Oakulture

Documenting the Oakland cultural renaissance


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Black Girls Rock and Rule: The Seshen, Bells Atlas, Zakiya Harris (Live review)

Live review/The Seshen, Bells Atlas, Zakiya Harris, May 8 @ New Parish

Black Vocals Matter: The Seshen's Akasha Orr

Black Vocals Matter: The Seshen’s Akasha Orr

Black women are the new rock stars.

That was the take-away from the recent triple-header bill of The Seshen, Bells Atlas, and Zakiya Harris with Elephantine. When was the last time you saw a lineup with bands all featuring black female frontpeople? The bill worked because all three acts have a similar sound; one could call it a trend, but it seems more like an unintended coincidence.

Zakiya Harris

Zakiya Harris

If we are witnessing the birth of a new genre, let’s call it Emo-Soul. That sounds much better than “Trip-Hop, take two” and avoids the awful, inorganic “neo” prefix applied to urban soul music since the late 90s. Emo-Soul is emotive and soulful; it utilizes electronic treatments and ambient soundscapes to counterbalance the plaintive yet raw emphasis on female vocals. Live instruments are a deciding factor in the Emo-Soul sound, distinguishing it from discofied electronic club music. But there’s something else which is created when it all comes together: a tribal-like sense of togetherness, of holding disparate elements together to form a cohesive whole.

It’s rare to see a show where any of the acts on the bill could have headlined, but this was that show.

An obvious reference point for the Emo-Soul sound is 90s act Morcheeba, who contrasted upfront soul diva musings with ethereal, atmospheric backgrounds. Emo-Soul revisits that period, but provides something new. Or maybe it’s just that the context has shifted, and there’s a more recent immediacy with hearing the voices of black women – call it the #blacklivesmatter effect. This show’s trifecta of women straight up handling thangs in a live context served as a reminder that social justice can extend to a cultural platform as well as a political one.

Zakiya Harris has been on a roll recently, but this might have been the best show yet for her band Elephantine. Although Harris is the featured frontwoman, Elephantine’s sound is very much an ensemble sound which relies on vocal interplay between Harris and singers Tossie Long and Solas B. Lalgee, backed up by musicians Kevin McCann, Ajayi Jackson, and Rashad Pridgen. Their Facebook page describes their music as “Afropunk/Afrobeat/Afropop,” none of which are perfect descriptors. Elephantine is too smooth to be punk, too compact a band to be Afrobeat, and too urban and Americanized to be Afropop; The Afro- part of their sound is mainly reflected in their Afrocentric attitude. With Lalgee absent due to a concurrent gig with the Oakland School for the Arts, Long got some extended stage time, which seemed apt, as it was her birthday. What was most impressive, though, about Harris and Elephantine was their ability to create a mood and set a vibe which engaged the crowd. No matter how emotive a band might want to be, it doesn’t mean diddly unless it translates into audience acceptance. Harris and Long were clearly feeling themselves—but so were the people watching them and hearing their music.

Sandra Lawson-Ndu of Bells Atlas

Sandra Lawson-Ndu of Bells Atlas

Bells Atlas came next, and delivered on all the hype surrounding them. They describe their sound as “kaleidosonic soul punch,” whatever that means. In this context, it means they picked up the gauntlet thrown down by Harris and Elephantine and raised the energy level even higher. Frontwoman Sandra Lawson-Ndu was simply divalicious, dropping poetic lyrics which came from a galaxy beyond overly-simplistic R&B, while maintaining a spellbinding stage presence. Fine-tuning the hall’s emotional resonance like aural MDMA, Bells Atlas’ sound made you want to love your neighbor, or at least give them a tight hug. It’s no easy task to make the unfamiliar seem familiar, but Lawson-Ndu was so locked into her groove, she accomplished that with ease, assisted by guitarist Derek Barber, drummer Geneva Harrison, and bassist Doug Stuart. Lawson-Ndu’s fluid voice has plenty of elasticity to twist around lyrical phrases and sounded particularly tasty when trilling the upper register. It’s a potent weapon which was thankfully the focal point of the band’s presentation. If Bells Atlas’ musical backgrounds seemed like a lush rainforest of alternative, yet not inaccessible, tones and melodies, Lawson-Ndu’s vocals were a tropical waterfall of soulful expression.

It’s rare to see a show where any of the acts on the bill could have headlined, but this was that show. The top-billed Seshen are another buzz band who have been building up a following (which extends outside of the Bay; the group has signed to UK label Tru Thoughts), and like the two acts who preceded them, fit into the category of Emo-Soul: a vocal-heavy sound with both electronic and organic elements. At the center of The Seshen’s dynamic is the interplay between vocalists Lalin St. Juste and Akasha Orr. At times, they resemble a Supreme-esque soul duo from the 60s, but with a much more modernistic, even futuristic, take on things. Then again, they could also be called retro in the sense that they do recall the high points of the Trip-Hop era, which, again, revolves around emotional resonance – and in The Seshen’s case, percussion and dub effects instead of electric guitar. On a night when black (female) voices were triumphant and reigning, St. Juste and Orr both wore “Black Lives Matter” t-shirts, emphasizing the point that soulfulness begins with compassion.

Lalin St. Juste of The Seshen

Lalin St. Juste of The Seshen

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12 More Days of Black History Month! Fall in Love with Black Beauty

So far, 2015’s Black History Month has been an amazing whirlwind of cultural goodness, especially here in the Bay Area — proving the point that Black Art Matters. Here at Oakulture, we thought you might appreciate a handy-dandy guide to the remaining BHM events this month, which include some incredible visual art representations, art workshops, kid-friendly events, musical appreciation nights, tributes to Black Power and Civil Rights martyrs, global reggae, movement-inspired jazz, spoken word, discussions of black love, reflections on Africa, dance exhibitions and classes, second-line parades, drum lessons, food/wine, and much more!!!

ONGOING:

Black Artists on Art Legacy Exhibit celebrates the 46th anniversary of Black Artists on Art Volume 1 and commences a series of activities that will surround the new books in their development phases, Through 3/28, Free Admission, Oakstop, 1721 Broadway, Oakland.

"Heirloom" art by Bryan Keith Thomas

“Heirloom” art by Bryan Keith Thomas

Joyce Gordon Gallery presents “Heirloom” by Bryan Keith Thomas. “Heirloom” is the celebration of the Black experience through its historic symbols; cotton, roses and the African and African American image. Through 2/28. Free Admission. Joyce Gordon Gallery, 406 Fourteenth St, Oakland.

Jeff Blankfort’s ‘Fight the Power!’ photography exhibition. ‘FIGHT THE POWER‘: Exploring similarities in the lived and photographed expressions of Black American and Palestinian resistance movements against ethnic persecution. Through 2/28. Free admission. African American Arts & Culture Complex (AAACC), 762 Fulton Street, SF.

Ryan Nicole Austin stars in "Xtigone"

Ryan Nicole Austin stars in “Xtigone”

African-American Shakespeare Company presents Xtigone with Ryan NicoleEmerging Chicago playwright Nambi E. Kelley’s contemporary urban adaptation of Sophocles’ tragedy Antigone is an impassioned response to the recent untimely deaths of children in her native city as a result of gang violence, which has risen sharply in the past several years. Through 3/8, $15-34, Buriel Clay Theatre, African-American Art & Culture Complex, 762 Fulton Street, SF.

Motown on Mondays (MOM). This popular weekly dance party plays one thing: music from Motown, the groundbreaking Detroit label which gave us Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, Diana Ross and Stevie Wonder. Of course, that also includes cover versions and rare gems. With resident DJ Platurn and special guest DJs. Monday evenings, 9pm-2am, Free admission, Legionnaire Saloon, 2272 Telegraph Ave, Oakland.

"Palestine Solidarity," by Deadeyes

“Palestine Solidarity,” by Deadeyes

“Mindful Visions”Seven black male visual artists offering positivity as a way from ambiguous obstacles during life’s stage. Featuring Deadeyes, Jarvis Corner, Jimi Evins, Raymond L. Haywood, Raymond Holbert, Bryan Keith Thomas, and TheArthur Wright. CD release party 2/17 for Sound Oasis: Composer Darryl Pulley, Keys Dave Moltzen, Bass Gearon Crockett. Suggested Donation $5/adult. Through 3/3, Public Viewing Hours Mon-Fri 12:30-4:30. Contact (510) 208-5651 or receptionist@prescottjoseph.org. Prescott-Joseph Center for Community Advancement, 920 Peralta St, Oakland.


Oakland is Hellzapoppin #4 Lindy Hop Intensive with legendary Norma Miller and other special guests. Ms. Miller is again inspired to share with the black community the rich legacy of dances from the Harlem Renaissance through dance workshops, films and history talks. All levels welcome. Feb 15-25, Eastside Arts Alliance, 2277 International Blvd, Oakland. Buy Tickets.

The Arts Council of San Leandro presents “The Mind’s Eye” a group photography exhibit by Oakland Renaissance Photographers Collective. The show features the work of Kamau Amen-Ra, Edward Miller, Tasin Sabir, Tumani Onbiyi, Jim Dennis, Malaika H. Kambon and Asual Kwahuumba and is a continuation of a series of exhibits that document the life experience of people from Africa to the Americas and beyond. Free Admission. A reception with the artists will be held on Feb 22nd 12-3pm, San Leandro Main Library Auditorium, 300 Estudillo Avenue, San Leandro. Exhibit extends thru Mar 31st. Contact Missy Brooks (510) 567-2621.

 

ONE-OFF EVENTS:

MJ's Brass Boppers

MJ’s Brass Boppers

Feb 17th
MARDI GRAS DAY PARADE will start at 5:30 pm at Awaken Cafe (1429 Broadway) and proceed towards The New Parish (579 18th St) including the following groups: East Bay Brass Band, MJ’s Brass Boppers, BatalaBlue Bone Express, Dimensions Dance TheaterSambaFunk! Carnaval Explosion, and more. Family-friendly event.

MARDI GRAS AFTER PARTY
Fat Tuesday with Katdelic, MJ’s Brass Boppers, East Bay Brass Band & DJ ManCub. 9pm, $10-15. New Parish, 579 18th St, Oakland.

Feb 19th
Afia Walking Tree
 & Drum Mobile Kick-off FunDRUM Raising Party provide the snacks, drinks, irie ambiance, and great experience. You bring your phone, laptop or ipad and come network, sing, and dance! The DRUM MOBILE will provide self-sufficiency skills for people (including peoples of African descent with limited resources) to feed themselves through learning hands-on permaculture practices and bringing the experience of music (drum, dance, songs of the African Diaspora) to children who would otherwise not have access. Free Admission, 5-9pm, Urban Drum Ranch, 320 Oakland Ave., Oakland.

The Nile Projectmore than a dozen instrumentalists and vocalists from Sudan, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Uganda have collaborated to use the power of music to raise awareness of the cultural and environmental challenges along the world’s longest river. The result is a new sound of a shared Nile identity, resulting in the album Aswan, and a world tour which comes to Berkeley in time for BHM. $18-$36, 7:30pm, Zellerbach Hall (UC Berkeley campus).

The Nile Project After-Party: Balkan & Beyond Presents: A Benefit for the Nile Project. Join the Nile Project in a post-Zellerbach homecoming night of celebration with East African music and DJ Zeljko. Proceeds will benefit the Nile Project’s university programs in Africa. Bissap Baobob Oakland, 381 15th St.

Alika

Alika

Sonido Baylando y Kulcha Latino present ALIKA & NUEVA ALIANZA with Andrés DJ-Stepwise, Deuce Eclipse, DJ EL Kool Kyle, Orlando Torriente, Ras Rican, Erick Santero y mas, Pre-sale $10, 8pm-2am, Berkeley Underground, 2284 Shattuck Ave, Berkeley.

Mau-Mau Tech: The Making of a Black University at Oakland’s Merritt College. On March 15, 1971, Black students took over the administration building at Oakland’s Merritt College to protest the relocation of the campus from the city’s flatlands to the hills. This presentation by journalist and scholar Rasheed Shabazz will cover Oakland history and education politics in the 1950s and 1960s, leading up to the relocation of Merritt College, but will primarily focus on the vision for what might have been called, “Huey P. Newton College.” Free admission, 8pm, Quilombo, 2313 San Pablo Ave.

Feb 20th
“Speeches of A Dream: Black History Month Celebration”: A Night of Poetry, Art, and Music celebrating Black History Month. Open Mic welcomed, Free Admission, RSVP Required. 6-8pm, Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Arts1428 Alice St, Oakland.

50th Anniversary of the Martyrdom of Al-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, 1-10pm, Lighthouse Mosque, 620 42nd St., Oakland

Brass Magic,  Zakiya Harris, the Jurassic: Zakiya Harris’ future soul is not to be missed! $7-$10, 8pm, Awaken Cafe, 1429 Broadway, Oakland.

Zakiya Harris

Zakiya Harris

February 21-22nd 
The Art of Living Black (TAOLB) Open Studios 2015 is the Bay Area’s longest running annual African American exhibition of its kind showcasing a wide range of visual media. Artists include Tai BelizeAjuan ManceKaren Oyekanmi, Atiba Sylvia Thomas, Howard Mackey, Valerie Brown Troutt, Lyn Rockwell, and AJ. 11am-5pm, Mills College Student Union, 5000 MacArthur Blvd, Oakland.

February 21-22nd
The 11th Annual Black Choreographers Festival:
Here & Now celebrates the legacy of African & African American dance, art and culture with performances, master classes and special events. Weekend 1 features Byb Chanel Bibene, Antoine Hunter in collaboration with Ellen Sebastian Chang, Brontez Purnell (Sat only), Carmen Roman, Phylicia Stroud, Nafi Watson, Kharyshi Wiginton & Jene Levine-Snipes (Sun only), Jamie Wright (Sun only) 7:30pm. Tix $10-20. Dance Mission Theater, 3316 24th St, SF.

 

 

Feb 21st
Learn to Jook with Ladia Yates
. She is a youtube sensation, has danced with Missy Elliott and was most recently featured in Janelle Monae’s music video “Tightrope.” Currently she is dancing with Usher. 12-1:30pm, $15 Advance TixMargaret Jenkins Dance Lab, 301 8th St, San Francisco.

Turf Inc. dancers at Art & Soul Festival

Turf Inc. dancers at Art & Soul Festival

Feb 21st
TURFinc 14 x The LAB present TURFIN AGAINST THE WORLD Part II All Styles Dance Battle. A 2 on 2 All Style Tournament hosted by Phat Boi & Johnny 5. Special Performances by Oakland Boogaloo Conservatory (OBC) BRYCE – OGMIKE -DOC with special guests YAK Films. All Ages, Family Friendly, Cover $15. 1-8pm, THE LAB, 2948 16th Street, SF. 

Amir Sulaiman

Amir Sulaiman 

Feb 22nd
Amir Sulaiman I & I Poetry Workshop Spend a day with Amir Sulaiman, Visiting Harvard Fellow, Def Poet, author & performer explores how identity and perception impact the creative process. This workshop is not just for writers and artists, but for everyone interested in exploring the spirituality of creativity. Advance Tix. 10am-4pm, Islamic Cultural Center of Northern California,1433 Madison Street, Oakland.

Honoring El Hajj Malik Shabazz (Malcolm X), 1-4pm, Oakland Islamic Community Center, 7901 Oakport St., Ste. 4400, Oakland.

Feb 25th 
Opening Night of sfnoir Wine & Food Festival: Shrimp, Grits & Greens. Celebrate Black cuisine, culture, and contributions to the arts. The region’s best in Black Cuisine showcases time-honored dishes with fresh adaptations from within the Diaspora. $30-50. 7-10pm, Impact Hub Oakland, 2323 Broadway.

Afro-vegan chef Bryant Terry

Afro-vegan chef Bryant Terry

Feb 26th 
In Defense of Food: A Spoken Word Affair. Hosted by Bryant Terry – Chef, Educator, Author and Food Justice Activist. The spoken word artists this evening all speak about food in very different ways: its power to create and help define culture, how certain life experiences are shaped around the act of coming together to break bread, or the injustices found in people’s access to healthy and nutritious foods. Advance Tix $15. 7-10pm, Museum of the African Diaspora, 685 Mission St, SF.

Feb 27th
MoAD After Dark in Conversation presents Collaborating Across the Aisles: Continuing the Civil Rights Movement with #BlackLivesMatter featuring keynote speaker Dr. Clarence Jones, Dr. King’s speechwriter, advisor & attorney. Panel and discussion with Dr. Joe Marshall, Dr. Mary J. Wardell-Ghirarduzzi, Ms. Neva Walker, and Mr. Jarvis Givens. 6-9pm, Tix $10-75Museum of the African Diaspora, 685 Mission St, SF.

Feb 27-28th
Yemanja Festival 2015
celebrates the spirit of Yemanja, the African deity that honors the essential, beautiful and sometimes dangerous nature of water. Inspired by the original Yemanja Festival celebrated in Bahia, Brazil the Yemanja Arts Festival brings together celebrated artists and dancers as interpreters of art forms from the African diaspora (Brazil, the Caribbean, and the United States) that pay homage to Yemanja through their respective folkloric and spiritual traditions. Featuring Conceisao Damasceno, Kimberly Miguel Mullen, Tania Santiago, Danda da Hora, Ramon Ramos Alayo, Renni Flores, Wagner Santos, Mestre Beicola, Curumins & Borboletas Dance Group. 8pm. Saturday after-party 10pm. Tix $10-22Casa De Cultura, 1901 San Pablo Ave, Berkeley. 

YGB Gold

YGB Gold

Feb 28th
Black Voices in Love: Africa ft. Marc Bamuthi Jospeh, Antique, YGB Gold, Dayo Milon and Keba Konte. Panel discussion featuring slides from recent journeys to Ghana, Rwanda, South Africa, and Ethiopia, African dance and drumming, and Ethiopian coffee ceremony. 6pm. Tix $12Malonga Casquelord Center for the Arts, 1428 Alice St, Oakland.

Concha Buika On her latest and most diverse album, La Noche Más Larga, the Spanish-bred singer of African descent continues to break down the walls that surround flamenco, the root source of everything she does, but a tradition that can’t contain her ever-evolving vision. 8pm. $35-100, 8pm, Nourse Theatre, CIIS, 275 Hayes St, SF.


Black History Month Celebration with Terrence Brewer. The American improvised musical art form called jazz doesn’t exist without the roots of the African-American experience and, particularly, without gospel music. Terrence Brewer will explore gospel compositions through the eyes of a modern jazz improviser and share his own stories of growing up playing in the church and how he was inspired by sacred music and the large role gospel music played in his development. Featuring Terrence Brewer on guitar, Kevin Wong on piano and organ, Dan Parenti on acoustic and electric bass and Deszon Claiborne on drums. Tix $15California Jazz Conservatory,
2087 Addison St, Berkeley.

Feb 28-Mar 1st
The 11th Annual Black Choreographers Festival: Here & Now  celebrating the legacy of African & African American dance, art and culture with performances, master classes and special events. Weekend 2 features Christal BrownGregory Dawson, Mauya Kerr, Robert Moses, Reginald Ray Savage, and Raissa Simpson. 7:30pm. Post-performance Q & A  on Mar 1. Cake & Chat following every BCF performance. Tix $10-20. Dance Mission Theater, 3316 24th St, SF.

 

 


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I, the Jury: Critiquing Musical Mayhem

The Seshen

The Seshen

Sitting in on a juried panel,  trying to rate the best in local music is a pretty interesting experience. The occasion? The upcoming Oakland Mayhem (formerly Oaktown Music Fest, not to be confused with Oakland Music Festival), which takes place November 13, 14 and 15  at Awaken Café.  A whole host of local acts competed for some great prizes , including studio time, paid shows, free beer, flyers, hoodies, gift certificates from local bars, and swag bags.  Clearly, the organizers know what musicians need. Unfortunately, I missed the first night of critical reasoning, which decided the Best Song by a Local Solo Artist. The second night, however, pitted 25 local videos against each other.

Rating videos, especially those by independent or indie-label artists, means deciding on some sort of universal criteria. I quickly determined that my process would be weighted by how well the visuals went with the song, not how good the song was on its own, or how good the video was on its own. Production values, as it turned out, varied widely. So did the stylistic range, although the videos chosen perhaps leaned more toward indie rock, with a few urban-cred vids thrown in for good measure.

On to the videos. First, some overall thoughts: It seems there are some serious quirks getting worked out in the local music scene, creating a normative metric which rests squarely left of the mainstream center. That said, the utter avoidance of cliché is difficult to achieve, even for the most innovative video treatment. At the other end of the spectrum is weirdness for weirdness’ sake, of which there was plenty. Watching some of the videos, I got the feeling some of the directors watched a lot of “Twin Peaks”-era David Lynch. The best videos tended to be the most conceptual, and closer to short films.

Looking back on what scored high on my list, I liked Art Elliot’s “Days Like This” for its unpretentious home video aesthetic and for the shots which matched the lyrics practically word-for-word. The song itself didn’t do much for me, but the video clearly made it better. OTOH, Fantastic Negrito’s “Night Has Turned to Day” resonated strongly on both an aural and visceral level. The song is a foot-stomping, hand-clapping, piano, guitar and harmonica-laced tune with a retro juke joint/voodoo soul feel, which was complemented by live performance shots, B-roll of local locations (always a plus), and montages of the artist singing, playing piano, and walking down the street. The video jump-cuts between black and white, red and blue-filtered, and “normal” lighting, striking an effective balance without getting boring. Kate Lamont’s “Birds of Brooklyn” was super-artsy, with still animation on a chalkboard—which must have been a meticulous task—providing the visual accompaniment to Lamont’s dreamy vocals and stuttering electronic drums. I also liked the use of Oakland’s inner-city streets and scraper bikes on Los Rakas’ “We Dem Rakas,” but the song, a mixtape version of a Wiz Khalifa beat with different vocals, lacked the originality to take it over the top.

Kill Freeman’s “You Wanted” was one of the more innovative videos in the competition, alternating white-screen backgrounds with jarring juxtapositions of dark-toned imagery, from butterfly fingerprints to (simulated) blood splatter. Like Fantastic Negrito, the video enhanced the song, but its austere vocals with minimal backgrounds didn’t quite move me the same way. I liked how the treatment for Saything’s “Mason Jar” used a fisheye lens to emphasize distortion and stop-motion animation for a lo-tech effect. Though it was done well, the visual treatment took on a ultra-violent tone, showing band members hung, decapitated, and self-disemboweled. A lighter feel was recovered by sOul from the O’s jazzy rap cut “Boombastic,” whose video treatment used archival footage of classic analog audio equipment and studios for backgrounds over green-screened foregrounds.

Which brings us to “the Jellybean Song” by the Fuxedos, as seen in the short film “Mimsy.” This was unquestionably the weirdest, most over-the-top video of the bunch, whose visuals could have been the love child of Dr. Demento and Devo. This one also featured violence: another ripped-out heart and a toilet smashed by a hammer, though much of the carnage was thankfully implied. Great visual effects, but in the end, I couldn’t give something that strange and disturbing my highest rating.

Totonko’s “Overgrown” eschewed literalism for abstraction, with a black and white video which emphasized out of focus shots and postmodernist pastoral backgrounds. The video was well done, but took away from the song it was attached to—an inspired mix of nu-folk, indie rock and dubsteppy percussion fills—rather than adding to it. Speaking of Devo, they may be the spiritual forefathers of the Phenomenauts, whose “Broken Robot Jerk” featured sci-fi costumes, postpunk guitar riffage, and lyrics describing a new dance. Very conceptual—and points for the life-size Rock ‘Em Sock’Em Robots—but the song got repetitive and tiring way before its endpoint.

Two of my highest rankings went to the Seshen and Zakiya Harris, who appealed to my judicial sensibilities with songs whose video treatment fit well with the music they highlighted. The Seshen’s “Unravel” is a return to the trip-hop era and everything that made it so great: expansive moodiness and downtempo beats. The “Unravel” video picked up on those themes, cutting between foreground shots of singer Lalin St. Juste and slo-mo interior shots of a house which emphasized the sense of loss and emptiness the song evokes. There’s a slight nod to “The Shining,” although the hallucinatory psychic terror is only briefly implied – just long enough to metaphorically link a haunted house with a broken heart. With lesser source material, the treatment might have seemed pretentious or disjointed, but luckily, “Unravel” is a killer song. The other judges agreed with my ruling; “Unravel” won Best in Show. (A complete list of winners is here.)

Zakiya Harris

Zakiya Harris

Harris’ “Shapeshifter,” OTOH, is much more uptempo, a future-soul banger which features amazingly-voiced, layered vocals and lots of costume changes and fancy dance moves. The video lends the rooftops and sidewalks of Oakland a cosmopolitan, almost Parisian, feel, and Harris’ makeup and hair is absolutely perfect.

Unfortunately, we’re running out of space to talk about the other jury panel session I attended, for Best Song by a Group, so I’ll quickly run down the songs I liked, beginning with Antique Naked Soul’s “Money.” The beatboxed backgrounds, blended with neo-Motownish female vocals and Candice Antique Davis’ powerful leads and “real talk” lyrics make this a strong, original tune – although another song from their album, “Lay Low,” was even better IMO.

Candice Antique Davis of Antique Naked Soul

Candice Antique Davis of Antique Naked Soul

Candelaria’s “La Cumbia Cienaguera” has an appealing mix of cumbia rhythms and dub effects, but the studio recording lacks the urgency of their live show. “Ghost in the City”’s “Smaller Every Day” was another thrilling discovery: anchored by killer female lead vocals, the song falls nicely into the funky alt.soul category. And the Jennifer Johns/Ryan Nicole/Kev Choice posse cut “Town’d Out” caused one jurist to remark they could visualize the song blasting out of bassy car systems; I liked it because it works as a rap anthem without dumbing down one’s intelligence. La Misa Nigra’s “Por La Bahia” is another find in the Bay’s ongoing cumbia resurgence, a traditionally-oriented tune with lovely interplay between vocals, horns, and accordion that’s ready to fiesta when you are. Maria Jose Montijo’s “Estrella” features a hauntingly beautiful, sparse melody which can send chills up your spine. I also fancied Waterstrider’s “Redwood,” which blended rockish riffs and midtempo EDM grooves nicely.

Overall, it’s a far different experience critiquing music and videos in a room with other esteemed local tastemakers than from the privacy of your own home. There’s the option of bouncing your opinion off of other folks, or hearing their reactions. Jurists were encouraged to be social and even advocate for their favorites, and some did more than others. The best part of the experience, though, was being able to hear (and view) such a wide-ranging spectrum of local artists – and to venture outside of my personal music comfort zone. The Mayhem jury offered a great opportunity to digest tunes I might not have otherwise heard, and not only widened my ears, but also expanded my appreciation for Oakland’s music scene. Shouts out to Awaken Café’s Cortt Dunlap and Oakland Indie Mayhem’s Sarah Sexton for what must have been a tremendous amount of hard work in putting the Mayhem Fest together, and make sure you stop by the Awaken for the Awards presentation.


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“Clas/sick Hip-Hop”: Female Emcees Show “U.N.I.T.Y” In Landmark Live Performance

Live review/ “Clas/sick Hip-Hop: 1993 Edition,” Nov. 7 & 8, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

The "Clas/Sick" Crew chilling after the show

The “Clas/Sick” Crew chilling after the show

In a two-night run filled with memorable moments, “Clas/sick Hip-Hop: 1993 Edition”’s biggest flashpoint came about halfway through the second night. A remarkable set of canonical hip-hop, played live by the Kev Choice Ensemble, segued from Digable Planets’ “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat),” to the Conscious Daughters’ “Fonky Expedition,” to Queen Latifah’s “U.N.I.T.Y.” 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. The second, performed by Coco Peila and Ryan Nicole, brought back memories of a time when good local rap regularly earned rotation on commercial stations. And the third, which featured a strident, commanding Zakiya Harris, flanked by Aima, Peila, Nicole and vocalist Viveca Hawkins, evoked a sea of epiphanies, none greater than the notion that Harris and Co. had tapped into hip-hop’s elemental womb and stuck a chord of long-overdue gender balance, releasing a flood of amniotic lyrical fluid which coated the audience’s ears with sticky bliss. Hip-hop may be a mostly male-dominated art form, but in keeping with YBCA’s Left Coast ideology, the Bay Area’s female emcees reigned like queens.

Do the ladies run this mother____er?

Do the ladies run this mother____er?

As if to underline the point, Coco Peila followed with a jaw-dropping cover of 2Pac’s “Keep Ya Head Up.” The song—one of the rap icon’s most positive and uplifting—took on an even deeper meaning with a woman rapping its words: And since we all came from a woman/ Got our name from a woman and our game from a woman/ I wonder why we take from our women/ Why we rape our women, do we hate our women?/ I think it’s time to kill for our women/ Time to heal our women, be real to our women/ And if we don’t we’ll have a race of babies/ That will hate the ladies, that make the babies/ And since a man can’t make one/ He has no right to tell a woman when and where to create one/So will the real men get up/ I know you’re fed up ladies, but you gotta keep your head up.

It Ain't Hard to Tell: Musical Director Kev Choice

It Ain’t Hard to Tell: Musical Director Kev Choice

Hawkins killed it on the hook— an interpolation of the Five Heartbeats’ “Ooh Child”—then, after 1-O.A.K. responded with a dead-on Mayfield-esque falsetto during HNRL’s take on Outkast’s “Player’s Ball,” she returned to tackle SWV’s underrated yet seminal R&B hit “Right Here,” completely nailing the high notes of the hook. As if that wasn’t enough, bandleader Kev Choice crept out from behind his array of keyboards to rap a verse from Nas’ “It Ain’t Hard to Tell” – whose remix sampled the same Michael Jackson “Human Nature” melody as the SWV song. It was that kind of night.

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If social media chatter is to be believed, “Clas/sick Hip-Hop: 1993 Edition” is already being talked about as being legendary. It’s difficult to disagree with that assessment, although the word “epic” might work equally as well. The brainchild of YBCA’s Marc Bamuthi Joseph, the impetus for the production was simple but brilliant: revisit 1993, a particularly great year for hip-hop albums, with not one but two live bands and a gaggle of local emcees – all doing music which came out that year. Into that mix, add an a cappella youth chorus, some of the best local deejays and hip-hop dancers, montages of music videos of the songs performed by artists, and interviews with local culturati explaining the significance of ’93 in a cultural, social, political, and personal sense.

DJ Fuze on the 1 and 2's

DJ Fuze on the 1 and 2’s

Both nights started out with a DJ set – Kevvy Kev on Friday; DJ Fuze on Saturday – which was punctuated by a flash mob consisting of the YGB Gold a cappella singers, who performed a medley of KRS-One’s “Black Cop” and “Sound of Da Police.” The medley underscored the relevance and timelessness of the ‘93 hip-hop canon (though it’s somewhat dubious to note both songs address police misconduct, of which the latest flashpoint is #Ferguson).

Howard Wiley and Geechi Taylor

Howard Wiley and Geechi Taylor

The set list flowed like a mix tape; Calafia Zulu member K-Swift followed with Black Moon’s “How Many Emcees,” a song based around a KRS sample, then jumped into “I Got Cha Opin,” which afforded the musicians the opportunity to wrap their instruments around the Barry White sample which informs the song. Hornsmen Geechi Taylor and Howard Wiley were up to the challenge.

Coco Peila and Ryan Nicole

Coco Peila and Ryan Nicole

Two braggadoccious epochs of masculine bravado, Masta Ace’s “Born to Roll” and Dr. Dre’s “Ain’t Nothing But a G Thing” were sandwiched around Del’s lyrical sucker punch, “Catch a Bad One” (performed by Wonway Posibul of the Latin Soul Brothers). Not that the Del track lacks for boastfulness, but it’s decidedly less commercial and contrived, and built around a sublime Eric Dolphy sample – replayed with aplomb by the KCE, who had the daunting task of having to learn 20 songs in a short period.

Zakiya Harris

Zakiya Harris

The other live band performing was Ensemble Mik Nawooj. The hip-hop/classical fusion outfit performed songs by Wu-Tang and Snoop Dogg, and emcees Do D.A.T. and Sandman were energetic and animated. However, an opera singer notwithstanding, the static nature of their set (and, perhaps, the absence of a bass player) couldn’t compare to the vibrant dynamic laid down by Choice, his band, and their guests at the other stage. By the second night, the differences were painfully apparent; some people walked out during Mik Nawooj’s second set. Which was unfortunate, because they missed the Tribe Called Quest medley which vamped around the bassline from Freddie Hubbard’s “Red Clay” and brought the show to a groovy simmer, as well as the closing free-for-all freestyle rhyme cipher. Which was ridiculous on both nights.

Conscious curation: Marc Bamuthi Joseph

Conscious curation: Marc Bamuthi Joseph

The female emcees brought the spark which ignited the show’s flame. But credit must be given to Choice as a musical director for the way things turned out. The KCE flipped samples inside-out, returning breakbeats to their jazzy essence and reminding folks that the ‘93 flavor was as musical as it was lyrical. Choice himself spent most of the night behind the keyboards, paying tribute to the Bay Area’s contribution to the year by rapping on Saafir’s “Light Sleeper” and Souls of Mischief’s “93 til Infinity.” There were other subtle nods to the Bay, like the melodies from Mac Mall’s “Sick Wit Tis” and Too $hort’s “Getting It” the band played during the freestyle cipher.

A young hip-hop dancer at YBCA

A young hip-hop dancer at YBCA

The night was billed as one which gave long overdue props to the poets of one of the most remarkable years in hip-hop’s Golden Era. But it ended up being much more than that. True, ’93 was a year when hip-hop’s creative expression was at its peak and the music industry hadn’t yet figured out what parts of the culture it wanted to emphasize and what parts it wanted to suppress. Yet in retrospect, the beats emcees rapped on back then were at least as much a part of the era’s greatness as the rhymes. We’ll never see those days again, not just because rap has changed, but also because the sampling aesthetic no longer plays such a central part in hip-hop.

Trackademics in the cipher

Trackademics in the cipher

“Clas/sick Hip-Hop: 1993 Edition” reveled in nostalgia for a bygone era, but that’s not all it did. It brought an appreciation of hip-hop culture to an institutional space without killing the jazzy, funky, lyrical vibe of that culture. And it did so through live instrumentation, in effect going above and beyond how the music was presented at the time of its emergence. By raising the musical bar, the production ushered in another refutation of space and time, to paraphrase Digable Planets, which shone a bright spotlight on the current generation of Bay Area hip-hop artists (most of whom hailed from Oakland). But the brightest lights blazed on the local female emcee contingent. So often an afterthought on hip-hop bills, or consigned to a segregated performance space, in “Clas/sick Hip-Hop’s” re-envisioning of ‘93’s cultural legacy, the women of hip-hop not only played a central role, but manifested a sisterhood of solidarity while showing that they indeed had the props.


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OMF Report-back: In Its 2nd Year, the Oakland Music Festival Gets It Mostly Right

Live review: Oakland Music Festival, Sept. 27, Uptown Oakland

The view from Era's balcony

The view from Era’s balcony

Imagine a music festival which takes place right in the heart of Oakland’s Uptown area which activates multiple venues, incorporates local businesses, and features a diverse array of both local and national talent. Sounds good, right? Well, that’s just what the Oakland Music Festival, or OMF, turned out to be. Now in its second year, the sophomore edition of OMF was a huge improvement over the inaugural effort in just about every way: the location, centered around 21st St., was more fitting; the stage itself was more impressive, right down to the massive speakers which emanated earthquake levels of bass vibrations; the lineup had a nice mix of stylistic genres, from indie rock to hip-hop to EDM to R&B/soul to Latin music, in addition to featuring some of the tightest local DJs around. And best of all, it didn’t rain this year.

Namorados Da Lua

Namorados Da Lua

Undertaking something like OMF is an ambitious project, to say the least. The brainchild of Era/Tamarindo/Pop-Up Hood impresario Alfonso Dominguez, OMF wanted to be a must-see festival, and one which further established Oakland as a cultural destination. He mostly succeeded; although there are still a few kinks to be worked out, OMF generated enough momentum to make it an event which could conceivably be exciting and entertaining for years to come. Sponsors included local companies Oaklandish, Pandora, and Ex’pression College, which seemed sensible and quite appropriate. There were four music staging areas, all located between 21st St. and Grand Ave., as well as an offsite venue, the Legionnaire, which hosted a hip-hop showcase. And OMF even had its own downloadable app .

Mara Hruby, right before her set

Mara Hruby, right before her set

It took a little while for the crowd to arrive, which meant that the early performances on the main “Town Stage” were rather lightly-attended. That didn’t faze indie rockers Part Time, who delivered a jaunty set highlighted by a cover of the Pretenders’ “Back on the Chain Gang,” or veteran power-pop act the Lovemakers, who mixed 80s New Wave influences with sexual exhibitionist tendencies – which makes them a fun band to see live. DJs Fuze and D-Sharp both rocked their sets, and by the time Jesse Boykins III took the stage, the crowd was fairly thick, and growing by the minute. Boykins won the crowd over with his alternative R&B stylings, five-octave range, and infectious smile, while up-and-coming female vocalist SZA showed why she’s an artist to watch. By the time headliner Dom Kennedy closed out the main stage performances, the crowd was at elbow room capacity. Unfortunately, Oakulture had to leave before Kennedy’s performance, but the word of mouth is that he rocked it.

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Things were a bit more chaotic at the “Hella Tight” stage, inside Era. The schedule was pushed back by almost two hours at one point, which led to some confusion, especially for people who were trying to move between the festival’s multiple stages to catch specific artists. And though Era is a beautiful space and one of Oakland’s most aesthetically-pleasing nightclub venues, it felt straight-up weird to be inside a dark room during daylight hours (ditto with the “High Sidin’” stage, located inside Club 21). Besides being dimly-lit, the stage at Era is super tiny, and with the venue at capacity, it was a bit difficult to see the live acts playing on it. Highlights included the sets by Latin fusionistas Namorados de Lua, future-soul diva Zakiya Harris and Elephantine, and retro-soulstress Mara Hruby.

Zakiya Harris

Zakiya Harris

Which brings us to the main criticism of OMF: to Oakulture, it made very little sense to have non-local groups featured at prime time on the main stage, while some of the most talented local artists were shoehorned into a stage the size of a small closet. Simply put, a music festival based around branding Oakland as a destination doesn’t really need to have any out-of-town artists, does it?

Another thing which didn’t completely work out was the hip-hop showcase at Legionnaire Saloon. Though the idea of having a free event complementing a paid ticketed festival is a good one in theory, in practice it meant that some of the most-deserving local talent—the bill included female emcees par excellence Dom Jones and Ryan Nicole (performing with Nu Dekades) —was ghettoized and segregated from the majority of attendees. It’s just not realistic to expect folks to go back and forth from the central  festival grounds to an offsite location, especially since doing so means wading through dense crowds and crossing a major intersection. And Oakland’s hip-hop scene is one of the most-celebrated in the nation, so why not make it a bigger part of the proceedings?

SZA

SZA

Overall, though, those gripes were relatively minor ones in the larger scheme of things. There were plenty of things to like, maybe even love, about OMF: the smoking patio balcony at Club 21, for example, was a people-watchers’ dream. And the close proximity of so many eateries—some even located inside the staging area—meant there were numerous and serendipitous food options.  All in all, OMF may need a little further refinement in key areas, but this year’s festival has to be considered a success. There’s definitely room to improve and make the experience even better, yet for a festival in only its second year, OMF appears to be well on its way to becoming a much-anticipated annual event.