“What should we say?,” asks Miguel “Bounce” Perez. It’s Friday afternoon in downtown Oakland, and the Trust Your Struggle collective member and painter is asking Oakulture for input on a mural in progress, a Trayvon Martin tribute painted on temporary plywood boards that cover the windows of Youth Radio – shattered a few days earlier by protestors. Perez and his TYS crew members don’t need inspiration for the visual part of the mural: they’ve already decided on a theme. The piece utilizes numerous wheat-pasted posters printed by Melanie Cervantes and Jesus Barraza of the Taller Tupac Amaru Collective as a backdrop; a large central image of Martin’s face, outlined by a halo; and smaller portraits of Youth Radio staffers, each wearing a hoodie.
“[The mural's imagery is] mostly ideas from the youth,” Perez explains. “We kind of came out here with no plan and they said they wanted to see Trayvon and they had all these pictures of youth out on the front door. We said, ‘oh, we should paint this’ and they were like, alright, but put hoodies on us.”
At this point in the process, Perez is uncertain whether to add a slogan, a quote, or some other type of editorial statement. If the work was strictly for TYS, he confides, he’d say how he really feels about the George Zimmerman verdict: “This is some bull sh*t.”
But since this is a commissioned work by a non-profit organization, Perez needs to be respectful of the organization and its clientele. In the end, the muralist crew decides that the words on the Martin poster– “I am Trayvon Martin and my life matters”—are sufficient.
The Trayvon mural manifested itself over three days, beginning on Friday and ending on Sunday. It immediately became a conversation piece and community engagement vehicle. Numerous passers-by stopped to check out the painters as they were working or to document the mural with their phone cameras. Some even helped out by picking up a brush and filling in outlines. The finished product will be up for at least a couple weeks, according to Youth Radio.
The urgent need for further meaningful dialogue around race became apparent early Friday evening. Just across the street from the Youth Radio mural, in front of Bar Dogwood — a symbol of either downtown Oakland’s advancement in the upscale bar/restaurant scene or its gentrification, depending on your perspective – a confrontation between a well-respected Executive Director of a media justice organization and several of the bar’s bouncers escalated into an altercation, with complaints of excessive force being used, along with racist, sexist, and homophobic epithets.
As news of the incident spread through social media, an outcry was raised and Dogwood’s Facebook page began filling up with complaints. Thankfully, the matter since has been resolved, but the irony of the scene taking place not 20 feet from where the Trayvon mural was being painted shows just how far we as a society have yet to go.
By all accounts, it was a rough week for Bar Dogwood. The venue had its windows smashed during a protest. Like many other businesses in the area, it’s placed one of the Martin posters in its window, as a way of expressing solidarity, but also as a plea for no further property damage.
The same thing happened during the Oscar Grant uprisings, says Cervantes. After her collective printed posters with Grant’s face, “everyone started to use that image too. It became a symbol,” she says. “People did that to protect their businesses… so that their windows wouldn’t be broken,” she notes.
Cervantes says she feels “neutral” about the Trayvon poster being so widely distributed. On one hand, as an artist, she wants the message, about “a young black boy who became an ancestor too soon” to get out there, but on the other hand, she adds, “It’s kind of strange to see it in the bars, because I wonder what people are doing with their space and how that actually connects to young people that look like Trayvon.”
The new mural marks the first-ever collaboration between TYS and the Taller Tupac Amaru collective but the Trayvon piece isn’t the first time TYS have been called upon to create a work for social justice at Youth Radio. In 2011, just prior to the Johannes Mehserle verdict, the crew painted a picture of Oscar Grant – ironically, because YR wanted to shield its five thousand-dollar windows from protesters, while still supporting the cause. Later that year, just before Mehserle’s sentencing, TYS painted another Grant-themed mural, which included not only Grant’s image and name but also the names and faces of other victims of police murder.
“Right now we’re trying to focus more on memorial, rather than speaking out against any establishment,” Perez said. Art, he adds, “has no boundaries, so whatever you can think of that’s creative, the possibilities are endless how you can use art to inform people, inspire people, or educate people.”
The decline in San Francisco’s native African American population—down to just 6% as of 2012 —has had a chilling effect on the city’s culture. It’s probably no coincidence that Oakland’s “cool factor” has risen during that same time (even though Oakland’s black population has also decreased significantly).
But this past weekend, African culture was on prominent display in The City. Friday night’s Fela Celebration at 1015 Folsom was packed, and hundreds of groove-minded, dance-friendly Afrobeat aficionados came out to see Tony Allen (Fela Kuti’s drummer and an architect of the genre) and DJ Rich Medina, with opening sets by a local undercard of Lagos Roots and Afrolicious. And on Sunday, the first-ever African Street Festival brought together an organic, Pan-African cultural vibe to the Bissap Baobab Village, courtesy of Congolese, Ghanaian, Guinean, South African, Zimbabwean, Haitian & Sudanese dance groups.
Over the past decade, there’s been a lot of Afrobeat activity in the Bay Area. In addition to local outfits like Lagos Roots, Afrolicious, Albino!, Sila & the Afrofunk Experience, and Aphrodesia, the region has played host to the national touring musical “Fela!” and numerous shows by Antibalas and Fela’s sons, Femi and Seun Kuti.
Having seen many of those shows, Oakulture can unequivocably state that Allen’s set was the most culturally-authentic example of live Afrobeat yet to bless a Bay Area venue. Backed by the 20-piece orchestra Najite & the Olukon Prophecy, Allen conducted a master class in Afrobeat with a set which clocked in at close to two hours.
This was Afrobeat the way it was supposed to be done, with deceptively slow-starting, simmering grooves which built and built and built into a rhythmic catharsis. Allen’s percussive royalty, which made itself evident on a convincing cover of Kuti’s “Shakara,” left little to be desired, except possibly for the absence of a true frontman.
On the way home, it occurred to Oakulture that this may have been by design, as Allen could have been holding space onstage for his longtime collaborator Fela, who was certainly present in spirit. Unfortunately, we arrived too late to catch Lagos Roots, but we’re happy to report that Afrolicious delivered another high-energy set, while Medina, spinning 45s, kept the vibe going in-between live sets.
Presented by the African Advocacy Network, the African Street Festival showed great promise. While Congolese and West African dance groups are fairly common around these parts, it’s rarer to see dancers from other parts of Africa, along with Diasporan compatriots from Haiti, at the same event.
A festive mood prevailed throughout, as troupe after troupe, dressed in traditional outfits, showcased the cultural movement arts of their region. Oakland’s Chinyakare Ensemble, led by Juila Chigamba, was a highlight, performing Shona dances from Zimbabwe, including one where Chigamba and two other dancers balanced ceramic pots on their heads while executing a series of physically-challenging movements. The Sudanese Shabbal troupe, who brought their Nilotic-Arabic flavor, was another bright moment, as was the Congolese ballet who ended the performances with acrobatic, synchronized leaps and jumps from a bevy of red-clad beauties.
The turnout for the festival’s inaugural performance could have been better—there was a notable lack of promotion surrounding the event—especially considering the world-class talent level. Still, the festival, hosted by Sila, not only made local ethnic African populations–who tend to be somewhat invisible–visible, but enabled their intermingling. With many African-Americans feeling rootless and disenfranchised by recent events, the experience of African culture in such heavy doses was just what the witch doctor ordered.
This week’s picks:
Punk Funk Mob, Mombon, The Animated Series, Hepatitis Jr., Quart of Blood Technique, 7/26, 7pm, $8 door + $2 membership, 924 Gilman St., Berkeley.
Movado and the Gully Band, 7/27, 8pm-4am, $40, New Karibbean City, 1408 Webster St.
Conscious Hip Hop Night VII with Khafre Jay, Day/Four, The Broken Record, Bottom Hammer, champluy, Mike Incite, 7/28, 5:30pm, $10 door + $2 membership, 924 Gilman, Berkeley. *note: Bottom Hammer also plays the Boom Boom Room in SF that night.
Womanopoly, 7/25, 9pm-12am, $5, Legionnaire Saloon, 2272 Telegraph Ave.
Oliver Mtukudzi & the Black Spirits, 7/30, $22, Yoshi’s, 510 Embarcadero.