During her recent state of the city address, Oakland mayor Jean Quan remarked, “last year I said we were rising… now we’re booming.” A big part of that boom has been the city’s cultural arts scene, which is exploding everywhere you look.

Kev Choice, Uriah Duffy, Hassan Hurd, and King Theo jam at First Fridays

Kev Choice, Uriah Duffy, Hassan Hurd, and King Theo jam at First Fridays

The state of the arts for Oakland in 2014 goes beyond robust; it’s almost an embarrassment of riches. In the Chinese Year of the Horse, local culture is galloping. It was only a few years ago that Oakland was lucky to have one worthwhile event in a week worth checking out; in 2014, it’s not uncommon for there to be several happening events in a single night, which can make it difficult to keep up with everything going on, unless you have unlimited stamina. Luckily, the growing density of the Uptown area does ease this task somewhat, since the majority of the Town’s nightlife is concentrated within a relatively small area.

A First Fridays street fashion show (courtesy of Mario B. Productions)

A First Fridays street fashion show (courtesy of Mario B. Productions)

There’s no denying that Uptown has emerged as a cultural arts destination; its nightlife has a vibrancy which encompasses multiple venues: bars, restaurants, clubs, art galleries, even a movie theater. Many of these venues are multi-purpose, hosting live performances, DJ dance parties, spoken word events, film series, and panel discussions in addition to their primary function. Such versatility plays right into the multicultural aspects of the arts scene, which is also reflective of the city’s famous diversity.

Jennifer Johns performs during "Funk Murmur"

Jennifer Johns performs during “Funk Murmur”

There’s also no denying that the monthly First Friday event has been a catalyst and incubator for the cultural arts resurgence, helping to cultivate local flavor while attracting outside interest in Oakland.

After taking the month of February off due to weather conditions, the March edition of First Fridays returned with a bang. There was everything from Aztec dancers to funk bands to runway shows to outdoor comedy to DJs. And, there was visual art in as many different varieties as there were different types of food trucks and craft vendors.

DJ Elembe spins during First Fridays

DJ Elembe spins during First Fridays

There was also live music galore, both indoors and out. Kev Choice, accompanied by bassist Uriah Duffy and drummer Hassan Hurd, ripped a blistering set with a high music IQ quotient; at one point the trio was joined by Sambafunk’s King Theo on percussion, which upped the funk factor to gargantuan status. Theo was on his way to lead the Funkquarians band on a procession down Telegraph and had a few extra minutes to kill while his troupe assembled their instruments and mustered their numbers. So it all worked out.

a drum session at OakStop

A drum session at OakStop

Meanwhile, over at newly-minted co-working space OakStop, a new monthly happening called “Funk Murmur” was taking shape with a live performance by Jennifer Johns, featuring renowned painter James Gayles on congas. Johns channeled her ancestors in both the soul and gospel genres, while previewing material from her forthcoming album, Chronicles of An Aquarian Mind. That led to a free-form drum jam, which served as background music for schmoozing and socializing.

LoCura's Kata Miletich

LoCura’s Kata Miletich

Three blocks away, at Awaken Café, the double-bill of LoCura and La Gente reminded listeners of the depth, scope, and considerable talent of the local music scene. Both bands can be described, generically, as Latin fusion, aka mestiza music. Yet that description doesn’t really impart the sonic goodness and vibey aesthetic these bands embody. LoCura mixes syncopated nuevo cumbia and trippy electro-dub with visionary, earth-conscious lyrics from frontwoman Kata Miletich, who seemed to be leading her own revolution Friday night.  LoCura’s live show added urgency and intensity to the tunes on their recently-released album Dale de Comer—which is excellent, by the way.

La Gente throw down at Awaken cafe

La Gente throw down at Awaken cafe

La Gente favor cumbia as well, but their version has a discernible ska influence – plenty of loping, easy skankin’ grooves – which can also segue into meringue or hip-hop accents, or improvised harmonica riffage on the melody from War’s “Low Rider.” Suffice to say that the infectious rhythms were as plentiful as the frothy suds which kept the Awaken crowd lubricated and dancing (West Coast IPA on tap? Word). Cameo appearances by members of MJ’s Brass Boppers and Deejay Lady Ryan—who showed off her vocal chops, to the delight of the crowd—upped the excitement ante even more.

La Genre represente!

La Gente represente!

Of course, there’s far too much happening during a typical First Friday for anyone to take it all in – at least until human cloning is perfected. While the event continues to draw newbies and gawkers, as well as longtime FF veterans, here’s a pro tip: pace yourself. There’s always next month.

Chalk graffito at Betti Ono

Chalk graffito at Betti Ono

First Friday has been a jump-off which has announced Oakland’s arrival as a stakeholder in the national cultural arts mix.  Besides being the place for up-and-coming musicians to be seen and heard, it’s planted seeds within the community which are now taking root in many-splendored ways. In particular, it’s led to new innovations within the gallery world.
The idea that an art gallery should do more than just showcase visual artists has been championed, and then some, by the Betti Ono Gallery (which started its existence as SMSHBX, a pop-up gallery which leveraged some memorable First Friday shows into a permanent location on Broadway). The gallery has placed art at the forefront of the discussion around social change, while holding space for traditionally-underserved communities.

Lexx Valdez prepares to receive her award

Anyka Barber introduces Lexx Valdez

Betti Ono is at the center of some of the most important conversations to happen through art in many years: “Stop Telling Women to Smile,” a national campaign against the verbal harassment of women. Envisioned by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, “STWTS” includes both gallery exhibitions and a street art campaign; Fazlalizadeh’s striking large drawings of local women with captions imparting their responses to unwanted attention will hang on Ono’s walls until April 19.

Art by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh

Art by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh

“STWTS” ‘s opening arrived a day before International Women’s Day – which the Ono gallery has extended to an entire month, with a series of events collectively called “My Art, My Culture.” The “My Art, My Culture” series debuted in 2013, but this year, Ono director Anyka Barber took the concept to new heights by presenting an award show featuring notable local women in arts or social activism – or sometimes both.

Kilu Nyasha with her award

Kiilu Nyasha with her award

The awards ceremony, held on March 8th, was an emotionally-moving affair. Several recipients were moved to tears, as were many audience members. While Yuri Kochiamya was ill and unable to attend, a wheelchair-bound Kiilu Nyasha was a radiant presence, full of grace and gravitas. In contrast, Juana Alicia was downright boisterous. The awards weren’t just about honoring elders, however; the recognition given relative spring chickens Lexx Valdez and Amara T. Smith seemed to suggest that super-sheroism was possible for each woman in attendance.

D-Fuse Afro-Urban Dance closed the evening on a rhythmic note

D-Fuse Afro-Urban Dance closed the evening on a rhythmic note

Alika’s headlining show at New Parish Sunday evening also came on the cusp of International Women’s Day. This is important because: a) women are seemingly underrepresented in the reggae genre, and b) the Argentinian-born Alika is an amazing artist.

Alika has the stage presence and microphone control of legendary female reggae icons like Sister Nancy and Lady Ann, yet her style—which touches on roots reggae, dancehall, and hip-hop—seems up-to-the-minute and classic at the same time. The Spanish speakers in the house were loving every word, and non-fluent gringos could just kick back and enjoy the reggae grooves. Watching Alika onstage, Oakulture couldn’t help but be reminded of Chilean emcee Ana Tijoux. Like Tijoux, she has the same ability to captivate audiences with her perpetual flow, even when flowing in another language.

Alika at the New PArish

Alika at the New Parish

Alika’s set was preceded by local support from El Sonido Baylando, currently making noise with their “Blood Money” riddim. El Kool Kyle dropped the needle on the record for Rocker Tee, who sat on top of the sub-bass-laden riddim like a lizard on a limb. He was followed by Bang Data frontman Deuce Eclipse—who previewed some new material—and Raw-G, a spitfire of an emcee who’s also half of Steelo Entertainment, the show’s promoters.  That was a lot of energy for a Sunday night – yet another reminder that Oakland’s cultural scene doesn’t start and end at First Friday.


This week’s picks:

Somar 5-year Anniversary with DJ Kimani, March 12, 5-8pm, free, 1727 Telegraph Ave.

Oakland Slam and Wide-Open Mic featuring Davu and Bottom Hammer, March 13, 8pm, $7, Awaken Cafe, 1429 Broadway

East Bay Bike Party March Ride — “Punk and Funk”, March 14, 7:30pm, North Berkeley BART

Afrolicious, Namorados de Lua, Lucio K, March 14, 8pm, $10, New Parish, 579 18th St.

Alta California, Inspector Gadje, march 15, 9pm, $15, Cloud 9, 1320 9th, Berkeley

3 Responses

  1. Sue

    Minor edit — Oakland First Fridays happens in KONO, NOT Uptown. KONO has been doing a lot of the heavy lifting to save this event, lets get our geography and credit straight please and thank you 🙂

  2. Eric K Arnold

    Thanks for commenting, Sue.

    you said:

    “Oakland First Fridays happens in KONO, NOT Uptown”

    ” lets get our geography and credit straight please”

    ok fine, let’s do that.

    a couple points to note:

    a) KONO stops at W Grand, doesn’t it? So anything South of there, i.e. Betti Ono, Awaken Cafe, Oaklandish, Solespace, etc., technically is outside of its jurisdiction, right?

    b) the article didn’t specifically link First Fridays to Uptown; if you actually read it, the first section, which discusses the state of the arts in general terms, mentions Uptown as a confluence of restaurants, bars, galleries, cafes, and multi-use venues, and a visible symbol of emergent nightlife. The First Fridays section is actually a separate “item” within the column.

    Frankly, if i may speak freely, it is a little absurd for any CBD to attempt to take 100% “credit” for First Fridays. Also, much of the ‘heavy lifting’ has been done by volunteers and community members, even those who do not have a vested financial interest in the results, as KONO does. Were it not for the musician community, most of whom play for free, there would be far less interest in the event. So let’s keep that in mind.

    That said, the work of Shari, Lathan, Sarah and others in cultivating First Fridays within KONO’s borders has not gone unnoticed by Oakulture. But maybe that’s a story for another time. 😉

  3. Phil

    Actually, KONO extends from 20th Street to 35th Street, but I don’t think KONO is claiming either ownership or authorship of the Oakland First Friday event. We are proud of our neighborhood, though, and are doing our part to keep the event going.
    Even as some of us are focusing primarily on what’s happening between West Grand and 27th we’re also excited about what is also going on outside that area. We’re working closely with the Art Murmur galleries, only a few of which are strictly within KONO.
    There’s definitely room for a bunch of really exciting things to happen both on the first Friday of the month and other nights in Oakland and they already are.
    So much to celebrate in this wonderful city.
    Thanks OaklandLocal for covering this scene!


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