Oakulture

Documenting the Oakland cultural renaissance


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Why Black Art Matters

One recent Friday night, Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale addressed a packed house at East Side Arts Alliance. Seale mentioned he was a jazz drummer at age 13, and later acted in plays written by Oakland’s Marvin X. He went on to relate the importance of arts to social movements: “To me, it’s all a revolutionary culture. That’s what this is about.”

Stokely Carmichael and Bobby Seale, 1968. Photo by Henry Raulston

Stokely Carmichael and Bobby Seale, 1968. Photo by Henry Raulston

As Seale, now 78, spoke to an audience which included former Panther Minister of Culture Emory Douglas and Joan Tarika Lewis, the organization’s first female member and a violinist who works with youth, he was surrounded by images of himself taken almost 47 years ago, during a 1968 Panther rally in Defremery park. To look at pictures of Seale in 1968 while being addressed by the 2015 version of the man was the very definition of epiphany.

The photos, which have never before been exhibited publicly, were shot by Henry Raulston, a former Army photographer who joined other local photographers to form the Association of Black Photographers in 1967. Using a Nikon F and Tri-X film, he set out to document rallies, demonstrations, and community gatherings in Oakland. The Panthers, he said, were “doing something to build the people up.” With cultural arts also taking radically progressive turns, activism became infectious: “There was this vibe of, ‘what can we do'”?

Raulston’s exhibit, “Seizing the Time,” presents 35 prints–many of his negatives were lost due to improper storage, he said–which not only capture a young, charismatic Seale, but other Panther leaders like Stokely Carmichael, Eldridge Cleaver, and Kathleen Cleaver, as well as Brown Berets–whose presence emphasizes black-brown unity–who’d traveled up to Oakland from Fresno for the rally. There’s an iconic shot of Carmichael and Seale together, appearing hopeful and determined; another of three Afro’d women raising their fists in front of a banner which reads “Free Huey.” Collectively, Raulston’s unearthed treasures paint a picture of a cultural community for whom activism was intermingled with the creative arts. Even the Panthers’ sartorial choices—dashikis, turtlenecks, berets, leather jackets, sunglasses—reflect a stylistic awareness and implicit coolness which counterbalance their fiery radicalism.

Henry Raulston with a photo of Stokely Carmichael.

Henry Raulston with a photo of Stokely Carmichael.

Curator and ESAA co-founder Greg Morozumi explained how, back in those intense times, with the Vietnam war raging, cities burning all over the world, and the Panthers battling both the Oakland police and the federal government, the Black Arts Movement emerged to catalyze social change through cultural expression. BAM, he said, was “an integral part of the black power movement,” yet is often overlooked by historians, not because it was ineffectual, but “because it had such a big impact.”

Interestingly, Harvard academic Skip Gates downplayed BAM, perhaps prematurely, in a 1994 essay for Time magazine, in which he placed more emphasis on the then-current progenitors of a black cultural renaissance: “It’s not that there are black artists and intellectuals who matter; it’s that so many of the artists and intellectuals who matter are black.”

Malcolm X, patron saint of Black liberation

Malcolm X, patron saint of Black liberation

More than a decade after Gates curiously called BAM “the shortest and least-successful” African American artistic movement in history, the extent to which it represents a critical link in the black cultural continuum has become more clearly visible – in part because there’s a more defined sense of intergenerationality than existed in the Clinton years, in part due to the maturation of the hip-hop generation, but also because of the repetition of some of the same social and political issues which initially informed BAM, such as police brutality and the need to organize communities around unequal justice. It’s also been posited, most recently by Berkeley author Jeff Chang in “Who We Be,” that the election of Barack Obama in 2008 was one of the long-term impacts of four decades of POC-driven cultural movements, of which BAM was both catalyst and seminal influence.

Amiri Baraka

Amiri Baraka in 1972

The movement was a national one. In the Bay Area, Marvin X founded Oakland’s Black House Theatre and SF’s Black Arts/West, while Douglas’ illustrations graced Panther newspapers and political posters. On the East Coast, Amiri Baraka  founded the Black Arts Repertory Theater in Harlem in 1965, following the assassination of Malcolm X – an event which was also instrumental in the founding of the Black Panther Party. Repercussions were soon felt in other “chocolate cities” like Detroit and Chicago, which established their own black threater companies and literary journals by the late ’60s.

Henry Raulston with Emory Douglas

Henry Raulston with Emory Douglas

BAM was multi-disciplinary, covering music, visual art, theater, literature, spoken word, even film. It informed a generation of brilliant poetic, literary, and musical minds, including Nikki Giovanni, Ishmael Reed, Gil Scott-Heron, Sonia Sanchez, Ntozake Shange, the Last Poets, the Watts Prophets, Sun Ra, Archie Shepp, Maya Angelou, and John Coltrane. And its reverberations have continued to echo for five decades, influencing later generations of black artists as well as other marginalized demographics including Latinos, Native Americans, Asians, and LGBTQ folks, paving a creative path for a multicultural, post-millennial arts scene which has given rise to innumerable individual voices in each of the disciplines BAM touched, as well as a collective consciousness which emphasizes community-building along with social activism.

Locally, the combination of BAM, the student-led Third World Movement, and the Black/Brown Power dynamic of the Panthers, Brown Berets and Chicano farm workers created intersectionality between arts and activism which remains one of the defining, if not THE defining characteristic of the Bay Area’s multicultural arts and culture scene, particularly in the East Bay and especially in Oakland. As Morozumi pointed out, the currency and relevancy of BAM can be seen in the current conversation over “race relations” – which he said is really about “systemic racism and oppression” – and the reaction of Oakland’s artivist community to those challenges.

“Black lives do matter,” he said, adding, “black culture matters.”

Henry Raulston and Greg Morozumi

Henry Raulston and Greg Morozumi

Black History Month is always an auspicious occasion, as February’s 28 short days are suddenly filled with an outpouring of African American cultural arts programming which isn’t so visible the other 11 months out of the year. 2015’s BHM seems especially crucial, what with the aforementioned national conversation about race in the wake of the Ferguson situation and the #BlackLivesMatter campaign, as well as the 50th anniversary of the BAM – which will be celebrated in an all-day symposium Feb. 7 at Laney College.

The role art plays in social movements is a crucial one, and part of a cultural continuum. We can trace history to see how visual artists like Douglas inspired contemporary political art by Favianna Rodriguez, Spie TDK, Refa 1, the Dignidad Rebelde and Trust Your Struggle collectives, or how Morrie Turner’s groundbreaking “Wee Pals” comic strip preceded Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition by two decades.  Cultural and social statements, like those rendered by Karen and Malik Seneferu in “Black ❤ Matters,” their current exhibit at Impact Hub’s OMI gallery (which hosts an artists’ talk Feb. 6 ) are just as important as overtly-political imagery.

Art from "Black <3 Matters" by Malik and Karen Seneferu

Art from “Black ❤ Matters”

Black liberation movements have also influenced a wide musical spectrum. The recent tribute to Sly Stone at the Fox Theater served as a reminder that The Family Stone was formed the same year as the Black Panthers (1966), and that Sly’s response to the race relations conversation of his day was the multiculturalism-affirming #1 hit “Everyday People.”

Just as Stone’s “Thank You For Talking to Me Africa” opened up a dialogue with the cultural motherlode, the connection to the Continent has been advanced by Oakland soul singer Candice Antique Davis, who collaborated with native hip-hop artists during a recent trip to Ghana (she’s scheduled to talk about her experiences  in Ghana Feb. 9 at 8pm on KPFA’s “Transitions on Tradition” program ). Antique also recorded her new single, “Freedom Song (This Song),” in Ghana. The song’s lyrics reference Baraka as well as Audré Lorde, Bob Marley, Harriet Tubman, Malcolm X, Kwame Nkrumah and other freedom fighters/revolutionaries/icons. “It seems to me this song is for revolution solution,” she sings. “Freedom is coming,” she promises.

The Panthers’ impact on music is reflected not just in the funk band The Lumpen (chronicled in Rickey Vincent’s book “Party Music”), but also through 70’s soul singers Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, and Curtis Mayfield, who expanded their lyrical topics to address what was going on at that time.

The Panthers also had a direct influence on Fela Kuti and the development of Afrobeat, and established a blueprint for politically-minded, socially-conscious hip-hop from Public Enemy to KRS-1 to Tupac to dead prez to current Oakland artists like The Coup, Kev Choice (who debuts his new album, Love + Revolution, Feb. 5 at Yoshis), and Jahi (who heads up the second iteration of Public Enemy, PE2.0).

The emphasis on theater and literary works which played such a large role in BAM continue through the Laney tribute, which includes a black women writers’ panel and a performance of Marvin X’s play “Flowers for the Trashman,” as well as the African American Shakespeare Company’s adaptation of Sophocles’ “Antigone,” retitled “Xtigone” and starring Oakland emcee/poet/actress RyanNicole in the lead role, directed by Rhodessa Jones and with musical direction from Tommy Shepard (“Xtigone” opens Feb. 14 at the African American Art and Culture Complex in SF).

Aesthetically-speaking, it doesn’t get much more artistic than updating a classic Greek tragedy, and, as West African academic and playwright Wole Soyinka has pointed out, tragic dramas are directly descended from primal sacrificial rituals prevalent in pre-Christian European history, and similarly extant in African culture and mythology. The orisha Ogun, Soyinka has asserted, was the first actor; the ritual-myth tradition the origin of what we now call the dramatic arts.

Ogun: the first actor

Ogun: the first actor

Which brings us to another point about the black history/black art continuum: Not only is the artivist paradigm one of Oakland’s unique features, differentiating it from other similar urban cities, but “The Town” is also a repository of ashé, the universal life force conceptualized by the Yoruba and other West African peoples. Poet/playwright Ishmael Reed and cultural historian Robert Farris Thompson have connected ashé to the development of black art and Afro-Disaporic culture in the Americas and Caribbean (which in turn has informed American popular culture in a multiplicity of ways). Oakland’s vibrant Afro-Diasporic community is perhaps most visible around drumming and dance, but can also be seen in the colorful, Afrocentric visual art of the Seneferus, which creates ritual space and honors tradition.

Art installation by Karen and Malik Seneferu

Art installation by Karen and Malik Seneferu

Ashe also manifests through the music of New Orleans and the Mardi Gras festival, which just happens to coincide with BHM. Mark your calendars now for the two-day Mardi Gras fete, which begins with a second-line parade at Awaken Café followed by a free concert at the New Parish, and continues the next day with a Katdelic show which also features NOLA-style bass bands.

Amiri Baraka in 1970

Amiri Baraka in 1970

All of that is to say, it’s important to recognize that black history isn’t just in the past and is actually a still-evolving, still-living thing. Not only is tradition continually being referenced across the artistic spectrum, but major cultural works are still being created today by contemporary artists. Baraka may have become an ancestor, but his legacy lives on and continues to inform us today. And while artivism is in of itself a form of cultural resiliency against oppression, it’s also important to note that there’s just as much positive, live-affirming creative expressionism as reactionary measures. And all of it matters.

On that note, Hodari Davis, co-founder of the Life is Living festival, has announced a month-long series of events happening during BHM called “Life is Loving” which he says establishes an alternate narrative to the “we’re angry and upset” stance which has framed the African-American dialogue around race. Focusing on love as an aesthetic concept and a manifestation of art transcends politics, and, he hopes, may even ultimately overcome societal and economic barriers which continue to limit the black experience in America.

Got all that? Good. It’s gonna be an incredible month for black art in Oakland and the Bay Area, and Oakulture will try to cover as much of this dynamic ashe, love, and artivism going around as is physically and logistically possible. Bookmark this site now if you haven’t already, and return early and often throughout February for the latest updates.


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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.