The large Umoja banner became a photo opp backdrop
Now in its third year, Oakland’s Umoja Festival is well on its way to becoming an Oakland cultural institution. Originally started in 2013 by community organizers Effie Tesfahun and Stephani McGrath, Tesfahun’s sister Tsedi, DJ/photographer Juan Gomez, and fashion designer/futbol aficionado Baba Afolafi, Umoja—which means “Unity” in Kiswahili—was conceived of as a music festival and soccer tournament celebrating Pan-Africanism and Afro-Diasporic culture.
On Saturday, as record temperatures soared unto the low 90s, West Oakland’s Lowell Park even felt a little bit like the African savannah, sending folks scurrying for shade and hydration. A row of vending tents ringed the park’s perimeter, offering everything from fresh-squeezed ginger/tamarind juice and Cameroonian ndole to colorful fabrics from Mali and chiropractic massages. Two soccer fields had been chalked, one for young people (courtesy of My Yute), and another for an adult tournament hosted by Afolafi’s SURU brand. There were also two stages for musical performances, as well as a large “Umoja” banner.
The musical acts were a highlight. Early on, the conscious hip-hop duo of Kev Omoage Akhidenor and Ryan Nicole, collectively known as Nu Dekades, rocked a set which exemplified the Oakland meets Africa theme. Nicole is simply fierce on the mic, and should be regarded as one of The Town’s hottest emcees regardless of gender. Akhidenor matched her for intensity and lyrical content, as they unleashed a blistering demonstration of revolutionary, social justice-oriented lyrics over boom-bapping beats. Akhidenor took the time to explain the “pata pata” chant in Fela Kuti’s classic “Upside Down” before he and Nicole launched into an updated version, which he dedicated to all his “Najas” (Nigerians). A mid-afternoon set by Piwai and the Zimbabwe Mystics offered world-class world beat which incorporated traditional East African rhythms along with Afrobeat influences, as Piwai alternated between singing lead vocals and playing the hypnotizing harmonics of the mbira. And a closing set, by Kingston, Jamaica-born Jah’Mila, kept the vibes irie with an exquisite cover of Judy Mowatt’s reggae classic, “Black Woman.” In-between, emcee/hostess Jennifer Johns supplied fiery energy and kept the crowd amped, while a succession of DJs including Emancipacion, Nina Sol, Mina, Mpenzi, Aebl Dee, Xander and K-la-Vee played music in line with the Diasporan theme. SambaFunk also made an appearance, dancing in a line around the vendor tents, pausing at the second stage, then making their way back to the main stage.
This year’s crowd was the festival’s biggest yet – a turnout which in and of itself made a strong statement in the midst of a rapidly-gentrifying Oakland. Many folks rocked dashikis or African prints, as Ethiopians, Kenyans, Nigerians, Zimbabweans, Sudanese, Senegalese, and Ugandans freely mingled with Oakland’s African Americans as well as people of other hues who share a deep appreciation for African culture, music, and food. It was especially nice to see Lowell Park, an underutilized West Oakland gem, be activated for such a vibrant event, even if the space wasn’t completely filled. But then, the location is so expansive, it would likely require at least two or three thousand people to maximize the capacity. That gives Umoja something to aim for in years to come.
The legend of Mike “Dream” Francisco was repainted al fresco at this past Saturday’s Dream Day. An afternoon-long celebration of the aerosol arts and cultural hip-hop, the event was a heartwarming tribute to the TDK Crew member and graffiti-writing pioneer, an inspirational figure and community mainstay, tragically murdered in 2000. This year’s event marked 15 years since Dream passed, yet his memory—and legacy—seem stronger than ever. Not only was this the 5th annual Dream Day, but also the second straight year at its current location, the Greenpeace Yard on 7th St. in West Oakland. The continuity was a nice touch; several of last year’s Dream tributes, including a huge central wall, remained up, while newer pieces were worked on throughout the day.
Dream Day has become a much-anticipated event for Oakland’s cultural hip-hop community, and one which cements the important role aerosol writing plays in it. It’s a day where graf veterans and newbies alike mingle and paint openly during the daytime—a cultural, sometimes-illegal, practice usually held under cover of nightfall in clandestine locations. It’s also somewhat of a High Holy Day for the still-active TDK members, with near-religious significance. And it’s a day where OG rappers, DJs and breakers perform live and maintain their community standing, transmitting authenticity to a new generation, most of whom were drawing with crayons in preschool when Dream and his peers were putting Oakland on the aerosol art map.
The unquestioned highlight of the afternoon was an emotional appearance by Saafir, the legendary rapper and Hobo Junction member who’s been confined to a wheelchair for the last few years due to health reasons. Saafir was originally scheduled to perform, but alas, his health didn’t permit that. Still, he snuck away from the clinic he’s undergoing treatment (for spinal cancer) for a few precious moments to address the crowd. Afterwards, he was swarmed by well-wishers and posed for a pic with Dream’s son Akil.
Besides viewing a yard full of Dream-themed murals and murals-in-progress, late-arriving attendees were treated to an amazing set by DJ Apollo (TripleThreat/Invisible Skratch Picklz), who threw down hip-hop and breakbeat classic after classic, in turn inspiring veteran Pinoy hip-hop crew Knuckle Neck Tribe (KNT) and other b-boys and b-girls, to pop, lock, strut, show off footwork, and bust headspins and freezes. When you’re watching guys in their 30s and 40s breakdance, you know it’s a good afternoon. More than one person remarked that the spectacle made them think they were in the Bronx, circa 1984 – a good look for Oakland in 2015.
Other highlights were provided by Nump and Equipto, two veteran Bay Area emcees who had nothing but love for Dream. Nump dedicated a song, “Be Like Mike,” to Dream, performed his hyphy-era classic “I Got Grapes,” and said “yadadamean” frequently, to the crowd’s delight. He also brought out special guests J-Boog and Mac Mall during his set, who performed their hits “Let’s Do It Again” and “Sic Wit Tis,” respectively. Equipto, meanwhile, came to spit bars. The original Bored Stiff member showed why his lyrical rep has remained strong among the region’s indie rap scene for two decades. Zion-I’s Zumbi Zoom also rocked the mic, with a rendition of the now-classic “Don’t Lose Your Head.” Also spotted in the crowd: The Grouch (Living Legends/G&E), Pep Love (Hieroglyphics), and DJ Platurn (45 Sessions/Oakland Faders).
The maturation of the Bay’s hip-hop and aerosol scene was evident from the fact that many attendees brought their kids. Still, there was plenty of adult fun to be had, including a beverage stand which served up cold brews and sangria. Other nourishment was provided by lumpia and chicken from the Lucky Three Seven Filipino food truck.
Along with Hiero Day, Dream Day has become one of the most reverential days of the year for Oakland’s hip-hop community. Its significance was apparent even to those who have no personal memories of Dream, a stellar artist and style master who was an even better person in real life. The cultural ritual of honoring the ancestors who walked before us is a longstanding one, but one which happens too-infrequently in hip-hop. But to see Akil—who was only a baby when the first benefit event honoring Dream was thrown in San Francisco some fourteen years ago—grow into a tall young man, strapping with pride and confidence, not only portends hope for the next generation, but validates the efforts of event organizer Marty “Willie Maze” Aranaydo and the TDK Crew. They’ve taken up Dream’s name like a patron saint of authentic hip-hop, which of course he is. All these years, they’ve nurtured his legacy, refusing to let it fade. In the process, they’ve kept the cultural heart of Oakland hip-hop beating.
This past Saturday’s opening of Phase I of the newly-renovated Town Park skatepark, located inside West Oakland’s DeFremery Park, represents a “win” on so many levels. On one hand, it symbolizes the fulfillment of a dream for Keith “K-Dub” Williams, a teacher, artist, and skateboarding advocate. On another, it shows what is possible when community activists commit to the sometimes-tedious process of working with city officials. Furthermore, it’s an example of how projects which positively impact the community—and specifically, the youth—can be supported by corporate sponsorship (which isn’t always a bad thing). And, it continues the evolution and development of a sport which is accessible to a broad range of participants, no matter their ethnic background, social class, or economic status.
Skateboarding is one of the least-elitist sports activities for youth, and as such, a natural fit for inner city residents. Unlike tennis, figure skating, ballet or golf, it’s not cost-prohibitive and overly class-conscious to get involved in: you don’t need a club membership and expensive gear to be a part of it – all you need is a board, and a willingness to learn tricks. Best of all, skateboarding has a major urban cool factor.
K-Dub and a local West Oakland youth
Though initially thought of as a “white” sport, skateboarding’s audience has been increasingly multicultural and diverse. A 2007 New York Times article traced the sport’s growth from SoCal surfers in the 60s and 70s to Latino-influenced punk rockers in the 80s, but noted, “in black neighborhoods, skateboarding was regarded as something foreign that crept in from the suburbs.”
That began to change in the ‘90s, largely due to two factors: the popularity of street skating—a style developed in San Francisco—which urbanized the sport past its suburban pool origins; meanwhile, underground hip-hop gained inroads among skateboarders, who embraced left-of-mainstream rap crews like Wu-Tang Clan and Hieroglyphics.
Longtime Oakland representative Ron Allen (also known as MC Intelligence in the jazz-hop group Hueman Flavor), was one of the first pro African American skateboarders back in the day. In the late 90s, Allen’s company Heeterz helped to expand hip-hop’s popularity among the skateboarding crowd by co-promoting with music labels like Hieroglyphics Imperium and Rawkus, packaging skateboards with music CDs (remember those?).
That wave only grew in the 2000s, as African American pros like Stevie Williams landed endorsement deals with major fashion companies and hip-hop artists Pharrell Williams (aka Skateboard P) and Lupe Fiasco name-checked the sport in their music. As usual, the East Bay was at the forefront of the trend; The Pack’s 2006 hit “Vans” widened the longtime skate shoe company’s appeal beyond its traditional customer.
The Town Park story begins in the mid-2000s, when K-Dub launched the Hood Games in Oakland, after starting a skate club at Oakland High, where he was an art teacher. In 2004, K-Dub attended the X Games in Los Angeles. Noticing the contrast between the diversity of the crowd and the lack of diversity among competitors. he worked with pro skater Karl Watson and East Oakland Youth Development Center to produce the first Hood Games event in 2005 in East Oakland. As of 2012, he had produced more than 30 events in both Northern and Southern California.
“My goal was really to raise awareness, [and] bring the Oakland skate community together, with unity,” K-Dub explained. “Then from there, it was all about creating a permanent site for a skate park.”
Catching air at Town Park
In 2007, K-Dub teamed with Oakland’s Park and Rec department and began scouting locations, eventually settling on a vacant lot in DeFremery to create Town Park the following year. He relocated materials from a defunct skate park in Pleasant Hill to DeFremery—an underutilized park which was once a training ground for the Black Panther Party—a move which perfectly illustrates the urbanization of skateboarding from its suburban roots. He began throwing Hood Games events there, scored to a soundtrack of reggae, and later incorporated the Hood Games into the annual “Life is Living” festival also located in DeFremery.
Over the years, however, the wooden ramps and obstacles which comprised Town Park took quite a beating, and were in dire need of repair. That’s when a team including Councilmember Lynette Gibson-McElhaney, California Skate Parks, Conscious Construction, and Levi Strauss Skateboarding stepped in, and Parks and Rec stepped up.
Skaters at Town Park
On Saturday, the results of their efforts were clearly visible during the groundbreaking ribbon-cutting ceremony. As K-Dub, Gibson-McElhaney, Levi’s James Curleigh, and a Parks and Rec spokesman each took turns at the podium, a glistening array of freshly-poured concrete ramps, rails and obstacles, highlighted with red, gold and green accents, shone brightly behind them.
“So many people have been a part of this journey in different shapes and forms,” said a triumphant K-Dub. “We’re here now, blessing it, and giving thanks for all the people who helped out.”
The transition from wood to concrete and the fulfillment of the Town Park dream was a big thing for the youth K-Dub mentors to witness, he said.
“One thing I always say is, it’s important for the youth to see things happen in front of them, instead of, they show up and it’s already there. More symbolically than just a skatepark and a place for recreation, this park and this effort showcases what it means to show up every day and get dirty.”
Skateboarding legend Ron Allen
K-Dub also spoke on what it means to create something permanent during the time when the city is undergoing major transitions. “As Oakland is changing, it’s kind of like clay. People are coming in and shaping it for what they want,” he said.
“My whole thing is, whatever’s going on downtown or in other parts of the city, I have no control over. But if I can have a chance to mold something here in West Oakland, for our youth to recreate, they’ll remember this day. They’ll remember the work and that they were part of this process. And that’s how we have to engage our young people.”
Breaking in Town Park’s jumps
Following the ribbon-cutting ceremony, a small army of skaters, many of them neighborhood youth, wasted no time in putting the brand-new skate park – which is scheduled for two further phases of development – through its paces. Ollies, kickflips and soaring jumps punctuated the air, as skaters grubbed on free munchies from two food trucks and a DJ spun reggae 45s. It was an auspicious day, as evidenced by the wide smiles all around. One of those smiles belonged to Allen, who’s still skating at age 50, and who stands as a pioneer of the urban skater movement, a man whose efforts decades ago helped to create the diverse subculture skateboarding has become, as reflected by Town Park’s broad constituency.
For Bay Area aerosol art aficionados and devotees, there is no name more celebrated than that of Mike “Dream” Francisco. Even though the “computer style” designs of SF graf pioneers Crayone, Raevyn and the TWS crew were the first to gain national attention – when they were featured in Henry Chalfant and James Prigoff’s groundbreaking 1987 book “Spraycan Art” – Dream’s legend has surpassed that of any living Bay Area aerosol artist, with the possible exception of Barry “Twist” McGee (who’s become a gallery/museum exhibitor and no longer does much street work anymore).
Raised in the hardscrabble streets of East Oakland’s Sobrante Park neighborhood, Dream was a proud Pinoy who fell right in with hip-hop culture as it emerged from NYC boroughs and evolved Westward in the mid-80s. He reportedly studied East Coast graf masters such as Dondi – his trademark “D” bears more than a passing resemblance to Dondi’s version of the letter – but quickly progressed from imitator to innovator to master and mentor, especially to younger artists who frequented the “23” yard where he could often be found painting.
Dream’s art was instantly iconic, from 1996’s “Tax Dollars Kill” mural, to his 1993 portrait of murdered emcee Jesse “Plan Bee” Hall, to the backdrops he painted live for KMEL’s Summer Jam, to the numerous eponymous 3-D burners he authored. His maxim, “Dream… but don’t sleep!” became a rallying cry not only for aerosol practitioners, but for Oakland’s hip-hop subculture as a whole.
Along with Spie, his compadre in the TDK and Irie Posse crews, Dream ushered in a wave of political-themed graf which continues to this day in the Bay. Bay Area aerosol writers were rarely political prior to 1992, when Dream and Spie protested the 500th anniversary of Colombus’ “Discovery” of America with a series of works inspired by the “500 Years of Resistance” campaign uplifting the indigenous struggle. Irie productions often featured the numbers “1492,” a cryptic reference to the onset of colonialism. This led to a well-attended gallery show in 1993 at the Pro Arts Gallery (then located in Old Oakland), “No Justice No Peace,” which addressed police brutality in the wake of the Rodney King beating by LAPD.
It’s been a long time since that show, but I can still remember Dream arriving with the swag of a king dressed in royal finery, though in truth, he was attired in a generic vinyl rainsuit. That was part of Dream’s gift; he could make anything fresh.
In an interview conducted at the Pro Arts exhibition for the Soul Beat show “Hip-Hop Slam,” Dream explained his moniker: “I get most of my ideas from my dreams.” Graffiti, he said, was “something the mainstream just can’t deal with, so automatically, they’re gonna call it a crime.” The art show’s theme, he said, was a reference to police brutality and oppression, as well as the socioeconomic conditions in “East Oakland, and any other type of ghetto out there… every time i get hassled by the police, i gotta go out and do me a piece.” Spray-painting, he added, was an alternative to violence, while the art contained in the show represented “a dose of reality, something they ain’t never got before.”
An official member of the Hobo Junction crew — he designed their logo — Dream went on to do graphic design and ink tattoos, and worked at a t-shirt an airbrushing shop at Hilltop Mall for a while. Although he had developed a political consciousness, he never left the street hustle completely behind; on February 17, 2000, a dispute over a minor amount of marijuana resulted in him being tragically murdered in West Oakland, leaving behind an infant son, Akil.
For the past 14 years, Dream’s legacy and memory has been kept alive by the TDK Familia, his crew members and peers, who organized a celebratory event called Dream Day. This year, the event was held at Greenpeace’s yard in West O, on 7th St., next to the People’s Grocery. Not only was Dream Day a family affair, but it was a perfect example of the type of unique, iconic event which puts the grit in Oakland and the heart in the Bay Area’s hip-hop community.
Dream Day 2014
After passing through the gates, and putting a little something in the donation box – proceeds benefitted the Dream Book Fund and the Dream Legacy Fund for Akil Francisco, now 14 – I stepped into what seemed like a hip-hop fantasy world. There were about a dozen writers painting pieces, in broad daylight; some had brought their families with them. A selection of top-notch DJs, including Sake One, DJ Fuze, Myke One, Max Kane, and Dulo Dulo, were spinning everything from Bay Area old-school hip-hop and mobb music classics to equally-classic dancehall reggae. Food was provided by the Lumpia Lady and El Taco Bike, and beverages ranged from water to beer to sangria to rum punch. Meanwhile, Marty “Willie Maze” Aranaydo, a Dream protégé who’s become a talented artist, DJ, and graphic designer in his own right, emceed the proceedings.
The vibe got even fresher, with live performances by Equipto of Bored Stiff (who rapped a song he wrote in honor of Dream) and Richie Rich, the legendary East Oakland rhyme-spitter and game purveyor, who did his classics from the 415 era, “415,” “Sideshow,” and “Groupie,” along with “Let’s Ride,” a Town favorite from his 1996 Def Jam album Seasoned Veteran. It was hella cool seeing all the fam up in the house, especially the older writers who rarely come out to events these days anymore. If you were there, you know exactly what I’m talking about, and if you missed it, you’re probably sorry you did.
Dream’s legacy, however, stretches further than just an annual celebration in honor of his name. What Dream gave Oakland wasn’t just a folkloric legend of a martyred king to brag about in graf circles, but a legitimization of the aerosol artform and a sense of community engagement and social responsibility which extends to public art.
Palestine Solidarity mural by Spie
This can be seen in recent highly-visible works by members of the TDK Crew: the “StAy” mural featuring Rickey Henderson on 3rd St. (near Washington); Spie’s contribution to the Palestine Solidarity Mural Project on 26th (near Telegraph); and the “West Side is the Best Side” mural at 17th and Peralta painted by Vogue, Bam and Krash (which gives Dream a boxcar-style shout-out).
“Dream” tag on Peralta St. mural
No doubt, were Dream still alive, he would be proud to see the graffiti aesthetic he championed – so underground and rebellious during his era – become more accepted, both in the art world, and by the community at large. -EKA