Documenting the Oakland cultural renaissance

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Women Runnin It: Interview with Naima Shalhoub

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.


Naima Shalhoub

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.

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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.


Learn more about Borderlands: Singing Through the Prison Walls
Follow Naima Shalhoub:


Get to know the women previously highlighted in the series, including Candi Martinez, Chaney Turner, Nina Menendez, Gina Madrid aka Raw-G, DJ ZitaSoulovely crew Lady Ryan, Aima the Dreamer and DJ Emancipacion, and Ramona Webb.

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Women Runnin It: Interview with Soulovely crew’s Lady Ryan, Aima the Dreamer and DJ Emancipacion

“Women Runnin It” features women in dynamic positions of cultural leadership in Oakland. Our first focus in this series brings a spotlight to Oakland female producers and promoters. Usually behind the scenes, these women are the ones bringing your favorite concerts, shows and nights for you to soak in and live the culture of Oakland. How do they build community and social arts networks? How do they curate a meaningful event or a club party?

Important to many of us, particularly women and LGBTQi persons, is the ability to go out at night, share our art, enjoy dancing or conversation and not have to defend our bodies and presence. The promoters who are committed to holding this ground for us and advancing it are bringing female artists, gender fluid and non-ratchet parties, and holding down inclusive, ‘safe’ spaces through curating social arts. They are cultural stewards that we at Oakulture value and support. We think you should too. Check out previous women highlighted in the series, including Candi Martinez, Chaney Turner, Nina Menendez, Gina Madrid aka Raw-G and DJ Zita.


The women of Soulovely: Emancipation, Aima, Lady Ryan.

The women of Soulovely: Emancipacion, Lady Ryan, Aima.

Up to this point, every edition of our series, “Women Runnin It,” has focused on a woman promoter; This edition of “Women Runnin It” focuses on three women engaged in an all-female collective and what they are able to achieve together.

Soulovely” is a monthly party on the second Sunday of each month produced by Lady Ryan, Aima the Dreamer and DJ Emancipacion. Each of these women in their own right have been runnin’ it for years.

Lady Ryan

Lady Ryan

Lady Ryan is a Bay Area favorite with a wide network of followers who has been a full-time DJ for eight years. Originally from West Virginia and grown up in Oakland, Lady Ryan has both an eclectic and often nostalgic taste; she always has me dancing when she’s on the tables and contributes her technical knowledge to maintaining the high sound quality which the Soulovely party prides itself on.



DJ Emancipacion (also a resident of SKIN) brings her background as both a cultural worker and a sound engineer to the game. As an American-born Egyptian, Emancipacion is also currently one of few female DJs that cater to the Arab/North African community in the US specializing in Arab weddings, bridal showers, hennas, and graduation parties.

Aima the Dreamer

Aima the Dreamer

Repping the Soulovely crew on the mic, is MC and vocalist Aima the Dreamer, a veteran known for her work with J-Boogie’s Dubtronic Science and holding down the next generation of the Femme Deadly Venoms crew. In a review of the Clas/sick Hip-Hop show last year, Oakulture praised Aima’s performance: “The first song, performed by Aima the Dreamer and Sayknowledge, sent shivers through the sold-out crowd, as Aima channeled Ladybug Mecca’s cool breeziness over an acoustic bassline originally played by Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers.”

Attended by mostly women both queer and straight–but open to allies–Soulovely’s supportive, Sapphic aesthetic is evident from its tag line “We are Soulovely. Oakland is Soulovely. Ya’ll are Soulovely.” This summertime day party is made for the dancefloor (as evidenced by their promotional video), presents performances by a wide range of female artists, is grounded by an altar, and reflects the diversity of Oakland. Not to mention its dope logo done by DJ/aerosol writer Agana (TDK Crew). “Soulovely” premieres this Sunday, Mother’s Day, and features guest DJ Pam the Funkstress of The Coup and Bay Area Sistah Sound (BASS) crew.




Oakulture: What approach or strategies do you use for creating and maintaining an inclusive space?

Aima the Dreamer: Inclusivity is something I am passionate about and a space I strive to hold in any project I am working on. My approach is celebrating diversity. My strategy is advocating for high contrast when it comes to curating and participating in an event. I like to create spaces that allow us to see our differences as strengths and utilize them. The exchange of energy, ideas, and resource gets me so hyped about facilitating safe places for us to interact. Much like a choir singing in harmony, for me it’s about bringing together all the unique “voices.”

Oakulture: What values do you bring to promotion and/or production and how do they impact your decision making?

DJ Emancipacion: I come from a social justice background. I was an organizer for many years, so this informs my community work, including the gigs I take and the gigs I produce. At “Soulovely,” we build altars for our fallen youth. We chant #blacklivesmatter during our sets. We honor the work being done to better our communities. We play music that most queer parties don’t play (we don’t play Top 40/radio), and we play it all under one roof– Latin, bhangra, deep house, soul, R&B, old school hip hop, electronica, etc. So I think this question about values is very important to ask of party promoters and entertainers– we NEED more values infused in the work we all do in the clubs. We want all our queer folks to feel safe at our parties– we are very careful and strategic about our music selection. We play music that inspires joy and happiness on the dancefloor. We support local queer performers, drummers, dancers, food vendors, and we celebrate every victory for our communities at every opportunity!

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Oakulture: Compared to the largely male-dominated music industry in which you work, what are some of the differences for you producing “Soulovely” in an all-female collaboration?

Lady Ryan: One of the things I most enjoy about collaborating with Eman and Aima is that we all three are hard working with strong belief systems and strong personalities. It creates an amazing sort of checks and balances in our decision-making process that I believe is always to our benefit. I am accustomed to producing and working events alone and participating in the collaboration has taught me a lot about when to speak up, when to listen, and what it takes to effectively work with a group of people as dynamic as we are.

Aima the Dreamer:
I think a major difference is being taken seriously. Our experience and skill is respected. I have found in male-run productions, as a feminine woman, I have to constantly ‘prove’ that I am capable and knowledgeable in my craft. I have to be 10x more on it in every way than a male counterpart. Also, in a female collaboration we take center stage. We are not the ‘token’ female on the bill. WE ARE the bill. When a man produces an all-female event, it is often coined and promoted as such. When a woman produces an event with women taking on all the roles from production to performance, it is an event of peers — much as if a man were to do the same.

“Oakland is a beacon for the West Coast and beyond of progressive thought, art, and action. It’s exciting to be in a Town with such a strong social political opinion and voice in music, visual art, performance art, organizing and demonstration. I love how the Oakland culture uses every opportunity, even on the dancefloor, to build together as a community.” — Aima the Dreamer

Oakulture: What relationship is there between your artistic work and your work as producer and director?

Aima the Dreamer: I don’t assume a space will be made for me. I make noise and claim space for that visibility. That relationship is vital to also setting precedent for other women in the same field.

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Oakulture: What is your unique contribution to Soulovely’s promotion/production strategy?

Lady Ryan: The value I bring to the promotion of “Soulovely” is my outgoing personality and the network of followers I have gained in the last eight years of full-time DJing. I still believe that hand to hand flyer promotion can be most effective in that you are able convey the personality of party and that contact or conversation is more likely to draw a person to attend vs. a social media click. The value I bring to the production of “Soulovely” is my first-hand knowledge of DJ equipment. With technology constantly changing and having guest DJ’s with different needs, I am able to step up and ensure that the event runs smoothly on the technical side.

Oakulture: What’s exciting to you about Oakland culture right now?

 DJ Emancipacion: I’m a proud Oakland resident for over 15 years — Oakland culture has always inspired and excited me! I think what used to be underground back in the day is now shining bright in the light of the sun — so things are more accessible and loud and proud. Right now I’m loving that there are more art venues, more cultural spaces, more public gatherings of people of African descent (like Oakland Fam Bam’s 4th of July bbq), more businesses owned by queer people of color, and more parties for queer folks.

Aima the Dreamer:
Oakland is a beacon for the West Coast and beyond of progressive thought, art, and action. It’s exciting to be in a Town with such a strong social political opinion and voice in music, visual art, performance art, organizing and demonstration. I love how the Oakland culture uses every opportunity, even on the dancefloor, to build together as a community.

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Oakulture: Who are your Oakland heroines?

DJ Emancipacion: I love love love this question. So many dope women doing big things in Oakland! Aima the Dreamer, Alicia Garza, Reem Assil, the Mamacitas Cafe girls, Sara Flores with RECLAIM Midwifery, Gina Breedlove . . .

Aima the Dreamer: I LOVE this question too! It’s impossible to name all of my Oakland sheroes, but here are a few, in no particular order: Emancipacion, Lady Ryan, Ladyfingaz, Chaney Turner, Miz Chris, Candi Martinez, Florencia Manovil, DJ Zita, Devi Genuone, Zakiya Harris, Lila Rose, Raw G, CeCe Carpio of Trust Your Struggle, Kin Folkz of Spectrum Queer Media, Mona Webb, Samara Atkins of Mix’d Ingrdnts, Magik, Emily Butterfly, Thailan When, Janaysa Lambert, and Charleen Caabay of Kain’bigan.

Oakulture: If you could book anyone, who?

DJ Emancipacion: Sade!

Aima the Dreamer: Janelle Monae.




Oakulture: Role models? Who do you admire artistically and why?

DJ Emancipacion: Hmmm…I don’t really have role models, but I respect strong revolutionary women leaders who have changed the world like Leila Khaled, Rasmea Odeh, Audre Lorde, Angela Davis, Ella Baker, Yuri Kochiyama, Assata . . . I do admire so many artists who keep me inspired for life and remind me how amazing the human race is – Fairouz, FKA twigs, Egyptian artist Mahmoud Said, Ibeyi, local artist Amaryllis deJesus Moleski, Nnedi Okorafor, Shadia Mansour, Black Coffee . . .

Oakulture: Any upcoming projects or collaborations you’re particularly excited about in Oakland right now?

DJ Emancipacion: “Soulovely” of course 🙂  The new “Soulovely” mix coming out this summer!

Aima the Dreamer: So many!!! From my own; “Soulovely” (2nd Sundays) to my EP “Planet Femme” release by my group Femme Deadly Venoms (June 12th) feat. LadyFingaz, Aima the Dreamer, Madlines, Persia, Deeandroid, & ZMan . . . to all the incredible folks who hold down the Town on the regular with quality events: Social Life, Living Room Project, Devi Genuone’s MayMuns at ERA (live performance showcase), Impact Hub, Malcolm X Jazz Festival, Oakland Pride, Oakland Indie Mayhem, First Fridays…. I could go on and on! Oakland is RICH.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length.



Every 2nd Sunday
May 10, June 14, July 12, August 9, September 13, & October 11

Tix $6, Free before 5pm with RSVP to: soulovely@gmail.com
The New Parish Courtyard, 1741 San Pablo Ave, Oakland

Follow Soulovely:
FB: www.facebook.com/wearesoulovely
Soundcloud: www.soundcloud.com/soulovely
IG: @wearesoulovely #soulovely

Lady Ryan:
Instagram @djladyryan

Aima the Dreamer:
Instagram @aima_the_dreamer

Instagram @djemancipacion

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Jose James’ Two-Night Stand

Live Review/ Jose James, Sept. 18 & 19, @ the New Parish. All photos ©Eric K. Arnold 2014

When it comes to contemporary male vocalists, one has to consider Jose James as a superstar-in-the making. Trained in jazz phrasing, James’ music encompasses a wide stylistic range—everything from soulful R&B to hip-hop inflections to grungey indie-rock accents—which adds nuance and artistic depth to a guy who could easily be typecast as a pretty-boy pop chameleon.

Sep 19 2014 026bwJames remains rooted in soul idioms, however. Like many of the great soul singers who have preceded him, he’s turned emotional vulnerability into a strength. His willingness to confess his weaknesses and limitations, as well as his desires, has gained him a sizeable female fan base over the years. His albums have the same effect as Marvin Gaye or Sade’s recordings: if you play them on a first date, you’re pretty much guaranteed a second. What James truly excels at is transferring his moodiness into a feeling of shared intimacy. Sure, his phrasing and jazz-friendly delivery helps, but if he didn’t have substance behind it, it wouldn’t be nearly as resonant.

Jose James night 2 069Like many men (I’m sure), I was introduced to Jose James through a female friend. Now personally, I could care less about his appearance, but I will grant that his boyish yet mischievous face is eye candy for those who like those sort of things. Heartthrob status aside, I’ve found that his music holds up to extended listenings. Which is appreciated, in an era of all-looks, no-talent, male vocalists.

It’s been about six years since James first emerged. He appeared on German beatmeisters Jazzanova’s“Little Bird” around the same time he released his debut album, which featured a cover of Freestyle Fellowship’s “Park Bench People” – which has since become one of his signature songs. The song is notable for many reasons. First off, it’s a slept-on classic from hip-hop’s Golden Era. Second, it addresses social conditions (homelessness) without being preachy. Third, it always affords an opportunity for James to vibe out, vamp, and throw down some improvised live jazz-scatting,

Jose James night 2 260James performed “Park Bench People” both nights during his recent two-evening residency at the New Parish. Each time it was different, as far as the particular vocal passages he chose to emphasize. Each time, it was transcendent, sending the audience over the edge and giving the band suitable time to improvise and stretch out the groove. For many other artists, such a feat would have been the highlight of the show.

Not so with James. He seemed determined to show his stylistic diversity, but also to show that his melodic multiplicity was grounded in emotional honesty. On Friday night, he tackled Al Green’s “Simply Beautiful”—one of the lesser-known songs from Green’s seminal 1972 disc, I’m Still in Love With You—and turned it into an extended, show-stopping groove-a-thon, as the band highlighted the “duh-dun-dun-dah” riff which anchors the song.

James was simply okay Thursday, but Friday night, he was on fire. His comfort level between the first and second shows seemed to increase exponentially: On Thursday, he seemed a bit reserved; On Friday, he strongly connected with the crowd, a fired-up Oakland audience primed and ready to throw down. He could seemingly do no wrong onstage; each tune brought on warm fuzzies and audience appreciation levels which approached unbridled joy, as James traveled further into the zone. He succeeded in projecting an element of soul which resonated even through his more experimental material – which sounded far less flat than it did the previous night. (One reason for the difference may have been that James could hear himself better; early on in Friday’s show, he told the audience his monitor, which apparently had been troubling him the previous evening, had been fixed.)

Sep 18 2014 371bandwA highlight of the Thursday show was “Come to My Door,” sung with Emily King, who appears on the album, No Beginning No End. On Friday, James performed his version solo, which lost little lustre, if at all.

Other James originals went over equally well. He dedicated “U R the 1” to the “highest person in the house” – an interesting choice, since just about everyone in the audience was probably a bit intoxicated. The song propelled itself along on a silky, sultry minimalist groove, laced with lyrics which were both poetic and romantic. The quiet intimacy of the album version became something altogether more dynamic in a live setting, yet retained its intimate feeling. It was like listening to a person’s innermost thoughts during a moment of blissful realization, a shared catharsis which connected everyone in the room through their heart chakras. New Age soul can be a bit difficult to pull off earnestly, yet James’ crooning sounded more sincere than contrived.

Now is the time for lovers to embrace

Now is the time when bodies burn

It’s only desire we’re longing for a taste

In darkness we wait for love’s return

Jose James night 2 007“Bodhisattva” outpaced the album version with a more organic rendering of the tune, an emo-soul banger which alternates between mellow verses and an expressive chorus.

“Trouble” lived up to its title, as James milked the song for all it was worth, repeating the words  trouble trouble trouble and struggle struggle struggle like a mantra.

James’ cover medley of classic soul artist Bill Withers isn’t a new thing – he’s been doing it for a while. Withers, as we know, wrote the book on straddling the line between blues, R&B, soul, funk and jazz. But James doesn’t cover Withers unless he’s really feeling it. And he was feeling it on Friday night. We got a very full version of “Grandma’s Hands,” wrapped around “Who Is He (and What Is He To You)” and a bit of “Ain’t No Sunshine.” For James, the medley offered another chance to loosen up even further, riffing on the line “if I get to heaven,” before diving back into “Ain’t No Sunshine.”

Feeling sufficiently warmed up, it was then that he tackled the aforementioned “Park Bench People,” which also featured an extended intro section. He closed the night with “Do You Feel,” yet another love song, which he dedicated to Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin.

Do you feel what I feel?
Do you know what I know?
Do you see what I see?
Wanna go where I wanna go
When you know I’m feeling
Like a long time awaiting for someone
divine and maybe it’s you

Jose James night 2 079Making real music isn’t easy in an age where hype often outpaces talent. But James has somehow managed to carve out an oeuvre which looks to tradition as a touchstone for moving the envelope forward. With his hybrid sound, he can’t be pigeonholed as a modern jazz artist, but bringing jazz phrasing and soulful feeling to a mash-up of genres makes him a modernist, as well as a fitting 21st century representative of the classic jazz label Blue Note, whom he records for. Along with labelmate Robert Glasper, James has succeeded in bringing the spirit of jazz to a younger audience. That’s a hopeful sign in a time when new albums by overhyped pop acts are foisted upon us through computerized content delivery systems, whether we want them or not. -EKA

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Afrofuturist Heaven: Shabazz Palaces, The Seshen

Live Show Review/ New Parish, 7/28/14

The Seshen

The Seshen

I arrived at the New Parish 3/4ths of the way through The Seshen’s set, just in time to catch their last two songs. Bummer, because they sounded great and they got the crowd open. Those last two numbers were pretty tight, though, running from downtempo emo to uptempo rave-up.

If you haven’t heard them before, The Seshen blend soulful, emotional vibes with heavy grooves which land somewhere between R&B and electronica. Fronted by Lalin St. Juste and Akasha Orr, they mix ethereal vocals and live instrumentation with a lot of electronic effects; their sound is more than a little reminiscent of ‘90s trip-hop, achieving the poignancy of a Morcheeba in a way that seems more cyclic than derivative. They do original songs which aim for – and hit – a resonant chord deep in the cerebellum, pushing the sonic envelope forward at all times.

Glancing at their set list, which lay next to a small village of effect pedals used by St. Juste to enhance the moodiness of her vocals, I noticed their last song was called “2000 Seasons” – inspired by the Ayi Kwei Armah novel of the same name. “This is what you want/ the tick-tock of the clock rolls on,” the song’s hook proclaims.

shabazz palaces at new parish 2014 033But while The Seshen might sound fresh and different to today’s audiences, they wouldn’t have sounded out of place on one of the classic “Rebirth of the Cool” compilations of two decades ago, which established an Afrofuturist, post-hip-hop blueprint that freely blended retro soul and jazz influences with forward-thinking (at the time) musical ideas.

Watching The Seshen live, it seemed entirely appropriate to revisit a place which created so many memorable experiences back in the day. This is a band which could have come out of London or Johannesburg, yet the fact that they are from the Bay speaks to the range and diversity of our local music scene. Chances are, they won’t be an opening act forever.

The Seshen were perhaps the perfect opener for Shabazz Palaces, a progressive hip-hop duo who  sound almost nothing like contemporary rap these days. They favor abstract, atmospheric EDM beats over bassed-out trap tracks. They don’t really have hooks or choruses, a few repeated phrases notwithstanding. And they’re less interested in spitting out formulaic 16-bar radio-ready verses then taking listeners into a journey into a swirling, moody post-hip-hop aural landscape. If rap is primarily ego music, Shabazz Palaces come from the id, offering up tracks which are more subliminal than liminal, whose sum is greater than the total of its individual parts.

Tendai Marair of Shabazz Palaces

Tendai Marair of Shabazz Palaces

They’ve got a pedigree—lead vocalist Ishmael Butler was a founder and the driving musical force behind Digable Planets, the much-loved ‘90s rap trio forever identified with the hip-hop jazz movement. But while the DPs were stereotyped and pigeonholed for their Grammy-winning single “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat),” it’s impossible to place Shabazz Palaces in an easily-definable box.

If there’s a concept behind SP’s sound, it’s the blending of technology and tradition. Much of the first aspect is supplied by Butler, who spent much of the night alternating between rapping and button-pushing on a beat machine/sampler. The second aspect is largely the domain of Tendai “Baba” Marair, a multifaceted percussionist of Zimbabwean ancestry who played mbira, congas, and a snare kit and supplied backing vocals.

Shabazz Palaces

Shabazz Palaces

This was SP’s second time performing live at the New Parish, and featured less extended improvisations and more attempts at framing their expansive yet minimalist sound into structured songs – possibly due to the impending release of  their sophomore effort, Lese Majesty.

SP’s first album, Black Up, was an hour’s worth of WTF? moments, as their minimalistic take on world music and not-quite boom bap resonated with ears tired of predictable, monotonous sounds.  Lese Majesty, sounds different, yet kinda the same, in that it only barely resembles today’s trapped-out radio rap. It’s a further excursion down Afrofuturist lane; live, it seemed like Butler and Marair were most interested in indulging their creative impulses. There wasn’t much audience interaction, and their stage presence leaves something to be desired. But it was still cool like dat.