Last Saturday night at the UC Theater, Sizzla Kalonji reigned supreme. With the US democracy continuing to crumble under the weight of Trumpski–a soap opera replete with tabloid-worthy state visits, kangaroo-court government hearings, flip-flops on election-hacking, and general unrest seemingly everywhere, there couldn’t have been a better time for the fiery roots dancehall artist to make a Bay Area appearance.
Babylon, or at least the present-day version of it, appeared to be (finally) falling. Amidst the chaos of an unstable and uncertain future, Sizzla presented himself as a diplomatic spokesman for the ghetto youth platform and everyone down with it. It wasn’t hard to catch a contact high from all the spliffs raised in tribute to the music–and the message.
Sizzla’s kinetic live show is not for the faint of heart or slow of foot. For 90 minutes, he let of contagious, infectious flurries of energy, punctuating vocals which were at times sung, screamed, delivered in rapid-fire multi-syllabic bursts. His lyrical gymnastics were accentuated with wild gyrations and raised-fist poses. Performing a mix of deep catalog cuts— among them, “Azanido,” “Show Us the Way,”“Be Strong,” “Like Mountains,” “Praise Ye Jah” and ”Dem A Wonder”—along with less-celebrated (but no less intense) cuts (and a cover of The Wailers'”Rastaman Chant”), Sizzla left no doubt as to why he’s remained at the top of the dancehall bunch for more than 20 years.
The seemingly-ageless Boboshanti dread emerged dressed nattily in a suit jacket, button-down shirt, and signature turban — looking every bit a dignified yardie. His pace was relentless, and bereft of any sense he was biding for time at any point during the show. At times jumping into the air, at others cocking his turban to the side as if receiving a personal message from the Almighty Jah, Sizzla seemed like an artist who was very much still in his prime.
At an age when many of his peers from the late 90s and early 2000s have hung up their microphones or slowed down their artistic output, Sizzla has remained both prolific and relevant. Recent singles include a blazing, roots-revivalist duet with singer Jr. Kelly, “All I See Is War,” and a capable excursion on a JonFX-produced trap beat, “My Girl.” Although Sizzla hasn’t appeared on as many remixes as, say, Junior Reid or Bounty Killer, his ability to genre-stretch speaks to both his versatility and longevity.
The UC Theater show, though, was all roots-dancehall, and there was absolutely no cause for complaint from the crowd. The backing band, equally-steeped in reggae aesthetics, made nary a misstep, filling the large hall with the slightly off-kilter rriddims, contrasting melodic guitar runs with pulsating drum-and-bass intersections. Sizzla was preceded by warm-up artists Marlon Asher, Orlando Octave, Meleku Izac King, Zyanigh, and DJs Green B and Young Fyah. Following the lion’s share of the headline set, A gaggle of guest vocalists–including–Oakland emcee Ras Ceylon, who has a current single, “Gunz R Killing Dem,” with Kalonji– took the stage for the final legs of the show, before Sizzla returned to seal the deal. The crowd was mostly well-satisfied, but seemed like they could have gone for a few encores. The playfulness of the show was evident. Yet it was also apparent Sizzla is d(r)ead serious about being a flagbearer for a rebel culture, a de facto leader of a resistance movement which relies on joyful noise, not drone strikes.
Naima Shalhoub found inspiration in an unlikely place: SF County Jail. For a year now, the Oakland-based singer-activist has been facilitating live music sessions with incarcerated women, and recently recorded a live album, Borderlines, behind jail walls. Her commitment to women’s voices at the intersection of arts and the jailhouse places Naima’s work within the long and expansive history of creative cultural responses and expression in the face of oppression.
This week Naima Shalhoub releases her first single off her upcoming album, a rendition of the iconic American Civil Rights movement song “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize.” The song opens with a beautifully soulful oud placing us first in the desert homelands and long memory of the Middle East. In the context of #SayHerName, American activists traveling to Palestine to collaborate with freedom fighters there, and the ever-revolving door and burgeoning profits of the prison-industrial complex, Naima’s inspired version emphasizes upliftment from oppression and resonates with the famous anthem’s core theme of freedom. To hear the female inmates in the live audience getting all riled up and singing to the repetitious chorus “hold on” is riveting and soul-stirring. Naima’s version situates itself right here in our modern civil rights movement.
As a Lebanese-American woman with a MA in Postcolonial Anthropology, Naima easily sidesteps the misconception that Middle-Eastern women are passive and controlled. Rather she bespeaks the strong herstory of women-centered culture, leadership and spiritual power which is largely overlooked by the West. Also an actress, this spring Naima had a role in “Xtigone,” produced by the African-American Shakespeare Company in SF. Significant in the production was the focus on ritual and the sacred while dealing with the subject of urban violence. Our own Oakulture review said of her performance, “ . . . Naima Shalhoub practically steals every scene she’s in.”
Prior to interviewing Naima, I read every article, listened to every interview and researched her search results on Google. Yet when I saw her perform live recently as she opened up for Nneka at the New Parish, I was unprepared for the immediacy of her performance. When she covered Erykah Badu’s song “Certainly” I heard the lyrics, addressed to a date rapist, more direct and real than I have in a long while. What struck me most and yet hadn’t been conveyed in anything I’d read or listened to, was that she sang as a woman committed ultimately to letting loose her raw power. Her work is admirable. Her politics are on point. But what I recognize most strikingly about Ms. Naima Shalhoub hearing her perform live and on this single is a deep personal commitment to freeing her own voice, an instrument which she uses to connect with other women.
Her upcoming album, Borderlands, which will feature some of the women inmates from the jailhouse music sessions, is due to be released late Summer/early Fall. Putting her money where her heart is, fifty percent of the profits from the single and the album will go towards re-entry programming and support for incarcerated women.
Oakulture: How long have you lived in Oakland? What is exciting to you about Oakland culture right now?
Naima Shalhoub:I moved to Oakland 5 years ago and since day one I’ve learned and felt a deeper understanding of community than anywhere else I’ve lived. From what I’m learning, Oakland continues to experience its own borderland, facing a surge of gentrification while those born and raised here still continue to hold its culture down strong. Even though culture is a moving force that shifts with time and different influences (and to me it’s never a singular thing) there are power dynamics in those influences. What’s exciting about Oakland is learning about the rich legacy of people and movements that have claimed and reclaimed Oakland as a town in the face of a lot of pressure to collapse or water down its history because of racism, classism, etc. And its complex because I don’t think it’s a clear binary divide between gentrifier and cultural worker for most. Oakland is in an interesting time because of the fluidity and hybridity of many cultures here, and I’m constantly moved by the beauty of cultural resistance and rebirth that communities continue to participate in and create. I feel really blessed to live and be a part of some of these communities and to stay open and learn about what my part is in all of it.
Oakulture: What do you do in the music sessions in jail? What are your goals for this project?
Naima Shalhoub: I didn’t have many expectations of where the work would go when I first started volunteering over a year ago in SF County Jail. I just felt called as an artist to do something to intervene on the confinement and isolation of the prison-industrial complex and was inspired by others who have done similar work for years before me. The first session we had together was simple yet profound. As an introduction I sang a few songs on my ukulele that I felt might relate to their experiences, but was not prepared for how deeply that meant to the women in the room. The gratitude and appreciation was overwhelming. The music sessions moved me in a deep way and showed me how powerful music and story-sharing can be in spaces of confinement – how it could be a time and space that is safe and reaffirming of one’s value, even within a context that is opposite of that.
I had it in my heart to create a collaborative space with incarcerated women for many reasons. One being that women are currently being incarcerated at the fastest rate. Two being that the reasons most women are incarcerated are for non-violent offenses. So the complexity of that alone has been staggering to me, especially hearing the stories why they are there or in and out of jail. I don’t believe that a retributive punishment system does anything to improve society. I’ve only learned that it makes things worse. So I’ve been asking myself and learning from others what it could look like to create spaces that are restorative and transformative rather than the way things are now in the criminal justice, education and health system, as they are all related.
Oakulture: On May 5th, you recorded your forthcoming debut album, Borderlands, within the SF county jail with a live audience of the women inmates with whom you have been facilitating the music sessions. This was a different set-up than the sessions which you and the women were accustomed to. What are some of the lessons learned from that recording project?
Naima Shalhoub: Because the Borderlands recording was in a context of me collaborating with many of these women for the past year, the album performance and Mother’s Day celebration that we had was one of the most powerful days of my life. Even though it was clear we were in a jailhouse, there were very rich moments of resistance, beauty and community as the spirit moved through the space. The dichotomy felt like a borderland and for a moment I felt a sense that spaces can be transformed with community, art and a lot of hard work.
Rhodessa Jones, founder of The Medea Project: Theater for Incarcerated Women, graced us with her presence by opening up with a ritual of poetry and call and response. None of it would have happened if it wasn’t for Angela Wilson, program coordinator in the B Pod of the Sheriff Department with whom I’ve been working. She has been in The Medea Project for 16 years and is a huge advocate of these women and became one for me. Angela introduced Ms. Jones and after she blessed the space we performed our set for an hour. The amazing musicians who played with me were Isaac Ho on Keyboard, Tarik Kazaleh a.k.a Excentrik on oud, guitar and tabla, Aaron Kierbel on Cajon and drum kit, and Marcus Shelby on bass. To close the whole event after our set, we had an open mic and several women came up to share their poetry and words. It was profound and felt like a spirit-filled, soulful, collaborative experience in the least expected place.
Oakulture: What is it like to perform for that crowd?
Naima Shalhoub: It was powerful to sing freedom songs in the context of a jailhouse – to record them with the women’s voices present in the recordings. Opening the set with “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize,” an arrangement of the the Civil Rights resistance song, with lyrics like “the jail doors opened and we walked right out” in call and response with women who are incarcerated was unforgettable. There were several moments like that on the recording day, moments that felt like expansion beyond the confines of the jailhouse where our voices created a unity beyond the barriers of the system and those we carry inside ourselves. To see the energy of the women participating and collaborating with me and the band during the songs was immense and moving. I’ll never forget it.
Oakulture: Why does voice matter for women? What is important about working for freedom with a group of all women?
Naima Shalhoub: I asked a question in one of my music sessions in SF County Jail after we read Maya Angelou’s poem “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”: Do you feel you have a voice? Half the room said “yes” and half said “no.” We discussed the various feelings and experiences of having a voice yet not being heard, and if that means that one really has a voice at all. We discussed the possibilities of still having a voice even when dominant social systems may not recognize you as having one that is worthy. I still grapple with this question.
On a personal level, I’ve come to a place in my life where I have to believe I have one, even though in some spaces I may not be heard. And in the spaces I am heard I try to think of whose voices I could carry with me that may not be heard. I often think about how the voice is haunted by justice and ask myself how I can sing in a way that gives voice to the stories, places and people that may not be recognized as worthy in mainstream histories or systems. The voice can be a complex thing, but when I sing it feels the most simple because the soul can be expressed through music in a way it’s difficult otherwise. All this to say, the conversation matters. The voice can be an expansive tool in spaces of confinement–through music, poetry, speech, movement, etc. That’s what moves me most about freedom and the voice, the ability to express oneself even in spaces of so-called un-freedom.
Africa and Oakland have always had an interesting relationship. Well, at least for the better part of 80 years. While there’s been a notable African American population in Oakland since the ‘30s—the initial settlers were likely survivors of the Great Flood of 1927 and/or the Great Depression, and in the post-WWII years, the city’s black population swelled by 300%, eventually comprising a demographic majority —Oakland’s African population were later arrivals. In the mid-70s, Congolese drummer/dancer Malonga Casquelourd arrived, and helped to establish a vibrant cultural scene based around the then-Alice Arts Center. Ever since then, Oakland has been a welcoming place for natives of the African continent.
Lagos Roots performs at Umoja
Africans have brought culture to Oakland, and lent cultural authenticity to the music and dance forms being practiced at spaces like the Alice Arts Center (renamed in Casquelourd’s honor after his tragic death at the hands of a drunk driver in 2003). But though there are Nigerians, Kenyans, Ethiopians, Eritreans, Zimbabweans, Senegalese, Ghanaians, Malians and many other African nationalities currently residing in Oakland, in many cases, the notion of pan-Africanism is more of an ideological ideal than a societal reality. In Oakulture’s experience, most ethnic Africans tend to socialize with people from their home countries, and even within those countries, tribal strife or class divisions from the motherland sometimes surfaces, making African social circles somewhat cliqueish.
That’s why two recent events which brought Oakland’s African Diaspora together were so significant.
Without overtly espousing a Pan-African agenda, both accelerated that concept. The first event, the Umoja Festival, transformed West Oakland’s underutilized Lowell Park into a vibrant cross-cultural exchange, with live music, DJs, a soccer tournament, merchant booths, and more. Performances by Afrolicious vocalist Fresh is Life and a full band concert by the Lagos Roots Afrobeat Ensemble livened up the proceedings, but it was already a sunny, pleasant day to begin with.
Now in its second year, the Umoja Festival has become yet another feather in Oakland’s cultural diversity cap. The event brought out Africans of all nationalities, underlining its theme of cultural unity, as well as a few hundred multicultural Oaklanders. It was gratifying to see the growth from the inaugural event; this year’s crowd was easily several times that of last year’s, and next year’s should be bigger still and even more organized.
“Home” written in Amharic script
The second event was the Home Away From Home festival. That was a week-long celebration of African—mainly Ethiopian/Eritrean—culture which coincided with Ethiopian New Year festivities, and touched on music, art, dance, hair-braiding as sculpture, and coffee, which culminated in a daylong concert at Lake Merritt. Event organizers, which included vocalist and TED Global Fellow Meklit Hadero, kept talking about how they were making history, and indeed, such inclusive celebrations of East African culture aren’t at all commonplace in the motherland. Political conflict in particular has prevented the now-separatist Eritreans from coming together with Ethiopians, even though there exists thousands of years of shared history between the two regions. So, to say Home Away From Home was unprecedented is a bit of an understatement.
The winner of the Braiding-as-Sculpture competition
The stage at the festival, held at Lakeshore Park near Lake Merritt, was entirely pedal-powered, courtesy of Rock the Bike . Rows of bicycles connected to electrical generators had been set up at either side of the stage, and powering the sound became a fun activity for all the kids in attendance (and quite a few adults). It was cool to see all the Ethiopians and Eritreans, which are a quite plentiful community in Oakland but not usually visible in such numbers, dancing to the music with the traditional shoulder-shrug motion. All told, there were also several hundred people in attendance for the event, which was part of the “Love the Lake” festivities which encouraged people to enjoy Lake Merritt.
A tukul helped enhance the sense of placemaking.
To emphasize the placemaking theme, organizers constructed a traditional thatched hut, or tukul, which contained artwork done by Ethiopian artists. The musical highlight of “Home” had to be the traditional Ethiopian/Tigray music performed by Ytbarek Kahsay, who played both the electric krar—a five-string lyre tuned to the pentatonic scale—and the masenko, a single-stringed lute, played with a bow like a violin.
Kahsay, an azmari, or traditional Abyssinian minstrel, was absolutely mesmerizing to watch, partially because he accompanied himself while singing, but also because the repetitive melodic tones he played seemed to vibrate with hypnotic resonance. It’s not often that non-Ethiopians have a chance to even hear such wondrous instruments played live, and Kahsay’s notes carried clear across the meadow, all the way to Grand Ave.
Ytbarak Kahsay plays the masenko
So, what does this upsurge in African culture mean? Well, while the declining number of Oakland’s African Americans has been a concern for those who appreciate the city’s diversity, festivals like Umoja and Home Away From Home suggest the local African expats are not only staying put and putting down roots here (which stretch as far as 8,000 miles across the ocean), but their numbers may actually be growing. That’s good news for those who love African culture and all its offshoots—music, dance, food, fashion—and helps give credence to the notion that Oakland is not just a multicultural city, but an international one.