraka in 1972

The movement was a national one. In the Bay Area, Marvin X founded Oakland’s Black House Theatre and SF’s Black Arts/West, while Douglas’ illustrations graced Panther newspapers and political posters. On the East Coast, Amiri Baraka  founded the Black Arts Repertory Theater in Harlem in 1965, following the assassination of Malcolm X – an event which was also instrumental in the founding of the Black Panther Party. Repercussions were soon felt in other “chocolate cities” like Detroit and Chicago, which established their own black threater companies and literary journals by the late ’60s.

Henry Raulston with Emory Douglas

Henry Raulston with Emory Douglas

BAM was multi-disciplinary, covering music, visual art, theater, literature, spoken word, even film. It informed a generation of brilliant poetic, literary, and musical minds, including Nikki Giovanni, Ishmael Reed, Gil Scott-Heron, Sonia Sanchez, Ntozake Shange, the Last Poets, the Watts Prophets, Sun Ra, Archie Shepp, Maya Angelou, and John Coltrane. And its reverberations have continued to echo for five decades, influencing later generations of black artists as well as other marginalized demographics including Latinos, Native Americans, Asians, and LGBTQ folks, paving a creative path for a multicultural, post-millennial arts scene which has given rise to innumerable individual voices in each of the disciplines BAM touched, as well as a collective consciousness which emphasizes community-building along with social activism.

Locally, the combination of BAM, the student-led Third World Movement, and the Black/Brown Power dynamic of the Panthers, Brown Berets and Chicano farm workers created intersectionality between arts and activism which remains one of the defining, if not THE defining characteristic of the Bay Area’s multicultural arts and culture scene, particularly in the East Bay and especially in Oakland. As Morozumi pointed out, the currency and relevancy of BAM can be seen in the current conversation over “race relations” – which he said is really about “systemic racism and oppression” – and the reaction of Oakland’s artivist community to those challenges.

“Black lives do matter,” he said, adding, “black culture matters.”

Henry Raulston and Greg Morozumi

Henry Raulston and Greg Morozumi

Black History Month is always an auspicious occasion, as February’s 28 short days are suddenly filled with an outpouring of African American cultural arts programming which isn’t so visible the other 11 months out of the year. 2015’s BHM seems especially crucial, what with the aforementioned national conversation about race in the wake of the Ferguson situation and the #BlackLivesMatter campaign, as well as the 50th anniversary of the BAM – which will be celebrated in an all-day symposium Feb. 7 at Laney College.

The role art plays in social movements is a crucial one, and part of a cultural continuum. We can trace history to see how visual artists like Douglas inspired contemporary political art by Favianna Rodriguez, Spie TDK, Refa 1, the Dignidad Rebelde and Trust Your Struggle collectives, or how Morrie Turner’s groundbreaking “Wee Pals” comic strip preceded Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition by two decades.  Cultural and social statements, like those rendered by Karen and Malik Seneferu in “Black ❤ Matters,” their current exhibit at Impact Hub’s OMI gallery (which hosts an artists’ talk Feb. 6 ) are just as important as overtly-political imagery.

Art from "Black <3 Matters" by Malik and Karen Seneferu

Art from “Black ❤ Matters”

Black liberation movements have also influenced a wide musical spectrum. The recent tribute to Sly Stone at the Fox Theater served as a reminder that The Family Stone was formed the same year as the Black Panthers (1966), and that Sly’s response to the race relations conversation of his day was the multiculturalism-affirming #1 hit “Everyday People.”

Just as Stone’s “Thank You For Talking to Me Africa” opened up a dialogue with the cultural motherlode, the connection to the Continent has been advanced by Oakland soul singer Candice Antique Davis, who collaborated with native hip-hop artists during a recent trip to Ghana (she’s scheduled to talk about her experiences  in Ghana Feb. 9 at 8pm on KPFA’s “Transitions on Tradition” program ). Antique also recorded her new single, “Freedom Song (This Song),” in Ghana. The song’s lyrics reference Baraka as well as Audré Lorde, Bob Marley, Harriet Tubman, Malcolm X, Kwame Nkrumah and other freedom fighters/revolutionaries/icons. “It seems to me this song is for revolution solution,” she sings. “Freedom is coming,” she promises.

The Panthers’ impact on music is reflected not just in the funk band The Lumpen (chronicled in Rickey Vincent’s book “Party Music”), but also through 70’s soul singers Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, and Curtis Mayfield, who expanded their lyrical topics to address what was going on at that time.

The Panthers also had a direct influence on Fela Kuti and the development of Afrobeat, and established a blueprint for politically-minded, socially-conscious hip-hop from Public Enemy to KRS-1 to Tupac to dead prez to current Oakland artists like The Coup, Kev Choice (who debuts his new album, Love + Revolution, Feb. 5 at Yoshis), and Jahi (who heads up the second iteration of Public Enemy, PE2.0).

The emphasis on theater and literary works which played such a large role in BAM continue through the Laney tribute, which includes a black women writers’ panel and a performance of Marvin X’s play “Flowers for the Trashman,” as well as the African American Shakespeare Company’s adaptation of Sophocles’ “Antigone,” retitled “Xtigone” and starring Oakland emcee/poet/actress RyanNicole in the lead role, directed by Rhodessa Jones and with musical direction from Tommy Shepard (“Xtigone” opens Feb. 14 at the African American Art and Culture Complex in SF).

Aesthetically-speaking, it doesn’t get much more artistic than updating a classic Greek tragedy, and, as West African academic and playwright Wole Soyinka has pointed out, tragic dramas are directly descended from primal sacrificial rituals prevalent in pre-Christian European history, and similarly extant in African culture and mythology. The orisha Ogun, Soyinka has asserted, was the first actor; the ritual-myth tradition the origin of what we now call the dramatic arts.

Ogun: the first actor

Ogun: the first actor

Which brings us to another point about the black history/black art continuum: Not only is the artivist paradigm one of Oakland’s unique features, differentiating it from other similar urban cities, but “The Town” is also a repository of ashé, the universal life force conceptualized by the Yoruba and other West African peoples. Poet/playwright Ishmael Reed and cultural historian Robert Farris Thompson have connected ashé to the development of black art and Afro-Disaporic culture in the Americas and Caribbean (which in turn has informed American popular culture in a multiplicity of ways). Oakland’s vibrant Afro-Diasporic community is perhaps most visible around drumming and dance, but can also be seen in the colorful, Afrocentric visual art of the Seneferus, which creates ritual space and honors tradition.

Art installation by Karen and Malik Seneferu

Art installation by Karen and Malik Seneferu

Ashe also manifests through the music of New Orleans and the Mardi Gras festival, which just happens to coincide with BHM. Mark your calendars now for the two-day Mardi Gras fete, which begins with a second-line parade at Awaken Café followed by a free concert at the New Parish, and continues the next day with a Katdelic show which also features NOLA-style bass bands.

Amiri Baraka in 1970

Amiri Baraka in 1970

All of that is to say, it’s important to recognize that black history isn’t just in the past and is actually a still-evolving, still-living thing. Not only is tradition continually being referenced across the artistic spectrum, but major cultural works are still being created today by contemporary artists. Baraka may have become an ancestor, but his legacy lives on and continues to inform us today. And while artivism is in of itself a form of cultural resiliency against oppression, it’s also important to note that there’s just as much positive, live-affirming creative expressionism as reactionary measures. And all of it matters.

On that note, Hodari Davis, co-founder of the Life is Living festival, has announced a month-long series of events happening during BHM called “Life is Loving” which he says establishes an alternate narrative to the “we’re angry and upset” stance which has framed the African-American dialogue around race. Focusing on love as an aesthetic concept and a manifestation of art transcends politics, and, he hopes, may even ultimately overcome societal and economic barriers which continue to limit the black experience in America.

Got all that? Good. It’s gonna be an incredible month for black art in Oakland and the Bay Area, and Oakulture will try to cover as much of this dynamic ashe, love, and artivism going around as is physically and logistically possible. Bookmark this site now if you haven’t already, and return early and often throughout February for the latest updates.