Oakulture

Documenting the Oakland cultural renaissance


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Dance of the Displaced

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Prince tribute party at Lake Merritt.

A current Oakland Museum of California exhibit, “Oakland, I Want You to Know,” comes off very much as a love letter to The Town. But it’s a weird kind of  love letter, one filled with reminiscence for a paramour you dumped because they weren’t rich enough. The exhibit, which runs until Oct. 30, wants to evoke feel-good memories of a blue-collar city which is unfortunately disappearing right before our eyes – replaced by metrosexual techbros, designer ramen, specialty cocktails, high-rise condos, and spiraling rents. It also wants to weigh in on the ongoing conversation about gentrification. But it does so in a way which is both sanitized and awkward.

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Esther’s Orbit Room sign at OMCA

There’s a recreation of the famed sign from Esther’s Orbit Room, the last holdout of the legendary  7th St. strip in West Oakland – a jumping-off spot for blues, jazz, and R&B, once known as the “Harlem of the West.” But the replica doesn’t replicate the energy or grit of that infamous watering hole. It seems out of place in the brightly-lit OMCA exhibition room.  One archival photo taken outside the venue featuring local music-scene luminaries, hints at the Orbit Room’s significance as a cultural institution of Black Oakland, but can’t make up for the loss of the venue, much less the erasure of the once-thriving strip itself. Over the last decade, West Oakland, though still predominantly-African-American, has absorbed an influx of tens of thousands of urban professionals, creating an uneasy juxtaposition of income disparity and cultural disassociation between new and old residents.

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Mock-up of West Oakland BART at OMCA

In another section of the exhibit, the West Oakland BART station is feted. It’s a strange choice, since the station—just 12 minutes from downtown San Francisco, through the Transbay Tube—is itself a symbol of displacement; its construction caused the forced relocation of thousands of mostly African American residents by the time it opened, in 1974. That fact is briefly noted, as is the station’s current attraction to commuters. Also among the artifacts depicting “Oakland flavor” are two recent posters advocating for affordable housing and tenants’ rights. The allusion to community activism, however, feels more like lip service than actual solidarity with Oakland’s liberation struggles. There’s little of the vibrancy which has fused social justice and cultural expression in Oakland for decades – a vibrancy which is very much a part of the current resistance to displacement and the encroachment of gentrifiers. It’s also telling that a photo collage of an Oakland neighborhood – easily the most poignant piece in the entire exhibition – honors the past, not the present. An OMCA staffer told Oakulture that the photographer no longer lives in the neighborhood; doubtless, many of the residents depicted have moved away as well. And despite the homages to local mainstays like Town Park , Youth Radio, and City Slicker Farms , seemingly thrown together at random, “Oakland, I Want You to Know” feels like it’s intended more for tourists, visitors, and new arrivals than for longtime residents.

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Community activism posters at OMCA.

There’s an attempt at cultural continuity with a wall celebrating classic Oakland artists’ album covers juxtaposed with an audio-visual presentation of retro-futuristic bluesman Fantastic Negrito. But it too misses the mark. An LP by Oakland blues singer Faye Carole is a welcome sight. But Negrito’s connection to the tradition of an earlier era isn’t satisfactorily explained, and the neon logo (borrowed from his studio/gallery, Blackball Universe) looks like a promotional display you might have seen at Tower Records in the 80s or 90s, complete with a looped audio stream of songs from his new album, The Last Days of Oakland. It’s oddly commercial for a museum piece; if the point was to infer that Oakland is still producing great artists, that point could have been made much more pointedly.

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LP cover of a Faye Carol album.

“Oakland, I Want You to Know” might be Town-centric, but ultimately fails for its inability to effectively translate the immediacy of street-level movements into an institutional space. Revolution is never quite that simplified, and though OMCA tried, their Oakland love letter dilutes the heartbreak of displacement and doesn’t present a cohesive narrative. It feels thrown together in places it should be fluid, and errs by attempting to placate both the gentrifiers and those fighting against them.

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Fantastic Negrito.

Thankfully, like a growing number of local artists, Fantastic Negrito can solidly be placed in the latter category. The Last Days of Oakland is fire, but not just because Negrito has the whole blues revivalist schtick down to the cufflinks on his thrift-store blazer. It’s a hot album because the singer-songwriter extracts the essence of blues and African American rock & roll from its dark, skeletal roots, but also because he injects that paradigm with a timely relevancy, much of it inspired by Oakland’s changing landscape and demographic. Another inspirational touchstone is the new push for civil rights, social justice, and police accountability echoing across the country through the #BlackLivesMatter movement. In a new, as-yet-unreleased, video which plays like a short film, Negrito updates the Leadbelly classic “In the Pines” by flipping the lyrics to address black mothers whose children are being killed by cops. Elsewhere on the album, there are skits about the changes Oakland is experiencing, a through-line which also works its way into “Working Poor,” wherein Negrito sings about gentrifiers who step over bodies to “sip fancy coffee.” While many of the classic, pre-civil rights era, blues tunes signified cryptically about social inequality, here Negrito articulates exactly what he means.

I feel like it’s over

Him clean my city

Me sell my soul

Him evil genius

Turns working people to the working poor

–Fantastic Negrito, “Working Poor”

The song goes on to address displacement directly (he moved to Stockton, one lyric casually reveals) while maintaining its retro-roots aesthetic. Social commentary, along with autobiographical testimonials, run through most of the songs on The Last Days of Oakland. Many of Negrito’s laments are about struggling against seemingly-invisible barriers to equity; I been knocking on the door since ’94, but they still won’t let me in, he declares on “Humpin’ Through the Winter.” On “The Worst,” he castigates those watching all the suffering, hiding on a hill. But like all good blues albums, there are also heavy doses of dubious temptation (“Scary Woman”) and self-loathing (“Rant Rushmore”) – which occasionally transform into conscious enlightenment (“Nigga Song”). What makes the entire album so current, though, is its framing around Oakland – which codifies it as a historical document, just as Bobby Seale’s “Seize the Time” stands as a testament to the Panther era.

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Jam session at Lake Merritt.

Negrito’s album could be a soundtrack for music-minded social justice activists – visible this summer in everything from festivals at the Lake Merritt Amphitheater and San Antonio Park to musical protests against anti-drumming NIMBYS to dance-happy Prince tributes – but he’s not the only local artist making socially-conscious music. On his last two albums, Oakland Riviera and Love and Revolution, pianist-composer-emcee Kev Choice offered a highly musical alternative to mind-numbing “mumble rap.”

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African drumming at the Malcolm X Jazz Festival.

On his latest release, 88 Steps to Eternity, Choice delivers an all-instrumental album which gives a name to the struggle: “Dance of the Displaced.” The track recalls late 70s/early 80s jazz fusion, giving credence to Choice’s credo of “real music that will last forever,” with flurry upon flurry of piano and keyboard runs, alternating forward-pushing tempos with somewhat-melancholy moods.

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Kev Choice.

Which seems appropriate. Because nobody, except maybe developers, is too happy about all the displacement going on in Oakland these days. There’s a bit of a contradiction as well, in some of the rhetorical language being put forth by elected officials and some of the actions of city staff. A recent SF Business Times article  on the departure of Planning Dept. head Rachel Flynn confirms she was one of the prime movers behind the acceleration of development in Oakland, which may have come without a full realization of the consequences for the existing population. Mayor Schaaf has convened an Affordable Housing Task Force and City Council President Lynnette McElhaney has officially designated the 14th St. corridor a black arts district. Yet artists and families are getting pushed out of Oakland as the Planning Commission fast-tracks project after project, while neglecting to fight harder for community benefits and affordable housing units.

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A pre-displacement Oakland neighborhood at OMCA.

How that plays out in the community is one of the salient points of “Alice Street Short,” a rough cut preview of the upcoming documentary “Alice Street”  which recently screened at the All Oakland Mini Film Festival. (full disclosure: Oakulture Editorial Director Eric Arnold assisted with research for the documentary.) The short features insightful interviews with members of the Afro-Diasporic community centered around the Malonga Casquelourd Center, as well as cultural practitioners and historians associated with the Hotel Oakland, a sanctuary of sorts for the Chinese and Chinese-American community. If you missed the screening, a slightly different cut will screen October 13 during the Matatu Festival of Stories, along with a panel discussion moderated by Arnold, a dance performance, and audience Q&A. The idea is to continue the conversation around displacement, gentrification, and cultural resistance, and to engage Oakland residents further in what could be the defining issue of this time in the Town’s history. Will the dance of the displaced turn into a funeral dirge or a victory march? That part is still to be decided.
 

 

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Kev Choice: Love and Revolution (album review)

Kev Choice

Revolutionary: Kev Choice

Everyone’s talking about how K.Dot (Kendrick Lamar, for the unhip) just reinvented the hip-hop wheel with his new album, which drops the same day (today) as Kev Choice’s latest, Love and Revolution. It says here, however, that an equal amount of praise is due to the Oakland pianist/bandleader/composer/emcee, whose third full-length album is destined to be a classic, although it’s doubtful Choice will be trending on FB or sell platinum units.

Choice comes through with a solid effort which is topical, relevant, conscious, highly musical, adventurous, fearless, groovy, intelligent, mature and community-oriented (maybe even family-friendly, if your family enjoys shutting down 580 as much as BBQing at the Lake). While K.Dot can afford to enlist the services of pianist Robert Glasper, it’s worth mentioning Choice can play any note on the piano Glasper can play. No, there’s no gimmicky dialogue with a dead rapper to get tongues wagging, but Choice is far from a lyrical slouch. His musical skills were already beyond reproach—he holds a masters degree in jazz, is a bonafied classical pianist, and digs deep into funk and R&B—but it took him awhile to hone his rapping technique to perfection.

On earlier efforts, like the single “Definition of a Star,” Choice seemed to be aiming for KMEL airplay which never came, while holding back his musical gifts. But last year’s excellent Oakland Rivera broke that mold with forward-thinking tracks which raised the bar for hip-hop musicianship. Oakland Rivera also hinted at the lyrical butterfly Choice was cocooning into, particularly on the Gil Scott Heron-esque “Crazy Illusion,” which eschewed me-first braggadocio for poignant sociopolitical observations on gentrification and the changing nature of Oakland, and the hooky yet substantive “That Life” (recently treated to a club-melting remix by DJ D-Sharp).

With Love and Revolution, Choice doubles down on the conscious content, using today’s murky racial politics and growing community response to perceived systemic injustice as inspirational fodder for some ridiculous lyrical fusillades, which sounded unbelievable a couple of months back, when he debuted the album one memorable night at Yoshis. He might not be as quotable as Kendrick, but he’s not all that far behind.

It’s a testament to how well Choice has developed its themes that Love and Revolution feels like a concept album at times. Instead of tracks just slapped together willy-nilly, we get an honest-to-God song cycle, something which has been increasingly rare since the advent of the compact disc.

Choice’s “Revolution” refers to flashpoints like Mike Brown and Trayvon Martin, which have resonated nationwide, resulting in DOJ investigations and counter-resistant viral movements like #BlackLivesMatter. However resonant the response to Ferguson, the fire this time really began with Oscar Grant five years ago. Given that context, it’s only natural for Choice to address those topics, in an extremely Oakland kind of way. How Oakland is the album? There are instrumentals named “Oscar’s Revenge” and “Blues for (Alan) Blueford.”  Most of Choice’s supporting cast is local; there are zero throwaway cameo tracks featuring big-name artists for the sake of featuring big-name artists. But rather than a minus, that becomes a plus, allowing Choice to concentrate on substance, not superficiality. The result is a sense of cohesiveness and collaboration missing from many of today’s celebrity-studded albums – Love and Revolution is perhaps best described as a family affair which furthers Choice’s individual musical vision.

Jennifer Johns, Antique, and Kev Choice

Movement Music: Jennifer Johns, Antique, and Kev Choice

Content-wise, Love and Revolution is arguably a “street” album, albeit an extremely jazzy, soulful and progressive one which imparts its messages without being overly ghetto  — one hopes it will be played in the ‘hood as well as at non-profit organizing rallies. But while protests, marches and rallies have informed Love and Revolution’s content, the album’s righteous indignation—anger might be too strong a word for it—is well-tempered by a drive for innovation, creative juice-tapping, and a need to create beauty, even in an uncertain, unfair world. Choice is mature enough to realize that revolutionary militancy must be balanced by passionate love, and smart enough to figure out the two together are unstoppable.

It’s a testament to how well Choice has developed its themes that Love and Revolution feels like a concept album at times. Instead of tracks just slapped together willy-nilly, we get an honest-to-God song cycle, something which has been increasingly rare since the advent of the compact disc. Well-placed instrumental interludes help to pace the album without bogging it down, giving the vocal-heavy tracks “Room to Breathe” – to paraphrase the title of one of the interludes.

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The album opener, “Feel the Love” (featuring Viveca Hawkins) bookends the track it segues into, “Gone Too Far,” setting up the love/revolution dichotomy which underscores the remainder of the disc. The combination of Choice and Hawkins is a potent one; a simple piano riff anchors the song, which swerves between soaring neo-soul expressions, down-to earth lines (“As long as justice escapes us, we live for the struggle/we keep holding on”), and a near-symphonic arrangement complete with crashing cymbals. Sampled TV news soundbites introduce an element of tense realism on “Gone Too Far,” which finds Choice commenting on police brutality and community protests “from Oakland to Ferguson, New York to Palestine” over a guitar-driven melody. “Fist up, hands up, stand up,” Choice repeats, adding, “we ain’t gon’ take it no more.”

Choice’s outrage is channeled into a jazz-fusion eulogy on the aforementioned “Oscar’s Revenge,” which sandwiches the energy-lifting “So High” (featuring Netta Brielle) around another instrumental, “Compatible,” which in turn segues into the single “My Cause” – whose lyrics fuse the love/revolution dichotomy into a single purpose (“ride for you like you was my cause”).

Lyric heads get treated to a showcase of verbal dexterity on “Noose”, which continues the social commentary and includes a blistering verse by Locksmith, as well as the super-duper soul vocals of C Holiday. A sampled monologue from the sci-fi classic “The Day the Earth Stood Still” goes on a bit too long – one of Choice’s few missteps – before giving way to “Another World,” which features HNRL’s Trackademicks and 1-O.A.K. (who supplies the mind-elevating hook, “when it all sets on fire/ for tonight brings truth to the light”).

1-O.A.K.

1-O.A.K. brings truth to the light

Perhaps the album’s best song, though, is “Movement Music,” another posse cut which showcases some of Oakland’s finest talents: Jennifer Johns, Ryan Nicole, Antique, K.E.V., and Aisha Fukushima. The uptempo pace goes well with the song’s lyrical themes of rhythmic uprising. Each guest slays when it’s their turn, while Choice takes a swipe at commercial radio: “they say we’re not hot in the streets/ but every time I’m there, you are not in the streets.”  Ouch. An exclamation point is added on the following track, “Young Oakland Interlude,” which literally features the voices of the next generation, chanting “jobs, peace and justice, if we want the dream, it’s up to us.”

After another instrumental, “Meet Me At The March,” Choice returns with “Daddy,” a heartfelt dedication to his daughter, Anya, which solidifies the “love” theme. The album closes with the melancholy solo piano track “Ballad for Blueford,” whose sad notes spotlight Choice’s composing skills.

When it’s all said and done, Love and Revolution accomplishes what every album’s objective should be: to be a soundtrack for our lives. Undoubtedly contemporary, there’s nothing especially trendy or faddish on the entire disc, which means it will remain relevant, as long as its themes continue to resonate. And while this album loudly screams “Oakland,” it’s worldly, sophisticated and nuanced enough to escape the trap of regional limitations – providing one has a chance to hear it.

Love and Revolution is available for digital download here.


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Kev Choice’s Revolutionary Record Release Party

Live review/ Kev Choice @ Yoshis, February 5, 2015.

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“Can we have five more minutes? We sold out the place tonight,” Oakland’s own Kev Choice pleaded to Yoshis management. It was a few ticks of the clock past 9:45pm. For the past hour and forty-five minutes, Choice and his ridiculously-talented band had been playing selections from the pianist/composer/producer/emcee’s new album, Love and Revolution – the first public performance of this material (available for online purchase Feburary 10 at Choice’s Bandcamp site). Alongide Choice’s top-notch backing band, a succession of guest artists lent an all-star feel to the proceedings, making the show seem as eventful as, well, an event.

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Jennifer Johns, Antique, Andrew Levin

All night, there had been a significant procession of co-signers to Choice’s aesthetic, beginning with young people’s vocal chorus Young Oakland, continuing with frequent co-collaborators Viveca Hawkins and Jennifer Johns, then extending through cameo spots by HNRL, Lockmith, Jeff Turner, Chris Turner, Antique Soul, Zumbi Zoom, and, finally, Jaguar Wright.

It had all gone by rather quickly. The momentum was still building, but the allotted performance time had run out. For a minute, there was a sense of, who’s gonna come out next?  If the show were to continue, would the stage door conjure yet another amazing vocal talent?

 

Viveca Hawkins, 1-O.A.K., Trackademicks

Viveca Hawkins, 1-O.A.K., Trackademicks

A Kev Choice concert is like getting two shows for the price of one. Not only do you get a conscious hip-hop throwdown, but you also get a memorable jazz-funk-soul vaccination.  Choice handles the dual roles of pianist and emcee with ridiculous amounts of skill at each, and his stage presence has grown over the years, honed by international touring experience. The special guests garnered most of the attention, but Choice’s backing band was tighter than a vise and funkier than a mosquito’s tweeter. Guitarist Andrew Levin and bassist Uriah Duffy shone in particular—easily handling the rapid mood swings of Choice’s material, which incorporated classical orchestration, jazz-fusion progressions, funky hip-hop breakdowns, and soulful R&B vocal stylings–sometimes on the same song. There was a string and a horn section, as well. Choice had clearly pulled out all the stops.

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Jeff Turner, Zumbi Zoom, Locksmith, Chris Turner

It’s a bit of a gamble to play a live show featuring all-new material which has never been publicly-performed before, but that’s just what Choice did. The enthusiastic, standing-room only, crowd embraced the new songs warmly, so the gamble paid off. The album’s title ran like an undercurrent through the music, connecting Love and Revolution‘s songs thematically, to the point where it almost seemed like a concept album. The opening triad – beginning with the optimistic, romantic “Feel the Love,” which segued into the hard-hitting sociopolitical commentary “Gone Too Far,” which in turn became the jazz-laden instrumental “Oscar’s Revenge” – felt like a musically-cohesive movement in three parts. Johns  joined Hawkins for “So High,” whose lyrics traced a continuum “from the black Egyptians to the Black Panthers” before presenting the couplet “love is coming for me/ who can stand against me?”

“Compatible”— a piano-driven instrumental composition – was perfectly followed by “My Cause,” a song about commitment/monogamy, delivered with a broken-beat rhythm and tribal-sounding drums, which contains the hook, “I’ll ride for you like you was my cause.” kev choice love and revolution rr 058

Oakulture’s notes scribbled during this time read, “music theory gives Kev an advantage” – a nod to the composing, arranging, technical finesse and musicianship which goes into his songs – something you might expect from a jazz player, but considerably rare within the hip-hop spectrum. Even hip-hop’s most celebrated producers weren’t technically composers, with the notable exception of RZA (in his later years).

“Movement Music”—inspired by Johns’ activism, Choice related – was next, also featuring Antique on vocals. Introducing the song, Choice declared, “This is the home of the movement. Oakland is where they started the movement,” he reminded the crowd.  The next few minutes of the set essentially transformed the respectable, upscale environs of Yoshis into an activist staging ground, as the two powerful soul voices of Johns and Antique joined Choice in urging for positive social change. “Can’t have revolution without evolution,” Antique sang.

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Jennifer Johns, Andrew Levin, Antique, Kev Choice

Oakulture’s field notes say: “why listen to anything else? Comparing Choice and what he brings to the musical/lyrical equation with say, commercial urban radio, is like comparing a Pharaoh to a crackhead.”

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Zumbi Zoom, Locksmith, Chris Turner, Kev Choice

The vibe only got thicker from that point on, as the HNRL crew (vocalist 1-O.A.K and emcee Trackademics) were next to grace the stage, for the forward-thinking “Another World,” a track which pushes the envelope of progressivity.  A dapper 1-O.A.K. sang the song’s resonant hook: “When it all sets on fire/ it brings truth to the light.”

Guest vocalist Chris Turner took the show into rarified air with a falsetto-driven version of “People Make the World Go Round,” which the Yoshi’s crowd lapped up like hot butter. Turner remained on stage while even more guest emcees – Locksmith, Jeff Turner, and Zumbi Zoom – joined in on “Noose,” another reflection of what it means to be a black man in America. The illmatic posse cut raised the thermostat accordingly with sick rhyme flows. The expert pacing continued with “Meet Me at the March,” an ode to activist rallies which nicely continued the album’s theme.

Jaguar Wright

Jaguar Wright

Time was almost running out, yet it seemed to stand still as Philly neo-soul diva Jaguar Wright took the stage and showed off some impressive vocal chops. Following her star turn, Choice made his aforementioned plea to extend the time, so he could play “Daddy,” a song about fatherhood written for his 12 year-old daughter, Anya, dedicated to her and all the fathers in attendance. The song spoke to hip-hop’s evolving intergenerationality, as well as Choice’s own maturity.

Musically, not a lot of people are touching Kev Choice right now; his potential seems limitless. Lyrically as well, his content  and delivery puts him far out in front of most of the rap pack. Some of Choice’s flows are downright un-be-lievable, content-wise, and he switched off between frontman and bandleader roles effortlessly.

While the evening certainly showcased Choice’s talents, it also shone an equally-bright light on his collaborators. In some ways, Choice’s live band seemed reminiscent of the great Gil Scott-Heron-Brian Jackson bands of the 70s, who effortlessly mixed jazz, funk, soul, poetry and R&B into an infectious musical stew – the perfect complement to Scot-Heron’s sometimes-sung, sometimes-rapped, vocals.

kev choice love and revolution rr 272But Choice is far from retro in his approach. Though at times his sound is reminiscent of mid-70s jazz fusion, he ups the ante by incorporating hip-hop rhymes and prominently featuring female vocalists, as well as classical music-inspired melodies. Watching the show, you felt very much like you were witnessing a statement performance which spoke to the collective talent level of Oakland’s urban artist community.

All in all, it was one of the most engaging shows Oakulture has ever seen at Yoshis, one which was anything but by-the-numbers smooth jazz (chair seating notwithstanding). The legacy of community activism and the current vibe in the streets converged with incredible musicianship, conscious lyricism, and a slew of killer vocal performances to make the event one which will long be remembered in The Town.


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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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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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This Week in Oakulture: Pharoah Sanders, BLACK<3MATTERS, Jennifer Johns, “Made in Oakland” Inaugural Festival & Mark Curry (Jan 8-12)

Pharoah Sanders

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The new year is off to an eventful start in our beautiful city!  We kick off this week’s list of best event bets with tenor saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, a former John Coltrane collaborator and free jazz pioneer. Sanders got his start playing music professionally in Oakland in the 1950s, and lived in the Bay Area off and on through the early 2000’s. If you’ve never seen him live, prepare for a near-religious experience as he takes audiences to church with abstract, spiritual melodies and prayer-like chanting. Sanders kicks off a four-day SFJAZZ Center residency tonight through Sunday.

Pharoah Sanders, 01/08-01/11, 7:30 p.m. (7 p.m. Sunday), $25.00-$65.00, All Ages, SFJAZZ Center (Miner Auditorium), 201 Franklin Street, San Francisco. www.sfjazz.org. » Buy Tickets.

BLACK<3MATTERS: Opening Reception & Artist Talk

black<3matters_opening_010915

On Friday, start off your weekend at the opening reception and artist talk for  the “BLACK<3MATTERS” art show at Impact Hub Oakland’s Omi Gallery.  Prolific husband-wife dynamic duo Karen Seneferu and Malik Seneferu will unveil what they call “Afro-futuristic technokisi”: mixed media artworks featuring assemblage, paint, sculpture, and textile. The show runs until January 30.

“BLACK<3MATTERS” Opening Reception & Artist Talk with Karen Seneferu and Malik Seneferu, and Gallery Director, Ashara Ekundayo, 01/09 (Exhibition closes 01/30), 7:00 p.m. – 10 p.m., Free Admission, All Ages, Omi Gallery at Impact Hub Oakland, 2323 Broadway, Oakland. www.oakland.impacthub.net/omi-gallery. » RSVP.

Jennifer Johns, Aisha Fukushima, Coco Peila & RyanNicole

OIM_jenn_johns_010915

Also on Friday, Oakland Indie Mayhem curates a can’t-miss show at one of Oakland’s newer and more intimate music venues, Leo’s Music Club. This evening presents a triple threat all-female lineup, featuring food justice activist/soulful vocalist Jennifer Johns,  raptivist Aisha Fukushima, and self-described feminist/panther/hip-hop heroine, Coco Peila. The host and Mistress of Ceremonies for the night is spoken word artist/actress/rapper RyanNicole — look for her to join Johns on the Oakland anthem, “Town’d Out.”

Oaktown Indie Mayhem presents Jennifer Johns, Aisha Fukushima and Coco Peila, Hosted by RyanNicole, 01/09, Doors 8:30 p.m., Show 9:00 p.m., $9.00 – $15.00 General Admission (Under 21 must buy $5 drink ticket at the door), 18 and over, Leo’s Music Club, 5447 Telegraph Ave., Oakland. www.clubleos.com. » Buy Tickets.

“Made in Oakland” Inaugural Fest

Inauguration_Fest_011115

On Sunday, join Mayor Libby Schaaf at an Oakland-themed, free arts and community celebration. The “Made in Oakland” Inaugural Festival will take place at the country’s largest industrial art warehouse, American Steel Studios, and will feature live music by the Kev Choice Ensemble and the Bay Area Blues Society, a dance performance by vertical dance pioneers BANDALOOP, a Burning Man-style sculpture exhibit, art cars, a curated art gallery, aerialists, local filmmakers, an interactive kids zone, local food vendors and trucks, Oakland wines and craft beers, and much more. Special guest Glynn Washington, host of NPR’s Snap Judgment, will emcee the event.

“Made in Oakland” Inaugural Festival with Mayor Libby Schaaf, Glynn Washington, Kev Choice, Bay Area Blues Society, BANDALOOP, and more, 01/11, 3:00 p.m. – 7:00 p.m., Free Admission, All Ages, American Steel Studios, 1960 Mandela Parkway, Oakland. www.americansteelstudios.com and www.libbyforoakland.com/inauguration.

Mark Curry

mark_curry_YOK_011215

We round out this week’s picks with a good laugh Monday evening, with none other than Oakland native, Los Angeles-based, actor/comedian Mark Curry. Known for his acting roles in TV sitcoms “Hanging’ with Mr. Cooper” and “See Dad Run,” his cameo in the Too $hort video “I Ain’t Trippin,” and performing standup comedy on Comedy Central, Curry returns to his hometown on Monday to perform his signature classy stand-up routine at Yoshi’s Oakland.

Mark Curry, 01/12, Doors 7:30 p.m., Show 8 p.m., $23.00, All Ages, Yoshi’s Oakland, 510 Embarcadero West, Jack London Square, Oakland. www.yoshis.com. » Buy Tickets.

Oakulture’s event picks are compiled by Zsa-Zsa Rensch. Connect with Zsa-Zsa on Twitter at @zsazsa.

Subscribe to receive Oakulture blog posts directly in your inbox (click “Follow” to subscribe), and stay in touch on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Thank you for reading!


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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.