Oakulture

Documenting the Oakland cultural renaissance


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Art & Soul Turns 18 (Review/Photoset)

Art and Soul 2018 Day 2 251

Over the years, Oakland’s annual Art & Soul festival has had its ups and downs. This year’s offering, however, was one of the best in recent memory, with an outstanding all-local lineup which allowed homegrown talent to shine. It’s perhaps easy to take the event for granted, with its familiar array of vendor booths and food stands, bolstered by various stages for live music and dance. It’s not the edgiest summer event, but it is one of the most multi-generational, as well as one of the most venerable festivals in Oakland. While First Fridays, Friday Nights at OMCA, and Third Thursdays at Latham Square have become popular in recent years, when Art & Soul started, there wasn’t really much of a buzz around downtown as a cultural district. All that has changed as Oakland has come into its own and become more of a destination for the rest of the Bay Area.

It seemed fitting that this year’s highlight was a Sunday headlining set by hometown heroines the Pointer Sisters. The group is best known for a string of 80’s pop hits like “Jump,” “Neutron Dance,” “Automatic,” and “I’m So Excited,” but they started out a decade earlier with an intoxicating blend of vocal harmonies and versatile arrangements which ran the gamut from R&B to funk to jazz to country to rock to disco. It would have been cool to hear deep cuts like “Yes We Can Can,” “How Long,” and “Steam Heat,” but the hour-long set concentrated on their best-known material, with a cover of Aretha Franklin’s “Chain of Fools” thrown in for good measure. While the group is down to one original member—Ruth Pointer—it’s still a family affair, with the rest of the trio rounding out with Ruth’s daughter Issa and granddaughter Sadako. Now in her 70s, Ruth looked and sounded amazing, and she led the group through a dynamic live set which had the crowd buzzing.

 

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At the end of the show, there was a special cheerleading performance and an appearance by Mayor Schaaf, who then announced the ”Mayor of West Oakland,” Councilmember Lynette McElhaney, who proceeded to award Ruth the key to the city.  Ruth then gave a small speech bigging up the city, and shouting-out her high school, McClymonds. It was a real Oakland moment.

Earlier in the day, the main stage  featured sets by Grammy-nominated Alphabet Rockers, R&B songstress Netta Brielle, and jazz-hopsters the Kev Choice Ensemble – a strong showing of local flavor whose sets complimented each other well. The music was in the vein of Black music, but had near-universal appeal. This was a marked change from past years which sometimes featured non-local rock acts (which may have been due to former sponsor KFOG). But this year, the co-sponsor was KBLX. As a result, the main stage performances felt more organically and authentically Oakland. While the festival hasn’t always booked all-local lineups, it’s a good look when it does. That’s because doing so allows the event to really be about celebrating and appreciating The Town—in effect, marketing Oakland itself as the main attraction.

It doesn’t hurt that there is plenty of talent bred right here to go around. The Kev Choice Ensemble is a perfect example. If you’ve never seen the KCE live before, you’re missing out on some really good music, as in, actual music played by real musicians. In terms of artistic sensibilities, Choice is a 10 out of 10, and his music bears a high level of aesthetic quality. The mix of jazz, funk, R&B, and hip-hop felt perfect to groove to on a Sunday afternoon. Lyrically, Choice eschews the materialism and self-serving braggadocio common with contemporary rap artists, focusing instead on socially-conscious messages, augmented by the backing vocals of Viveca Hawkins. Choice brought out special guests Sol Development, Netta Brielle, and Jennifer Johns—even more top-shelf local talent—which made the concert seem like an extended family affair.

The previous day, Oakulture managed to catch sets by Jazz Mafia featuring Deuce Eclipse , Ryan Nicole and Martin Luther, and headliner Lyrics Born. Both sets were super-tight. Luther absolutely killed covers of Parliament’s “Stay,” and The Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” and Eclipse ripped dos rap en Espanol numbers, “Ragga Cantor” and “Knock Knock,” which allowed the Mafia to show of their Latin jazz chops

Lyrics Born, meanwhile, continues to put on a hell of a live show. Now on his 10th album, the man has lots of catalog to pull from. Too much, in fact, for a one-hour set. Oakulture was hoping LB would pull out the 2003 gem “Bad Dreams,” but really couldn’t complain about material like “I Like It, I Love It,” “Chest Wide Open,” and the just-released single “Is It Worth It?” The crowd also heard the Latyrx classic “Lady Don’t Tek No,” which never gets old. Another highlight were the b-boy breaking moves of LB’s son, Teo—reppping the next generation of Bay flavor.

There was, as always, a lot going on at Art & Soul. In addition to the main stage, there were dedicated jazz and blues stages, and a turf dance competition. It’s pretty cool that turfin’ has become enshrined into the festival repertoire, as something which primarily appeals to youth. It’s also cool that hip-hop artists are being embraced—almost a decade after Hieroglyphics became the first rap act to play the festival. While rap isn’t always the most appropriate music choice at family-oriented events, rappers  with positive lyrical content who play with live bands makes it a non-issue.

All in all, Art & Soul was an enjoyable and fun time which one hopes will continue to evolve into a world-class showcase for local music. There was also an underlying sense of the need to maintain cultural identity in the face of a rapidly-changing city. One of Choice’s songs, “Never Give You Up”—which personifies Oakland similar to how Common’s “I Used to Love H.E.R.” personifies hip-hop—spoke directly to that. The song  was later referenced by McElhaney. With that being said, having a place where Black cultural forms such as blues, jazz, hip-hop and turfin’ are all visible and audible, where food stands still sell BBQ, and local vendors sell t-shirts with slogans like “I (Heart) Being Black” reinforces Oakland’s longstanding identity against the onslaught of culture and population shift. Perhaps that makes Art & Soul the cultural equivalent of comfort food, but comfort food is comforting for a reason.

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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.

kev choice love and revolution rr 058

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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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.