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Documenting the Oakland cultural renaissance


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Janelle Monae brings “Hell You Talmbout” to San Francisco

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Black Vocals Matter: The Seshen's Akasha Orr

Black Vocals Matter: The Seshen’s Akasha Orr

Black women are the new rock stars.

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

Zakiya Harris

Zakiya Harris

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

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

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

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

Sandra Lawson-Ndu of Bells Atlas

Sandra Lawson-Ndu of Bells Atlas

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

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

Lalin St. Juste of The Seshen

Lalin St. Juste of The Seshen


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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)

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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

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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

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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.

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