Oakulture

Documenting the Oakland cultural renaissance


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Hiero Day 2015: Bay Area Hip Hop’s High Holy Day Was Hot AF

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An excited Hiero Day crowd

The Bay Area’s Indian Summer was in full swing, as temperatures hit a high of 90 degrees for Monday’s Hiero Day. Now in its fourth year, the annual Labor Day hip-hop extravaganza was both a celebration of an indie hip-hop aesthetic, and the ongoing legacy of the Hieroglyphics, the veteran Oakland crew the event is named for. To a certain extent, the two are interchangeable; over the past 20-plus years, Hiero have branded themselves as indie hip-hop incarnate – when you see their “third eye” logo, it brings to mind not only dedication to the art of rhyming and sub-mainstream stylistic sensibilities, but a cultural lifestyle which doesn’t revolve around materialist bling nor sensationalized violence and misogyny.

With Hiero Day, the collective’s members not only pay tribute to themselves and their hard-to-define-but-tangible impact over the decades, but also to like-minded groups with similar sensibilities – many of them either from the Bay or Southern California. It’s a smart piece of marketing, and one that ensures Hiero’s freshness and relevancy, since every Hiero Day offers an opportunity to connect with younger audience, some of whom were not yet born when the crew made its first appearance, on “Burnt,” the flip side of Del’s “Sleeping On My Couch” single back in 1991.

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Hiero Day furthers the sense of being and belonging so important to a relatively isolated region like the Bay. It’s a day when hip-hop truly lives, one that not only validates artists who may be underrepresented through traditional channels like commercial radio, but also validates fans who follow the culture, and not the trends.

What was especially cool about this year’s lineup was the proliferation of indie hip-hop reunions by onetime local favorites: Cali Agents, Foreign Legion, Crown City Rockers, the Luniz, and Native Guns all made appearances, reminding listeners why the late 90s and 2000s were about more than hyphy for the Bay’s hip-hop scene. Joining them were still-active Bay standard-bearers The Coup, Zion-I, and Martin Luther, and SoCal legends the Alkaholiks, and Compton’s Most Wanted (featuring MC Eiht). All in all, there were almost 50 live acts and DJs, not including guest appearances and cameos (from Deuce Eclipse, Dru Down, Kimiko Joy, King Tee, Kev Choice and others).

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Deuce Eclipse and Zumbi Zoom of Zion-I

With short live sets, the actual performances took a bit of a backseat to the magnitude of the event itself: there were moments of elevation here and there, but mostly it was about being there, holding space and being surrounded by folks who shared the same cultural tastes as you – whether you were 18 or 38. The population density was not as thick as the previous year, when admission was free (this year’s advance tickets were $19.93), but that led to a slightly less-congested experience overall. It says something about Hiero Day’s audience that in an era where big festivals with high ticket prices and/or only a handful of rap or urban acts often don’t turn out truly diverse demographics, the folks who showed up Monday ran completely counter to this trend. The many-hued, intergenerational, and reasonably gender-balanced crowd represented the oft-mythologized, rarely realized, American “melting pot.”

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Silk-E of the Coup

Strolling through the festival grounds, one could dip into any of three stages to catch live acts or DJs, witness b-boy ciphers, turf dancers and live graffiti painting, browse wares ranging from vape pens to t-shirts to food trucks, or espy a shady spot for a brief respite from the sweltering heat. Backstage, the mood—enhanced by Elation hemp-flavored vodka and numerous spliffs being passed around—was one of peacefulness and joy, two words rarely heard in conjunction with hip-hop these days. Despite the heat, everyone was chill. The wall separating artist and fan was frequently broken down, as well-known local celebs gathered for group photos or cheesed for candid shots with CMW’s Eiht, Heltah Skeltah’s Rockness, or Hip-Hop TV’s Ed Lover.

There was a lot of networking going on, which lends credence to the notion that Hiero Day’s greatest impact might be that it provides the Bay Area hip-hop scene with a modicum of industry infrastructure not seen since the heyday of the Gavin Convention some twenty years ago. Hiero Day furthers the sense of being and belonging so important to a relatively isolated region like the Bay. It’s a day when hip-hop truly lives, one that not only validates artists who may be underrepresented through traditional channels like commercial radio, but also validates fans who follow the culture, and not the trends. The fact that it’s become a cultural institution in just a few short years – evolving organically and from a place of integrity – speaks to just how much something like this was needed to counterbalance the corporate commodification of hip-hop which has become the rule and not the exception. And from all appearances, Hiero Day appears to be structurally solid and poised to remain a High Holy Day for hip-hop disciples for the foreseeable future.

photo by Rod Campbell

photo by Rod Campbell

 


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15 Reasons to Go to Hiero Day This Year

Hiero Day 2014

Hiero Day 2014

The 2015 Hiero Day lineup looks formidable indeed, especially for fans of West Coast underground hip-hop. With almost 50 live acts and DJs performing, the event—which drew more than 20,000 fans last year—appears to have broken through the stratosphere to major event-status, and is certainly the biggest independent hip-hop festival in the Northern California region. That’s a major plus for folks tired of attending mega-hyped music festivals with a dearth of rap or hip-hop artists, and for underground aficionados who have been underserved by mainstream/commercial-oriented rap tours. Best of all, tickets are less than $20—$19.93, to be exact—which portends a high boom-bap for the buck ratio. Oakulture is pretty hyped about the number of underrated/slept-on fan favorites—several of whom are doing reunion shows—scheduled for this year’s event, which cover a full spectrum of stylistic diversity within the underground hip-hop subgenre. We’re also not mad at the emphasis on Bay Area and Los Angeles groups, nor the inclusion of a few representatives from the Midwest and East Coast for balance.

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With so many groups on the bill, it’s unlikely you’ll see every single act, unless you can be in two places at one time, so we’ve prepared a special guide for the artists we think will make Hiero Day extra-fresh.

  1. Psalm One

With eight albums and a handful of mixtapes released over the past 12 years, Chicago’s Psalm One is one of the most-prolific indie-label female emcees in the industry today. Affiliated with Minnesota’s Rhymesayers crew, she’s also worked with Hiero’s A-Plus. Her recent video, “Free Hug Life” shows her to be an original, creative spirit with an engaging staccato delivery, and topics which offer an intelligent alternative to rachetry.

  1. Phat Kat & Guilty Simpson

This veteran Detroit emcee duo have long collaborated with California’s hip-hop scene – Kat was once signed to SF’s Look Records, while Simpson has released several albums on Stones Throw. Both are authentic Dilla disciples, having cut their teeth working with the legendary producer, and both boast gritty flows which swerve between backpack and hardcore hip-hop flavors.

  1. Foreign Legion

First emerging into the Bay Area’s underground hip-hop scene in the late 90s, the terrific trio of emcees Marc Stretch and Prozack Turner and producer DJ Design built a reputation for notable live shows while releasing several full-length albums (and one short film); Their return to active duty promises to be one of the feel-good stories of this year’s Hiero Day. FL maintain a classic underground hip-hop aesthetic, complete with sampled loops and scratching, but flip the script by balancing braggadocio with honesty and humor.

  1. Cali Agents

Another West Coast group some might remember from back in the day, the duo of Rasco and Planet Asia released three well-received full-length albums between 2000-2006. Each has had solo success: Rasco is remembered for the Bay Area classic “The Unassisted,” while Asia has collaborated with everyone from Grandmaster Muggs to Bun B to Evidence to Ghostface Killah.  As Cali Agents, their remarkable chemistry elevates their individual lyrical deliveries to a higher level.

11. Otayo Dubb & Equipto

Don’t look now, but this SF-to-the-O hook-up is swiftly creeping on an indie hip-hop come up. The pairing of the Bored Stiff lyrical wonder with the versatile Co-Deez emcee/producer is one of the bright surprises of the current Bay Area scene. Their current single “Baby Steps” addresses maturity and growing up, with an arrangement which subtly recalls classic West Coast soul and R&B. The album of the same name features similarly-sublime production and features from the likes of L’Roneous, Pep Love, and Mars Today.

  1. Aceyalone

An original member of Freestyle Fellowship and a prolific solo artist in his own right, Los Angeles hip-hop veteran Aceyalone should need no introduction. The fact that he does lends credence to the oft-cited complaint that lyrical (read: non-gangsta) emcees from the West tend to get slept-on – except by hip-hop nerds who appreciate Acey’s jazz-tinged, highly vocabulistic delivery. Here’s a chance for him to expand beyond his core audience of diehards and reach the ears of a younger generation.

  1. Native Guns

Possibly the closest thing Pinoy hip-hop has come to a supergroup is Native Guns, a trio comprised of emcees Bambu and Kiwi and DJ Phatrick who became celebrated multicultural ambassadors during their heyday in the 2000s. Mixing dexterous lyrics and slapping tracks with a fair amount of political and social commentary, they also dropped science on the Filipino-American struggle, and what it means to be an indigenous immigrant. Though both Bambu and Kiwi have remained active as solo artists, their timing of their breakup always seemed unfortunate, coming so soon after the release of their 2006 album Barrel Men – rightfully hailed as a West Coast classic, one which shows the Bay Area was about so much more than hyphy even during the “hyphy era.”

  1. The Team

Speaking of the hyphy era, Oakland trio The Team were one of the most buzzworthiest groups of that period, helping to define the region’s then-emergent sound as uptempo, party-friendly, and club-ready, with hooks for days. We haven’t heard from them since 2013’s “Slow Down,” so it should be interesting to see them drop classics like “It’s Getting Hot” and “Bottles Up” and hopefully some new material. Added bonus: Clyde Carson, Kaz Kyzah, and Mayne Mannish are some of the best rapper names ever.

  1. Tha Alkaholiks

West Coast OGs since the early 90s, Tha Liks’ 1993 debut album, 21 & Over, is a high-octane hip-hop classic which set a high bar for both lyrics and production. Four subsequent albums followed, the last being 2006’s Firewater, all of which mix hardcore hip-hop with party-oriented themes. One-time disciples of King Tee, they’ve always been a force to be reckoned with in a live context, and there’s no reason to expect anything different from their Hiero Day appearance.

  1. The Luniz

Best known for the all-time cannabis anthem/ Bay Area rallying call, “I Got Five On It,” Yukmouth and Numskull are inner-city griots who’ve lived a wilder life than most of us, and put much of it down on record. It’s somewhat gratifying to see them on a bill so saturated with underground and alternative hip-hop – a confirmation of their lyrical finesse, as well as a shout-out to the streets of East Oakland, where Hiero is from.

  1. Compton’s Most Wanted

This classic Compton gangsta rap group, possibly second only to NWA in terms of influence and reputation, never enjoyed the mainstream success of their Ruthless peers. But their street-level stories had a louder ring of authenticity to them, and it’s safe to call them some of the originators of “reality rap.” Though they didn’t have an overt political agenda, the sociopolitics and socioeconomic content of songs like “One Time Gaffled Em Up” was omnipresent, and often sublime.

  1. Zion-I

Zion-I have held the Bay Area down for 15 years, being one of the most-consistent underground groups in the region, establishing a national and international fanbase, and collaborating with everyone from Deuce Eclipse to Talib Kweli to Too Short. Their long list of classics ranges from “Inner Light” to “The Bay” to “Warrior Dance” to “Don’t Lose Your Head.” Though they’ve experimented with their sound, incorporating everything from EDM to folk, they’ve always maintained strong hip-hop roots. Their latest release, The Rapture: Live From Oaklandia, follows the departure of producer Amp Live, and finds emcee Zumbi Zoom taking things in a more musical direction by featuring a live band led by the incomparable Kev Choice.

  1. Crown City Rockers

In the mid 90s to early 2000s, hip-hop band Crown City Rockers were often called the Bay Area’s version of the Roots – mainly for their uncanny ability to swing jazzy, funky musical elements played on real instruments with the cultural b-boy witticisms of frontman Raashaan Ahmad. They boast a solid, if criminally-underrated, catalog of recordings too, from 2001’s One (recorded as Mission) to 2004’s Earthtones to 2009’s The Day After Forever. Their live shows are legendary, if infrequent these days: the last time they performed as a unit in Oakland, at an Old Oakland Farmer’s Market gig, Levende had not yet become District, so prepare to be blown away.

  1. The Coup

It was only a matter of time before Boots Riley’s subversive funk/rock/rap band the Coup played Hiero Day, and this is the year. That’s an underground hip-hop lover’s fantasy come true. While we are, once again, in-between new Coup albums, Riley has been highly visible of late with a new book of his lyrics and high-profile media appearances discussing activist issues. Though the Coup’s sound—and personnel—has evolved since 1993’s Kill My Landlord, they are one of the few continuously-active groups from hip-hop’s  90s Golden Age on any coast, and thus did not need to be coaxed out of retirement to do this gig. If you’ve never seen The Coup, expect to be revolutionized and entertained.

  1. Hieroglyphics

A member of Hiero recently tweeted that their independent label, Hiero Imperium, has now outlasted the major record label which signed and then dropped them back in the 90s. That’s poetic justice for Oakland’s lyrical laureates, an octagon of obtuse emceeing  and sick beat-making skills, who have given more back to the community from which they came than any other hip-hop artist or group in Bay Area history, while continuing to make more history with each new release and annual iteration of the event bearing their name. Not only do they have more catalog than J. Peterman and Victoria’s Secret combined, but their signature tune, “93 Til Infinity,” never gets old.


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A Triumphant Tribute to Marley’s “Exodus”

Empress Unification

Empress Unification

Exodus is arguably Bob Marley’s best solo album, track-for-track. Every song on the album is a classic, and its worst song (“One Love”) is a certified anthem with enough populist appeal it was used by the Jamaican tourist board. But even more than a collection of strong songs, the tunes on Exodus play well together. Like the best albums from the vinyl era, Exodus has a song cycle: the opener, “Natural Mystic,” perfectly segues into “So Much Things to Say”; “Guiltiness” and “The Heathen” pair up like Siamese twins; “Exodus” and “Jamming” go together like salt fish and ackee; “Waiting in Vain” and “Turn Your Lights Down Low” present a potent 1-2 combination of lover’s rock; and the closing duo, “Three Little Birds” and “One Love,” both go big with sing-a-long hooks. The songwriting is Marley at his best, ranging from introspective lyrics to extroverted projections of joy, happiness, and feeling irie. While not as raw politically as some of Marley’s earlier material, Exodus more than makes up for it with heartfelt expressions of love and humanism – which in of itself could be considered a political statement.

Femi Andrades and the Broun Fellinis

Femi Andrades and the Broun Fellinis

Like the approximately 1800 other people who attended the three performances of Exodus commissioned by UnderCover Presents at the Independent this past weekend, Oakulture was curious to hear what Marley’s 1977 masterpiece would sound like reinterpreted by 10 local bands, encompassing a diverse stylistic range.

Silk-E

Silk-E

The result broadened the album beyond the reggae genre and affirmed the universality of Marley’s message. Simply put, great material is great material, and it’s hard to go wrong with any of the tunes on Exodus. The fact that none of the performances presented by-the-numbers tributes allowed the performers to put their own touches on the songs, and keep things loose and somewhat quirky. This was no slick, Vegas-style production, but more of a representative sampling of the Bay Area music community—a funky, ad hoc bunch of talented weirdos. The show – and a companion album recorded at Fantasy Studios – were curated by Guest Music Director Rupa Marya of Rupa and the April Fishes, a world beat/alt.reggae band from SF. Marya clearly wanted to take the proceedings down an eclectic road, without getting too far away from the message of Marley’s music.

Rupa and the April Fishes

Rupa and the April Fishes

The standouts, from Oakulture’s perspective anyway, just happened to be Oakland-identified artists who infused their tunes with large doses of Afrofuturism. If you’ve ever wanted to hear the avant-jazz outfit the Broun Fellinis, a group known for their improvisational jams, tackle conventional song structure and feature a female vocalist, this was your lucky night. Femi Andrades, of the Punk Funk Mob, sang like she was possessed by a jazzy duppy on “Natural Mystic,” as original Fellinis Kevin Carnes (drums) and David Boyce (saxophone) and bassist Kirk Peterson raised a wailing ruckus.

Boots Riley

Boots Riley

Another highlight was the surprise appearance of an unbilled Silk-E, who bum-rushed the stage along with the Coup’s Boots Riley and the Quartet San Francisco for a transcendent version of “Turn your Lights Down Low.” Sporting an enormous mane like a black lioness, Silk-E’s stage presence was just as big as her hair, to the point where Riley’s raps and the instrumental backing almost seemed like an afterthought.

Silk- E

Silk- E

A nice touch was Empress Unification’s version of “Exodus.” The all-female vocal group, backed by the Fyah Squad Band, offered a refreshing take on the album’s titular track, with soaring harmonies which emphasized gender balance (reggae tends to be a male-dominated genre), while their all-white outfits suggested spiritual purity. Marley’s back-up singers, the I-Threes, were always a huge part of his sound, and Empress Unification not only reminded listeners of that, but added two more voices to the mix.

Sean Hayes

Sean Hayes

Dressed in a multihued outfit which seemed to be a tribute to global solidarity, Marya herself tackled “The Heathen” along with the April Fishes. The song subtly supports resistance to Babylon without the overt  name-checking of “Rat Race” or the fiery militancy of “Slave Driver,” yet it’s one of Marley’s most sublimely subversive songs:

As a man sow so shall he reap

And I know that talk is cheap

But the hotter the battle

Is the sweeter the victory

Empress Unification

Empress Unification

Sierra Leone Refugees All-Stars member Black Nature’s version of “Jamming” was probably the closest to traditional reggae out of all the performers, while vocal trio T Sisters put a doo wop spin on “Three Little Birds” and Brass Band Mission closed out the show with a NOLA-style second line rendition of “One Love.”  Other participants included alt. Latin band Shake Your Peace (“So Much Things to Say”), singer-songwriter Sean Hayes (“Waiting in Vain”) , and prog-reggae outfit FogDub (“Guiltiness”).

Shake Your Peace

Shake Your Peace

Overall, Exodus added another feather to UnderCover Presents’ cap. By offering musicians an opportunity to play some of their favorite tunes from one of their favorite albums, the show also helped expose those artists to audiences who may not otherwise have heard of them, and built community in the process. But perhaps the biggest testament to the production’s viability was the fact that the energy in the room started out high and just kept rising throughout.  With SF’s music scene facing displacement of artists and the closing of venues, UnderCover Presents’ principal Lyz Luke isn’t just booking shows, she’s affirming cultural resiliency through creative placemaking. That’s something to appreciate in an age when the bus to Babylon is chartered by Google.


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The Coup Stay Relevant with Lyrical, Musical Bad-Assery

Live Review/ The Coup, January 23, 2015 @ The Independent

Got Boots?

Got Boots?

If you live in the Bay Area, it’s easy to take The Coup for granted. But the simple fact is, no other region can boast a group like this. Six classic albums over a two-decade span which range from underground, sample-based hip-hop, to avant-garde, Afro-futurist post-funk. A canon of lyrical expression incorporating punchline after punchline. Radical politics combined with narrative storytelling in a non-preachy way. A killer live show which has evolved to the point where it’s now an outlandish hip-hop/funk/rock & roll circus. And, above all, a classic rapper who cares more about the substance and content of his raps than getting props for being a classic rapper.

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Prior to The Coup’s sold-out Independent show last Friday, it has been a few months since these guys had played a Bay Area date—their last local gig was the premiere of their performance art piece, “The Coup’s Shadowbox” last September—but Boots Riley and company were anything but rusty. Their nearly two-hour set touched on every Coup album (save their debut, 1993’s Kill My Landlord), highlighting a catalog which has yielded ‘nuff fan favorites, despite a lack of corresponding radio and video play.

Silk-E  and Boots Riley

Silk-E and Boots Riley

The show itself was bananas—kick yourself if you missed it—showing just how tight The Coup have become as a live outfit. They’ve subtly transformed themselves into the most subversive band on the planet, and that can’t be a bad thing. Because we need subversion through sonic insistence and lyrical deliverance, and The Coup supply that, in spades. Riley’s seemingly endless on-stage energy—he’s one of the more kinetic frontmen you’ll find, in any genre—is matched by vocalist Silk-E, a total bad-ass who appears to be channeling Tina Turner in her prime.  Silk-E plays Riley’s foil to the hilt, offering the audience another focal point for their viewing pleasure, and ensuring there’s never a dull moment. Keyboardist Kev Choice is always a solid musical maestro who makes the genre and tempo swings seem effortless. Drummer Hassan Hurd kept steady time, and bassist JJ Jungle mainly kept to the background, but guitarist Grego lapped up some spotlight for himself during a couple of extended vamp segments, during which it occurred to Oakulture that the Coup had reclaimed rock as a black music form (in an Afro-punkish kind of way). Indeed, this is a black rock band masquerading as a hip-hop outfit. Instead of being hit over the head with tired rap clichés, you will be rocked. And hit over the head with intelligent, witty lines which openly oppose capitalism for capitalism’s sake.

Silk-E

Silk-E

From Oakulture’s perspective, the highlights of the show were energetic renditions of “The Magic Clap” and a sped-up, balls-out version of the oldie “Fat Cats, Bigger Fish,” which ground out the refrain “get down get down get down” like a chant at a political rally. Interspersing newer material like “Gods of Science” and “The Guillotine” with classics like “Nowahlaters,” the band injected a formidable live presence into their set which spoke to their continued relevance, just as much as Riley’s lyrics did.

Grego rocks the house

Grego rocks the house

There aren’t too many groups from hip-hop’s classic early 90’s period which are still touring, and fewer still who are still making compelling new music which pushes their envelope in unexplored creative directions. And while their sound has evolved considerably from the Kill My Landlord days, Riley hasn’t changed much at all. Sure, he’s gotten older, wiser, and grown comfortably into his frontman/ringleader role. But who he is as a person has remained constant the whole time. He’s still that guy you’ll see onstage raising a ruckus one day, and run into in the neighborhood with his kids the next.

The Coup: Fierce 'n' Fonky

The Coup: Fierce ‘n’ Fonky

Simply put, there’s not another act in all of music like The Coup. And no matter whether it’s your first time seeing them or your 20th, they never fail to bring the funk, bring the noise, and bring the lyrical substance. Did we mention, they’re from Oakland?


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Enter to Win Tickets to The Coup & Le VICE at The Independent (1/23)!

The Coup
Enter to win a pair of tickets to see The Coup with Le VICE and Ren the Vinyl Archaeologist at The Independent in SF!  Please note that you must be 21 and over to attend the show. Enter by 1 p.m. on January 23, 2015 for your chance to win. Please note that only winners will be contacted. Enter here. Good luck!

 


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2014: The Year in Oakulture

Town Representer: Kev Choice

Town Representer: Kev Choice

2014 started out with a bang, with the release of Kev Choice’s Oakland Riviera album last January. The album, released independently through Choice’s own label, received little national attention. But it was easily one of the best releases of the year in any genre, and one which not only proved that Choice’s progression from sideman to bandleader was complete, but also galvanized Oakland’s urban music scene in the direction of conscious messages and aesthetic quality. Oakland Riviera established a local benchmark for virtuosity and musical intersectionality, as Choice fluidly alchemized hip-hop, R&B, soul, and jazz grooves with a hint of electronic finesse, in the process showcasing not only his own prowess as an emcee/producer/arranger/maestro, but also the considerable talents of a long list of local collaborators, which included Jennifer Johns, Lalin St. Juste, Erk Da Jerk, Viveca Hawkins, Mr. FAB, Phesto Dee, Zumbi Zoom, Howard Wiley, Marcus Shelby and many more. Yet for all the album’s collaborative nature, it was Choice’s solo material which heralded the most praise, from the moody and melodic urban instrumentals named after Oakland streets (“Int’l Blvd,” “MacArthur’s Mood,” “Foothill Dip”) to the uber-socially-conscious, Gil Scott Heron-esque “Crazy Illusions,” which closed the album.

The album’s title, Choice said in an interview, isn’t an actual place, but rather a reflection of his life experiences: “There’s no specific place called Oakland Riviera, but it kind of grew as a concept in my mind and I started thinking how could I express that. With me being a musician from Oakland and traveling around the world and also, me being an emcee and being a pianist and a composer, it’s almost like bringing different elements together to make one world.”

Choice proved to be a ubiquitous presence throughout the year, dominating the live music scene and even weighing in from social media-land on town business and international runnings while touring Europe with The Coup. Some other Oakland music artists who built up strong momentum this year include Jahi, the veteran conscious hip-hopper who is now a part of the Public Enemy family and its next-generation outfit PE2.0, and The Seshen, the retro-futuristic band headed by St. Juste, who signed to the Tru Thoughts label and won Best In Show at the Oakland Indie Mayhem Awards on the strength of their trip-hoppy single “Unravel.”

©Eric K. Arnold 2014

The Shadowbox opens

Speaking of The Coup, not only did they firm up their international credentials, touring France, Germany, Italy, and England, but their frontman Boots Riley also proved fairly ubiquitous, expanding his artistic repertoire with “The Coup’s Shadowbox”—a  performance art piece at the Yerba Buena Center For the Arts featuring installations by Jon-Paul Bail, surprise guest performers, and dancing puppets—and “Sorry to Bother You”—a darkly ironic, infinitely humorous screenplay published in McSweeney’s Quarterly, a segment of which was performed during SF’s Litquake festival.

Boots Riley holds up a copy of his screenplay

Boots Riley holds up a copy of his screenplay

February saw the 51Oakland folks team with the Elevate Foundation and the tsarina of the timbales, Sheila E., for the “Elevate Oakland” all-star benefit at the Fox Theater – one of the few shows at the renovated, iconic venue to prominently feature local artists.

The concert, a benefit for music programs in Oakland schools, emphasized the community-oriented nature of the city’s musician contingent, which sometimes seems to be more weighted toward social awareness and activism than outright commerciality. Not saying that’s a bad thing, but it is a thing you’ll find here.

Sheila E. at the Elevate Oakland fund-raise

Sheila E. at the Elevate Oakland fund-raiser

In addition to Ms. E—fabulous as always—featured artists included Choice (who took the stage with a group of young musicians he’d been mentoring, the Future Shock Quartet), Goapele, Michael Franti, and the Castlemont Choir.

Jennifer Johns performs live at Oakstop

Jennifer Johns performs live at Oakstop

The intersection of tech and culture—played out against a backdrop of encroaching gentrification, reports of displacement, and the influx of silicon-coated dollars into the city’s coffers as well as the dubious new “techbro” demographic—was a definite undercurrent of Oakland in 2014. Two new co-working spaces, Oakstop and Impact Hub, opened within a half-mile of each other and immediately established themselves as Uptown destinations; both went out of their way to emphasize arts  and culture as part of their mission, hosting book release parties by painter James Gayles and vegan soul food chef Bryant Terry, as well as various film screenings, panel discussions, and live performances.

Author and chef Bryant Terry at Impact Hub

Author and chef Bryant Terry at Impact Hub

After taking a month off, First Fridays returned in style in March. While the monthly street party may have jumped the shark in late 2012, when it topped out at 15,000 attendees, it remains an important part of the city’s cultural arts fabric.

First Fridays jam session with Kev Choice, Hassan Hurd, Uriah Duffy, and King Theo Sambafunkquarian

First Fridays jam session with Kev Choice, Hassan Hurd, Uriah Duffy, and King Theo Sambafunkquarian

While many locals may be over First Fridays as a must-be-at happening, the Uptown street crawl is still an important draw for non-residents, and the distillation of all that energy has resulted in more micro-scenes and curation/activation of venues both on and off the Telegraph/Broadway strip. In short, we’re seeing more events, more parties, and more action around FF, which helps to further the notion of Oakland as an arts-friendly town that is starting to overtake San Francisco as a cultural incubator, if it hasn’t already.

One example of a socially-aware happening you probably wouldn’t have seen in SF was the Betti Ono Gallery’s “Stop Telling Women to Smile” exhibition, which combined performance and visual art, documentary and social commentary to address the issue of catcalling.

"Stop telling Women to Smile" at Betti Ono

“Stop Telling Women to Smile” at Betti Ono

As Oakulture wrote at the time, “Envisioned by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, “STWTS” includes both gallery exhibitions and a street art campaign… Fazlalizadeh’s striking large drawings of local women with captions imparting their responses to unwanted attention.” The campaign not only garnered international recognition, but made the front page of the culture section of the New York Times; the fact that Fazlalizadeh debuted the work at an Oakland gallery speaks to the city’s growing cultural gravitas.

Crow twists like a pretzel at Art & Soul.

Crow twists like a pretzel at Art & Soul.

Fast-forwarding to this past August, we saw the first-ever exhibition of turf dancing—the Oakland-originated dance craze which has gone international, thanks to the efforts of the supremely talented Turf Feinz—at the Art & Soul Festival. It’s always interesting to see how an underground-born art form does when exposed to a wider audience, and turf dancing came through with shining colors.

©Eric K. Arnold 2014

Dream tribute

Street art was also huge in 2014. Significant public murals were painted around town by the Attitudinal Health Collective, Community Rejuvenation Project, Vogue TDK, and a collaborative effort in solidarity with Palestine which included Spie, Deadeyes and Emory Douglas.

Dream Day, the annual event celebrating the legacy of Mike “Dream” Francisco, brought out several generations of graffiti artists and their friends and families to a West Oakland location which was then blessed with on-the-spot pieces, as well as live performances from rappers Richie Rich and Equipto. One of the defining characteristics of Oakland’s urban art scene is the crossover between street and gallery mediums, and the intersectionality between art and activism – which revealed itself at galleries like Warehouse 416, Betti Ono, Oakstop, SoMar, and SoleSpace. If you weren’t being exposed to mind-blowing art, much of it aerosol-oriented, this year, chances are you didn’t get out much.

Umoja Festival

Umoja Festival

Speaking of getting out, 2014 was a great year to be out and about in Oakland, thanks in large part to the many festivals around town which built community, offered peeks into cultural windows, and otherwise allowed large crowds to get their groove on simultaneously. In addition to old favorites like Art & Soul, Life Is Living, and the Malcolm X Jazz Arts Festival, relative newcomers like the Ethiopian culture celebration Home Away From Home and the Umoja Festival spotlighted diversity and Pan-African unity, while the Oakland Music Festival transformed the downtown into a large concert venue, complete with massive stage. We can’t forget the Oakland Indie Awards, either, held at the beautiful Kaiser Rooftop Gardens, which again featured an impressive promenade and performance by the SambaFunk Funkquarians, in full carnival attire.

Funkquarians at the Oakland Undie Awards

Funkquarians at the Oakland Indie Awards

©Eric K. Arnold 2014

Hiero Day: 20,000+ strong — and growing

The third annual installment of homegrown hip-hop heroes Hieroglyphics’ free event Hiero Day swelled to more than 20,000 folks this year, representing a triumph for the non-mainstream, underground hip-hop culture Hieroglyphics has helped to cultivate for more than two decades. Highlights included Los Rakas’ simmering performance and a surprise Deltron 3030 set.

ESAA mural in the San Antonio district

ESAA mural in the San Antonio district

It was also nice to see East Side Arts Alliance’s first-ever block party in the San Antonio district, one of the most culturally-diverse neighborhoods in the entire country.

Live performances were part of the fuel which kept Oakland percolating in 2014. Some of the memorable ones Oakulture witnessed in 2014 included:  Queendom, an all-female hip-hop throwdown which established an alternative narrative to hoodrat hip-hop and rachet rap; the Town Futurist Sessions, a progressive, Afrofuturist space where creativity and experimentality freely mingled; Bang Data’s en fuego record release party at SF’s Independent; Jose James’ wonderfully sinuous rendition of Al Green’s “Simply Beautiful” at the New Parish; and the Funky Meters’ ear-pleasing extended jam session, also at the New Parish.

Fantastic Negrito at Town futurist Sessions

Fantastic Negrito at Town Futurist Sessions

Melissa Cruz at Birdland's Oakland Flamenco Sessions

Melissa Cruz at Birdland’s Oakland Flamenco Sessions

Two new music venues, Leo’s Music Club in Temescal, and Birdland Jazzista Social Club in North Oakland, expanded the music scene past the Uptown/downtown nexus, offering everything from legendary New Orleans drummers to up-and-coming jazz acts to international hip-hop and intimate flamenco gatherings.

Quite possibly the best live performance Oakulture saw in 2014, though, also took place at YBCA, whose “Clas/Sick Hip Hop: 1993 Edition” revisited the much-storied Golden Era of hip-hop with a mostly Oakland-based group of emcees performing classic by 2Pac, Souls of Mischief, Saafir, Black Moon, Queen Latifah, and others.

U.N.I.T.Y.: the women of Oakland hip-hop

U.N.I.T.Y.: the women of Oakland hip-hop

Choice, unsurprisingly, was all up in the mix as bandleader, arranger, and occasional rapper, and the emotional crescendo was a mindblowing rendition of the female empowerment anthem “U.N.I.T.Y.,” featuring Zakiya Harris, Aima the Dreamer, Ryan Nicole, Viveca Hawkins, and Coco Peila. As Oakulture wrote at the time,  the performance “evoked a sea of epiphanies, none greater than the notion that Harris and Co. had tapped into hip-hop’s elemental womb and stuck a chord of long-overdue gender balance, releasing a flood of amniotic lyrical fluid which coated the audience’s ears with sticky bliss. Hip-hop may be a mostly male-dominated art form, but in keeping with YBCA’s Left Coast ideology, the Bay Area’s female emcees reigned like queens.

©Eric K. Arnold 2014

Kufu paints for #Ferguson

There was a lot of positivity within Oakland’s cultural arts community, but everything wasn’t all good nationally. Simmering tensions over race, injustice, and the ongoing deaths of young black males at the hands of the police boiled over in 2014, resulting in coast to coast protests and the beginning of a long-overdue conversation which threatened to overshadow every other topic worth discussing. The national reverberations of the Mike Brown and Eric Garner incidents resonated strongly with a community which had already been in activist mode, ever since the death of Oscar Grant on New Year’s Day 2009, and which had also taken last year’s Trayvon Martin situation to heart.

Author Jeff Chang at SoleSpace Gallery

Author Jeff Chang at SoleSpace Gallery

So when the Ferguson decision came down, Oakland’s artivists were ready. Oree Original, Favianna Rodriguez, Refa One, the Dignidad Rebelde collective, and the Trust Your Struggle collective were among those who helped spread the #Blacklivesmatter meme through political art. During the protests, the Solespace Gallery held down much-needed space in what seemed like the eye of the hurricane for a moment, offering a safe place for art and community gathering, and refusing to board up its windows. It also hosted a book release party for Jeff Chang, the Berkeley-based author of “Who We Be” – a timely, ultra-relevant look at the intersectionality between the politics of race and the cultural debate over multiculturalism.

©Eric K. Arnold 2014

Palestine Solidarity mural by Spie TDK

Where national politics are concerned, Oakland represents a bit of a bubble – it’s both more diverse and more progressive than most of the rest of the country, and that progressive diversity informs its culture in many ways, both overt and subtle. The creative arts, it seems, are never too far from what’s happening on the streets, the blocks, and the boulevards. Count Oakulture as among those who wouldn’t have it any other way.

 

 


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Litquake Report-Back: Oakland Afro-Surrealists Sighted in San Francisco

Literary Reading Review: McSweeney’s Variety Show featuring Boots Riley, Oct. 17, Z Space; “We Are Mystic Detectives About To Make An Arrest” hosted by D. Scot Miller, Oct. 18, Aldea Home.

According to the most recent U.S. Census figures, SF’s black population is just a shade under 4 percent, and in danger of further erasure from the tech boom. That’s one of the reasons why, while the literary festival Litquake is a cultural phenomenon, it’s not a particularly diverse one. For instance, the banner display on the official Litquake site advertising October 18’s Litcrawl suggests a fun, hip social gathering — attended by not a single person of color.

So when Oakland’s African American writers do a reverse Ralph Ellison and become visible during Litquake’s mega extravaganza of literary readings, shenanigans, tomfoolery, and uber-nerd geek worship, it’s kind of a big deal. That’s because black voices rarely occupy the cultural or intellectual space associated with hipsterish literary events, so when you do see and hear them, there’s a kind of ironic amazement at how naturally and genuinely they fit into those spaces, when given a chance.

Boots Riley holds up a copy of his screenplay

Boots Riley holds up a copy of his screenplay

The night before the Litcrawl, Coup frontman Boots Riley was the highlight of McSweeney’s Variety Show, a sold-out event held at Z Space in Potrero Hill—once the childhood home of OJ Simpson, and now a sprawling neighborhood of industrial chic design aesthetics, tech companies, media companies, cute restaurants, cafes, and bars. Riley was directing a reading of “Sorry to Bother You,” a screenplay inspired by his time manning the phones as a telemarketer at Stephen Dunn and Associates (full disclosure: I, too, worked at that firm in the mid-90s, at the same time Riley was there).

I arrived about an hour before showtime, intending just to watch the proceedings and take notes. But when I showed up, and tried to get my guest list hookup certified, I was  told I would be reading. It seemed that there was a part which could only be played by a black man, and none of the professional actors Riley had assembled were of ebon—okay, mocha-caramel—hue. So instead of watching from the audience, I was directed to the stage, where Riley and cast were doing a last-minute read-through of the script.

My part was that of Langston, described as an “older black man” working at the telemarketing firm who tells the protagonist Cassius, played by Riley, the secret to becoming a “Power Caller”: use your white voice.

The correct white voice, Langston explains to Cassius, isn’t the acceptable buppie patois of Will Smith, but the all-the-way Eurocentric vocal inflections of Al Roker.

Anyway, we’re getting slightly ahead of ourselves here.

Reading "Sorry to bother You" at Litquake. photo by Anya De Marie.

Reading “Sorry To Bother You” at Litquake. photo by Anya De Marie.

It was a revelation, to say the least, to realize that Riley’s talents extend past his musical gifts. It’s one thing to write rap lyrics, and quite another to write screenplays. “Sorry To Bother You”’s storyline involves Cassius applying for work at the telemarketing firm, hanging out with his girlfriend Detroit, making an ill-fated trip to a VIP room at a local bar, attending telemarketing employee meetings, and being recruited by a guy trying to unionize the employees.

What makes the screenplay work, however, is Riley’s keen sense of irony and knack for clever dialogue, which balances comedic witticisms with serious social commentary and class analysis. His is a sharply-honed voice that’s big on punchlines—a benefit to being a professional rapper—which makes the interplay between the characters fluid and lively.

Boots Riley reads at Litquake

Boots Riley reads at Litquake

At the live reading, I had the benefit of watching Riley from maybe two feet away. His stage presence is evident, even if audiences aren’t used to seeing him stand (mostly) still. He delivered his lines in a deadpan way, injecting an every (black) man quality into Cassius, a character who could easily have been the “hustler for real” of the Coup song “Fat Cats, Bigga Fish.” Cassius has street smarts, but isn’t completely hip to the capitalist exploitation inherent in the telemarketing industry—a paradigm hinted at in one of his early calls, to a woman whose husband is suffering from an advanced stage of cancer. When informed of this, Cassius looks to his telemarketing script for instructions; he’s told to “make any problem a selling point.”

The Z Space reading covered just an excerpt of Riley’s screenplay (a full version will be published in an upcoming issue of McSweeney’s quarterly). According to Riley, the story gets more and more surreal and darkly comic, involving Occupy Oakland-esque protests and a corporation which hires employees for lifetime contracts. Riley hopes to get it made into a movie; if that does happen, it’s probably safe to say it won’t be directed by Steve McQueen or Tyler Perry.

D. Scot Miller

D. Scot Miller

The next night saw “We Are Mystic Detectives About to Make An Arrest,” an Afro-Surrealist reading during Litcrawl, hosted by D.Scot Miller, author of the “Afrosurrealist Manifesto.” In his manifesto, Miller explains that Afro-Surrealism isn’t like the European Surrealism of Dada or Dali, and it’s not the African Surrealism of Leopold Senghor’s negritude movement, either. Nor should it be confused with Afro-futurism, which focuses on science, technology and a timeline which hasn’t yet happened.

“Afro-Surrealism,” Miller writes, “is about the present…  Concentration camps, bombed-out cities, famines, and enforced sterilization have already happened. To the Afro-Surrealist, the Tasers are here. The Four Horsemen rode through too long ago to recall.”

Some may see the origins of Afro-Surrealism in the novels of Chester Himes, but as Miller pointed out Saturday night, the term was actually coined by the late Amiri Baraka, and counts Ishmael Reed (who coined the phrase which served as the reading’s title) as among its influences.

In addition to Miller, the lineup included my good friend Malcolm Shabazz Hoover, Ayize Jama-Everett, Michael Warr, and Mike Sabb. All were brilliant, whether reading short stories or poems, all of which spoke to the black experience as it’s happening now. The event attracted a standing-room-only crowd which filled every corner of Aldea Home, an uber-upscale home furnishing store—call it Bed, Bling and Beyond—where, for a $10,000 purchase, Design Consultants are available to help rich hipsters fulfill their aesthetic needs, while the less-monied resort to one-star Yelp reviews to vent about poor customer service and alleged racial discrimination.

Afro-Surrealist authors at LitCrawl

Afro-Surrealist authors at LitCrawl

Anyway, the ironic surrealism of an Afro-Surrealist reading on Valencia St., the symbolic center of post-gentrification SF, a city whose African American population has steadily been siphoned away to next-to-nothingness, wasn’t lost on Miller. He joked that the event might have temporarily raised the city’s black demographic numbers by a percentage point or two, which is either a) not funny; or b) funny but sad, depending entirely on your perspective.

It’s also ironic that it took a cadre of Oakland folks to bring blackness to Litquake. Taken together, the two readings showed that there’s plenty of life left in the Black Arts movement, and that Oakland has to be considered a fertile incubator for the contemporary version of that movement. While Riley and Miller’s readings added something Litquake was otherwise missing, they represent just the tip of the iceberg: there’s much more (mostly unheralded) literary talent in the Town, just waiting to be discovered. So while Litquake generated more interest in the Afro-Surrealist movement, one hopes its aftershocks will continue to reverberate and shine more light on Oakland’s black authors.