Oakulture

Documenting the Oakland cultural renaissance


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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.

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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.“

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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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Oakulture’s Guide to International Women’s Month Events in Oakland and Beyond

March has become known as international women’s month dating back to 1909, when organizers in New York initiated International Working Women’s Day on March 8th to honor striking garment workers. Now, around the world, events happen throughout March committed to honoring, loving and inspiring women’s lives. In Oakland, the herstory of women’s cultural activism includes Chinese-American suffragettes’ work in the early 20th century, the Gay Women’s Liberation and Black Power movements of the late 60s, all the way up to #BlackLivesMatter today. Now, every March brings many opportunities to revel in a wealth of informative, educational, and/or dynamic events celebrating international women’s impact, and the many incredible women we all live amongst every day, who have birthed the very fiber of our culture.

In Oakulture, those threads include hip-hop, artivism, solidarity, love, Bomba, ritual, #pussypower, truth-speaking and women singing, dancing, speaking and listening to each other — covering a wide range of ethnic/cultural diversity and artistic mediums, from visual art to spoken word to dance to music to film and more.  With that said, we present our guide to woman-centric events happening this March. Be a part of the culture you want to live in and join “El Mes de La Mujer” (The Month of Women).

*We will be making additions to this calendar regularly throughout the month of March. Follow Oakulture on WordPress.com and Like Us on Facebook to keep up. More events and information will be posted as it is available.


March 6th
Bites & Beats: A Celebration of Women in Hip Hop
Youth Radio’s Remix Your Life presents a special Bites & Beats celebration with a panel of women hip-hop artists/journalists, youth advocates, poets, authors, producers including MADlines, Coco Peila, Dom Jones, Rocky Rivera, Hazel Rose, Jazz Monique Hudson and Talia Taylor. “This panel allows community members to be part of a special artist-to-artist conversation, and an opportunity to witness and receive knowledge from a powerhouse of women who have and still are greatly contributing to the arts and society.” Youth performance showcase of artists follows at 7pm. Free Admission. 5:30pm, Youth Radio, 1701 Broadway, Oakland.

Coco Peila (r.) is featured at Youth Radio's "Remix Your Life" showcase

Coco Peila (r.) is featured at Youth Radio’s “Remix Your Life” showcase

March 6th
First Friday Featuring Three Women-Fronted Bands
Oaktown Indie Mayhem presents a First Friday show with three women-fronted bands: Meerna, Kelly McFarling and La Dee Da. Free Admission. All ages. 8pm, Awaken Cafe, 1429 Broadway, Oakland. 

March 6th
Friday Night Kick-Off for the 30th Annual Empowering Women of Color Conference
This year’s Empowering Women of Color Conference, “No Better Time Than Now: Transnational Resistance, Solidarity & Love” starts off with a Kick-Off Concert featuring Stephanie Yun, Ruth Kelly, Milani, Turtle Women Rising, DJ Agana, Joy Elan, Aurora Masum-Javed, Ruzove Sny, Amani, Ka’ra Kersey and Pluma Sumaq. Confirmed keynote speakers for the conference on Saturday are Favianna Rodriguez, CeCe McDonald and Corrina Gould. Free Admission & First Round of Drinks, 7-8:30pm, La Pena Cultural Center, 3105 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley.

EWOCC

March 6th & Ongoing
Black Women Artists On Art
Black Artists On Art’s The Legacy Exhibit reconfigures and refocuses for the latter part of their exhibit with “Black Women Artists On Art.” The main gallery features new and previously-exhibiting work by Sydney “Sage” Cain, Tasin Sabir, Virginia Jourdan, and others. 6-10pm. Oakstop, 1721 Broadway, Oakland.

March 6th & Ongoing
Oakland Through Our Lens
Betti Ono Gallery along with Michelle Ternus, Melonie and Melorra Green co-curate an Oakland International Women’s Day month-long exhibit, “Oakland Through Our Lens,” featuring photographs of life in Oakland taken by women of color, queer women and first time photographers. Opening night performance includes Valerie Troutt, Pr3ssplay Poets & Productions and The Singing Bois. Exhibiting artists include Amber Avalos, Andrea Barros, Cicely Day, Caity Fares, Angela Fernandez, Kristen Flury, Jay Gash, Angelica Gutierrez-Cruz, Idris Hassan, Melinda James, Diana Kampa, Morgan Parrick, Alejandra Perez, Rachel Perez, Sandra Ramirez, Julissa Rodriguez, Charise Sowells, Fran Ternus, Sunshine Velasco, and Karis Wallace. 6pm. Betti Ono Gallery, 1427 Broadway, Oakland.

Photo by Amber Avalos. Courtesy of Betti Ono Gallery.

Photo by Amber Avalos. Courtesy of Betti Ono Gallery.


March 6th & Ongoing

Rebirth: New Land, New Life, New People
Gallery owner and local art pioneer Joyce Gordon presents “Rebirth: New Land, New Life New People. Capturing the San Francisco Bay Area and its Diversity.” This exhibit features works by artist Nina Fabunmi, whose artist statement reads, “As an African Ambassador, art is my language and as you appreciate the work of my hands, you become a part of it.” Joyce Gordon Gallery, 406 14th St., Oakland.

March 7th
Sift & Uplift
Nicia de Lovely presents Sift & Uplift, an international women’s day celebration and fundraiser honoring the mighty spirit of woman. Featured artists include Jacalyn Evone, Carla S. Dancer, LeDre Entertains, Ike the Performer, Prettymuggin Illustrations, Black Hippie Boutique and guest of honor Dr. Ellen Foster-Randle, classical opera singer and African-American scholar. The night will bring poetry, choreography, singing, praising, fashion, stories of glory and includes food and a champagne toast. Contact niciadelovely@gmail.com. Tix $15, 3-6pm, Imagine Affairs Art Lounge, 408 14th St, Oakland.

Carla S. Dancer, featured at the Sift & Uplift International Women’s Day Celebration

Carla S. Dancer, featured at the Sift & Uplift International Women’s Day Celebration

March 7th
“Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth”
IHO Women’s Film Forum screens “Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth” with an in-person Q&A with director Pratibha Parmer. The feature documentary film focuses on the internationally-famous womanist writer and “Color of Purple” author, with appearances from Yoko Ono, Quincy Jones, Steven Spielberg and Danny Glover. 7-10pm. Tix $10-12. Impact Hub Oakland, 2323 Broadway.

March 8th
105th International Working Women’s Day March & Celebration
This year’s International Women’s Day march theme is “Uphold the Legacy & Power of Women’s Resistance Here and Abroad!” and it culminates at 1:30pm with a celebration for women’s strength & resistance. Contact: gabrielawomen@gmail.com. 12-3pm. Lake Merritt Amphitheater (12th st. & 1st ave.), Oakland.

March 8th
Dia Internacional de La Mujer Concierto 
La Pena Cultural Center presents an International Women’s Day Concert musical collaboration with Las Alma’s, Yeye Suarez, and the Mujeres Taller Bomba y Plena. All music written and performed by women. Come live the values and knowledge of International Women’s Day in this community concert. Family event. 5:30pm, Tix $12, La Pena Cultural Center, 3105 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley.

International Women's Day Celebration at La Pena

Mar 8th
Community Paint Day for “Her Resilience: A Mural For Women Affected By Violence”
Her Resilience” is a mural to honor, celebrate, and commemorate the lives of women affected by violence in Oakland. In April 2014, a young woman named Kimberly Robertson, new to Oakland, was the victim of violence and left dead in a local park. In response to this, an artivist collective of several women have initiated a community mural “Her Resilience” in a nearby park to honor and claim space and now invite the community to help complete the painting of the mural. A paint by numbers template allows for the community painting and the paint and brush supplies are provided. Contact: herresilience@gmail.com. 11am-5pm, Park Community Garden, Corner of Park & Cleveland, Oakland.

March 9th
“A Place of Rage,” “Angela: An Icon Reflects,” & “June Jordan: Wrong Is Not My Name”
IHO Women’s Film Forum screens works by director Pratibha Parmar and in-person Q&A.“A Place of Rage” looks at and celebrates African American women and their achievements through interviews with Angela Davis, June Jordan and Alice Walker. Also screening are Parmar’s films “Angela: An Icon Reflects” and “June Jordan: Wrong Is Not My Name.” Tix $10-$12. 7-10pm, Impact Hub Oakland, 2323 Broadway. 

Alice Walker (l.) with filmmaker Pratibha Parmar (r.)

Alice Walker (l.) with filmmaker Pratibha Parmar (r.)

March 12th
Woman Song – Girl Power!
Highly-respected Oakland non-profit MISSSEY presents “Woman Song-Girl Power!” celebrating the freedom of women and youth from exploitation and trafficking. Catherine Wanjohi, founder and director of Life Bloom Services International of Kenya, and Falilah Bilal, executive director of MISSSEY, will share stories of inspiration and heartache, victories and challenges such as Project H.O.N.E.Y (see video below). Betsy Rose and other Bay Area performers will lead in raising our voices in song and finding a deeper connection to women and youth at risk. Light refreshments. 6-8pm. Contact: 510-251-2070, MISSSEY Offices, 436 14th St, Ste. #150, Oakland.


March 14th

Check the Rhyme: Women’s Herstory Hip-Hop & Art Showcase
Chaney Turner and Social Life Productions bring you “Check the Rhyme: Women’s Herstory Hip-Hop & Art Showcase” featuring MC MADlines with DJs AGANA, Lady Ryan & Thatgirl and hosted by Mona Webb. With live art, dancers and vendors this is sure to be the women’s hip-hop throw down that you really want and need. Free Admission before 10:30pm/$10 After, 9pm-2am, Berkeley Underground, 2284 Shattuck Ave, Berkeley.

DJ Agana performs at "Check the Rhyme: Women’s Herstory Hip-Hop & Art Showcase"

DJ Agana performs at “Check the Rhyme: Women’s Herstory Hip-Hop & Art Showcase”


March 14th
The Benefit of Words
Marcus Books presents ‘The Benefit of Words,’ an intergenerational performance experience fundraiser. Packed with an incredible powerhouse line-up including many women such as Ryan Nicole, Jennifer Johns, Chinaka Hodge, YGB, Youth Speaks and many more artists this night is dedicated to celebrating and empowering the next generation. “Marcus Books is where I learned to read and now I teach upwards of 40,000 young people how to use their words everyday,” says Chinaka Hodge. Family friendly, Tix $20 online/$25 at door, 7pm,  Geoffrey’s Inner Circle, 401 14th Street, Oakland.

March 14th
Respect Where You Come From
Local favorite radical shoe store and art gallery SoleSpace hosts an artist talk with Oakland artivist Favianna Rodriguez on her recent works and exhibition “Respect Where You Come From” focusing on sexuality, feminism, #pussypower, climate change and human rights. Free Admission but only 50 seats, Doors at 6:45pm, SoleSpace, 1714 Telegraph Ave, Oakland.

Artivist Favianna Rodriguez

Artivist Favianna Rodriguez

March 14th-15th
Cold Piece of Werk
Written, directed and produced by an accomplished champion of women’s voices, Tracie Collins, “Cold Piece of Werk” is a stage play about a seventeen year old girl named Midnight caught in the sex trafficking epidemic of East Oakland. While her father is the pastor of the largest church in Oakland, the play asks how she ended up on the streets and how will she get out? Tix $25, 3pm and 7pm, *Doors close 10 minutes after show begins, Kaiser Center Lakeside Theater, 300 Lakeside Dr and 20th St, 2nd Floor, Oakland.


March 19th

“Free”
The much-anticipated Oakland premiere of “Free” screens the award-winning documentary about Destiny Arts Youth Performance Company and their use of art “to transform violence, poverty and isolation.” This beloved local dance/theater company for youth, well-known for their high quality performances and pioneering youth empowerment programs, Destiny Arts gets its shine as the documentary follows the intimate stories of five teenagers in the program.  Academy Award-nominated director Suzanne La Fetra and David Collier will be in conversation as well as project members. The screening also features a live performance by Destiny Arts. Tix $7. 7pm, Grand Lake Theater, 3200 Grand Ave, Oakland.

Mar 21st
Her Resilience Part I: Mural Unveiling & Ceremony
The Her Resilience collective of female artivists will unveil their new community mural for women affected by violence in Oakland with ceremony, community dialogues on safety and resiliency, healing circles for all genders, a kid zone and child care. Coffee, drinks, and donuts sponsored by Mamacitas Cafe. Contact: herresilience@gmail.com. 11am-3pm. Park Community Garden, Corner of Park and Cleveland, Oakland.

Her Resilience

March 27th
Empress Unification
The musical collective of female artists, Empress Unification, is committed to joining their forces to promote and support positive woman-centric reggae and world music artists and using their clout to financially support women’s charities. Empress Unification is a collaboration between Irae Divine, Razteria, Sol Atash and Kimiko Joy singing in english, farsi, french, hebrew, spanish and portuguese. Backed up by the Fyah Squad band, the Empress show will also bring in special guest Sister Molly Rose and others. The night is hosted by Sweet-T and this show will kick off their tour, “Strength in Unity.” All ages. Tix $10-15. 8:30pm, Ashkenaz, 1317 San Pablo Ave, Berkeley.

March 27th
A Leaf of Voices: Plant Myth and Lore in the African Diaspora with Luisah Teish
The Ohlone Herbal Center presents “A Leaf of Voices: Plant Myth and Lore in the African Diaspora” with author, storyteller, ritualist and elder in the Ifa/Orisha tradition of the African diaspora, Luisah Teish. This event features a lecture on medicine systems of the world lecture and hands-on workshop series on “how herbalism fits into the dynamic practices of these community leaders.” Teish’s recent book, co-authored with local Kahuna Leilani Birely, is titled “On Holy Ground: Commitment and Devotion to Sacred Land.” Tix $10-25, 7-8:30pm, The Ohlone Herbal Center, 1250 Addison, Berkeley.


March 28th

Out of Control
The Lower Bottom Playaz present a staged reading of “Out of Control.” Written by Opal Palmer Adisa and directed by Lower Bottom Playaz‘s own Ayodele Nzinga, this performance focuses on domestic violence when they say ‘Love Ain’t Supposed to Hurt . . .’ For more information and partners interested in a full production contact: wordslanger@gmail.com. Tix $5 suggested donation, 7pm, Eastside Arts Alliance, 2277 International Blvd., Oakland.

March 28th
Pecha Kucha Night Oakland
Pecha Kucha Night (PKN) is an event focused on speed inspiration and community. Invited presenters are allowed 20 powerpoint slides with 20 seconds of narration per slide. Oakland PKN presents a special International Women’s Month edition with an all-woman line-up including architects, artists, chefs, curators, designers, entrepreneurs, fabricators, fashionistas, historians and scientists: Anyka Barber, Miranda Bergman, Melonie & Melorra Green, Navina Khanna, Ebony McKinney, Dr. Gail Myers, Kate Schatz and Miriam Klein Stahl with DJLN on the turntables. Doors at 7pm, Tix $10, SoleSpace, 1714 Telegraph Ave., Oakland.


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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

kahil_el_zabar_EHE_ESAA

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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Fear of a Multicultural Planet: Jeff Chang Tackles Race in “Who We Be”

who we be display

Multiculturalism is inevitable. This much we know from population trends, which show that America is getting less demographically-white by the decade, year, hour, and minute. The rise of an ethnic majority represents an obvious conflict with the concept of monoculturalism, represented by the assimilationist notion of a melting pot—an America with one great big shared identity—as well as the concept of white supremacy, represented by the notion that blacks (and other races) are genetically inferior to whites, thus justifying inequity and racial disparity across social, political, economic, and cultural lines.

Author Jeff Chang at an Oakland book release party for "Who We Be"

Author Jeff Chang at an Oakland book release party for “Who We Be”

This dichotomy is at the heart of “Who We Be,” an ambitious new book by Berkeley-based scribe Jeff Chang, who tracks the growth of ethnic identity across a historical tableau, contrasted by ideological barriers and seemingly-endless waves of sociopolitical backlash which all revolve around the construct of race and the perception of racial consciousness – whether in the art world, the political landscape, or the funny pages of daily newspapers.

Before Garner, Brown and Martin, there was Grant,

Before Garner, Brown and Martin, there was Grant,

Arriving as it does just as the 1-2 punch of the failure to indict the uniformed killers of Michael Brown and Eric Garner has crescendoed into America’s latest race-based flashpoint—resulting in the hashtag-driven #blacklivesmatter movement—”Who We Be” could not possibly be any more timely or relevant. It offers a wealth of historical context and background to firmly disprove the notion that either incident was isolated; rather, such events are part of a larger continuum which has made pop culture martyrs out of Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, Michael Stewart, Lil Bobby Hutton, Malcolm X, Dr. Martin Luther King, Medgar Evers and Emmett Till (to name a few).

America’s racial dynamics haven’t just played out on a political chessboard, Chang reminds us. They’ve also been stretched across a cultural canvas which constantly vacillates between progressive movement and backwards regression, like an ocean tide. While the “Southern Strategy” of the Nixonian GOP established a race-based benchmark originally fashioned as a response to precedent-setting civil rights legislation and later dutifully continued by the Reagan-Bush Republican regimes, “Who We Be” assigns equal importance to a cultural narrative in which the white segregationist marketing of “Ku Ko Kola” eventually gives way to the multicultural kumbaya of Coca-Cola’s “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” commercials and Benetton’s rainbow-hued marketing strategy.

“Who We Be” opens with a scene in which the late Morrie Turner, the Oakland-born cartoonist whose strip “Wee Pals” was the first integrated comic to be syndicated nationally, learns of Barack Obama’s election and cries. This segues into an examination of Turner’s efforts at advancing multiculturalism, one comic strip at a time, then backtracks into an analysis of decades of dubious racial stereotypes embedded in cartoon commentary. It’s a history rife with coonery, minstrelism, blackface caricatures and outright racist cartoons, which show the progress Turner represented.

The blackface animals were gone. Instead Turner drew kids… having profound discussions about race and community,” Chang writes, noting, “The ink on the Civil Rights Act had not yet dried. The Voting Rights Act and the Immigration and Nationality Act were soon to be signed. But ‘Wee Pals’ already belonged to the future.

A "Wee Pals" strip

A “Wee Pals” strip from 1978

In another vignette, Chang revisits Black Arts icon Ishmael Reed’s concept of Neo-HooDoo, the idea that “all of American pop—its rhythms, its poetry, its swagger—descended from African and indigenous religion,” and the central concept behind Reed’s 1972 novel “Mumbo Jumbo,” as well as a sprawling manifesto/poem which Chang describes as “1,794 words of rapturous provocation.”

Reed’s journey from the East Village to the Bay Area allows Chang to wax poetic over an emergent Left Coast counterculture which organically linked the Black Panther Party, the Free Speech Movement, “Chinatown leftists,” “Raza artists,” and Native American activists into a loose grouping called the Third World movement.

Chang writes: “Grassroots arts movements led by people of color were blooming across the United States, but nowhere were there the kind of proliferating, overlapping circles of artistic, political, and intellectual intensity that there were in the San Francisco Bay Area.”

Willie Horton: Black Bogeyman

Black Bogeyman: Willie Horton

Despite such superlative-laden praise, “Who We Be” is far from an altruistic, overly-optimistic take on its subject matter. By the time it concludes, with a description of five young schoolchildren delightedly eyeing a Byron Kim installation of “429 chipboards of wood… colored within the spectrum from pink to bister” at a Washington, DC art gallery, readers have been dragged along for a bumpy ride through Lee Atwater’s demonization of Willie Horton and his ironic infatuation with black music, the Republican backlash against Obama, the death of Trayvon Martin, failed government policies which created the subprime loan crisis and led to the Occupy movement, the flap over a black visual artist attempting to reclaim the N-word, and a controversial Whitney Museum biennial exhibition.

Perhaps surprisingly, hip-hop is all but absent from “Who We Be.” Chang painstakingly traces what he dubs the “culture wars” of the late 80s and early 90s, but chooses not to revisit ground he previously covered in “Can’t Stop Won’t Stop,” i.e.  the PMRC’s censorship campaign, the “Cop Killer” controversy, and the repercussions of their impacts at the major label level. To paraphrase dead prez, “Who We Be” is bigger than hip-hop—both in ambition and scope—yet the “culture wars” cipher feels incomplete at times. Chang’s insistence on name-checking obscure artist-activists and their quest to bring identity politics to the gallery world makes it seem as if those efforts occurred in an art-scene vacuum, when in fact, identity politics have become a defining characteristic of the overall pop culture landscape — just ask Macklemore or Iggy Azalea.

Shepard Fairey's "Hope"

Shepard Fairey’s “Hope”

Amidst all the discussion of “Post-Racial,” “Post-Black,” and even “Post-Post,” it’s perhaps understandable that “Who We Be” is Post-Hip-Hop Generation.  Chang calls it a “dub history,” which means that while there are echoes and reverberations, there are also drop-outs; Chang doesn’t trace a strictly linear path nor attempt to connect all the dots – which might have been an impossible task. The visual art/identity thread which takes up much of the book’s middle section culminates with an unpacking of the backstory behind Shepard Fairey’s iconic “Hope” poster which symbolized the emergence of a new electorate, before becoming an ironic reminder of the weighty, and perhaps unrealistic, expectations placed on Obama.

But even when “Who We Be”’s narrative gingerly dubsteps over continuity gaps, Chang’s writerly flow makes it a pleasure to read. Eschewing the dry tone of an academician, Chang alternates prose-filled descriptions with solid reportage and telling statistical evidence, like a mutant hybrid of Carl Bernstein and Amiri Baraka. Obama’s 2008 election–the meta-flashpoint in a collection of flashpoints–is bookended by P.Diddy’s voter-registration efforts and what Chang calls “demographobia” on one side, and the birth of the Tea Party, the Great Recession, and Karl Rove’s failure to buy the 2012 election on the other. “It was easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of racism,” Chang says of a period ironically yet accurately named “post-hope.”

Chang’s brilliance as a writer is apparent, even when the subject matter he tackles leads to more questions than answers. It’s impossible to thoroughly address the identity politics of multiculturalism without also addressing the identity politics of whiteness, and “Who We Be” shows in no uncertain terms that for one to be fully realized, the other must be diminished. If the worldview of mainstream art critics, anti-immigration activists, and Tea Partiers relies on projections of “Whitopia,” as Chang posits, the rise of multiculturalism represents a gradual yet inexorable reality, as signified by shifting demographics which have already resulted in what he calls a “minority-majority” in California. The future of America, Chang suggests, isn’t a return to its racist, xenophobic past, but a world in which gay Iranian immigrants barely raise an eyebrow. We’re not quite there yet, as recent events have proven, but it seems to be only a matter of time until MLK’s mountaintop finally becomes a level playing field.