Oakulture

Documenting the Oakland cultural renaissance


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Life, Death, and Rhythm: Cultural Resiliency and Anti-Displacement Efforts Gaining Momentum in Oakland

Life Is Living festival

Life Is Living festival

So, let me get this straight: According to the New York Times, gentrification is going to save Oakland? That’s funny, almost, because that’s not the conversation Oaklanders are having about the Town they live in.

To recap: On October 3, journalism’s Grey Lady showed her true colors in an article ostensibly about the tragic murder of muralist Antonio Ramos, slain by a random act of violence while ironically working on a mural designed to heal trauma and beautify the hood. When we say ‘hood, we’re talking about freeway underpasses in West Oakland, which are typically not the parts of town you would show off to Marin socialites and international jet-setters.

"Oakland Superheroes" mural in progress

“Oakland Superheroes” mural in progress

Yet in the Times’ view, the killing of a muralist was a blip on a forward march of foodie guidebook ratings, North Bay one-percenters mingling with pierced and tatted urchins during First Friday, and tech invaders annexing downtown, signaling Oakland’s arrival as – what, exactly? The Times didn’t specify.

What they did say was this: “the death of Antonio Ramos… was a reminder of the stubborn grit and crime that still cling to the city despite the gentrification boom that has fueled its reputation as Brooklyn by the Bay.” (emphasis added.)

Altar for Antonio Ramos

Altar for Antonio Ramos

The Times article went on to quote OPD Chief of Police Sean Whent as saying, “people are worried about gentrification because, I think, it does enhance conflict.” Yet, maybe because that point conflicted with the article’s insistence that gentrification is a desired and entirely serendipitous outcome for all, the writer just sort of let that comment hang. She went on to quote Mayor Schaaf, who seemed apologetic that she had to deal with the reality that good people like Ramos are sometimes murdered over nothing. “That’s the life of an Oakland mayor,” she said.

Antonio Ramos dedication at mural site

Antonio Ramos dedication at mural site

Neither Schaaf nor the Times seemed to be able to grasp the essential dichotomy, that the mural Ramos was working on before he died was not about gentrifying Oakland for newcomers able to afford skyrocketing rents, but about beautifying an area whose primary demographic is black and poor, a woebegone, dark, and foreboding passageway which, prior to the mural, was primarily characterized by homeless people, birdshit, and carbon emissions – for the benefit of current residents.

As muralist Pancho Peskador, who witnessed the shooting, said, “This fucking freeway is pretty shady. It’s dark. It’s ugly.” But in doing the work, he added, “I see the transformation of it. It’s progress for the whole community.”

"Oakland Superheroes" mural in progress

“Oakland Superheroes” mural in progress

Ramos’ death, sensationalized by the media, has catalyzed the mural project – the third in a series developed by non-profit Attitudinal Healing Connection. I hesitate to use the word martyr, but there’s been a tremendous outpouring of love for the fallen 27-year old artist, from candles, flowers, and altars which cover almost the entire 200 feet of sidewalk at the mural site, to a tribute piece painted in his honor by his art teacher Eric Norberg, to a renewed dedication to the mural’s mission by the surviving artists. Even before the mural has been completed, the effect is tangible: a once foreboding piece of turf is now a sanctified, hallowed ground. It’s as if Ramos was a blood sacrifice to the gods. That’s a hard price to pay, but one which will hopefully bring more peace and less violence.

A wreath for slain muralist Antonio Ramos hangs in front of the mural site

A wreath for slain muralist Antonio Ramos hangs in front of the mural site

Antonio Ramos didn’t die because Oakland isn’t being gentrified fast enough; he died because systemic  inequity and internalized oppression among people at risk of displacement  — on top of income gap, on top of daily pollution exposure, on top of police misconduct, etc., etc.,  — have degraded respect for life. As Project Director Dave Burke said, “that’s America” – not just Oakland.

The answer for Oakland isn’t more gentrification, although that seems fairly inevitable. The answer for Oakland is more art and culture which reflects, respects, and engages the community, celebrates diversity, and improves the quality of life in parts of town where cold-blooded murder can happen as quick as a furtive glance.

Life Is Living festival

Life Is Living festival

Speaking of life, there was plenty of it, in abundance, at this year’s Life Is Living Festival. Although there was some talk of the repercussions of not having a big headliners as in years past, that didn’t matter at all. Essentially, no one cared, because big headliners aren’t what people go to the festival for; the main reason to attend LIL is to be immersed in community and culture.

That was well-evident last Saturday. In the space of just a few hours, Oakulture experienced an African drum and dance circle; an amazing group of young Haitian musicians playing original compositions; an eye-popping demonstration of turf dancing; powerful sangin’ sistahs; equally powerful youthful spoken-word sheroes;  Town Park youths perfecting ollie grinds; and a streetful of people filling up the asphalt of 18th Street, dancing joyously to a baile funk DJ as the sunset glowed with iridescent hues of orange and red.

Life I Living Festival

Life Is Living Festival

Earlier, in a conversation with artist Brett Cook, I remarked that LIL seemed to embody the fulfillment of the Black Panthers’ vision of community-oriented social services intermingled with Afrocentric-leaning culture – a vision which began almost 50 years ago, and frequently utilized that same location (DeFremery Park, aka Lil Bobby Hutton Park). There were no overt politics on display, and the ideology being pushed essentially amounted to, celebrate life, the sunshine, and the people. It was a concrete example of what LIL producer Hodari Davis called “black joy in the hour of chaos.”

Life Is Living festival

Life Is Living festival

If LIL was a subtle anti-displacement initiative, somewhat less subtle was the Samba Funk-led #SoulOfOakland rally protesting a recent transplant’s attempt to shut down a drum cipher in honor of the Blood Moon, which ended in multiple citations and allegations of racial profiling and false accusations of assault. You may have heard about it; not only has reportage by Davey-D and others gone viral on social media, but Chronicle columnist and perennial Oakland hater Chip Johnson even weighed in, predictably defending OPD while chiding SambaFunk for riding the “racism train. “

To even go there, one has to ignore all the disturbing reports, not just of racial profiling by police, but of noise complaints against black churches, the non-profit-friendly Humanist Hall, and the Malonga Center—home to Oakland’s Afro-Diasporic dance and drum community—as well as the closure of the Burrito Shop on Lakeside and the Rock Paper Scissors collective on Telegraph, and reports that Uber’s relocation to the Sears building will accelerate gentrification even more.

In solidarity: Ieumsae

In solidarity: Ieumsae

As Oakulture previously noted, Oakland’s recent percent for art ordinance was hit with a lawsuit by developers before it could commission even one work, and a proposal for an arts-friendly project on the Henry J. Kaiser Auditorium site was rejected by the City Council. Since then, more ominous news on the development front has come from the announcement of the Downtown Oakland Specific Plan and a SPUR report on the area — which specifically mentioned art in just one of 30 recommendations.

All of these are signs of the times, and if you connect the dots, it’s clear that what mainstream media calls a “gentrification boom” clearly means displacement for the have-nots.

#SoulOfOakland rally at City Hall

#SoulOfOakland rally at City Hall

But Samba Funk isn’t having that. Not without a fight. And by fight, they mean, drums, lots of them. And dancers. The rally at the lake followed a successful action on the steps of Frank Ogawa plaza, within earshot of City Hall, which was followed dutifully by a TV news crew. Samba Funk Artistic Director Theo Williams later spoke up at the City Council meeting; the vibrant drumming from outside the building was clearly audible as he testified about the original incident.

The momentum generated by the action coalesced into the “#SoulofOakland movement, whose first action was Sunday’s rally at the Lake. In the course of two incredibly full hours, participants were treated to First Nation drummers Manny Lieras and George Galvis doing indigenous songs of resistance, Korean drummers Ieumsae playing traditional instruments in the Poongmul style (a folk art associated with working class people and social justice), a Puerto Rican Bomba troupe led by Shefali Shah complete with long-skirted dancers, Haitian troupe Rara Tou Limen led by master drummer Daniel Brevil, and a Brazilian outfit.

SambaFunk's Theo Williams and Rara Tou Limen's Daniel Brevil lead the drumline

SambaFunk’s Theo Williams and Rara Tou Limen’s Daniel Brevil lead the drumline

It was a bit cute, light-hearted even, to see signs on people’s backs announcing “More Drumming, Less Gentrifying.” But there were serious undertones to the entire event. Cultural resilience is embedded into every beat of ethnic drums, and to experience a world-class exhibition of cultural diversity which was so much more than a drum circle – really, it was an anti-displacement ritual, and all that embodies – had a resonant impact. To hear tales of the Haitian defeat of Napoleon along with stories of the Ohlone village of Huichin gave a certain perspective which put gentrification, displacement, and cultural resistance in a historical context.

Indigenous noise: Manny Lieras and George Galvis

Indigenous noise: Manny Lieras and George Galvis

Councilmembers Desley Brooks and Abel Guillen professed support for the cause, but microphone pontification was kept at a bare minimum, and; instead of long-winded speeches, the focus was on building and engaging community through drumming and dancing.

According to Lieras, “Drums and voices were the first instruments. Some of you who have been drumming for a long time understand the healing powers these drums possess. We believe inside these drums, there’s spirits… when we use this drum, it has ceremonial healing practices and purposes.”

As an Ieumsae spokesperson said, “Drumming is an act of resistance. What happened last week with SambaFunk is not ok, it’s a problem. It’s gentrifying the soul of Oakland, so we’re here in solidarity.”

Shefali Shah's Bomba troupe in action

Shefali Shah’s Bomba troupe in action

“We’re gonna be drumming here on a regular basis,” said Williams, adding that he was renaming the amphitheater “freedom center.” Every time we’re here, he said, “we’re gonna exercise our freedom.”

“This is what makes Oakland great. It’s our culture and our arts,” said Guillen, who reaffirmed his intention to reinstate the city’s now-defunct Cultural Arts Commission.

By the end of the day, nearly all of the audience had joined the dance section; off to the side, the percussion contingent, most wearing white, supplied the music as the dancers supplied the movement. If Williams had wanted to emphasize that cultural diversity and rhythmic expression are indeed the soul of Oakland, he succeeded. This was a mini ethnic dance and drumming festival, in a public space, which engaged community in interactive, inclusive activities and championed an inspired cause. All one needed to participate were a percussion instrument and/or your two feet.

Well-played, Sambafunk. Well-played.

Dancers at the SoulOfOakland rally at the lake

Dancers at the SoulOfOakland rally at the lake

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Blackalicious Is Back and “Blacka” Than Ever

Jumbo, Gift of Gab, and Lateef

Jumbo, Gift of Gab, and Lateef

Live Review/ Blackalicious, Zion-I, Martin Luther, Raw-G/ Sept 10, The Fillmore

A week before the release of Imani Vol. 1, their first album in 10 years, Bay Area hip-hop veterans Blackalicious blessed fans with a statement show. Their message? We’re back and “Blacka” than ever. That’s a reference to their new single, a hard-hitting lyrical banger (“blacker than a panther, blacker than Atlanta/ open like the dark starry background of Saturn”) which hints they’ve got plenty left in the tank.

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The new song was one of the highlights of a set which was pretty much a clinical demonstration of how to rock a crowd. It may have been the best Blackalicious show I’ve ever seen out of the dozens of times I’ve seen them live. Although they didn’t have the two female soul singers, Qween and Erin Anova, who toured with them during the 2000s, they made up for it with guest appearances by Fantastic Negrito, Jumbo and Vursatyl of the Lifesavas, and frequent collaborator Lateef the Truthspeaker — a constantly-animated presence whose kinetic energy helped enliven the proceedings considerably.

Lateef the Truthspeaker

Lateef the Truthspeaker

It’s easy to see why Blackalicious have been a fan favorite for three decades now. Along with their Solesides/Quannum brethren Lateef, DJ Shadow, and Lyrics Born, they were pioneers of the alternative hip-hop genre who have consistently set a high bar for innovation and creativity while maintaining a high degree of technical virtuosity and stylistic aesthetics. Emcee Gift of Gab is probably your favorite rappers’ favorite rapper, a man blessed with seemingly-infinite amounts of breath control, which he channels into amazing lyrical patterns and rhyme flows. Producer Chief Xcel is one of the most underrated beatsmiths in hip-hop history, who has evolved from the simple sample-and-loop ethos of 1993’s “Swan Lake” to create complex, nuanced soundscapes which refute the notion that “conscious” hip-hop acts have underwhelming musical tracks.

Gift of Gab

Gift of Gab

Take, for example, the “da-de-da-da-da-da-da-da” chorus from “Deception,” the classic song from the Nia album which gives the tune a hooky, accessible feel without overly pandering to mainstream sensibilities. That’s a song Blackalicious fans never get tired of hearing, along with “Rhythm Sticks” – a standout from 2005’s The Craft. Both of those songs sounded great at the Fillmore, but it was especially good to hear some new material as well. In addition to “Blacka,” the audience was treated to “That Night”— on which Gab, Jumbo and Vursatyl pass the mic like a hot potato while detailing some N’Awlins hijinks, and “Love’s Gonna Save the Day” – a simmering, soulful track which continues the meteoric rise of Fantastic Negrito, who supplies the inspirational hook.

Fantastic Negrito

Fantastic Negrito

Blackalicious’ headlining performance capped an eventful and momentous evening which seemed to forward the momentum generated for Bay Area hip-hop by Hiero Day, which took place just three days prior. Two of the artists on the undercard, in fact, were carryovers from the Hiero Day lineup: Zion-I and Martin Luther. Zion-I are another act who deliver a great live show, whether for 10s of thousands of fans or a few hundred. Joined by Bang Data’s Deuce Eclipse, emcee Zumbi Zoom showed he’s got classics for days too – the set list included “Bird’s Eye View,” “Hit Em,” “Don’t Lose Your Head” – which segued into a long freestyle session between Deuce and Zumbi – and the regional anthem “The Bay,” which seems to grow in stature with every rendition. Martin Luther is technically not a rapper, but for a soul singer, the SF native’s streetwise persona ironically contrasts his frequently emotionally-resonant material. Along with the always-beautiful “Rise” (which dates back to the neo-soul era), he pulled off a cover of Bob Marley’s “Crazy Baldheads,” to the crowd’s delight.

Chief XL

Chief XL

Early birds got a special treat: opener Raw-G, the bilingual Mexican emcee with the razor-sharp staccato delivery, performed a short but potent set highlighting songs from her new album Sangre. Whether opining about immigrant rights (“all that shit needs to change,” she said), busting a cappella flows over beatboxed rhythms, or leading a trio of backup singers (including Naima Shalhoub and Lila Rose) into an updated version of the Latin music classic “Guantanamera,” she was an engaging presence who bears further watching (and listening to). The show also featured some pretty good in-between set DJing by Davey-D and D-Sharp.

Martin Luther

Martin Luther

While hip-hop shows are somewhat rare at the Fillmore, when local artists get the opportunity to rock the historic venue, they tend not to disappoint. The Blackalicious show more than upheld that maxim, and Oakulture would like to think that the group – currently wrapping up a string of Pacific Northwest tour dates before heading to France, England, Austria, and Switzerland in October – put a little something extra on it for the hometown.