Royal Fanfare

I remember coming up in the early 2000’s riding down the Foothill strip with a car full of people that ain’t here no more. These people were my cousin’s potnas and I was just with my cousin because he didn’t want to go home, so he spent the night on our couch. My sister had to study and she didn’t like how our 19-year-old energy permeated the small house. It was distracting to her so my cousin called one of his homeboys and he swooped us up. My cousin had hella homeboys back then. Before the court cases, before John George Psychiatric Ward, right after he broke up with his baby mama, but before he played his last season of college football so his eyes were still looking to the future. We hopped in the car headed to Mills Hoagie on Seminary. We busted a left down MacArthur until we got to the light on 73rd when the driver, some chubby dude that I had never met before but my cousin seemed to know well enough said; “I’m tired of this shit” referring to Yukmouth’s Thuglord C.D. I was kind of pissed because Yuk was running the bay at the moment and The Outro was about to come on which was the hardest track on the album and the dopest autobiographical track ever written.

“Did she leave it in the car blood?” He was digging through the glovebox like crazy looking for something.

“Leave what?”

“The Jack?”

“What?”

“That Mob Figaz CD. The Jacka.”

“Oh it’s under the seat blood.”

He put that CD in and it stayed in. And we listened. And never, as we rode all around East Oakland to High Street to Fonk Town back to 106th, did we ask him to take it out.

 

“It’s the Jaaaaack. Yeah I’m a dope dealer and on top of that I’m a liar and a stealer.”

Every now and then I would ask a question about this rapper because, like everyone else in the car besides my cousin, I didn’t know him. As blunts were being passed around that little car in every direction and as girls were being hollered at and harassed like;

“Heyyyyy girl what’s your name?”

I found out he was from Richmond but moved to Pittsburgh. They told me that C-Bo had put him on. They assured me that he was hard and that he wasn’t next but that he was now. The Jacka is poppin right now!

“This shit pound,” my cousin said as he inhaled the smoke. And the more he inhaled the more he seemed to believe it.

“Yeah it do,” I confirmed.

I’ve never smoked but I didn’t need to in order to understand that this man was telling us about our own lives in first person narration. We were enraged by everything. We felt the walls of the trap closing in on us and we were fighting for more time, for more breath, fighting in order to figure out what was happening. Why did failure feel like our destiny? Why couldn’t we push these walls back and be liberated or have someone pull the lever into the off position right before we perished just like in an old episode of Batman and Robin or The Dukes of Hazard or The A-Team or MacGyver or any of those shows when the good guys never die. We were young men, but men all the same and we were beginning to understand that we weren’t the good guys. That millions of people weren’t watching our story unfold in suspense hoping so desperately that we survived, that they refused to go to the restroom because they didn’t want to miss the inevitable escape. We were beginning to understand with every false arrest, with every real arrest, with every funeral, with every ended relationship with a pregnant girlfriend, with every class that we dropped at community college, with every institution that refused to hire us, that no one ever expected us to make it. That wasn’t how the game was played. We were born at the bottom, and we were supposed to stay at the bottom, and never complain about it. And the only power that we ever had was to make our neglected ghettos with Arab owned liquor stores on the corner, and dope fiends tweaking on the sidewalk, and broken shards of glass in the street, seem cool. To play a trick on those who were fortunate enough not to hear men being blown away every night when neighborhoods feuded and go to schools where the ceilings leaked water on your journal in the middle of class whenever it rained, and make them feel like they were the ones who were missing out. The Jacka had put a spotlight on our particular Bay Area brand of misery and made our lifestyle feel glamorous. He had placed us right in the middle of the culture. All of us. I swear. And he never stopped.

I’m the Jack, ice cold mack from the Figaz

Locked in the county, shared my cell with a killer

All he ever said was Jack, I never heard a nigga realer

Fat shout out to the four XIV gorillas

All my niggas doing life, do what I can to make it better

Five years later and of the four people in that car: One of us would be dead, another would be in a mental institution, and one would be in prison. And we rode through town in that little bucket like we knew that the fuse was lit and we had to get it all in before we were blown to pieces. We gigged super hard at every stop light and rolled through stop signs like we didn’t have hella weed in the car and like we weren’t born looking suspicious. It didn’t matter. We stunted like we weren’t poor and confused and like that little car belong to one of us as opposed to the driver’s girlfriend’s mother. Let us tell it we were all bosses and it was nothing to a boss. It was our town; it was our world and somehow we were able to convince ourselves that we had no reason to be scared of what was to come because we would force the ruling class to make room for our greatness.

The Jacka spoke to all the pain that we were trying to numb out. The trauma that we were going through and would continue to go through. And he validated our lives in a way that even our own mothers could not because he was a man. Because he had to struggle mightily to be able to compare the California ghettos to a battlefield in the Vietnam War. He had to have been hated on severely to warn us that we might be the greatest but people will never say it. So we rode around East Oakland feeling like four kings being welcomed into Buckingham Palace and The Jacka’s CD was our Royal Fanfare. By the time I was brought back home it was pitch black and many daps were given before I exited the car. I went to bed thinking hard about the track called, Die Young until I fell asleep. The next morning I woke up and went to Tower Records at Bayfair Mall and bought The Jacka of the Mob Figaz and listened to it nonstop on my way to class.

-YB

 

 

 

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Notes on The Fire at 73rd and Macarthur

EAST OAKLAND FIRE AFTERMATH

I sat in Eastmont Barbershop for hours as a young boy. Looking out of the window while waiting on the best fade in town. I stared out onto 73rd and Macarthur Boulevard at all of the Cougars and Mustangs, Chevelles, Novas, and Cutlasses that were coming from the carwash on 90th and Mac and gearing up to hit the Foothill strip. They would rev their engines up until the 73rd light finally changed then they’d peel out down the block. This was back in the 90’s when the Foothill Strip was two lanes and everyone who had access to a car from all parts of the town would ride it every weekend all the way to Lake Merritt. It started right there on 73rd and Mac. 73rd and Macarthur is the gateway to Deep East Oakland going one way and the start of the Foothill strip going in the opposite direction. It lay right in the center of the largest black community in Northern California. It’s a major thoroughfare. It’s important. And now as of yesterday morning the whole block has been burned to the ground.

 

As I look at the changing demographics in the area right above Macarthur Boulevard and to a lesser extent below it I suspect, no I know, that it’s a blatant case of insurance fraud. A few blocks down on 77th and Macarthur there were also a few businesses that were burned under mysterious circumstances. Someone is reaping the money from this destruction while local children must endure a neighborhood that looks like present day Damascus. These building will remain burned out until enough white people move into the neighborhood. Then they will buy it and then this community will go the way of West Oakland, the way of Brooklyn, the way of Brixton, and the way of D.C. And all things poor and black will be shipped off to a suburb 50 miles away.

 

To love a ghetto as much as I love mine may seem oxymoronical to an outsider. I love the way we struggle. I love the bluntness and the humility of hood life. I love the pride of the people even though it is far too often misplaced in street corners and cars and gang signs. I love the blackness. Much more significant and perhaps much more telling, however, is this fact: I love my hood because my hood is all that I know. I’ve gotten degrees and come back here. I’ve gone around the world and come back here. I’ve taken a chance with a woman or two but always I’ve come back here. And now as I look at 73rd and Macarthur the only thing I see is my childhood all aflame and my heart in ashes. The invaders have made their move and indeed they have left their mark.

 

-YB

Faith in the Ghetto (An East Oakland Photostory)

So I recently hit the avenues and backstreets of Oakland, CA to take some pictures for The Oakland influence: Three Women from Oakland, CA share their thoughts wisdom and hope for the future (a creative project that I’ve been working on for the better part of 2012. Hopefully it’s coming soon) and as I searched tirelessly for beautiful black women to photograph I realized how faith-based my Deep East Oakland community is. As a matter of fact even the door to my home has a cross with the words “He Is Risen” inscribed on it. Which I never noticed until my Jewish friend pointed it out a few years ago. At any rate while I put the finishing touches on The Oakland Influence I thought I’d share a few depictions of faith in the ghetto.

The landlord of this apartment complex is apparently very outwardly Christian.

This apartment complex is part of the infamous Macarthur strip, however, one may think it was in the Holy Land based on this very outward display of Christian faith.

A little religious humor.

I found this clever poster on a home in the backstreets of East Oakland. I really wish that I had come across it in junior high school though. It would have made me feel good to know that even though the young ladies never looked twice at my nerdy self, Jesus still loved me.

Angelique represents!

Here we have a young woman who was literally raised in the church. So I decided to take a picture of her in front of her 2nd home.

Though shalt not kill.

I really liked how this mural flips the biblical passage Though Shalt Not Kill. Obviously it’s very important and unfortunately the message is extremely relevant in East Oakland.

 

When people discuss the identity of East Oakland they often speak of sideshows, drugs, police brutality, and crime but if they really knew the area they would be more inclined to incorporate faith into the conversation. The flatlands of Oakland is a very spiritual place that I was only able to show a small piece of in this blog; but maybe one Sunday morning you can come see it for yourself. There  are more places of worship than there are liquor stores, hair salons, and barber shops in this area that has been given the dubious title “Baby Iraq.” Even though my community is neglected economically we never neglect our Lord and Savior.

Amen

PS Be on the lookout for The Oakland Influence featuring journalist Niema Jordan, founder of Outdoor Afro Rue Mapp, and Emergency Medical Physician Evelyn Porter.

Peace and thanks for reading.

Giving juvenile offenders a second chance at Oakland’s Youth UpRising

Photo credit: http://youthuprising.org

Note: Here is a piece that I recently wrote for a local online publication.

 

The Youth Uprising Social Enterprises complex at 8711 MacArthur Boulevard in East Oakland serves as an oasis of positivity in an otherwise destitute and severely underserved community.

On the ground leading up to the front door of the 25,000 square foot facility are the words “KNOWLEDGE OF” in multicolored letters, which intersect with the word “Self,” spelled out in solid black print.

On any given day there is a multitude of youth from the ages of 13-24 who are strongly encouraged to be themselves in the facility. Youth Uprising is home to a recording studio, dance studio, computer lab, skate park, basketball court, restaurant, media center and is still growing. The atmosphere at YU is the furthest thing from stressful for the young people who attend and it is even further from the sometimes-hopeless attitude that seems to permeate the air right outside its doors.

This is why since October of last year, Youth Uprising has been successfully running an Evening Reporting Center for juvenile offenders. The Evening Reporting Center, as Youth Uprising President and CEO Olis Simmons explains, is based on a national model, but it is the first of its kind in Alameda County.

“It’s based on the notion that juveniles who are low to medium risk are better served in the community than they are [in jail],” Simmons says. “The chance of changing their trajectory in life is increased when we provide a community base, a hub and a builder of positive social capitol for them.”

The center also can be seen as a mandatory after-school program for youngsters who have been found in violation of the law. In order for them to maintain their freedom they must report straight to Youth Uprising after school where they must stay until 8 p.m.

This relatively new installment of YU has four major components that have contributed to its success in keeping black and brown kids out of juvenile hall:

  • Culturally relevant meaningful activities such as art, sports, music, etc.
  • The consistent presence of caring adults so they know that some people will always be there for them.
  • They all have dinner together.
  • And all the youth who are part of the center get a ride home.

This formula has already changed the lives of several kids in the program. At least one who started out going to the court mandated Evening Reporting Center, finished out his term, found out that YU Lead (a youth leadership program also at Youth Uprising) was looking for young people to serve on their youth advisory board, interviewed and landed a spot on the team. He is now “like a rock star in YU lead. [He] speaks up and takes initiative and is like exactly what we would want from our children,” Simmons says beaming with pride.

The Evening Reporting Center, specifically, and Youth Uprising, in general, serve to fulfill the void that was left by the crack epidemic, the AIDS epidemic and the mass departure of blue collar jobs from Oakland. Although these issues may take several generations to fix when you walk into Youth Uprising you get a sense that the young people of today are definitely headed in the right direction.
YB

A Powerful Photograph

March 2, 12

The power of a photograph should never be underestimated. I was on facebook today when I was tagged in a collection of pictures posted by a close friend. There were 3 photographs all taken around the time we were 19-years-old. In one of the photographs I was sitting on the top of a mustang with the nappy beginnings of dreadlocks in my head. I was surrounded by friends; a couple of them were looking away, and at least one of them was throwing up his hood. It’s a very nostalgic shot. It’s really tender and it’s hella East Oakland.

But it was another picture that overwhelmed me. It was the one of my cousin and another dude taken during lunchtime. We were seniors and the photograph depicts my cousin being his normal goofy self with his braided leather belt hanging down in between his legs touching the concrete like an elongated penis. Behind him is a row of our potnas standing on a bench. Everything was so chill. Everyone was so oblivious, and life was so fresh.

This was about a year or so before my cousin had his first child, and before he caught his first case. It was before he lost his first athletic scholarship and his second. It was before schizophrenia and before the penitentiary. It was, in essence, before we were old enough to truly fail.

When I saw the photograph I turned by computer off and I let a few tears flow. He was such a kid back then. We were children. He was a star athlete, a goofy dude, and one of the realist, most genuine people I have ever known.

His father used to get drunk and tell stories about when he himself was little and some of his other siblings were mean to him and kicked him out in the cold because he used to pee in the bed and my mother would come pick him up out of the snow and put him in the bed with her.

He is my cousin therefore I cannot recall the first time we met. For all intents and purposes he has been around since the beginning of time, as I know it. But now he’s become unraveled and it hurts. It hurts him and it hurts me as well.

That picture brought something back that is gone forever. Even though it’s lost I guess I’m glad someone took the time to capture it. It’s such a powerful photograph.

-YB

Oakland’s Finest

October 30, 2011

Police in my city have made world-wide news for brutalizing peaceful protestors and I truly hope that no one is surprised. After all we are speaking of the same police department that served as the foot soldiers for the unlawful dismantling of the Black Panther Party. Therefore should it really shock anyone to discover that a young man can survive two tours of duty in Iraq completely unscathed only to live in Oakland, CA for less than a year and have his skull fractured by the police?

 

Before Occupy Oakland became an official part of the movement Oakland was already occupied by the boys in blue. I grew up in an impoverished underserved community on the East side of town in which a police station was built before we even had a grocery store to buy fresh food. As a matter of fact the very room in which I attended preschool in Eastmont Mall has since been converted into jail cells to temporarily house inmates on the way to county lock up. I’ve seen police brutality, I’ve experienced police brutality, and I’ve known police brutality for as long as my skin has been black.

 

So I see this young man named Scott Olson lying helpless in the street with blood streaming down his face. I see the cops continue to pump rounds of “Nonlethal” projectiles into anyone who is brave enough to cross the line in an attempt to retrieve him or offer him medical-aid and I think to myself; how vile, how disgusting, how typical of police in Oakland.

I must be honest with you all when I say that I am not a very well traveled man. I’ve never spent a semester in South Africa, or been to a convention in Spain. I’ve never studied in Iran either. However I always had a hunch that the police officers that I deal with on a near daily basis have got to be one of the most repressive forces in the entire world. Of all the places around the globe being “Occupied” I have yet to see a crack-down remotely similar to what took place in my town a few nights ago.

 

As enraged as I am about the whole situation, I can’t help but to feel just a slight bit validated and if you were from Oakland then I’m sure you would feel the same way.

 

-YB