By Monica Cadena

Large crowds of music enthusiasts gathered downtown to celebrate the second annual Oakland Music Festival (OMF) Saturday. The turnout was a stark contrast in comparison to last year’s humble beginnings, in which two stages hosted over twenty performances, such as the Coup and J-Boogie’s Dubtronic Science, among other local artists.

The venue expanded its location in the Uptown district, adding two additional stages, as well as expanding the number of local participating venues. Attempting to dispel the often-negative perceptions Oakland receives, OMF founder Alfonso Dominguez wanted to showcase the cultural and artistic diversity Oakland has to offer.

Many local artists performed, like the Latin Soul Brothers, the Lovemakers and Queens D. Light. Dominguez also brought in more nationally-known artists, like SZA, Dom Kennedy and Jesse Boykins III to the stage. While not from Oakland, these artists embody the artistic expression of Oakland on a national stage

Oakland Local had the opportunity to speak with Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter Jesse Boykins III following his performance at OMF. Boykins tapped into his musical career at an early age: he was accepted into the prestigious Grammy Jazz Ensemble while still in high school, which led to his recruitment to the New School University in New York.

One of the few independent artists who’s managed to break into the mainstream while retaining his autonomy, Boykins combines his soulful voice with worldly beats, creating a truly unique sound aesthetic. Among topics covered, Boykins discussed how his previous experiences in Oakland influenced him creatively, the parallels between Oakland and his home in Brooklyn, as well as advice for local aspiring independent artists. 

Jesse Boykins III

Photo by Ravneet Vohra, Wear Your Voice. Used with permission.

 OL: This is OMF’s second year in production. The premise of OMF is about changing the way Oakland is often negatively perceived by highlighting the creative and artistic expression that comes as a result of living in such a diverse cultural community. Not only did the producers of OMF want to highlight Oakland-based artists, they also wanted to highlight artists on a national level who embody the spirit of Oakland. How has growing up in multiple places, as well as your travels, influenced you creatively?

 JB: It’s mostly about when I’m traveling, about what I can take from where I am, as far as the influence and the inspiration that comes from the different cultures that I’ve been exposed to. Even lifestyle-wise, how people live their lives, down to the types of foods that are popular in certain places. They all affect what I’m doing. To bring it back to Oakland, I’ve spent a lot of time here. It’s very diverse. The history here, as far as culture and art goes, is very powerful here. A lot of Stevie Wonder albums were recorded here. D’Angelo recorded here. There’s been so much musical influence in a lot of different genres of music that came out of the Bay that don’t really get highlighted. I like to take that lifestyle everywhere I go, and definitely spending time here has influenced me and made me want to be more courageous in my art form.

OL: What were you doing when you were previously in Oakland?

JB: Writing. Writing Love Apparatus, I wrote five, six songs here. 

OL: So a lot of inspiration of Love Apparatus, your latest album, can be attributed to Oakland. 

JB: [laughing] Yeah. From the Bay, I never thought about that.

OL: You just completed your set, where you did a lot of crowd participation. How were you feeling the Oakland crowd?

JB: Oakland shows love. I don’t think there’s ever been a time I performed in Oakland, even when I first started in 2007, and did a show [where they didn’t]. It was always like a shout-and-response kind of thing. It’s a very spiritual experience when I’m on stage and I’m performing for the people of Oakland. The upbringing is connectivity, it is the culture, and it is the appreciation and about acknowledging appreciation in that moment. That’s what “Schwaza” means, that’s why I kept yelling that the whole time [on stage]. That’s pretty much what I gain from when I’m in the Bay, is that love, especially when you’re expressing yourself.

OL: Lately, Oakland’s been referred to as the Brooklyn of the West. You’ve been based in Brooklyn for quite some time. Do you get a similar vibe?

JB: All the time. The first time I came to Oakland, all my friends were getting really annoyed with me for about the first week because I kept saying, “This reminds me of Brooklyn, this is awesome!” That’s kind of why I spent a lot of time here: because it’s so familiar to me. As far as coming up in Brooklyn, the art culture, the diversity, the inspiration as well as the different facets of people from different parts of the world coming to one place and building up a community. That’s what I feel from Brooklyn, and that’s what I feel from Oakland when I’m here.

OL: Oakland in a sense is another home for you to come to. 

JB: Yeah, I always tell people one day I’m going to end up living in the Bay, and I mean that.

OL: What’s your beef with the term “neo-soul?”

JB: I wouldn’t call it a beef. I feel like the term was coined during an era, and that era has gone. And nothing against that era because I’ve been heavily influenced from that era — e.g., Erykah Badu, D’Angelo, Raphael Saadiq — but they didn’t come up with the term “neo-soul;” they called it soul. I understand why it’s there, but it definitely puts artists like myself in a box, and I’m trying to do different styles of music. I don’t really like boxes too much, and neo-soul is probably one of the worst boxes to be put in this day and age when we’re so progressive sonically as far as what we’re doing. And not only in alternative R&B or whatever they want to call us, but music that is powerful mind- and emotionally-triggering music. That’s really what it is: it’s good music, or it’s bad music. I just call it soul music because it’s from my heart, from my soul. That’s what I know.

OL: You were recently featured by Timbaland in their Mark Makersseries. You said that you can listen to an album or song and recall what phase of life you were in during that time. What’s one of your songs that marked an important stage in your life?

JB: A lot of songs on Love Apparatus. That was around the time where I felt like I was transitioning from being a lot more self-conscious as far as the music I’ve created, and I just didn’t care anymore as far as how I was being perceived. I just cared about expressing myself. Songs like “Greyscale,” which talks about racial harmony, I say “Blinded by the tone of you, I feel the truth is known, the air is braille, I sense you frown, so I need to hold on.” That’s to symbolize that I don’t care what color you are, if you’re in need and you need help and you’re coming to me, I’m going to try my best to come and give you that. I feel like that’s necessary, that’s needed. People like to judge things by its cover and it’s not necessarily accurate. You might get to chapter six and you might learn something new you needed to know. I always try to keep it pretty open when it comes to people around me. I always try to show love. Other songs [off the album] like “Live in Me” and “The Wonder Years” are about being in this moment of time, and wondering if we’re making the right decisions.

Jesse Boykins III

Image courtesy of Jesse Boykins III

OL: What motivated you to create Love Apparatus, and can you explain the album cover?

JB: The album’s about balance. Being a man growing up in America, there’s a lot of things we’re not taught, or feel like we’re allowed to be. Like emotional, or being feminine, or paying attention to detail. The balance is being both masculine and feminine, and acknowledging both my weaknesses and my strengths. I feel like that’s what love is; it’s not just about bringing roses to your door. It’s improving you, enhancing who you are. Love Apparatus for me was an enhancement. It was a therapy process. The cover represents balance. It’s the heart in one hand and the world in another. My artistic relief is my heart, and me trying to bring that to the world, and the mainstream trying to be in my world and me trying to be in their world. 

OL: You’re an independent artist who made it on BET. How does that happen? 

JB: It was about people believing in me. I don’t feel like I’m ever pretentious or overly fabricated. What I represent is who I am. And I don’t mean in my music, but in my lifestyle, as much as I possibly can. At the end of the day, I’m still a man. When I present myself to certain people, they want to be a part of what I’m doing. BET was one of the first that actually acknowledged who I was, acknowledged my art form and came to my shows and supported me behind the scenes. Then all of a sudden, they decided to put me on 106 & Park, and have me as their first Music Matters artist. I just continue to try to channel and manifest that power and try to will myself to do things that a lot of independent artists aren’t allowed to do. I feel like it’s necessary for independent artists to know that they can do it, too. 

OL: There are so many independent artists in Oakland. What is some advice you can give to them? 

JB: Three things. First of all you should always have the highest thing you can imagine for yourself, and put it at the top of the list, and then put the other goals right under it. Slowly, progressively, go in that direction. That will give you focus. So focus is the first one. It’s so hard to focus, especially in this day and age, especially when you see everyone acting like everything’s good, and everyone’s real pretentious. Everyone has problems, everyone’s going through it, and this is your way of expressing that, at the same time showing the world what you’re good at. The second thing: make sure that your intentions are good. Make sure you’re genuinely doing this because you love it. If you’re doing it and you don’t love it, then it won’t last. The third thing is, make sure you have people around you who believe in you. You can’t be around people who always bring you negativity when you’re bringing something that you’re creating and starting from the ground up. So just be around people who believe in you, be around that energy.

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