By the time I finally learned how to pronounce Oakland documentary filmmaker Yakpazua Zazaboi’s name without stumbling over it, he had dropped out of sight and I lost contact with him for a couple of years. Yap, as he’s called on the streets, was the premier videographer of Oakland’s Sideshow Movement in the years between 1999 and 2004, recording hours of footage at the immense after hours gatherings at the Pac ‘N Save parking lot on Hegenberger and then, when the police chased the events into the neighborhoods, following them into the heart of the neighborhoods of Deep East Oakland.
The Oakland sideshows gave birth to an entire video genre. Yap’s 2001 Sydewayz Volume I documentary was far and above the best of the group, an effort to both celebrate and explain rather than to sensationalize. The film captured the reality of the gatherings so well that once Oakland police played excerpts at a public meeting at Eastmont Mall set up by Oakland Councilmember Larry Reid to try to build public support for the first of a series of police and political crackdowns on the events. Yap didn’t so much mind the use of his footage without his permission as he did the fact that the police had shown only the provocative parts with drivers doing donouts in the middle of the street, while leaving out the portions that showed incidents of police misconduct, or the interviews of participants telling why they were out there. When Zazaboi objected to this slanted editing, he was hustled out of the meeting by police officers.
That wasn’t the only time he met resistance from Oakland authorities for his efforts. At another meeting on the sideshows at Frick Middle School, Councilmember Reid publicly accused him of using his videotaping activities as a cover for drug dealing. Though Yap readily admits that he had once briefly slung dope while growing up in San Francisco—like many other young African-American men of this era—he had been out of the game for years, long ago giving up dealing crack for developing creative arts. For a while after the release of Sidewayz Volume I, however, he was forced to leave town to keep the heat off of him from the Oakland police.
In this, Yap’s experiences were reminiscent of another Oakland journalist and creative artist a hundred years before, who made a living as a young man stealing oysters from the rich, privately owned beds up and down the bay, and was once arrested for making a speech endorsing socialism in the square in front of Oakland City Hall. That young Oaklander later went on to some fame as the novelist, Jack London, for which we named both a square and the tree in City Hall Plaza in front of which he was arrested.
Like London, Zazaboi is both provocative, doggedly persistent, and a perfectionist. Despite the fact that Sydewayz Volume I was universally praised as a first effort and was good enough to win a Black Filmmakers Hall Of Fame award for community film, it wasn’t good enough for Yap himself. Around 2003 he began slowing down his shooting of raw footage, telling friends and supporters that he was spending time paring down his vast collection of sideshow videotape footage into a second volume that would be “of more professional quality.” He continued to perfect his editing as a student in the Media Department at Laney College, getting so good craft that teacher Oji Blackston eventually gave him the virtual run of the department and its equipment, often calling on Yap to help tutor other students who needed special attention. In the two years between 2004 and 2006, associates passed on the word that he was hard at work editing Volume II, taking so long because he wanted to get it right.
On Tuesday night of this week, Yap showed up at the Grand Lake Theater and threw his newly-released Sydewayz—Get Hypy video on the screen to show what he’s been doing all these long months. It was worth the wait.
Where Sydewayz Part I showed the potential of an up-and-coming local talent, Sydewayz—Get Hyphy is talent realized, a polished, professional, incredibly brilliant effort that does what every documentary filmmaker dreams of: it puts the viewer in the middle of a world—on its own terms, in its own words, with its own views and visions and pulsing energy—that most of us could never, otherwise, possibly enter.
Backed by a driving, infectious soundtrack, the opening shot of the video shows the standard sideshow scene, a car doing intricate maneuvers in the middle of an East Oakland parking lot, tires squealing, yellow smoke all but obscuring a single young man who bounces and waves his hands in the air as he steps effortlessly in and out of the auto’s path.
Seeing this scene—so similar to what we’ve watched in television news footage for the past five years—most adults will shake their heads and wonder “what the hell?” and “why?”
Without lecturing, using the participants’ own words and impressive footage sometimes shot from inside the spinning cars themselves, Zazaboi’s new documentary shows how unnecessary and unanswerable that question really is. Sideshow driving—when done by the best performers—is a combination of bucking bronco riding and dancing, intricate, rhythmic maneuvering on the back of a powerful, wild animal. Why do people stop their cars in the middle of an intersection to spin a donut? You might as well ask why men become rodeo cowboys, or people dance the tango or do the electric slide. Sometimes, things are done for the thing itself, and for no other reason.
For those who either don’t have the high-performance cars needed to perform the sideshow street maneuvers, or else don’t have the skills or “handles” to pull them off, there is the option of playing the matador, standing in the middle of the spinning circles and letting the bumpers miss you by inches. Sometimes the bumpers don’t miss, and the new Sydewayz video shows two spectacular pedestrian collisions. Dangerous? Certainly. Dumb? Some would say most definitely. But then, it is no more dumb and dangerous than the men who annually get out in the streets of Pamplona and run with the bulls, risking getting tossed and gored in an event celebrated in literature—Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises—and venerated as an example of Spanish culture.
Sideshows are not part of Spanish culture, and that is part of the problem with why Oakland has not made a serious effort to find a place for them that satisfies their need for release and recreation and does not disturb our neighborhoods. Sideshows are not of Mexican origin, either, though many of Oakland’s Chicano youth have participated in the events and are some of the most proficient drivers. But shown through the eye of Zazaboi’s lens, you immediately see the distinctly African roots of the sideshow phenomenon, from the hyphy head-bobbing to the rhythmic car maneuvers reminiscent of the calling up of primeval beasts. And not the polite, Europeanized Africa so often seen in some of the larger, coastal cities, full of pretty prints and proper ways, but the heart of the continent, the deep bush, Congo Africa, what the author Joseph Conrad castigated as the heart of darkness, and what the rap group Public Enemy said made some people fear a black planet, but also the symbolic spot within where so many young African-Americans now retreat inside themselves to find form their own communities and find comfort and non-judgmental acceptance. It is the part of Oakland many of us—black, white, or other—don’t like to talk about, or even acknowledge.
But the new Sydewayz video allows Oakland to stop, for a moment, the unproductive debate on whether or not we should allow sideshows on our streets, instead to focus on the incredible talent hidden in our midst. With the release of this video, Yakpazua Zazaboi has broken through that veil of obscurity and proven himself as a creative powerhouse. He’s on his way. But there are others out there, still nameless, passing us by in anonymous waves, staring at us out of deep, dark eyes, wondering when they will be noticed, and what they must do to be seen. We may find them annoying and even frightening and we may not like or even understand how they express themselves. But then, many of them probably feel the same way about us.
Sydewayz—Get Hyphy is the opening sentence in a new Oakland dialogue. The question is, what will we say back?
[For sake of full disclosure, I appear in the video in a small, non-driving role. I hope that doesn’t stop anybody from seeing it.]