What a year it’s been here at Oakulture. We’ve been blessed to witness the phenomenal cultural movement taking place here in Oakland, California, as we speak. Some call it a renaissance, others a revival, but it’s honestly more than that. There’s something new and exciting happening here, a cultural osmosis of different artistic and cultural elements being blended together in a very cool way.
In 2013, Oakulture was many things: visual art; dance; music; spoken word; film; theater; literature. Even community, social, and political activism at times took on a cultural bent – and not always an obvious one. Who would have thought that graffiti crew TDK, legendary aerosol outlaws and still-reigning kings of the yard, would get plugged in the mayor’s newsletter and Yahoo news for their crowdfunding campaign to finish a mural begging the A’s to “StAy”?
The biggest Oakultural story of the year was indubitably the making and Hollywood release of “Fruitvale Station,” the Oscar Grant biopic, written and directed by Oakland native Ryan Coogler, shot by a local crew, and featuring an Oscar-worthy star turn by Michael B. Jordan. Indeed, in a year when the black film resurgence was one of Hollywood’s top storylines, “Fruitvale Station” was easily the most poignant and heartfelt of any of those films, and one which showed Oakland pride in the face of tragedy.
Redemption isn’t too strong a word for the film’s success, because for two years prior to the film’s release, Oscar Grant’s memory was dogged out almost daily in the comment pages of mainstream media outlets, always with the same epithets applied. Yet Jordan portrayed Grant as the way he was: someone you knew, who had a life with love in it. A struggler, perhaps, but someone who could have made it, who deserved more opportunity than he was ultimately given. To see that played out on screen was monumental for Oaklanders, even if we cried at the ending we knew was coming. Best of all, “Fruitvale Station” felt like an indie film, not a major Hollywood release, even though it was picked up for national distribution.
“Fruitvale Station”’s success topped what was actually a promising year for film in Oakland. Independent film “Licks” detailed the grittier, cutty-ier side of Oakland; the Oakland International Film Festival and Oakland Underground Festival kept the quirky, indie flavor going with heartfelt, hand-picked selections; and the Broaklyn Film and Theater Co. emerged as a source for interesting, off-the-beaten track cinematic fare with the African-flavored Matatu Film Festival and screenings of community-oriented films like “Jamel Shabazz: Street Photographer” and Joshua Bee Alafia’s “Let’s Stay Together.”
2013 also saw the premiere of “the Institute,” the documentary about the pseudo-cultish Jejune Institute, a social experiment engineered by Oaklandish founder Jeff Hull. “Free Angela,” a documentary on feminist icon and onetime Black Panther Angela Davis screened at the venerable Grand Lake Theater, as did the Alice Walker documentary, “Beauty in Truth.” And the New Parkway Theater became a venue not just for indie and classic films, but a cultural center that hosted everything from A’s playoff viewings to spoken word slams – something even the original Parkway never was.
The second-biggest story was probably the uncere- monious firing of popular, beloved Bay Area radio icon Chuy Gomez from KMEL after 20 years. Oakulture nabbed an exclusive interview with Gomez, who said, ““Radio has never changed for me. I’ve been about connecting with the people, and being as one with them – being where they are, supporting what they do, and embracing the Bay Area.”
Yet the fact of the matter is radio has changed; it’s no longer 1993, when it was easy for local acts –many of whom had major-label interest—to get plugged up into KMEL’s airwaves. With the dismissal of Gomez, and the subsequent shedding of equally-legendary DJ Mind Motion, it will be difficult for anyone to think of KMEL as “the People’s Station” ever again.
Speaking of 1993, 2013 marked the 20-year anniversary of Souls of Mischief’s landmark ’93 til Infinity album, which put Bay Area hip-hop on the map like no other record. The Hiero crew celebrated with a national Souls tour, a dope new Hieroglyphics album, The Kitchen, a new Deltron 3030 album (and an orchestral Deltron performance at stately Stern Grove ) and the second iteration of Hiero Day, a free hip-hop festival which drew even more folks than its 2012 debut (estimated attendance: 15,000). Hiero Day was a uniquely-Oakland event, with an amazing crowd of core hip-hop devotees enthralled by a plethora of live performances all day, capped off by a triumphant Hiero live set tailor-made for the history books. If you’re looking for poetic justice, you might find some in the fact that Hiero has really only had one record in KMEL’s rotation—“’93 til”—during its entire career.
Hiero reps Oakland to the fullest or, more precisely, they embody Oakland’s fierce independent spirit. That spirit was also evident throughout the year with good folks like Boots Riley—possibly the only emcee ever to be mentioned in a Wikileaks cable—who spent a good part of the year touring overseas with the Coup. The Coup’s keyboardist, Kev Choice, was a ubiquitous presence in the Town when not on tour, playing gig after gig whether as sideman or bandleader, heightening anticipation for his new album, Oakland Rivera, dropping in January.
Another reflection of Oakland’s indie spirit in its musical output was found in the talent-laden lineup of killer female vocalists. As Oakulture noted, Omega Rae, Kimiko Joy (Dynamic), Vivica Hawkins (the Memorials), Mara Hruby, Jennifer Johns, and Femi Andrades (Punk Funk Mob) are all awesome talents who we’re blessed to have here.
Probably the most innovative local album we heard all year, however, was the R&B/beatbox project issued by Antique Naked Soul, whose lead singer Antique has enough raw power to cover James Brown classics and not skip a funk beat. Furthermore, ANS originals like “Lay Low” were better than most anything currently in rotation on KMEL.
One possible exception was Oakland heartthrob Adrian Marcel, a babyfaced urban soul crooner championed by Raphael Saddiq, who mixed equal parts street smarts and emotional sensitivity into his debut mixtape/EP, Seven Days of Weak, spawning the radio-friendly tunes “Killa” and “I’m Still.”
On the live music and DJ scene, venues like the New Parish, New Karibbean City and Legionnaire Saloon provided the cultural spark to power this so-called renaissance with consistent bookings all year round. Yoshis remained a go-to destination for the upscale, dinner-and-a-show crowd, and the nightlife scene gained a new spot with the addition of Venue, a great space with lots of promise.
There were plenty of sublime discoveries to be made for culture aficionados and true music lovers, like the existence of a full-fledged, world-class flamenco scene in the tiny upstairs stage at Duende (Ole!), or the Legionnaire’s weekly Reggae vs. Cumbia night and monthly 7-inch party 45 Sessions, the New Parish’s local DJ love-fest Oakland Massive, and the baile funk and other percussive worldly goodies being thrown down at Venue’s monthly party, Skin. Look for the Oakland music scene to expand even further in 2014, when Leo’s opens on the site of the former Pro Audio retail spot.
Music wasn’t just indoors in 2013. Outdoor festivals—including Life is Living, Malcolm X Jazz Arts Festival, the Oakland Music Festival and a concert series at the Latham Square pop-up (which brought Kev Choice, Dynamic, Ensemble Mik Nawooj, and others to the heart of the downtown) were wonderful exercises in community-building that showcased Oakland’s diversity in serendipitous ways.
Where do we start with visual art? Betti Ono, Solespace and Warehouse 416 helped to give multicultural artists a firm launching pad in the ground zero of Oakland’s turned-up Uptown district, where the art-murmuring buzz has continued to grow louder. There were so many dope visual technicians to name them all—from Favianna Rodriguez to Deadeyes to Sage Stargate to Ras Terms—that we won’t even try.
The most inspired exhibit featuring Oakland artists all year, however, may have been AAACC’s “16 Cowries,” a collaboration between Eesuu Orundide, Reshawn Goods, Karen & Malik Seneferu, Aswad Aarif, Rich Ejire, and others, which focused on representations of Ifa divinatory rituals. Or maybe it was Karen Seneferu’s “Fruitvale to Florida: Strange Fruit No More,” an installation and mini-documentary touching on Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, and the value of black life, which showed at OMCA’s annual “Day of the Dead” exhibit.
Oakland art wasn’t just visible in galleries, however. One of the most inspired responses to the George Zimmerman trial was Trust Your Struggle’s mural of Trayvon Martin on the side of the Youth Radio building, a piece which incorporated YR staffers wearing Martin’s now-iconic hoodie. The piece remained up for several weeks, serving as a highly visible, silent, yet powerful commentary on the value of black life.
Any talk of Oakland’s artistic come- uppance, however, must be balanced against the local resistance to gentrification –which was part of the backdrop against which Oakculture happened in 2013. Oakland’s adherence to its indigenous culture was evident in everything from the Black Cowboys Parade to Ricky Vincent’s book on Black Panther Funk band the Lumpen, “Party Music,” to the ongoing Dia Do Los Muertos Fruitvale celebration, to neighborhood spots far outside the Uptown bubble like One Fam’s West Oakland kick-back spot and the Laurel District’s Lounge 3411. While KQED blogger Serena Cole blurted out to her fixie-riding, skinny-jeaned pals to stay out of the West and the East, the truth is, we don’t want any (more) hipsters there, anyway.
This Week’s Picks:
Reign 2014 w/ Slick Rick, Adrian Marcel, Sebastien Mikael, 12/31, Oakland Marriot, 1001 Broadway
OAKNYE 2014, w/ Vikter Duplaix, Nina Sol, Davey D, Wonway Posibul, Naima Shalhoub, 12/31, Lungomare, 1 Broadway
Family Affair, 12/31, Legionnaire Saloon, 2272 Telegraph Ave.
Oakland Massive w/ Chuy Gomez, Steelo, Davey-D, Shortkut, Hey Love, 1/3, New Parish
Pharaoh Sanders Quartet, 1/3-1/5, $26-$32, Yoshi’s, 510 Embarcadeo