Documenting the Oakland cultural renaissance


Life, Death, and Rhythm: Cultural Resiliency and Anti-Displacement Efforts Gaining Momentum in Oakland

Life Is Living festival

Life Is Living festival

So, let me get this straight: According to the New York Times, gentrification is going to save Oakland? That’s funny, almost, because that’s not the conversation Oaklanders are having about the Town they live in.

To recap: On October 3, journalism’s Grey Lady showed her true colors in an article ostensibly about the tragic murder of muralist Antonio Ramos, slain by a random act of violence while ironically working on a mural designed to heal trauma and beautify the hood. When we say ‘hood, we’re talking about freeway underpasses in West Oakland, which are typically not the parts of town you would show off to Marin socialites and international jet-setters.

"Oakland Superheroes" mural in progress

“Oakland Superheroes” mural in progress

Yet in the Times’ view, the killing of a muralist was a blip on a forward march of foodie guidebook ratings, North Bay one-percenters mingling with pierced and tatted urchins during First Friday, and tech invaders annexing downtown, signaling Oakland’s arrival as – what, exactly? The Times didn’t specify.

What they did say was this: “the death of Antonio Ramos… was a reminder of the stubborn grit and crime that still cling to the city despite the gentrification boom that has fueled its reputation as Brooklyn by the Bay.” (emphasis added.)

Altar for Antonio Ramos

Altar for Antonio Ramos

The Times article went on to quote OPD Chief of Police Sean Whent as saying, “people are worried about gentrification because, I think, it does enhance conflict.” Yet, maybe because that point conflicted with the article’s insistence that gentrification is a desired and entirely serendipitous outcome for all, the writer just sort of let that comment hang. She went on to quote Mayor Schaaf, who seemed apologetic that she had to deal with the reality that good people like Ramos are sometimes murdered over nothing. “That’s the life of an Oakland mayor,” she said.

Antonio Ramos dedication at mural site

Antonio Ramos dedication at mural site

Neither Schaaf nor the Times seemed to be able to grasp the essential dichotomy, that the mural Ramos was working on before he died was not about gentrifying Oakland for newcomers able to afford skyrocketing rents, but about beautifying an area whose primary demographic is black and poor, a woebegone, dark, and foreboding passageway which, prior to the mural, was primarily characterized by homeless people, birdshit, and carbon emissions – for the benefit of current residents.

As muralist Pancho Peskador, who witnessed the shooting, said, “This fucking freeway is pretty shady. It’s dark. It’s ugly.” But in doing the work, he added, “I see the transformation of it. It’s progress for the whole community.”

"Oakland Superheroes" mural in progress

“Oakland Superheroes” mural in progress

Ramos’ death, sensationalized by the media, has catalyzed the mural project – the third in a series developed by non-profit Attitudinal Healing Connection. I hesitate to use the word martyr, but there’s been a tremendous outpouring of love for the fallen 27-year old artist, from candles, flowers, and altars which cover almost the entire 200 feet of sidewalk at the mural site, to a tribute piece painted in his honor by his art teacher Eric Norberg, to a renewed dedication to the mural’s mission by the surviving artists. Even before the mural has been completed, the effect is tangible: a once foreboding piece of turf is now a sanctified, hallowed ground. It’s as if Ramos was a blood sacrifice to the gods. That’s a hard price to pay, but one which will hopefully bring more peace and less violence.

A wreath for slain muralist Antonio Ramos hangs in front of the mural site

A wreath for slain muralist Antonio Ramos hangs in front of the mural site

Antonio Ramos didn’t die because Oakland isn’t being gentrified fast enough; he died because systemic  inequity and internalized oppression among people at risk of displacement  — on top of income gap, on top of daily pollution exposure, on top of police misconduct, etc., etc.,  — have degraded respect for life. As Project Director Dave Burke said, “that’s America” – not just Oakland.

The answer for Oakland isn’t more gentrification, although that seems fairly inevitable. The answer for Oakland is more art and culture which reflects, respects, and engages the community, celebrates diversity, and improves the quality of life in parts of town where cold-blooded murder can happen as quick as a furtive glance.

Life Is Living festival

Life Is Living festival

Speaking of life, there was plenty of it, in abundance, at this year’s Life Is Living Festival. Although there was some talk of the repercussions of not having a big headliners as in years past, that didn’t matter at all. Essentially, no one cared, because big headliners aren’t what people go to the festival for; the main reason to attend LIL is to be immersed in community and culture.

That was well-evident last Saturday. In the space of just a few hours, Oakulture experienced an African drum and dance circle; an amazing group of young Haitian musicians playing original compositions; an eye-popping demonstration of turf dancing; powerful sangin’ sistahs; equally powerful youthful spoken-word sheroes;  Town Park youths perfecting ollie grinds; and a streetful of people filling up the asphalt of 18th Street, dancing joyously to a baile funk DJ as the sunset glowed with iridescent hues of orange and red.

Life I Living Festival

Life Is Living Festival

Earlier, in a conversation with artist Brett Cook, I remarked that LIL seemed to embody the fulfillment of the Black Panthers’ vision of community-oriented social services intermingled with Afrocentric-leaning culture – a vision which began almost 50 years ago, and frequently utilized that same location (DeFremery Park, aka Lil Bobby Hutton Park). There were no overt politics on display, and the ideology being pushed essentially amounted to, celebrate life, the sunshine, and the people. It was a concrete example of what LIL producer Hodari Davis called “black joy in the hour of chaos.”

Life Is Living festival

Life Is Living festival

If LIL was a subtle anti-displacement initiative, somewhat less subtle was the Samba Funk-led #SoulOfOakland rally protesting a recent transplant’s attempt to shut down a drum cipher in honor of the Blood Moon, which ended in multiple citations and allegations of racial profiling and false accusations of assault. You may have heard about it; not only has reportage by Davey-D and others gone viral on social media, but Chronicle columnist and perennial Oakland hater Chip Johnson even weighed in, predictably defending OPD while chiding SambaFunk for riding the “racism train. “

To even go there, one has to ignore all the disturbing reports, not just of racial profiling by police, but of noise complaints against black churches, the non-profit-friendly Humanist Hall, and the Malonga Center—home to Oakland’s Afro-Diasporic dance and drum community—as well as the closure of the Burrito Shop on Lakeside and the Rock Paper Scissors collective on Telegraph, and reports that Uber’s relocation to the Sears building will accelerate gentrification even more.

In solidarity: Ieumsae

In solidarity: Ieumsae

As Oakulture previously noted, Oakland’s recent percent for art ordinance was hit with a lawsuit by developers before it could commission even one work, and a proposal for an arts-friendly project on the Henry J. Kaiser Auditorium site was rejected by the City Council. Since then, more ominous news on the development front has come from the announcement of the Downtown Oakland Specific Plan and a SPUR report on the area — which specifically mentioned art in just one of 30 recommendations.

All of these are signs of the times, and if you connect the dots, it’s clear that what mainstream media calls a “gentrification boom” clearly means displacement for the have-nots.

#SoulOfOakland rally at City Hall

#SoulOfOakland rally at City Hall

But Samba Funk isn’t having that. Not without a fight. And by fight, they mean, drums, lots of them. And dancers. The rally at the lake followed a successful action on the steps of Frank Ogawa plaza, within earshot of City Hall, which was followed dutifully by a TV news crew. Samba Funk Artistic Director Theo Williams later spoke up at the City Council meeting; the vibrant drumming from outside the building was clearly audible as he testified about the original incident.

The momentum generated by the action coalesced into the “#SoulofOakland movement, whose first action was Sunday’s rally at the Lake. In the course of two incredibly full hours, participants were treated to First Nation drummers Manny Lieras and George Galvis doing indigenous songs of resistance, Korean drummers Ieumsae playing traditional instruments in the Poongmul style (a folk art associated with working class people and social justice), a Puerto Rican Bomba troupe led by Shefali Shah complete with long-skirted dancers, Haitian troupe Rara Tou Limen led by master drummer Daniel Brevil, and a Brazilian outfit.

SambaFunk's Theo Williams and Rara Tou Limen's Daniel Brevil lead the drumline

SambaFunk’s Theo Williams and Rara Tou Limen’s Daniel Brevil lead the drumline

It was a bit cute, light-hearted even, to see signs on people’s backs announcing “More Drumming, Less Gentrifying.” But there were serious undertones to the entire event. Cultural resilience is embedded into every beat of ethnic drums, and to experience a world-class exhibition of cultural diversity which was so much more than a drum circle – really, it was an anti-displacement ritual, and all that embodies – had a resonant impact. To hear tales of the Haitian defeat of Napoleon along with stories of the Ohlone village of Huichin gave a certain perspective which put gentrification, displacement, and cultural resistance in a historical context.

Indigenous noise: Manny Lieras and George Galvis

Indigenous noise: Manny Lieras and George Galvis

Councilmembers Desley Brooks and Abel Guillen professed support for the cause, but microphone pontification was kept at a bare minimum, and; instead of long-winded speeches, the focus was on building and engaging community through drumming and dancing.

According to Lieras, “Drums and voices were the first instruments. Some of you who have been drumming for a long time understand the healing powers these drums possess. We believe inside these drums, there’s spirits… when we use this drum, it has ceremonial healing practices and purposes.”

As an Ieumsae spokesperson said, “Drumming is an act of resistance. What happened last week with SambaFunk is not ok, it’s a problem. It’s gentrifying the soul of Oakland, so we’re here in solidarity.”

Shefali Shah's Bomba troupe in action

Shefali Shah’s Bomba troupe in action

“We’re gonna be drumming here on a regular basis,” said Williams, adding that he was renaming the amphitheater “freedom center.” Every time we’re here, he said, “we’re gonna exercise our freedom.”

“This is what makes Oakland great. It’s our culture and our arts,” said Guillen, who reaffirmed his intention to reinstate the city’s now-defunct Cultural Arts Commission.

By the end of the day, nearly all of the audience had joined the dance section; off to the side, the percussion contingent, most wearing white, supplied the music as the dancers supplied the movement. If Williams had wanted to emphasize that cultural diversity and rhythmic expression are indeed the soul of Oakland, he succeeded. This was a mini ethnic dance and drumming festival, in a public space, which engaged community in interactive, inclusive activities and championed an inspired cause. All one needed to participate were a percussion instrument and/or your two feet.

Well-played, Sambafunk. Well-played.

Dancers at the SoulOfOakland rally at the lake

Dancers at the SoulOfOakland rally at the lake

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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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