Documenting the Oakland cultural renaissance


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.

Leave a comment

The Oak Q & A: Jahi as PE2.0 (Part II)


Jahi performing at the New Parish, August 2014

Jahi performing at the New Parish, August 2014

In Part One of this interview, Oakland-based educator and rapper Jahi talked about how he became the lead emcee in PE2.0, a musical and cultural initiative created by Chuck D, Professor Griff, and the Public Enemy organization, which aims to revisit the group’s legacy while pushing forward for a new generation of listeners searching for consciousness, sanity, and dignity in rap music. In this continuation of the discussion, Jahi breaks down some of the specific songs on the new album People Get Ready, and the connection between himself, Public Enemy, Tupac Shakur, the Black Panther Party, and the city of Oakland.

Oakulture: Let’s talk about some of the original PE2.0 songs, like “Mind For Malcolm.” What are you dealing with on that song?

Jahi: “Mind for Malcolm” is actually not on the album, “Mind for Malcolm” is kinda like how you shoot a flare, send a signal. The fact is, if you know Public Enemy’s history, I believe it was Chuck or maybe Keith or Hank, they were out promoting, and they put up a poster of Malcolm, and somebody said, ‘who is the dude with the glasses?’ Or something to that effect. I’m paraphrasing.  What Chuck realized is, wow, not only could we make music, but we also could lift up some messages and really say something that matters.

"Mind for Malcolm" single

“Mind for Malcolm” single

So when Malcolm [X]’s birthday was approaching, I reached out to Chuck and asked if it was okay, if I took that track, name the song “Mind For Malcolm,” and use it as a signal to let people know that PE2.0 was coming. So that’s where “Mind For Malcolm” came from. So that was really like, one of the first, you know, I had recorded maybe 7 or 8 records, and none of those records ended up on the final cut of the album, but “Mind For Malcolm” stuck so we sent it out as a signal on Malcolm’s birthday.

Oakulture: What inspired “People Get Ready”?

Jahi: Ah, man. “People Get Ready” is not a song. It’s not a song. What it is, is a call to action to save the people. Get ready, ‘cause you might have to physically fight for your freedom. We were trying to decide on some album titles, and Chuck hit me with “People Get Ready,” and I was like, I mean, number one, Curtis Mayfield, he’s probably in my top ten of all time. And just thinking about Mike Brown, thinking about Marlene Pennock, thinking about Eric Garner, thinking about all these things, and not just current events, but historical events. And, it just feels like, it needs to be said that sometimes, we slip.  Sometimes we so social with having good times, partying and kicking it, that we not ready, we be getting blindsided, and the idea of… my grandfather used to say,’ it’s time to get ready.’ That means you organize yourself, you prepare yourself, you get things in order.  So you’re able to handle the task, and right now, the task of freedom, justice, and equality, we need to be ready.  And, the more we are not ready, the more we put ourselves at risk of losing our lives at this point.

People Get Ready album cover

People Get Ready album cover

So, “People Get Ready,” once we diagrammed the album and just be thinking about… here’s where I’m at: if you think about it, I’m really not rhyming, it’s really a mantra, it’s really a chant, it’s really a meditation. Chuck comes with the rhyme. I’m not busting bars at all. But Chuck is. And then there was also a little play on that and Chuck said it.

Oakulture: “Panther Power” obviously references the legacy of the Black Panther Party. As an Oakland resident, how do you see that legacy shaping up in 2014?

Jahi: Well, “Panther Power” really first is a tribute and ode to Tupac Shakur, because on his first record, 2Pacalypse Now, he did a song called “Panther Power,” and in the chorus, he was actually cutting part of Chuck’s voice. So, the first part of it really was for him, for ‘Pac. Which connects to Oakland. I mean, the reality of it is, that in 2014, the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, their beliefs, in terms of what they wanted for the community, in terms of the community services they wanted to provide, the cultural unity and pride, those are things that I feel like are as much alive now as they were then. I don’t look at the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense like they in a museum or something like that. I feel like it is very active in our lives and part of my job, as an emcee, is to attach to that. So, you know, I also got to say Rickey Vincent had a lot to do with it too, I gotta shout out to Rickey Vincent, because he wrote that book…

Oakulture: Party Music …

Party Music, by Ricky Vincent

Party Music, by Ricky Vincent

Jahi: Party Music, where he talked about the Lumpen band. So if you hear my second verse, We talking 1968, Jah called on Tommie Smith, the band in Oakland, giving the soul mix. I mean, that comes directly from Rickey Vincent. Once I got turned on to the Lumpen band, it was like, yeah, it really informed the rest of that record. And then, originally Griff was supposed to be on that record, but he wasn’t able to get on it. But we had this concept of taking songs, and putting speeches inside the song. I got plenty of quotes at the beginning and end. But in “Panther Power” in particular, Kwame Ture, when he first said Black Power, I took that whole clip and put it in there. To give a context of just that spirit. It wasn’t about freedom, he said, we’re not talking about freedom, we’re talking about power. And right now, as much as we need freedom, justice and equality, black people, we need power.  And when you say Black Power or Panther Power, there’s a certain energy that comes with that. So I wanted not so much to resurrect that, but to continue it in 2014, to inspire a 9 year-old or 8 year-old, as well as a 40 year-old.

Oakulture: There’s some cultural authenticity there too. It’s not like you live somewhere else. I mean, you’ve been an Oakland resident for 15 years, right?

Jahi: That’s right, that’s right. I live here. When I said, writing rhymes late night in the home of the Panthers, I was in Oakland, California when I said that right there. When I felt like I had a first draft, I actually was watching sunsets at Merritt College. Like, these are facts. We in a time when most people’s rhymes are so fantasy. Sometimes, we be getting in metaphorical and lyrical exercises, nah, this is like right in your face. I mean, I’m in Oakland, and I’m thankful that I’m in Oakland. I lived a lot of places, I moved around a lot of places. But I’m thankful to be in Oakland, I’m thankful of the history here. I know that I’m standing on shoulders of ancestors. I don’t take it for granted. You know, just being in Public Enemy stands on the shoulders of the Panthers. You know what, I couldn’t have been in a better place anywhere else in the world to be able to do this first project.

Oakulture: “What They Need” is another strong one. What are you addressing with that one?

Jahi on the set of "What They Need"

Jahi on the set of “What They Need”

Jahi: Mmmn. “What They Need” is a revisit, give the people what they need was [an] original lyric by Public Enemy. So I really like how they did the chorus, cameras, lights, action, look out, human rights, whiplash, po-po, Fed killers, killing kids. I mean, we are experiencing that right now. So, I think about kids, if you say here’s some ice cream, or here’s a home-cooked mean, you know, beans and rice and all of that. All of the kids will go pick what they want, they’ll pick the ice cream. But the reality is what we need is more wholesome and important for us. So “What They Need” was really kinda diving in to say that, you know, there’s a certain level of lyricism with emcees that are around the world, and represent a particular lane. And that lane is socially-conscious. It is aware. It is forward-thinking, and it is life-affirming, it is revolutionary. And I wanted to send a signal that, I’m not dissing nobody in nobody else’s lane, but I’m in my lane. And my lane is just as valid as anybody else. And when you look at it from a world perspective, you realize that. So, in mentioning “What They Need,” don’t just be social, be committed and vocal. It’s some ancient context. I said, we giants, we not just talking baseball, we talking ancient scrolls that was left on the wall, that best represent the renaissance people. We are still those renaissance people. It’s almost like a reminder back and a push forward at the same time.