Oakulture

Documenting the Oakland cultural renaissance


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Town Park Ribbon-Cutting Brings Smiles, Kickflips to West Oakland

K-Dub (center) cuts the ribbon at Town Park

K-Dub (center) cuts the ribbon at Town Park

This past Saturday’s opening of Phase I of the newly-renovated Town Park  skatepark, located inside West Oakland’s DeFremery Park, represents a “win” on so many levels. On one hand, it symbolizes the fulfillment of a dream for Keith “K-Dub” Williams, a teacher, artist, and skateboarding advocate. On another, it shows what is possible when community activists commit to the sometimes-tedious process of working with city officials. Furthermore, it’s an example of how projects which positively impact the community—and specifically, the youth—can be supported by corporate sponsorship (which isn’t always a bad thing). And, it continues the evolution and development of a sport which is accessible to a broad range of participants, no matter their ethnic background, social class, or economic status.

Town Park

Town Park

Skateboarding is one of the least-elitist sports activities for youth, and as such, a natural fit for inner city residents. Unlike tennis, figure skating, ballet or golf, it’s not cost-prohibitive and overly class-conscious to get involved in: you don’t need a club membership and expensive gear to be a part of it – all you need is a board, and a willingness to learn tricks. Best of all, skateboarding has a major urban cool factor.

K-Dub and a local West Oakland youth

K-Dub and a local West Oakland youth

Though initially thought of as a “white” sport, skateboarding’s audience has been increasingly multicultural and diverse. A 2007 New York Times article  traced the sport’s growth from SoCal surfers in the 60s and 70s to Latino-influenced punk rockers in the 80s, but noted, “in black neighborhoods, skateboarding was regarded as something foreign that crept in from the suburbs.”

That began to change in the ‘90s, largely due to two factors: the popularity of street skating—a style developed in San Francisco—which urbanized the sport past its suburban pool origins; meanwhile, underground hip-hop gained inroads among skateboarders, who embraced left-of-mainstream rap crews like Wu-Tang Clan and Hieroglyphics.

Town Park

Town Park

Longtime Oakland representative Ron Allen (also known as MC Intelligence in the jazz-hop group Hueman Flavor), was one of the first pro African American skateboarders back in the day. In the late 90s, Allen’s company Heeterz helped to expand hip-hop’s popularity among the skateboarding crowd by co-promoting with music labels like Hieroglyphics Imperium and Rawkus, packaging skateboards with music CDs (remember those?).

That wave only grew in the 2000s, as African American pros like Stevie Williams landed endorsement deals with major fashion companies and hip-hop artists Pharrell Williams (aka Skateboard P) and Lupe Fiasco name-checked the sport in their music. As usual, the East Bay was at the forefront of the trend; The Pack’s 2006 hit “Vans” widened the longtime skate shoe company’s appeal beyond its traditional customer.

The Town Park story begins in the mid-2000s, when K-Dub launched the Hood Games in Oakland, after starting a skate club at Oakland High, where he was an art teacher. In 2004, K-Dub attended the X Games in Los Angeles. Noticing the contrast between the diversity of the crowd and the lack of diversity among competitors. he worked with pro skater Karl Watson and East Oakland Youth Development Center to produce the first Hood Games event in 2005 in East Oakland. As of 2012, he had produced more than 30 events in both Northern and Southern California.

“My goal was really to raise awareness, [and] bring the Oakland skate community together, with unity,” K-Dub explained. “Then from there, it was all about creating a permanent site for a skate park.”

Catching air at Town Park

Catching air at Town Park

In 2007, K-Dub teamed with Oakland’s Park and Rec department and began scouting locations, eventually settling on a vacant lot in DeFremery to create Town Park the following year. He relocated materials from a defunct skate park in Pleasant Hill to DeFremery—an underutilized park which was once a training ground for the Black Panther Party—a move which perfectly illustrates the urbanization of skateboarding from its suburban roots. He began throwing Hood Games events there, scored to a soundtrack of reggae, and later incorporated the Hood Games into the annual “Life is Living” festival also located in DeFremery.

Over the years, however, the wooden ramps and obstacles which comprised Town Park took quite a beating, and were in dire need of repair. That’s when a team including Councilmember Lynette Gibson-McElhaney, California Skate Parks, Conscious Construction, and Levi Strauss Skateboarding stepped in, and Parks and Rec stepped up.

Skaters at Town Park

Skaters at Town Park

On Saturday, the results of their efforts were clearly visible during the groundbreaking ribbon-cutting ceremony. As K-Dub, Gibson-McElhaney, Levi’s James Curleigh, and a Parks and Rec spokesman each took turns at the podium, a glistening array of freshly-poured concrete ramps, rails and obstacles, highlighted with red, gold and green accents, shone brightly behind them.

“So many people have been a part of this journey in different shapes and forms,” said a triumphant K-Dub. “We’re here now, blessing it, and giving thanks for all the people who helped out.”

The transition from wood to concrete and the fulfillment of the Town Park dream was a big thing for the youth K-Dub mentors to witness, he said.

“One thing I always say is, it’s important for the youth to see things happen in front of them, instead of, they show up and it’s already there. More symbolically than just a skatepark and a place for recreation, this park and this effort showcases what it means to show up every day and get dirty.”

Skateboarding legend Ron Allen

Skateboarding legend Ron Allen

K-Dub also spoke on what it means to create something permanent during the time when the city is undergoing major transitions. “As Oakland is changing, it’s kind of like clay. People are coming in and shaping it for what they want,” he said.

“My whole thing is, whatever’s going on downtown or in other parts of the city, I have no control over. But if I can have a chance to mold something here in West Oakland, for our youth to recreate, they’ll remember this day. They’ll remember the work and that they were part of this process. And that’s how we have to engage our young people.”

Breaking in Town Park's jumps

Breaking in Town Park’s jumps

Following the ribbon-cutting ceremony, a small army of skaters, many of them neighborhood youth, wasted no time in putting the brand-new skate park –  which is scheduled for two further phases of development – through its paces. Ollies, kickflips and soaring jumps punctuated the air, as skaters grubbed on free munchies from two food trucks and a DJ spun reggae 45s. It was an auspicious day, as evidenced by the wide smiles all around. One of those smiles belonged to Allen, who’s still skating at age 50, and who stands as a pioneer of the urban skater movement, a man whose efforts decades ago helped to create the diverse subculture skateboarding has become, as reflected by Town Park’s broad constituency.

 

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Life is Living 2014: Keeping it Beautiful

Live review: Life is Living Festival, Oct. 11, DeFremery Park.

Trying to describe Oakland’s Life is Living Festival is like trying to describe life itself. On a sunny, warm day, with every part of West Oakland’s DeFremery park activated—with people everywhere, listening to live hip-hop music well past dusk, sitting on the grass in front of Brett Cook’s large paintings of inspirational Oakland folks, skating or BMXing at Town Park, participating in kids’ activities with the little ones, perusing the wares of local artisans and artists, standing in line for a plate of yummy jollof rice and ndole from A Taste of Africa, or just having a parkside picnic with family members or loved ones—it seems absolutely perfect.

Candice Antique Davis and Kev Choice get open at the Soul Sessions

Candice Antique Davis and Kev Choice get open at the Soul Sessions

To call Life is Living a much-anticipated event would be an understatement. Every year since its inception, the Youth Speaks-produced festival is something to look forward to, a day of being surrounded by community, friends old and new, of being outside on what usually amounts to the last days of Indian Summer, just before the weather shifts and Fall begins in earnest. It’s also no exaggeration to call Life is Living a cultural institution, one which honors and celebrates local artists, musicians, and the community itself, in a completely sincere, open, and non-elitist way. Along with Oakland’s other open-air, music-filled community gatherings (among them Art & Soul, Malcolm X Jazz Arts Festival, Umoja Festival and Hiero Day), Life is Living has become part of the cultural fabric which holds the Town together, an event where the intersectionality of the city’s fabled diversity is on full display.

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There’s always spoken word poetry, music and plenty of art at Life is Living, and this year was more of the same. Each year the lineup is a little different—last year, headliners dead prez rocked the main stage with revolutionary rap; the year before that, Pete Escovedo, Los Rakas and DJ Questlove threw down—but it always showcases and spotlights the cream of local talent.

Life is Living 2014 483

Netta Brielle

New this year was a reggae sound system stage, with yard-style exposed speaker grills and a succession of dancehall-inclined emcees chanting down Babylon all afternoon. Progressive hip-hop collective Town Futurists also held down a main stage slot, offering up conscious, lyrical beats and rhymes and forward-looking soul grooves. The “Front Porch” stage hosted spoken word, an “MC Olympics” freestyle rhyme cipher, and various local emcees—including the Beats Rhymes and Life crew, Madlines and the Queen Emcees, former Lunar Heights mic-slanger Spear of the Nation, and longstanding socio-politically-aware rhymer Jahi, who recently joined the Public Enemy family as PE2.0.  Meanwhile, the kids’ stage featured performers Emily Butterfly, Theobekile “Thobs” Mbanda, and Young, Gifted & Black, along with gymnastics, tumbling and Zumba. While the absence of female performers from this year’s Hiero Day was a valid gripe among the artist community, no such complaint could be made about Life is Living: there was hardly any gender imbalance, if at all, at any of the stages.

Jennifer Johns

Jennifer Johns

The highlight of this years’ event, hands-down, was the “Soul Sessions” all-star revue assembled by pianist/composer/emcee Kev Choice.  Choice and his band remained on stage while a succession of uber-talented singers and rappers passed through to swap spit and channel soulful emotions. These included Candice Antique Davis of Antique Naked Soul, who murdered a rendition of Stevie Wonder’s “For You,” which had the crowd singing along to the “na na na na na na na” chorus; Erk tha Jerk, who dueted with Choice on “Forever Again” (one of the favorites from Choice’s latest solo release, Oakland Riviera); Netta Brielle, a homegrown contemporary R&B songstress who’s been living in Atlanta after signing to Atlantic Records; soul powerhouse Jennifer Johns (who brought up Ryan Nicole of Nu Dekades for a spirited run-through of “Town’d Out,” a song from Johns’ long-rumored,yet-to-materialize, third album; surprise cameos from Phesto Dee of Souls of Mischief/Hieroglyphics, and 1-O.A.K.; and a set-closing posse jam with Johns, Nicole, Kev Omoaghe Akhidenor, and Jahi which left the stage smoking. Credit must be given to Choice’s band— drummer John Omayga Adams, guitarist Bnai Rebelfront, keyboardist Doug Jones, bassist Drew, and sax players Ranzell Merritt and Roger Cox, who made the wide-ranging stylistic shifts seem easy and effortless—something they couldn’t possibly have actually been. While it’s great to see such talent play locally—especially in a space which holds as much memory as DeFremery (the onetime stomping ground of the Black Panthers)—the onstage energy was so combustible, it would be a shame for Choice not to take this revue on the road, so folks living outside of Oakland can see how it really goes down here.

Shock G

Shock G

Another first this year was the extension of the live performances past the daylight hours. This portion of the event featured Digital Underground frontman and hip-hop legend Shock G—yes, the one who put the satin on your panties—who seemed to be trying his best to channel his fallen friend and onetime bandmate Tupac Shakur. Shock switched between microphone and piano during his set, assisted by just a bassist and a DJ, and alternated between telling ‘Pac anecdotes, segueing into ‘Pac songs like “So Many Tears” and “I Get Around,” and lyrically referencing the formerly Oakland-based rap icon on “Keep It Beautiful”: His special special gift was his love side/ So many try’na be Pac but only cop the thug side/ How come yall don’t wanna be Shock? I survived/ And I ride for everyone/ It’s what you make it, so I made mine fun/ Yeah it’s bad now, don’t make it worse/ You wanna be happy? set that energy in motion and offer a smile first/ They don’t get it? try it again, breathe baby, breathe/ You really wanna be like Pac? read shorty, read.

There’s a lot which could be said about how the commercial rap industry has gone straight downhill since Tupac’s death 18 years ago. And to be honest, there’s little that’s appealing about commercial rap nowadays to those who identify as hip-hop generationers. But if Life is Living is anything, it’s a testament to the fact that good hip-hop is still being made, and that some of the best hip-hop being made is being made by community-oriented artists on a grassroots level who welcome the chance to take their show to the people in the park.

Marc Bamuthi Joeseph and Chinaka Hodge

Marc Bamuthi Joseph and Chinaka Hodge

It’s no mistake that the organizers of Life is Living include Hodari Davis and Marc Bamuthi Joseph, both of whom are card-carrying members of the hip-hop generation who present this festival like an offering to the orishas, with ritualistic purpose and complete integrity. These past few years, they’ve not only put on an enthralling annual event, but created a cultural legacy which uplifts community. Life is Living not only gives hope to future generations that hip-hop—and other urban genres—can stay positive and inspirational, but just might keep old heads who witnessed hip-hop’s evolution back in the day from becoming jaded and bitter about where the artform is at these days.