Oakulture

Documenting the Oakland cultural renaissance


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Hiero Day VII: The Seventh Seal [Review/Photoset]

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This year’s installment of Hiero Day — which  has become one of the most significant hip-hop parties in the nation, if not the globe — may have been the most satisfying iteration to date. By the time evening rolled around and the locally-bred Hieroglyphics crew hit the instantly-recognizable opening notes of “93 Til Infinity,” the experience had become epic.

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It’s always interesting to arrive at a music festival early, when things are just starting. There was a good reason for early arrival, however: an all-to-brief set by Umar Bin Hassan, best known as one of the driving forces behind the Last Poets, the pioneering group who infused spoken word with street-level imagery, cultural nationalism, and a sociopolitical worldview. The Last Poets have been called the Godfathers of rap, and the tradition of “woke”-ness in hip-hop has a starting point in songs like “When the Revolution Comes” and “Mean Machine.” They’ve been sampled by Notorious B.I.G., and covered by Public Enemy, yet their contributions to the artform and the culture aren’t as widely-known as they should be.

Bin Hassan’s set was short but significant, in that it connected rap’s origins with its present-day manifestation.  He closed with “This Is Madness”, the title track of the classic 1971 album. Strangely enough, the song’s dystopian lyrics seemed just as relevant in the Trumpian era as they were during the Nixon presidency.

As host Mistah F.A.B. noted, at the time the Last Poets emerged, “trhey was still hanging us. Let me say that. We was still getting killed for reckless eyeballing. We were still getting locked up like we are today, at higher rates than we was in the South. So for a brother to come out with poems like that, the whole Last Poets, allof the brothers, man, to be here today, I’m honored just to share the stage with him.”

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After his set, Bin Hassan hung out for a while in VIP by the main stage, taking it all in. There was a lot to take in, indeed, Besides the main stage, there were two other stages with full lineups, vendors galore, a food truck area, a kids’ area – a sure sign hip-hop is grown—and live painting by graffiti legend Crayone.

As the day progressed, thousands of attendees began to fill up the staging area, which had a different configuration than the 2016 festival, also held in the general 3rd St. location. The main stage faced westerly, which meant that attendees were looking directly into the sun for most of the afternoon.

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As a veteran of many Hiero Days, one thing Oakulture has learned is, you can’t be everywhere at once. So while forays were made through the vending and food areas, and the two secondary stages, the place to be was around the main stage, where most of the action was – although word has it that Ryan Austin and Chinaka Hodge killed it, as did Chali 2na’s performance and Mannie Fresh’s DJ set.

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For the occasion, F.A.B.  donned a bright red hoodie-and-sweatpants combo advertising his clothing company Dope Era. Never one to under-accessorize, F.A.B. also sported a Dope Era backpack and gold chain. The charismatic host shuttled between exhorting the crowd to get loud, relaying anecdotes, and performing some of his own songs, like the hyphy era anthem,  “Super Sic Wid It”

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A major highlight was Richie Rich’s set.  Before he came on, F.A.B. again contextualized the moment, proclaiming Rich “raised” him. “This dude was one of the first dudes to really show me what it was like to be a real Oakland stunna, to represent the town all around the world… when I heard this dude was on the performance list, I was hella juiced.”

In the Bay Area pantheon, “Dubble R” occupies a rather unique roost. A founding member of 415 who later signed to Def Jam before going indie, he’s among the few OG pioneers of Bay Area rap who’s still actively recording.

Richie Rich’s Hiero Day set was heated. The soil-savvy yet lyrical mic presence he displayed was something up-and-coming artists could learn a thing or two from. The crowd’s energy level jumped significantly when he too the stage. Audible cheers of excitement ensued when he performed the classics “Ain’t Gon Do” and “Let’s Ride.” He appeared to leave the crowd wanting more, until he reappeared, flanked by F.A.B., for a rendition of the all-time Oakland anthem, “Sideshow.”

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Another bright note was Mike Relm’s video turntablism display. Relm—who started out as a member of Supernatural Turntable Artists, then shot to fame with the Blue Man Group—has mastered the art of mixing music videos, mashing up visuals as well as audio. This injects an added sense of excitement into DJ routines because of the enhanced visual component. Relm might appear to be The Nerdiest Guy on the Planet—an image he has carefully cultivated—but he is an absolute beast on the tables, so don’t ever sleep on him.

Relm was followed by a very laid-back Talib Kweli, who recounted a story of coming to Oakland in 1996 and hanging  out with members of Hiero. It was a subtle reminder that Hiero Day is built on relationships in the artist community which extend back decades, as opposed to a corporate festival where money is the only commonality. The phrase “for the culture” gets bandied about a lot, and sometimes in cliched ways, but there is absolutely nothing cliched about a grassroots event which built itself up from its own bootstraps – which could be said about the Hiero organization as well (more on that in a minute).

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Kweli’s set cruised through hits like “The Blast,””Get By,” and “Redefinition,” before the Brooklyn emcee gave way to Southern Cali’s Pharcyde. Now down to just two original members—Imani and Bootie  Brown, the group still was able to muster considerable stage command, especially on their closing tune, “Passing Me By,” which turned into a sing-along with several thousand people – indeed, the staging area had become a dense thicket of bodies.

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By now, the sun’s merciless rays had begun to ease a bit, setting the stage for an otherworldly set by Black Thought. The Roots’ headmaster made his first Hiero Day appearance one for the history books. If you think you have heard dope emcees before, you really haven’t heard anything until you’ve heard Thought do a solo set, backed by just a trumpeter and a give tapping out beats on an MPC.  Tarik Trotter simply put on a rhyme clinic, scoring high marks for subject matter, flow, breath control, vocabulary, tonality, and several other metrics which may come to mind later. He held the mic like a staff, emanating a vibe of hip-hop royalty. Fronting on Thought was simply not an option; he basically exuded greatness from every pore, as he poured on the similes and metaphors.

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The coup de gras was the special guest he brought out, none other than Sa-Roc. Though she looked graceful, even demure, she beasted the mic with an impressive  display of skills and finesse which served as dessert to Thought’s entrée. Definitely keep an eye out for her.

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At this point in the day, the show was running a bit over, which  cut into the headliner’s time. Which is also a testament to Hiero’s aesthetic . Most groups in that position, especially at their own festival, would have cut the time of one of the other acts; to cut your own set speaks to their integrity.

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Their 30-minute slot was cut down to maybe about 20 minutes. But lest anyone complain, they more then made up for it in intensity, bum-rushing the stage like they were hungry for their first taste of success.

If you’ve followed Hiero for a while, you know they function as a collective unit with distinct  personalities: Casual mixes physical and verbal aggression with subtly complex rhyme patterns and battle-rapper bravado; Tajai—who sported a black and gold African-patterned robe straight outta Wakanda—evoked the image of a high priest or wizard of some mystical Afrocentric sect;  the underrated Pep Love is a fount of lyrical dopeness and hip-hop aesthetics; Phesto Dee mixes sporty flair with a subtle sense of humor (he had on some shades with the Hiero symbol on the lenses); and A+ and Opio are deceptively laid-back cats who deliver devastating ninja strikes causing verbal lacerations.  Producer Domino and DJ Toure stoically play the background, but also serve as grounded focal points – the crew likes to move around a lot onstage. Missing in action was Hiero founded Del—a zany character if there ever was one—who is still recovering from a recent illness.

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Hiero’s energetic set went by quickly, but every moment was befitting of a prime-time performance. After seeing them live countless times, the way they complement each other never ceases to amaze. They never get in each other’s way, seeming to employ telepathic commands, or maybe just intuition born from working alongside each other for three decades.  It would have been dope to hear a full set of classics, but the songs we did hear, including two newer songs and the now 20 year-old “You Never Knew” were lapp[ed up like milk by the crowd, leading up to “93 til,” a song whose most enduring quality may be that it never gets old.

Some final thoughts: Hiero Day covers a fair amount of the hip-hop spectrum, and presents the genre as united—as opposed to subdivided by style or region. In doing so, it transcends subjective biases. The mix of up-and-coming and veteran artists not only challenges fans to be open-minded and encourages embracing of groups they may be unfamiliar with, but also means each and every Hiero Day is similar yet different.

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Unlike most rap shows—which tend to either target younger or older audiences—Hiero Day has broad, multigenerational appeal. This also helps explain Hieroglyphics’ longevity: they keep attracting younger fans while retaining longtime listeners, essentially turning over their fan base. It’s a brilliant marketing model.

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While similar festivals like Summer Jam or Rock the Bells have attracted large numbers of hip-hop aficionados over the years, neither event has ever felt truly organic. There’s a DIY mentality afoot at Hiero Day which makes mainstream or overly-commercial rap seem completely irrelevant. From an audience perspective, there may be some performers you especially want to see, but a greater sense that folks are there for the overall experience.

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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.