Documenting the Oakland cultural renaissance

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Hiero Day VII: The Seventh Seal [Review/Photoset]

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This year’s installment of Hiero Day — which  has become one of the most significant hip-hop parties in the nation, if not the globe — may have been the most satisfying iteration to date. By the time evening rolled around and the locally-bred Hieroglyphics crew hit the instantly-recognizable opening notes of “93 Til Infinity,” the experience had become epic.

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It’s always interesting to arrive at a music festival early, when things are just starting. There was a good reason for early arrival, however: an all-to-brief set by Umar Bin Hassan, best known as one of the driving forces behind the Last Poets, the pioneering group who infused spoken word with street-level imagery, cultural nationalism, and a sociopolitical worldview. The Last Poets have been called the Godfathers of rap, and the tradition of “woke”-ness in hip-hop has a starting point in songs like “When the Revolution Comes” and “Mean Machine.” They’ve been sampled by Notorious B.I.G., and covered by Public Enemy, yet their contributions to the artform and the culture aren’t as widely-known as they should be.

Bin Hassan’s set was short but significant, in that it connected rap’s origins with its present-day manifestation.  He closed with “This Is Madness”, the title track of the classic 1971 album. Strangely enough, the song’s dystopian lyrics seemed just as relevant in the Trumpian era as they were during the Nixon presidency.

As host Mistah F.A.B. noted, at the time the Last Poets emerged, “trhey was still hanging us. Let me say that. We was still getting killed for reckless eyeballing. We were still getting locked up like we are today, at higher rates than we was in the South. So for a brother to come out with poems like that, the whole Last Poets, allof the brothers, man, to be here today, I’m honored just to share the stage with him.”

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After his set, Bin Hassan hung out for a while in VIP by the main stage, taking it all in. There was a lot to take in, indeed, Besides the main stage, there were two other stages with full lineups, vendors galore, a food truck area, a kids’ area – a sure sign hip-hop is grown—and live painting by graffiti legend Crayone.

As the day progressed, thousands of attendees began to fill up the staging area, which had a different configuration than the 2016 festival, also held in the general 3rd St. location. The main stage faced westerly, which meant that attendees were looking directly into the sun for most of the afternoon.

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As a veteran of many Hiero Days, one thing Oakulture has learned is, you can’t be everywhere at once. So while forays were made through the vending and food areas, and the two secondary stages, the place to be was around the main stage, where most of the action was – although word has it that Ryan Austin and Chinaka Hodge killed it, as did Chali 2na’s performance and Mannie Fresh’s DJ set.

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For the occasion, F.A.B.  donned a bright red hoodie-and-sweatpants combo advertising his clothing company Dope Era. Never one to under-accessorize, F.A.B. also sported a Dope Era backpack and gold chain. The charismatic host shuttled between exhorting the crowd to get loud, relaying anecdotes, and performing some of his own songs, like the hyphy era anthem,  “Super Sic Wid It”

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A major highlight was Richie Rich’s set.  Before he came on, F.A.B. again contextualized the moment, proclaiming Rich “raised” him. “This dude was one of the first dudes to really show me what it was like to be a real Oakland stunna, to represent the town all around the world… when I heard this dude was on the performance list, I was hella juiced.”

In the Bay Area pantheon, “Dubble R” occupies a rather unique roost. A founding member of 415 who later signed to Def Jam before going indie, he’s among the few OG pioneers of Bay Area rap who’s still actively recording.

Richie Rich’s Hiero Day set was heated. The soil-savvy yet lyrical mic presence he displayed was something up-and-coming artists could learn a thing or two from. The crowd’s energy level jumped significantly when he too the stage. Audible cheers of excitement ensued when he performed the classics “Ain’t Gon Do” and “Let’s Ride.” He appeared to leave the crowd wanting more, until he reappeared, flanked by F.A.B., for a rendition of the all-time Oakland anthem, “Sideshow.”

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Another bright note was Mike Relm’s video turntablism display. Relm—who started out as a member of Supernatural Turntable Artists, then shot to fame with the Blue Man Group—has mastered the art of mixing music videos, mashing up visuals as well as audio. This injects an added sense of excitement into DJ routines because of the enhanced visual component. Relm might appear to be The Nerdiest Guy on the Planet—an image he has carefully cultivated—but he is an absolute beast on the tables, so don’t ever sleep on him.

Relm was followed by a very laid-back Talib Kweli, who recounted a story of coming to Oakland in 1996 and hanging  out with members of Hiero. It was a subtle reminder that Hiero Day is built on relationships in the artist community which extend back decades, as opposed to a corporate festival where money is the only commonality. The phrase “for the culture” gets bandied about a lot, and sometimes in cliched ways, but there is absolutely nothing cliched about a grassroots event which built itself up from its own bootstraps – which could be said about the Hiero organization as well (more on that in a minute).

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Kweli’s set cruised through hits like “The Blast,””Get By,” and “Redefinition,” before the Brooklyn emcee gave way to Southern Cali’s Pharcyde. Now down to just two original members—Imani and Bootie  Brown, the group still was able to muster considerable stage command, especially on their closing tune, “Passing Me By,” which turned into a sing-along with several thousand people – indeed, the staging area had become a dense thicket of bodies.

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By now, the sun’s merciless rays had begun to ease a bit, setting the stage for an otherworldly set by Black Thought. The Roots’ headmaster made his first Hiero Day appearance one for the history books. If you think you have heard dope emcees before, you really haven’t heard anything until you’ve heard Thought do a solo set, backed by just a trumpeter and a give tapping out beats on an MPC.  Tarik Trotter simply put on a rhyme clinic, scoring high marks for subject matter, flow, breath control, vocabulary, tonality, and several other metrics which may come to mind later. He held the mic like a staff, emanating a vibe of hip-hop royalty. Fronting on Thought was simply not an option; he basically exuded greatness from every pore, as he poured on the similes and metaphors.

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The coup de gras was the special guest he brought out, none other than Sa-Roc. Though she looked graceful, even demure, she beasted the mic with an impressive  display of skills and finesse which served as dessert to Thought’s entrée. Definitely keep an eye out for her.

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At this point in the day, the show was running a bit over, which  cut into the headliner’s time. Which is also a testament to Hiero’s aesthetic . Most groups in that position, especially at their own festival, would have cut the time of one of the other acts; to cut your own set speaks to their integrity.

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Their 30-minute slot was cut down to maybe about 20 minutes. But lest anyone complain, they more then made up for it in intensity, bum-rushing the stage like they were hungry for their first taste of success.

If you’ve followed Hiero for a while, you know they function as a collective unit with distinct  personalities: Casual mixes physical and verbal aggression with subtly complex rhyme patterns and battle-rapper bravado; Tajai—who sported a black and gold African-patterned robe straight outta Wakanda—evoked the image of a high priest or wizard of some mystical Afrocentric sect;  the underrated Pep Love is a fount of lyrical dopeness and hip-hop aesthetics; Phesto Dee mixes sporty flair with a subtle sense of humor (he had on some shades with the Hiero symbol on the lenses); and A+ and Opio are deceptively laid-back cats who deliver devastating ninja strikes causing verbal lacerations.  Producer Domino and DJ Toure stoically play the background, but also serve as grounded focal points – the crew likes to move around a lot onstage. Missing in action was Hiero founded Del—a zany character if there ever was one—who is still recovering from a recent illness.

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Hiero’s energetic set went by quickly, but every moment was befitting of a prime-time performance. After seeing them live countless times, the way they complement each other never ceases to amaze. They never get in each other’s way, seeming to employ telepathic commands, or maybe just intuition born from working alongside each other for three decades.  It would have been dope to hear a full set of classics, but the songs we did hear, including two newer songs and the now 20 year-old “You Never Knew” were lapp[ed up like milk by the crowd, leading up to “93 til,” a song whose most enduring quality may be that it never gets old.

Some final thoughts: Hiero Day covers a fair amount of the hip-hop spectrum, and presents the genre as united—as opposed to subdivided by style or region. In doing so, it transcends subjective biases. The mix of up-and-coming and veteran artists not only challenges fans to be open-minded and encourages embracing of groups they may be unfamiliar with, but also means each and every Hiero Day is similar yet different.

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Unlike most rap shows—which tend to either target younger or older audiences—Hiero Day has broad, multigenerational appeal. This also helps explain Hieroglyphics’ longevity: they keep attracting younger fans while retaining longtime listeners, essentially turning over their fan base. It’s a brilliant marketing model.

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While similar festivals like Summer Jam or Rock the Bells have attracted large numbers of hip-hop aficionados over the years, neither event has ever felt truly organic. There’s a DIY mentality afoot at Hiero Day which makes mainstream or overly-commercial rap seem completely irrelevant. From an audience perspective, there may be some performers you especially want to see, but a greater sense that folks are there for the overall experience.

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Hiero Day 2016: Strength in Numbers


Return of the Backpack Rapper: Del the Funky Homosapien rocks Hiero’s headline set.

It’s hard to believe it’s been five years of Hiero Day already.  Originally a day-long hip-hop block party held on San Pablo St. in Oakland, the event has gotten bigger every year – in terms of both attendance and prominence – while relocating to an industrial section of West Oakland, where it now commands several city blocks and three stages worth of live music and DJs.

The members of Hieroglyphics — Oakland’s OG hip-hop pioneers, and one of the few still-active crews hailing from the early ‘90s Golden Age  — have stated on the record they started Hiero Day because it was difficult for them to book shows in their hometown (despite the fact they’ve toured all over the country for decades and their shows have never been associated with violence.) There may be some truth to that, but Hiero Day is about so much more than its eponymous founders. True, they close every show with a full crew performance, but the event has already become a cultural institution, a celebration of real hip hop which draws a multigenerational audience to hear both emerging and veteran artists.

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But Hiero Day is not just a concert, it’s a ritual of sorts – an affirmation that hip-hop culture not only still exists, but is still vital and vibrant. One might even go so far to say the day is imbued with spiritual significance; the level of appreciation from both performers and attendees is that high. Even with crowds which now number upwards of 20,000 folks, Hiero Day is overall a super-chill event whose vibe is surprisingly low-key, considering its magnitude

2016’s edition of Hiero Day may have been the best yet.  Advance tickets were available for the quite-affordable price of $19.93, and day-of tickets were a still-reasonable $40. Compare that to the price of any corporate music festival put on by a major concert promoter, and you’ll see quite a difference. We won’t name names here, but some of the larger festivals charge one hundred dollars or more for a one-day ticket for shows which might feature just one or two hip-hop/rap acts amidst a bucketload of indie rock or EDM acts. Even the few national rap fest tours which still exist can’t surpass Hiero Day’s lineup; the most-comparable event in recent memory was probably the on-hiatus Paid Dues Festival. But even that event, which did offer a showcase for underground/indie/alternative/true school hip-hop, didn’t have the grassroots flavor of a 100% artist-produced show which made no concessions whatsoever to corporatism.


Lockmith freestyles during Just Blaze’s set

There were 43 pre-announced artists, groups, or DJs on the Hiero Day bill – which calls into question one media outlet’s assertion last year that the show was more of a self-serving platform for Hiero and veteran acts than a showcase for up-and-coming artists. That just sounds ridiculous, since roughly two-thirds of the total stage time this year was allotted to newer acts with younger followings. The actual number of performers was actually a bit higher than what was announced, to boot. For instance during Just Blaze’s DJ set, he called up Del the Funky Homosapien, Locksmith, Ras Kass, and Planet Asia to do freestyles. That’s what you call more of what you’re funkin’ for.

That said, for both Hiero fans and hip-hop OGs, it was hard to pass up the allure of the main, “Infinity,” stage for sheer hip-hop flavor. Impressively, the stage featured a solid five-hour block of quality artists leading up to Hieroglyphics closing set: Paris, X Clan, Lyrics Born, Murs, Just Blaze, Invisibl Skratch Picklz, and Too Short. Other stages were graced by the likes of Juvenile, Dilated Peoples, Blu & Exile, the Grouch, Nef the Pharaoh, Rocky Rivera and others;  however, going from stage to stage required an adventurous spirit and a willingness to navigate between crowds of considerable density and brave the late-summer sun. By late afternoon, the crowd swelled to the point where it was quite dense with bodies. Oakulture made one foray out to the “Third Eye” stage, and briefly caught a bit of Blu & Exile’s set, but quickly returned to the Infinity stage in time to catch another Bay Area legend, Lyrics Born. Add to the fact that the Infinity stage offered the best photo opps for candid backstage shots, and it was pretty much a no-brainer to post up there.


Dan the Automator and Dante Ross

The question remains: Where else are you going to see legendary A&R Dante Ross cold chillin’ with legendary producer Dan the Automator, or such local notables as Hip Hop TV’s Shawn Granberry, Boots Riley, Mystic, Davey D, Chuy Gomez, Bijan Kazemi, DJ D-Sharp, Purple Pam the Funkstress, Councilmember Abel Guillen, and the occasional member of Hiero? Needless to say, many conversations were had, and much game was chopped.

It was difficult to feel too salty about missing Cash Money mainstay Juvenile or LA rhyme-spitters Dilated Peoples, because the Infinity stage was crack-a-lackin all day. Paris got the crowd pumped up with his Black Panther-inspired message rap; the self-proclaimed “hard truth soldier” played new material from his recent album Pistol Politics, but it was the 1990 “conscious yet hardcore” hit “Break the Grip of Shame – which samples both Malcolm X and Public Enemy – that  got the crowd to raise their fists in the Black Power salute. Shout out to DJ True Justice, by the way, who flawlessly recreated Mad Mike’s  frantic scratch solo.


Still breaking the grip of shame: Paris

It was the pre-mainstream gangsta, pre-mumble rap era all over again when Brother J came out next to play some X Clan classics. Can we just say here that Brother J is one of the most underrated yet crucial emcees of all time? Back in the so-called Afrocentric era, he was no less inspirational and influential than Chuck D or KRS-One — some forget X Clan sold hundreds of thousands of records —  yet has been nearly forgotten as time has advanced. Listening to opuses like “Grand Verbalizer, What Time is It” played live, however, made J’s contribution to hip-hop readily apparent.

By the same token, you can’t front on Lyrics Born, who has amassed a formidable catalog of crowd-pleasing jammy-jams to go along with his crowd-pleasing persona and inimitable rhyming and singing skills. One of the defining artists of alternative hip-hop, LB’s originality shone through yet again on songs like “Don’t Change,” “Lady Don’t Tek No,” and “I Changed My Mind.”


The inimitable Lyrics Born

It was also good to see that the Invisibl Skratch Picklz are back to playing live sets. Some people might remember how they burst on the scene in the early 90s, with amazing demonstrations of turntable techniques framed around band aesthetics. If they’re somewhat less jaw-dropping in their current incarnation of Shortkut, D-Styles, and Q Bert, it’s only because their innovations have been widely imitated by subsequent generations of turntablists. But anyway, they symbolized the original icons of hip-hop—the DJs—and stayed true to their ethos, with each member rocking a single turntable.

The best performance of the day, however, may have been Too Short’s. The pioneer of Oakland rap as well as independent hip-hop, Short’s predilection for nasty lyrics has overshadowed his undeniable skill as a live performer, as well as his penchant for dropping nuggets of wisdom into his material. He also has quite an affinity for funk, a primary influence on much of his classic material. Short was a commanding presence at Hiero Day, soaking up the proceedings with the air of an emcee claiming his cultural authenticity in a city he basically built from the ground up. And did we mention the man’s got classics? From “Blow the Whistle” to “Gettin’ It,” he played a nice selection of his catalog, rocking the crowd but barely breaking a sweat. (By the way, when was the last time anyone saw Too Short AND X Clan at the same show? Probably the 90s, when diverse bills within hip-hop shows were commonplace.)


Gettin’ It: Too Short

It doesn’t really get any more “Oakland” in terms of hip-hop than following Too Short with Hieroglyphics. Taken together, the two have defined The Town’s hip-hop culture for three decades.  Both keep making new music, but it’s their respective track records which place them among the greats of all time.

At this point, we’re not even sure what can be said about Hiero which hasn’t already been said over the years.  Some might argue they’ve stayed relevant because they’ve continually reinvented themselves, but one could just as easily say the opposite as well: that in actuality they’ve stayed true to the style they had back in 1992, when they first appeared on the B-side of a Del record. What is undisputed is that they’ve somehow managed to continue to attract a younger audience while also maintaining appeal to longtime listeners. That creates an interesting audience dynamic which seems somewhat universal: Hiero fans cross all racial/ethnic, age, economic and class lines, a diverse bunch united by their love of hip-hop.


Roll call: Del, Phesto and Tajai

Though Hiero didn’t do a full set, it’s always great to see a whole crew performance by them, especially because their catalog is so thick, they can pull out deep cuts at any time. While Del, the crew’s founder, perhaps gives off the most “star vibes,” sleeping on any member of the group’s lyrical skills or stage acumen would be a huge mistake. There’s not a single member of Hiero, except for maybe producer Domino and DJ Toure, who isn’’t an excellent rhymer. And they’ve all been rocking stages for so long, they’re unlikely to be fazed by much. As dope as Del is, any of the other members – Casual, Phesto, Tajai, Opio, A-Plus and Pep Love – are capable of captivating with intricate wordplay and devastatingly rhythmic tonal patterns. They are quite literally a throwback to another era, when skill and originality were cultural values. As usual, they closed their set with the anthemic Souls of Mischief hit “93 til’ Infinity,” gently bringing to an end a day which reveled in the most positive aspects hip-hop – and Oakland – have to offer. What more can be said? Not much, except there are only 360 or so days until next year’s Hiero Day.

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Women Runnin It: Interview with Lalin St. Juste

Lalin St. Juste can sing. In a way that your ears cannot fail to hear. A young Haitian-American woman, Lalin fronts The Seshen, an electronic/soul band whose sound emphasizes emotional resonance. After rising to the top of the Bay Area music scene, they were recently signed to Tru Thoughts, a record label out of England, and are earning a national and international following. This September, they launch “Love, Oakland,” a month-long Tuesday residency at Leo’s Music Club which also spotlights some extremely talented local artists. According to St. Juste, “Love, Oakland” is about celebrating “a place, a community, and an artistry which is hard to ignore.”

I first heard Lalin sing when she was with Rara Tou Limen, a powerful Haitian dance company and culture keepers here in Oakland. She was part of the small choir of Haitian singers who would change the chemistry in the room everytime they’d sing the souful, deep music for performances, classes, and rituals. She has also played with an indie rock band, St Tropez. Now with The Seshen, Lalin has performed with acts such as Macy Gray, Les Nubians, Thundercats, Hiatus Kaiyote, and Tune-Yards. She also did the vocals on Karen Seneferu’s potent and searing video “From Fruitvale to Florida: Strange Fruit No More.” In addition to her own songwriting and singing, Lalin tells us that she is launching a therapeutic songwriting group for young girls. In this interview, Lalin is forthright and open about the power of music in her life and what moves her.


Lalin St. Juste

Oakulture: What is the concept behind your upcoming September residency at Leo’s named “Love, Oakland”?

Lalin: Love, Oakland is about celebrating a place, a community, and an artistry that is hard to ignore. Oakland is powerful and I found my voice in it. I played at BART stations and started a couple bands until The Seshen was formed with my partner Aki and close friends. Being an artist is a vulnerable existence and the love Oakland has shown to The Seshen is, to me, what dreams are made of. So, in turn, we are reflecting this love back by curating a show every Tuesday that features artists who are passionate and who have big, beautiful hearts.

Each night, you step into a different world with heavyweights like Kev Choice, Naima Shalhoub, Lila Rose, a new band called Meernaa. Beyond the music, we’re also offering chances to win gift cards and gear from a few different Oakland spots such as Kingston 11, OwlNWood, Oaklandish and a gym called Four Elements Fitness as a way to highlight and support local businesses.

Oakulture: I used to hear you sing with Rara Tou Limen, and every time, your singing would crack the sky open. Can you speak about the influence of Haitian music on you?  

Lalin: Rara Tou Limen has been a blessing in my life. The influence of traditional Haitian music is basically like a missing puzzle piece. It fulfills a hunger that had existed within me. It creates a reckoning with what I’ve known but have forgotten and with what I love but have been distanced from. It has challenged me, it has brought me to tears, it has moved me to heights previously unknown. Haiti and Haitian culture is special . . . and in Oakland with Portsha Jefferson and Daniel Brevil and the company of Rara Tou Limen, I finally delved into it in ways I hadn’t before.

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Oakulture: Many of your songs and the projects you have supported over the years address pain, loss and human suffering. What role does spirituality play in your music?

Lalin: A few years ago I realized that my first time singing was in tribute to my maternal grandmother, Vertulie Dame Valbrun, who had just passed away. I had been devastated by her death. I was five and had spent most of my days with her. But what I hadn’t realized up until recently, was that she had given me my voice. I was a quiet child, but I have always loved to sing. The spirituality in my music is related to my connection with my ancestors, with the earth, with what is beyond me. I feel it all when I sing. I feel the sense that there is a force that lifts me up.

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Oakulture: Who are your role models? Who do you admire artistically and why?

Lalin: I admire artists who are unafraid to be vulnerable and authentic. Erykah Badu is a huge example of this. I can feel her heart as she sings. Bjork is another role model for her infinite expansiveness.

Oakulture: Do you have any Oakland heroines?

Lalin: There are so many powerful women that I could name but just a couple would be Karen Seneferu because her art and mere presence rocks my world. And I get chills just thinking about Zakiya Harris . . . she’s quite a changemaker who can really rock the stage. There are countless others.

“From Fruitvale to Florida: Strange Fruit No More” by Karen Seneferu Productions. Music by Lalin St. Juste and The Seshen


Oakulture: As a songwriter and frontwoman, what leads your artistic process?

Lalin: I’m compelled by the world around me. I’m fascinated by how we view each other, by our various stories and identities.  I’m moved by injustice but also by our beauty.  It all pushes me to write and sing. My artistry has also paved the way for me to be my truer self, to speak when for so long I never thought I could be heard. It’s continuously healing.

Oakulture: When can we expect a full-length album from The Seshen? Do you have any upcoming side projects?

Lalin: We’re planning to release our next album in 2016!  In the meantime we’ve got a remix ep out now on Tru Thoughts.  I’m also inching myself towards performing solo again, which you may get a sneak peek at during our residency!  So look out for me and my guitar.

The Seshen Residency: “Love, Oakland”

Tuesdays in September
9/8 with Kev Choice
9/15 with Naima Shalhoub
9/22 with Meernaa and Naytronix

9/29 with Lila Rose
Doors 8pm, Show 9pm, Adv Tix $8
Leo’s Music Club, 5447 Telegraph, Oakland

Connect with The Seshen:



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, Ramona Webb, Naima Shalhoub, Joanne Ludwig, Tracie Collins and Effie Tesfahun.

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Anna Deavere Smith’s “Prison Pipeline” Play: Brilliant, Yet Conflicted.

Anna Deavere Smith’s “Notes From the Field: Doing Time in Education,” is more than a play. Part documentary, part drama, it encourages audience members to become activists against the “school-to-prison pipeline,” which connects our failed education system with the prison-industrial complex. The show’s program also contains a “toolkit” which describes the racial inequity of zero tolerance school discipline policies and presents alternative methods such as the restorative justice program currently in place in the Oakland Unified School District and other proactive behavioral approaches which address the reality of post-traumatic stress syndrome among school-age children. But the show doesn’t stop there. It devotes its intermission to interactively engaging attendees in advocacy, with Youth Speaks-trained facilitators pushing small workshop groups to make a commitment to action (more on this later).

Anna Deavere Smith

Anna Deavere Smith

The first part of the show effectively reveals why Deavere Smith’s one-woman shows have won many prestigious awards: her methodology, which involved interviewing 150 people on both sides of the pipeline, then honing their verbatim accounts into character studies and ultimately, monologues, is absolutely brilliant. This approach one-ups the “one-woman, many characters” style of Sarah Jones by using non-fictional source material, which is technically much more difficult to pull off. Deavere Smith uses simple stage props, varying speech patterns, and gesticulations to bring each character to life, with vocal inflections which range from the crisp articulation of a multi-degree holder, to the guttersnipe syntax of a high school dropout.

The vignettes, which feature education professionals, judges, lawyers, parents, students, and chronic truants (who have become fodder for the prison system), connect thematically, presenting a multi-faceted inquiry from almost all sides of the paradigm – we don’t specifically hear from any law enforcement professionals or correctional facility employees – and segue with musical help from acoustic bassist Marcus Shelby, who provides jazzy textures throughout. In addition to supertitles identifying each interviewee, video clips which play on screens above the stage add further context.

There is both a sense of urgency and topical relevancy, especially when Deavere Smith recounts the stories of the videographer who filmed Freddie Gray’s arrest and a man charged with a $500,000 bail for protesting Gray’s death. Another story, of a Native American man who was never enfranchised by public education and becomes a violent ex-con who is now a concern for tribal authorities, resonates with poignancy.  Though there are numerous comic moments, laughing at them felt a little awkward, since the overall tone is so serious.

Anna deavere Smith as NAACP lawyer Sherrilyn Ifill

Anna Deavere Smith as NAACP lawyer Sherrilyn Ifill

Watching the show, the connections between Oakland and Baltimore seem obvious and apparent – we’re not dealing with a unique problem faced by individual cities as much as one on a national scope, institutionalized by years of economic investment into building prisons, instead of education – which has predictably resulted, Deavere Smith tells us, in the types of outcomes we’re seeing now. 85% of incarcerated people in Maryland, it is revealed, were Special Ed students. (In California, 75% of the prison population are high-school dropouts — an even higher number than the nationwide average of 68 %. Meanwhile, the private prison industry has grown at a staggeringly exponential rate over the past 25 years.)

“Notes From the Field” is ambitious in its reach, to be sure. But these types of problems can’t be solved in a couple hours. The intermission workshop felt a little like drop-in activism for a constituency which has not had to deal personally with any of these issues, such as having an incarcerated family member, or being racially-profiled by police, in their lifetimes.

It’s counter-intuitive, to say the least, to announce —  with all the pomp and circumstance of a critically-acclaimed theater performance — that the system is broken, while simultaneously helping to promote a company complicit in the economic exploitation end of the pipeline.

The reality is a little bit thornier: Whole Foods, who has recently been all over the Internets for utilizing prison labor, is listed as a sponsor of the production.

However, when Whole Foods’ connection to prison labor was pointed out in one of the workshops, one attendee reacted with an angry glare and sputtering disbelief, and the workshop’s facilitator seemed to have difficulty grasping the implications of what that meant. It’s counter-intuitive, to say the least, to announce —  with all the pomp and circumstance of a critically-acclaimed theater performance — that the system is broken, while simultaneously helping to promote a company complicit in the economic exploitation end of the pipeline.  That may not be the fault of Deavere Smith, but it does illuminate the inherent conflicts of even doing a production of this nature. If we’re going to go there, identify the problem in no uncertain terms, and break the fourth wall to demand action be taken, as “Notes From the Field” does, we’ve got to be willing to address how deep the issue really goes, and realize that effecting substantive and meaningful change might just be incompatible with doing business as usual.


Anna Deavere Smith portrays videographer Kevin Moore

If we were to further nitpick, we’d point out that another of Berkeley Rep’s sponsors, Wells Fargo, owns Wachovia, which was investigated and fined by the Justice Department for laundering money for Mexican drug cartels  – whose influx of illegal narcotics is reportedly a causal factor in the hundreds of annual murders in Chicago, mostly of young black men. Even worse, Wells Fargo also has invested tens of millions of dollars in private prisons , making it complicit in economic exploitation, sexual and physical assault, denial of health services, and racially-disproportionate practices.  Again, this kind of disingenuousness undercuts Deavere Smith’s message, through no fault of the messenger.

The play closed with a coda which transposed two short monologues: one drawn from Deavere Smith’s earlier work, of a Latino man expressing his feelings about race in the aftermath of the 1992 LA Uprising, and another from a 1970 interview with James Baldwin. Both hit expected gracenotes, but for different reasons. The irony of a brown person insisting he’s not racist because he has white friends while describing how he’s been racially stereotyped his entire life isn’t exactly subtle.  And Baldwin seems prescient, as if anticipating #blacklivesmatter, when he said, some 45 years ago, “The police in this country make no distinction between a Black Panther or a black lawyer or my brother or me. The cops aren’t going to ask me my name before they pull the trigger.“


Anna Deavere Smith as West Baltimore student India Sledge

That’s not the exact quote Deavere Smith used, which came from a seven-hour conversation with Margaret Mead called “A Rap on Race,” but in this context it suggests that until we fix our fractured education system and retool our discombobulate criminal justice system, we will not, and cannot, possibly evolve into a “post-racial” society, no matter how many Confederate flags are torn from F-150 trucks.

It’s fitting that “Notes from the Field” is being presented just a few miles from Oakland, the spiritual center of the “New Civil Rights Movement” that #BLM has been called. In one of the interviews, Deavere Smith recounts how a teacher thought she missed the boat on civil rights activism by being born at the wrong time, until she realized that a new movement could happen at any moment.  That statement apparently resonated with a silver-haired white woman seated one row up, who felt compelled to comment to Oakulture about it – seeking the approval of one of the few black men in the room, perhaps.  But only time will tell whether that woman is willing to forgo prison-farmed organic tilapia and artisanal cheeses, for the movement’s sake – or whether a war on bankers would yield better results than the war on drugs.

“Notes From the Field: Doing Time in Education” runs through August 2 at Berkeley Rep. For tickets, visit here or call 510-647-2949.


Warriors’ NBA Finals Appearance Has Cultural Impact


It’s been exactly 40 years since the Golden State Warriors were in the NBA Finals. That’s two generations in terms of population demographics, but much longer in pop culture terms. Basketball is much more mainstream now than it was in 1975, when Rick Barry was shooting underhanded free-throws. Just check league MVP Steph Curry’s endorsement deals for confirmation of that fact. Barry didn’t even get his own signature sneaker, much less deals with insurance, fashion, and headphone companies. Curry –aka the Babyface Assassin — has all of that, plus the top-selling player jersey for 2015.

The Dubs’ ascension into the NBA elite is pure vindication for Golden State’s  long-suffering fan base, who literally endured decades of being an also-ran franchise best known for players they drafted who went on to become stars with other teams.  Remember the “Warriors Worrier” PR campaign of the late ’80s? The name sort of made sense, because the team only cracked the .500 mark three times during that decade.

Rick Barry

Rick Barry

The 90s and 2000s weren’t much better. The first Don Nelson era produced the emergence of the “Run-TMC” teams with Tim Hardaway, Mitch Richmond and Chris Mullin (who made it into the second round of the playoffs twice), but that period is still overshadowed by the rather-ugly enduring image of Latrell Sprewell choking coach PJ Carlesimo. Few players wanted to come to Oakland after that, and during the first half of the 2000s, our marquee guys were either underachievers like Donyell Marshall or over-the-hill journeymen like Antawn Jamison. The Warriors survived an eleven-year playoff drought covering the tenure of no less than six head coaches between 1995 and 2006. Their fortunes began to turn around in 2012, when second-year coach Mark Jackson won 47 games, but the following year, they didn’t advance past the first round despite a 51-win season, prompting ownership to bring in Steve Kerr as coach.

Curry tees up the Pelicans' Anthony Davis

Curry tees up the Pelicans’ Anthony Davis

If hindsight is 20/20, that move—questionable at the time—proved golden. Kerr acted like anything other than a rookie in winning 67 games, one of the highest totals of all time. Not only did the Splash Brothers—Steph Curry and Klay Thompson—live up to their billing as the league’s deadliest backcourt combination, but Draymond Green emerged as the heart and soul of the team, a versatile swing man who played defense and offense with equal passion. Players stifled under Jackson, like Harrison Barnes and Andrew Bogut, flourished under Kerr. Andre Iguodala accepted the sixth man role without complaint; another former All-Star, David Lee, graciously surrendered his job to Green with nary a peep – unselfishness on a level rarely, if ever, associated with professional sports. Role players like Shaun Livingston, Maureese Speights, Leandro Barbosa, and Festus Ezili all played their parts well. The Warriors developed the deepest roster in the league, a 10-man rotation which relied on team chemistry as much as ball movement and offensive/defensive intensity. Making up 20-point deficits was possible for this team, built on versatility and execution, yet not lacking for star power.

Steve Kerr

Steve Kerr

If there was a more exciting team in all of sports to watch than the Warriors this year, that team must play on another planet without cable TV. All season long, the Warriors seemed to be playing at a higher level than their opponents, resulting in many blowout victories, and a plethora of ESPN-worthy highlights. The Warriors of old never seemed to care much for playing defense, especially during the Don Nelson years. But this team was different. When games got tough, the Warriors got tougher. How many times did they break opponents’ resolve by drilling-down with a defensive stop resulting in a spine-snapping transition 3 or dunk? How many times did Curry hit highlight reel shots? Did we mention Klay’s 37-point quarter? Or breakout games where Green, Barnes, or Ezeli showed they can shoulder the scoring load? Speaking of Barnes, his 4th-quarter explosion after Thompson’s injury in Game Five vs. Houston is exactly the stuff championships are made of. When the chips are down, quitters quit and winners win. The game hung in the balance prior to his scoring nine straight points; afterward, it was all but academic.

“Remember the ‘Warriors Worrier’ PR campaign of the late ’80s? The name sort of made sense, because the team only cracked the .500 mark three times during that decade.”



Despite all the offensive fireworks, perhaps no better play illustrates the Warriors season than their defensive gem the last 11 seconds of Game Two vs. Houston at Oracle Arena. The Rockets’ best player, James Harden, had the ball. Running down the court, he spotted a double team of Steph and Klay. He passed the ball to Dwight Howard—what was he thinking?—then received it back, with even less time remaining on the clock. With the Warriors trapping him, he seemed confused and didn’t manage to get a shot off. A foul would have given the Rockets a chance to win, but that didn’t happen. It was like Harden—a bonafied MVP candidate who finished second to Curry—was psychologically crushed, overwhelmed by the pressure. The next game was a blowout win for the Dubs, and even though Harden came back to score 45 in the Rockets’ lone victory in Game Four, any momentum was deaded in Game Five, when the Black Rasputin logged an NBA record for turnovers in a Houston loss which wasn’t even close. Sure, we can blame the Lil B curse for Harden’s poor performance, but a more logical explanation is that he was simply outsmarted by players with superior court intelligence.

Klay drives to the hoop

Klay drives to the hoop

The win over the Rockets might have seemed shocking for Warriors newbies and national b-ball fans just tuning in, but the fact is, they’ve shut down potent offenses and league superstars all year with their defensive play, three-point shooting, and nimble transition game. They made adjustments in the playoffs after dropping two consecutive games to Memphis and never looked back.  Is it really any wonder they’re the consensus favorite to win it all?

As the Finals approach, Dubs fever is at an all-time high.  Warrior gear once resigned to closets is now on full display. The Alameda County Courthouse is bathed in blue and yellow lights. And Steph’s daughter, Riley Curry, has become an unlikely media superstar. It’s been a long time coming for anyone who suffered through the days of Chris Washburn, Manute Bol, Tom Tolbert, Tyrone Hill, and Mike Dunleavy.

Draymond Green

Draymond Green

Even though their name doesn’t say it explicitly, Golden State is an Oakland team. They might be moving to San Francisco next year, but in the event of a Finals win, the parade will be held right here, in Oakland. Their Townish affiliation is evident in their unpretentious identity and the loudish “Roaracle” fans who helped cheer them to a 37-2 regular season home record. Their secret weapon is DJ D-Sharp, a hip-hop veteran who isn’t hesitant to play snippets of Too Short or the Luniz during games.

A measure of the Warriors’ pop culture cachet is the numerous songs dedicated to them, the unofficial anthem (and Oakulture personal favorite) being E-40’s Dubbed-out remake of “Choices.”  The rapper known as the Bay Ambassador took an already-good song and made it great by inserting lots and lots of references to the boys in blue and yellow:

Did it happen in a day? (nope)

Came a long way? (yup)

Never know what kind of angle (nope)

Crossover, break your ankle (yup)

Sloppy with the rock? (nope)

Steph Curry with the shot (yup)

Suckers? (nope)

Splash Brothers? (yup)

Ain’t no stoppin’ (nope)

Klay Thompson (yup)

Under pressure, is he choking? (nope)

Do it big like Bogut? (yup)

Never let em tell us that we can’t (nope)

Go hard like Barnes in the paint (yup)

Never ever slowin up the pace (nope)

Shoot a three-pointer in his face (yup)

Almost as good: a reggae video featuring Morgan Heritage and Bobby Lee’s “We A Warrior” set to clips of the Dubs splashing their foes.

Harrison Barnes hi-fives Andre Iguodala

Harrison Barnes hi-fives Andre Iguodala

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  Locals Zion-I and Kev Choice are reportedly working on Warriors-inspired tunes right now (edit: The Sole Brothers’ “Warriors” features Zion-I, Blackalicious and Lateef the Truthspeaker). Rapper Rich Cole also has a song, “Dub Nation,” which notes “we the best in the west and the NBA.” As do Ron Lennon & J-Wells — whose “Splash” proclaims, “in the Bay Area they say we too loud/ but we turned up, bout to turn out” —  and uno408. Expect the number of celebratory tunes to increase with every moment the team comes closer to the championship trophy.

Yes, it’s been a long time coming for Warriors fans. And the impact on Oakland is already being felt – just witness the blue/yellow gear being sported all over The Town as the team’s playoff run nears its ultimate destination.

“If there was a more exciting team in all of sports to watch than the Warriors this year, that team must play on another planet without cable TV. All season long, the Warriors seemed to be playing at a higher level than their opponents.”

Errybody say Warriors!

Errybody say Warriors!

Going from perennial scrub to potential champion is kind of a big deal, even for non-sports fans (who can conceivably bask in the afterglow even though they watched “Sex in the City” reruns instead of the games). And of course, there are all the bandwagon-hoppers who probably don’t remember when the Warriors offense was Jason Richardson and not much else. Even if the Warriors lose—which probably won’t happen—they have solidified Oakland/Bay Area pride and earned a permanent place in our region’s cultural iconography—and our hearts. They are the little team that could. And that’s why we love them.

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La Cultura Cura Cultural Arts Café Opening Adds Flavor to San Antonio District

Aztec dancers outside La Cultura Cura Cafe

Aztec dancers outside La Cultura Cura Cafe

To many Americans, Cinco de Mayo is a drinking holiday, an excuse to imbibe tequila shots, drink Corona and Dos Equis beers, and maybe wear a sombrero if you get tipsy enough. But for people of ethnic Mexican descent, the 5th day of May is a day to celebrate cultural resilience and victory over colonialism (the date denotes the anniversary of the defeat of the French army at the battle of Puebla, not Mexican Independence Day, which its often mistaken for).

This past May 5th marked the grand opening of La Cultura Cura Cultural Arts café, a new economic and cultural initiative of Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice (CURYJ), a non-profit organization dedicated to disrupting cycles of violence and poverty which impact youth by taking a restorative justice approach. The event was also an official celebration marking the repeal of Oakland’s gang injunctions, the issue CURYJ originally organized around back in 2011. Many of the defendants placed under gang injunction by the Oakland City Attorney’s office in the highly-publicized, now-abandoned effort now work with CURYJ, who raised $15,000 with a successful kickstarter campaign to open the café, situated next door to East Side Arts Alliance in the San Antonio district. In addition to employing youth—including those formerly incarcerated—La Cultura Cura claims to be empowering communities, promoting positive economic development and offering an alternative to gentrification by reopening indigenous trade routes; their free trade organic coffee is reportedly grown by Zapatista Mayan descendants in the state of Chiapas.

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The café’s grand opening event was a joyous occasion, featuring a full performance by Aztec dancers in full regalia on the sidewalk and street in front of the café. It was a little surreal to see the juxtaposition of the Aztecs in their colorful traditional garb against a backdrop of cars and AC transit buses, symbolizing the dichotomy between modern civilization and ritual culture. The traffic flowed in both directions, marking a type of unintended urban dance which contrasted the purposeful movements of the native dancers – who sought to bless the space by honoring the ancestors.

the La Cultura Cura logo

the La Cultura Cura logo

Inside the café, every wall was decorated with political art posters by Dignidad Rebelde’s Melanie Cervantes and Jesus Barraza, which spoke to the cultural resistance of Hispanic and Chicano peoples, as well as their solidarity with other liberation struggles – Steven Biko and Angela Davis were among those featured, along with Zapatista women, Arizona immigration activists, and musicians depicted with accordions or guitars. Tamales la Oaxaquena served yummy plates of rice, beans, salsa and cooked chicken, washed down with mint-infused ice water. A full house of community members, many of them parents with young children, attended, and there were live performances from local hip-hop artists as well as a short speech by CURYJ’s George Galvis. It was an auspicious opening for a much-needed space in one of Oakland’s most ethnically-diverse districts, one facing increasing encroachment from the forces of gentrification.

Dignidad Rebelde’s exhibit, “La Cultura Cura,” runs until June 30th, at 2289 Int’l Ave., Oakland.


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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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Women Runnin It: Interview with DJ Zita

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 and Gina Madrid aka Raw-G.


DJ Zita

In this edition of “Women Runnin It,” we are proud to turn the spotlight on DJ Zita. To be truthful, this series could have been named after Zita and her years of spearheading and cultivating women-centric events, collaborations and culture in the Bay and beyond. For almost fifteen years now, Zita has been a moving force to be reckoned with as a DJ, promoter and organizer. She has performed with some of the best, including DJ Q-Bert, Shortkut, DJ Apollo, DJ Shortee, Mr. E, Medusa and J-Boogie. Illuminated in her popular mixtape series, DJ Zita spans musical genres from hip-hop to R&B and neo-soul to reggae dancehall with her selections and is known for her commitment to true vinyl skills and her rep as a party rocker.

A true leader knows how to share power. Zita has been a leader in understanding the importance of female solidarity. As she clearly articulates in her interview, her methods have been directly aimed at creating woman-centered culture. Her annual “Queendom” event, coming up on its sixth year, is an inspiring throwdown showcasing women in all four elements of hip-hop artistry (MC, DJ, dancer and graffiti artist). Over the years, “Queendom” has given opportunities to many emerging women hip-hop artists, DJs and dancers, which in turn helps grow the community. Most importantly, “Queendom” models a value of respect for all as non-negotiable. It illuminates what we miss out on when we allow our culture to neglect and degrade women’s voices and skills.

Zita currently holds court in the BASS crew (Bay Area Sister Sound) along with Pam the Funkstress, a Bay Area legend and hip hop pioneer who has been known to scratch not only with her hands but with that most powerful female appendage – the breast. Zita also maintains residencies in both San Francisco and Oakland, and regularly teams with her partner DMadness in the DJ duo Golden Soundscapes. She can accurately be credited with transforming the landscape of Bay Area club culture, helping to further woman-positive hip-hop, and uniting female DJs, performers, promoters and audience.


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

DJ Zita: Initially inspired by my passion for music as a DJ, my purpose has always been to provide a platform for women artists to shine in a male-dominated music industry. As a founding member of the “Sisters in Sound” women DJ collective in Hawaii (2001-2003), as promoter of my “Do My Ladies Run This M*tha F@#ka?!” event series in 2007, as the founder of “Bay Areas Sistah Sound” (BASS) lady DJ crew in 2008, and since then, individually as promoter DJ Zita, I have been able to create spaces where women’s talents are spotlighted and celebrated.

At the core of my efforts is a call for sisterhood. It’s important to me to unite women DJs and performers. When I entered the Bay Area scene back in 2003, I noticed that there were so few of us women DJs, but we were all doing our own thing. The female hip-hop DJs then were: Stef, Pam the Funkstress, Neta, Celskiii, Deeandroid, Olga T, and me. This was my inspiration for curating and producing my series of “Queendom: Fly Women Reppin’ the 4 Elements of Hip Hop” events and in 2008, establishing the BASS crew. I chose veteran DJs Pam the Funkstress and Neta to join me on my mission to create the only female-DJed and female-promoted event in the Bay at the time. By reaching out to women and collaborating with them on my projects, I built my extensive network of women DJs, MCs, dancers, singers, and artists, and I created a sense of solidarity among us that was previously nonexistent. I am often introducing artists to one another at my events because they haven’t met before. At the BASS 2-Year Anniversary event at 111 Minna SF in 2010, I was able to book 18 Bay Area women DJs to spin together under one roof. My approach stems from my values of collaboration and community – over competition and isolation.

In my booking considerations, talent reigns even over the artists’ image, age, affiliations, or following. There’s no substitute for the necessary hard work, creativity, and talent required to represent women in a powerful way and to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our best male counterparts. I want to let it be known that a fly sister in the club ain’t just eye candy. Additionally, I have a focus on booking women of color because it’s important that this group in particular has real opportunities to shine.

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

DJ Zita: Since I used to be only one of a handful, it’s an exciting time in Oakland with the emerging women artists and promoters, such as dope hip-hop heroine MCs MadLines, Ryan Nicole, and Coco Peila. As I observe more women entering the scene, I only hope for further collaboration and community building among them to ensue because that is a critical piece of our progression.

On a personal level, I hold dearly the value that family comes first. Now that I have two young children, I am prioritizing my energies towards raising them and advancing in my career as a college teacher. To keep it real, it’s impossible to support a family off of DJing and promoting events, especially with the lack of health benefits. I’ve chosen to cut back on promoting to have more time dedicated to my family. To fulfill my love for DJing, you can still find me behind the turntables at my local monthly DJ residencies, which are currently: “ESCAPE,” Fourth Fridays at The Layover in Oakland (since 2010); “ELEVATE,” First Fridays at John Colins SF; and “GOLDEN,” Third Saturdays (since 2006) at Laszlo SF alongside my Golden Soundscapes crew partner/husband, DJ Dmadness. I support and proudly pass the torch onto the next generation of women promoters leading the pack, including my sisters: Oakland’s own Chaney Turner of Social Life Productions and Candi Martinez of SKIN and Spread Love Media.

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

DJ Zita: The inclusivity of my events is rooted in my already diverse following that includes youth, the LGBTQi community, and people of color. I employ strategies to embrace all communities through the diverse representation of talent that I book and the avenues I promote the event. My Queendom events at La Pena and Betti Ono have been all-ages, extending my audience to showcase youth performers and to allow the younger generation to witness them.

I have hip-hop in my heart but love for all genres of music. With my Queendom events, I wanted to take it back to hip-hop’s roots by featuring all four elements. I was able to curate a series of these events that featured women beyond the DJ realm, by also inviting MCs, B-girls, and graffiti artists to bless the stage. I’ve used my Queendom events to bring attention to women’s issues and to support the local women’s community by donating a portion of the ticket sales to: a domestic violence shelter, an organization working to end sexual violence, and several organizations that empower young women.


Oakulture: What do you wish people knew or understood more about the behind-the-scenes?

DJ Zita: Event production and promotion is hard work! It’s not only very competitive, but it also requires a broad skill-set to be successful: vision, business marketing, networking, negotiation with venues, stage management, flexibility, strong communication, people skills, patience, and creativity. While it requires so much love and commitment, the return is not equivalent. When I successfully held down the BASS monthly residency with a packed club and line down the block  featuring local women DJs, Conscious Daughters, and the amazing DJ Shortee, the club owners ended my night because they “wanted to make more money.”

Oakulture: If you could book anyone, who would it be?

DJ Zita: I dream of booking these queens: Missy Elliott, Erykah Badu, and Sade.
A dream come true for me would be to assemble a crew of the Bay’s fly, fierce, bad-ass women DJs, MCs, dancers, and artists, and we get booked for a world tour.

Follow DJ Zita at:
Facebook: djzita
Twitter: @djzita
Instagram: @djzita


Zita’s Current Monthly DJ Residencies

ESCAPE 4th Fridays
at The Layover, Oakland

ELEVATE 1st Fridays
at John Colins, SF

GOLDEN 3rd Saturdays (since 2006)
with DJ Dmadness
at Laszlo, SF


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Fantastic Negrito’s Voyage into Voodoo Soul

Fantastic Negrito

Fantastic Negrito

Live music review/Fantastic Negrito, April 17th @ New Parish.

If Nina Simone was the “high priestess of Voodoo Soul,” who was the high priest? Some may point to Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, he of the wailing baritone, bugged-out eyes, and bones-through-the-nose gris gris shtick, complete with skulls for accoutrements. Others might mention Jimi Hendrix, the self-appointed “voodoo chile” of the psychedelic era, whose mellow hippie vibe contrasted his aggressive infusion of the blues with lysergic mojo. Still others might say D’Angelo, the falsetto crooner whose 2000 post-neosoul opus Voodoo is equally suitable for making love, sweaty juke joint boogie sessions, or sacrificing goats to. Miles Davis might even get a nod for “running the voodoo down” on his Bitches Brew album, a potent stew of experimental jazz-funk fusion. But the current title-holder may be none other than Oakland’s Fantastic Negrito, who has seemingly come out of nowhere to captivate audiences with his reloaded take on bluesy rock-n-roll, delivered with a hefty helping of N’Awlins-style boogie-woogie piano.

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Only a few months ago, Fantastic Negrito, aka Xavier Dphrepaulezz, was performing in small rooms like Oakland’s Legionnaire Saloon (as part of the Town Futurist Sessions). Prior to that, he busked in front of Colonial Donuts and at Broadway and 25th and could be found regularly hosting informal jam sessions at his Blackball Universe gallery-headquarters in the jack London Square warehouse district. But after beating out thousands of other unsigned, indie entrants to win NPR’s Tiny Desk contest, which led to a much-hyped SXSW appearance and an SF Chronicle Datebook cover story, the 46-year old Dphrepaulezz now finds himself headlining sold-out shows at the New Parish, attracting a crossover audience who had never heard of him until very recently.

Although nowhere near as dramatic as Hawkins (or Simone for that matter), Dphrepaulezz has more than a little bit of voodoo in him. He describes his music as “black roots,” and “blues with a punk attitude,” and his bio talks about his creative rebirth after failed record deals and near-death experiences (he spent several months in a coma after a car accident and had to teach himself how to play instruments again) which catalyzed into a cathartic transformation following the birth of his son. The concept of resurrection is a central one in African-based spiritual traditions like voodoo, as is the notion of cyclical time and ancestor worship. Dphrepaulezz’s drawing of inspiration from field hollars, Delta blues and early rock & roll is as much as a tribute to the pioneers of American black music as it is a refutation of the superficiality of modern R&B. Fantastic Negrito’s sound is all about going as deep as possible into the soul-affirming paradigm of these music forms, creating original blues without being derivative.

During Friday night’s show, even Dphrepaulezz seemed a little surprised at the recent turn of events which revived his dreams of music industry fame. At times, he seemed to be wondering if someone was going to pinch him and wake him up. Mainly, though, he was content to take his blessings in stride and just roll with his current situation.

There was quite a contrast between Mara Hruby’s somewhat restrained performance at the same venue the previous evening and Dphrepaulezz’ engaging stage presence Friday evening. He cut a strikingly dapper figure in a silk shirt, silk tie, and red vest, a nappy, spikey Afro crowning his head. Like a classic soul man, he was in constant motion, striking frequent poses, turning to all corners of the stage, and doing his own dances when he wasn’t singing, pleading, testifying, or cajoling. He rapped with the crowd in-between numbers in a way which seemed more sincere than slick. Though not as raw or profane as Hawkins, he belted out vocals with a similarly intense urgency, albeit a much smoother delivery. There was an improvisational quality to his performance, like, what is he going to do next? Having finally gained our attention, he seemed determined to earn it.

It’s perhaps not surprising that Fantastic Negrito’s sound would be embraced by a wider – and whiter – audience than was imaginable six months ago. After all, African American music and pale hipsters go together like bread and butter – Hawkins once released an album called Black Music for White People – and the New Parish’s robust ticket sales were a testament to Dphrepaulezz’ current buzzworthiness.

What was interesting, though, was that the NPR crowd was multi-generational, if not terribly multicultural, encompassing both youthful 20-somethings and grey-haired aficionados. There’s also a certain irony in the fact that here, we have a black man as the frontman of a black rock & roll and modern blues outfit, genres in which legitimate voices are unfortunately infrequently found in this day and age. At the end of the day, though, what matters is the music, and on tracks like “Night Has Turned to Day,” “An Honest Man,” and “Lost in a Crowd,” Dphrepaulezz not only sounded authentic, but made his retro stylings seem relevant.

Though Dphrepaulezz is mining a rich vein of gospel-soaked handclaps, talking blues, and workman chants, there’s no cliché in his songs, which balance their throwback framework with brilliantly postmodernist lyrics which blend evocative imagery with self-referential humility. One need look no further than “An Honest Man” – a song which grapples with the realities of dependence and addiction –  to see what all the hype’s about:

Now I’m in love again
No this time it’s not with my hand
Wandering murdering
Every time that I get the chance
I’m a human but remember first I’m a man
You painted pictures for me
that I refuse to understand
Cause I want everything for no reason
Cause yesterday it felt so good
But today it feels so bad

Afterwards, Dphrepaulezz held court at an after-party at Blackball Universe, as he mingled with fans and friends, winding down from the show. The chances that sudden fame might go to his head seemed slight; for all his spectacular freakiness under the stage lights, he’s a laid-back cat offstage who appeared grounded in his renewed purpose. The same might not be said of someone who wasn’t on their third act, who hadn’t been spiritually and physically reborn, who hadn’t learned not to take the adulation of an enrapt audience for granted.

A final comment: while Fantastic Negrito might seem like an anomaly, the reality is the talent level of Oakland’s underground indie music scene is quite high. What artists lack isn’t skill or originality, but exposure. When given a chance to be heard and seen, they tend to win people over, if not blow their minds outright. A case in point was the bro in the New Parish courtyard who couldn’t stop raving about opener Antique Naked Soul’s innovative mix of a cappella vocals and looped beatbox rhythms.  Suffice to say that Dphrepaulezz is just the tip of the iceberg; one hopes NPR and similar outlets will discover other Oakland artists, just as they have Fantastic Negrito.

For more info, visit http://www.fantasticnegrito.com/ ; Purchase Fantastic Negrito’s EP here

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Women Runnin It: Interview with Gina Madrid, aka Raw-G

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?

At a recent Bahamadia concert at Leo’s produced by Chaney Turner of Social Life Productions, the emcee spoke to the need to be actively engaged in creating inclusive community — a crucial component of a culturally-positive nightlife and cultural arts scene. 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 and Nina Menendez.


Gina "Raw-G" Madrid

Gina “Raw-G” Madrid

The latest installment of “Women Runnin It” features Gina Madrid, aka Raw-G. Madrid is the co-founder and director of Steelo Entertainment, a marketing, production and multimedia company, as well as part of the Parish Entertainment Group. She is also a veteran of the international hip-hop movement and a force to be reckoned with on the stage.

Born and raised in Guadalajara, Mexico, Madrid first immigrated to the U.S. in 1999 with her husband Steelo Cesar and son Hugo and settled in Oakland. A founding member of the all-women collective, Mujeres Trabajando — one of Guadalajara’s pioneering hip-hop crews — she learned English by translating hip-hop lyrics from The Fugees, Tupac Shakur and KRS-One.

Her work as both an artist and promoter represents the social consciousness and raw heart of both Mexico and Oakland. The list of artists she has performed with includes Ghostface Killah, Mobb Deep, KRS-One, Gift of Gab, Ozomatli, Royce Da 5’9”, Ana Tijoux, La Mala and DJ Premier; Steelo Entertainment’s past shows have brought everyone from Chilean emcee Tijoux to Argentinian dancehall queen Alika to Blue Note jazz-soul singer Jose James to Oakland. Recently, Steelo Entertainment produced “Concert for Justice,” a benefit show for the family of Eric Garner hosted by his daughter Erica Garner, with guest speaker Wanda Johnson, mother of Oscar Grant.

Oakulture was able to catch up with this powerhouse producer and artist just as Raw-G’s musical career seems poised for another step. Her new music video “Sangre” (Blood) is a song, rap and prayer in both English and Spanish, which names and calls out the blood, tears and pain of people’s struggle for dignity, and the certain knowledge that our time is a coming. Be on the lookout for Raw-G’s new EP, which is due to be released this month.


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

Gina Madrid: First of all, I love what I do. When you put love into what you do you’re simply giving your best which sets your mind to push your limits on every aspect. Bringing people together has been something I enjoy doing. And what’s better than through music? When it comes to making decisions it’s like anything else in life, I just follow my heart. That definitely makes the technical part less heavy.

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

Gina Madrid: Oakland has always had a very unique flavor but some people are just finding out now. Being in this city, seeing it grow, seeing it change is exciting to me. Unity and love is the core of the town. And I can say that no matter how many people move into Oakland, we definitely make sure the core stays intact. Thanks to all the artists, organizers, visionaries, activists and the people who really love and run this town.

Oakulture: What relationship is there between your artistic work and your promotional and production work?

Gina Madrid: Both are very connected, being an artist took me to start producing events. I didn’t like waiting to be asked to perform and felt the need of sharing my craft. That’s one of the reasons why I decided to co-found Steelo Entertainment and started producing The Oakland Lyricist Lounge where I found out how many of us really just need a platform and space to share, connect and support each other.

Oakulture: Tell me about your new music video, “Sangre.”

Gina Madrid: With everything that’s been going on in the world lately I just felt the need to say something. SANGRE is ‘us’ the people. Tired of the system, fighting for peace and change, fighting for justice, to end racism, not really just talking about the U.S. but the whole world. The people are fed up and hungry for a better life. As the last part of my song states ‘’No need of guns to shut the system down, the people soon will turn this world around.”

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

Gina Madrid: It’s not really a strategy. It’s mainly about the people, the Bay Area especially Oakland. When people come together it’s so diverse that one can’t help but feel welcome. On the production side it all starts by having the right vision from the beginning and the rest just flows naturally.

“Oakland has always had a very unique flavor but some people are just finding out now. Being in this city, seeing it grow, seeing it change is exciting to me. Unity and love is the core of the town. And I can say that no matter how many people move into Oakland, we definitely make sure the core stays intact.” – Gina Madrid

Role models? Who do you admire artistically and why?

Gina Madrid: That’s a big question. My list would go on forever.. But I can say artists who started with nothing but love and passion for what they do and set their minds to win regardless of the struggle. Those artists are a huge inspiration to me. Looking up to them helps me push even harder, dream bigger and stay focused.

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Oakulture: Who are your Oakland heroines?

Gina Madrid: I have love and respect for all my sisters in this city. And I hope to continue seeing the new generation of women expressing themselves through arts and sharing their voices and talent.

Oakulture: If you could book anyone, who would it be?

Gina Madrid: I would book more independent local artists. We gotta support our own.

Oakulture: Words to live by?

Gina Madrid: Always give your best and set your mind to win. Giving up is not an option.

Visit Gina Madrid at:  www.raw-g.com

Gina Madrid Oakulture 151


Steelo Entertainment’s upcoming shows:

May 7th, 7:30pm
Lila Rose record release show for WE.ANIMALS
with Squid Inc Quartet, LYNX and Mariee Sioux
Tix $15-18
The Independent, 628 Divisadero, San Francisco 

June – Sep 2015
“Immigrant Dreams”
A four part event series based on immigration and social justice featuring performances, panel discussion, and live painting. In partnership with La Peña Cultural Center (details TBA).

Steelo Entertainment on Facebook & Youtube

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