Ever since its inception in 2008, the Life is Living festival has been one of Oakland’s most-anticipated annual cultural events. It’s not hard to see why: LiL (produced by Youth Speaks) is a compendium of several mini-festivals encompassing multi-disciplinary aspects: health, the environment, visual art, spoken word, skateboarding, and live music.

Agana painting during Estria Battle

Agana painting during Estria Battle

At the core of LiL is hip-hop culture, and all five elements of the culture were represented this year: emceeing, or the art of rhyming; deejaying, or the art of beats; breaking, or the art of rhythmic movement; graffiti, or the art of visual communication, and beatboxing, or the art of vocal instrumentation.

Skater at Town Park

Skater at Town Park

But LiL is bigger than hip-hop, to paraphrase this year’s headliner, dead prez. It’s about consciousness-raising, community engagement, and intergenerational interactivity. It’s about manifesting revolution through evolution. It’s about honoring historic legacies and paying it forward for future generations. But most of all—and even though its model has been replicated in other cities—LiL is about Oakland.

Tarika Lewis in front of portrait by by Brett Cook

Tarika Lewis in front of portrait by by Brett Cook

More than any other event or happening in the town (with the possible exception of the Malcolm X Jazz Arts Festival), LiL represents the true spirit of Oakland: its diversity and community-centered aesthetic, as well as its progressive idealism and push for social equality, political representation, environmental awareness and food justice through cultural activism.

life is living 2013 d3s 486The ideology which perhaps sums that spirit up best is the old Black Panther slogan “Power to the People,” and there was plenty of people power on display Saturday – as well as more than a smattering of Panther pride.

life is living 2013 d3s 107It’s no mistake that the venue for LiL is DeFremery Park, also known as Bobby Hutton Park, after the 16-year old Black Panther recruit tragically murdered by OPD in 1968. The park was the site of many a Panther rally back in the days and, as Joan Tarika Lewis pointed out, its tennis courts were where Panther youth groups trained. On Saturday, those courts were graced with a portrait of Lewis painted by Brett Cook; Keba Konte initiated an on-site interactive installation of black cloth ribbons tied to the courts’ chain-link fence, in the shape of the iconic Panther logo; and black men in military BDUs and berets took part in marching drills.

m-1 of dead prez

m-1 of dead prez

dead prez—the spelling is lower-case—proved even more apt than past headliners Questlove, Mos Def, and Pharaoh Monch. More than any current hip-hop group or artist, the duo of Stic-Man and M-1 embody the Panthers’ revolutionary ethos, and their set was like a concert by the Panther house band The Lumpen rechristened with a hip-hop generational twist.

Stic-Man of dead prez

Stic-Man of dead prez

They changed the title of their song “Malcolm Garvey Huey” to include “Bobby” –Seale or Hutton, take your pick –and altered the lyrics of their anthem “Hip-Hop” to say, “who shot Tupac?” They seemed to be feeling Oakland as much as Oakland was feeling them, and for anyone who was there, their performance won’t be soon forgotten.

Vyal's winning entry in the Estria Battle

Vyal’s winning entry in the Estria Battle

Another big happening at LiL was the return of the Estria Graffiti Battle, a live painting competition in which each of the contestants is given a word/concept, which they manifest on large canvases during the course of the day. The word this time was “Dream,” in honor of legendary aerosol writer Mike Dream. Two-time battle winner Vyal again took the crown, but there were many outstanding pieces, including entries by local artists Miguel “Bounce” Perez and Agana. One cool thing about the Estria event is that the art stations are placed throughout the park grounds so that as passers-by walk through, they encounter the paintings in various stages of completion – a practice which promotes inclusion and engagement.

Town Park

Town Park

Other highlights included the Hood Games skate competition at Town Park, a “Migration is Beautiful” live painting exhibit curated by Favianna Rodriguez, master-level Latin jazz by the John Santos Sextet, breaking and turf dancing, hip-hop emcee cyphers, a food justice “Stemposium,” a community dance stage, a kids’ zone, and lots of unique arts, crafts, and clothing by vendors and artisans. To say there was a lot going on would be an understatement; everywhere you looked, something was happening.

Soulati beatboxes with his son

Soulati beatboxes with his son

The intergenerational aspect was summed up during a beatboxing demonstration by Radioactive and Tommy “Soulati” Shepard. After the two vocal instrument masters went back and forth, Soulati brought up his young seed, who busted out some impressive beatbox skills for someone his age. Witnessing this, Oakulture was reminded of a certain truism: what good is a cultural legacy if you can’t pass it on?

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Another highly-anticipated annual event is Oakland Museum of California’s (OMCA) “Days of the Dead.” For 19 years now, the museum has been showcasing its version of the indigenous celebration of ancestors. This year’s event, “The Tree of Life and Death” gets to the folkloric root of the tradition also known as Dias de los Muertos.

tree-altar by Ernesto Olmos

tree-altar by Ernesto Olmos

Billed as “one of the nation’s most unique and long-standing celebrations of the Mesoamerican Days of the Dead,” the OMCA exhibition is annexed to the museum’s newly-renovated Natural Sciences wing, four years in the remaking. To emphasize the connection, this year’s exhibit focuses on nature, as well as honoring the memory of spirits who have passed on to the other side.

omca day of the dead 2013 017Curated by Eduardo Pineda, “The Tree of Life and Death”—ooh, spooky title—presents ofrendas (offerings/altars) by Natalia Anciso, Amy and Sal Cortez, Ruben Guzman, Fernando Hernandez, Nancy Hom, Ernesto Olmos, Samual Rodriguez, Karen Seneferu, and Wendeanne Ke’aka Stitt. While Day of the Dead is most associated with Hispanic and Chicano traditions dating back to pre-Colombian times, the contributions of Seneferu, Stitt, and Hom broaden the scope to include African, Asian, and Pacific Islander variations on the theme of using death to honor life. “We come to celebrate, to mourn, to share stories,” OMCA’s Evelyn Orantes noted.

omca day of the dead 2013 030During a press preview, Oakulture couldn’t help but be fascinated by the parallels between Mesoamerican culture and other folkloric/ ritual myth sources. As Olmos explained the duality in the symbolism of a drawing depicting the eternal struggle between Quetzalcoatl, god of life, and Mictlantecuhtil, god of death, we noticed the similarities to Kemetic and Buddhist ideologies. A tree-shaped altar by Olmos also explored duality, as well as the universality of nature.

Ofrenda by Karen Seneferu

Ofrenda by Karen Seneferu

“Every culture has the tree of life,“ Olmos remarked, adding, “everything is a symbol of transformation and cultural movement.” Hom’s dinner table—complete with a place setting for a spirit – related the importance of honoring the dead in Asian culture, while Seneferu’s vibrantly colorful female ofrena silently spoke volumes about the African tradition. Another winner was the Cortez’ skeleton mermaid “Bahia,” which they said represented the “mother of the bay,” as well as the orisha Yemeya.

La Bahia by Amy and Sal Cortez

La Bahia by Amy and Sal Cortez

Seneferu’s short film, “Strange Fruit: From Fruitvale to Florida” also spoke volumes, though most of its communication was wordless. The short tackles the gutty question of the quality of black life in the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin incident. Faces of black people appear on the screen:  noble, poignant, and altogether undeserving of tragedy. Pathos in short form visual mode, no additional commentary necessary.

OMCA’s big party for the exhibit is Oct. 27, and the exhibit runs until December 8.

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Watching the “The Institute” is like getting brainwashed by proxy. The documentary about the subversive activities of pseudo-cult Jejune Institute exists on a bunch of different levels: it’s a satire of every religious sect involving someone named Rajneesh, Jones, or Ernhart. But it’s also a social commentary on the deep psychological need to inject meaning into our lives, and to deviate from social norms and boring routines.

Oakulture’s notes on “The Institute” include “ornithopter/jumpsuit,” “breakdancing Sasquatch,” “bio-force globe,” “crystaloscillator” and “interdimensional hopscotch.” Also, the quotes, “meaningless coincidences mean a lot to me” and “reject false nonchalance.” Really, do you need to know much more than that?

The film is about a curious social experiment which is part prank, part game, and part mindfu**k. Players, who have joined the cultlike Jejune Institute, are given instructions for urban reality games and experiential events  which make them feel like they’re secret agents – until the curtain is pulled back, and they’re left with disillusionment, ambivalence, and withdrawal symptoms.

The entire exercise is the brainchild of Jeff Hull, a founder of Oaklandish and a guy with a huge imagination. The documentary offers interesting commentary on the need for fantasy and to deviate from societal norms, as well as some interesting insights into the workings of the human mind and some laugh-out-loud quotes. It’s worth seeing; it’s probably easier on the psyche to watch the film than join a cult. The next Bay Area screening  is 10/25 at the Exploratorium.

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This week’s picks:
Maxi Priest, 10/16, 8 & 10pm, $33, Yoshis Oakland, 510 Embarcadero

Fela-bration with Lagos Roots Afrobeat Ensemble, 10/18, 9pm, $12-$15, New Parish 579 18th St.

Robert Glasper Experiment, 10/18, 7 &9 pm, $20-$60, SF Jazz Center, 201 Franklin, San Francisco

A Taste of Oakland – Uptown Block Party, 10/19, 5-8 pm, $20, Broadway/ W Grand.

Slum Village, 10/19, 8pm, Grand Live @ Venue, 420 14th St.

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