Column: Undercurrents: Using Music to Unite a Community

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Friday September 08, 2006

In the autumn of my 19th year, I was living with a group of friends in a row house in the northwest section of D.C. These were poverty times—on days I could put together a solid dollar bill in my pocket, I felt fabulous. I went out looking for a job each day, with no luck. Finally, embarrassed that I was the only one in the house not bringing anything home for meals, I went into a supermarket and tried to shoplift a steak. Bad idea, like our governor used to say in his movies. I made it as far as the doorway past the checkout stands—after that, it was a fairly short drive down to the D.C. Detention Center and then a visit with the night court judge for arraignment. 

This was my lucky night, however. Even before the public defender had a chance to say anything, the judge set me free on one of those famous legal technicalities—the one that says you have to actually leave the store before you can be convicted of taking something from the store. Anyway, following my release, the public defender handed me a card from some sort of special city employment program, telling me to take it down to the Employment Office and they’d take care of me. Must have been some magic runes written on that card because even though several experienced workers ahead of me were told that there was no work that day, as soon as I walked up and handed the employment clerk the card, I got a referral to a job in a department store stock room. 

I’ve continued to believe it was one of life’s odd ironies, getting a job at a department store not in spite of the fact that I’d been caught shoplifting but because of it. But there was another lesson. So long as I was just another young black man wandering the streets of a city full of young black men, who cared about me? But at the point I decided to take the radical step of stealing, they sat up and paid attention, and I got what I had been looking for all along—a job—without even having to ask for it. 

If it is only the squeaky wheels that get the grease, my guess is you will end up with more squeaking rather than less, an unintended consequence that Oakland should pay attention to in the midst of this bloody year. 

Sometimes even elaborate youth programs are not necessary. Though these are certainly helpful, it can often be enough that the adults of this city let the too-often-outcast youth know that we welcome their presence and honor their spirit, and that we will fight and take chances to make certain a place at Oakland’s table is always laid out for them. 

On Labor Day Sunday, for one example, the East Bay Dragons Motorcycle Club blocked off 88th Avenue between International Boulevard and A Street in East Oakland for their annual end-of-the-summer block party. That portion of International is one of the roughest areas of the city, but the Dragons built their reputations in the rough days of the 60’s and the 70’s, and though they have mellowed out and now have grandchildren to think of—or, maybe, because they have mellowed out and now have grandchildren to think of—they get their respect, and so their gatherings tend not to get out of hand. 

I stopped by early to buy a plate of barbecue from one of the vendors, and to watch the little children’s hyphy dance competition on a flatbed truck the Dragons had set up in the street as a stage, the participants ranging from between 5 to 10 years of age, the kids getting recognition from the entire community—not just their peers—for their accomplishments. The kids, and the adults, loved it. 

Hyphy is a music/dance form that is difficult for outsiders to describe or interpret—the important thing is that it is the new wave of national hip hop, with acknowledged roots on the Oakland streets. A city more in tune with its own culture—and less automatically antagonistic to too many of its youth—might figure out a way for all of us to benefit from such things. 

Meanwhile, Oakland District Six Councilmember Desley Brooks is putting on her second year of free concerts at East Oakland’s Arroyo Viejo Park with a cautious inclusion of hyphy/hip hop that is attracting more young people to the events. A year ago, the concerts were pointedly old school, emphasizing 70’s acts like Tower Of Power and Rose Royce, with perhaps one rap group each time. While the headliner for last year’s final concert was locally-born, nationally-known hip hop performer and producer D’Wayne Wiggins, he puts out decidedly un-gangsta sounds, the emphasis being on melody, impressive harmony, and sharp and energetic guitar licks over the infectious hip hop beat. Gangsta is not hyphy, but because they both get the young folks excited, old folks like myself sometimes get them confused, even though gangsta often celebrates the thug life and violence, but hyphy is aimed more towards good time celebrating. 

Anyways, at Brooks’ Arroyo series’ first concert last month, the producers included a whole section of hyphy, with the deejay exhorting the young people to “get up and show the old people how it’s done.” Coming shortly after the OG’s (or old folks) beat down the lawn grass with the electric slide, it was a fascinating moment, the first time in many years I had seen African-American youth and elders party together at roughly the same time. Such bridging of the generational gap in social gatherings—weddings and festivals and the like where older and younger dance the same dances to the same music—is common in almost every culture around the world, but got broken down and torn apart in the American consumer culture, which needs to isolate different “markets” so that they can be sold to with greater precision. That may be good for the business of music, but it is bad for the social health of our communities, since it serves to remove young people from the presence and influence of their elders during social gatherings. 

Councilmember Brooks is taking an enormous chance here by attracting more young people to East Oakland gatherings, and she knows it. She is the Barry Bonds of Oakland politics—decidedly unloved by most of the local press—and if any problems break out at the concerts with the young participants, many reporters and columnists will almost certainly jump on her feet first. That would be a shame, because there is something special being built here in the heart of East Oakland. The Arroyo concerts are being patrolled in part by members of the Nation of Islam’s Fruit of Islam security contingent—who tend to treat African-Americans with great respect and therefore tend to get respect in return, similar to what happens with the East Bay Dragons.  

Security duty at the Arroyo concerts is also shared with Oakland police officers. But either because they picked the right officers or gave the right orders, the OPD officers at the Arroyo concerts are acting different than they do at most gatherings in Oakland’s deep hoods. At last month’s concert they mingled with the crowd, smiling and talking with people as they walked through, acting as if we were all part of the same community and were there to protect the gatherers, not to eyeball them suspiciously, looking for every minor transgression. Some of the police stood on the edge of the crowd and played catch football with a group of the youngsters, the game going on for a half hour or so. Acting this way, the police did not create tension by their presence as they too often do around young African-Americans. It was a learning experience all-around, a lesson to be remembered when one realizes that it was clashes between Oakland police and young African-Americans that ended two of Oakland’s most successful annual festivals, the Festival At The Lake and Carijama. Some people believe those clashes were inevitable. But others think they could have been avoided by a different attitude from the police. 

Meanwhile, I notice that the Berkeley Community Theatre is hosting a hip hop concert this weekend, part of something called the 2K Sports Bounce Tour and featuring a Tribe Called Quest. While Oakland actively discourages rap and hip hop concerts because of the potential for violence, Berkeley continues to quietly hold them, drawing audiences from the African-American communities of neighboring Oakland and Richmond as well, the events going on so well that no one outside the hip hop community even notices. What is Berkeley doing that Oakland is not? 

I don’t have a ready answer for that. But maybe, with so much emphasis on Oakland’s violence almost to the exclusion of everything else at times, we are missing some important things happening, and some ways to heal our community and bring it back together.