Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Oakland in Popular Memory: A Rare Ode

I'd like to firmlyyet gently cajole you to buy, borrow or talk about Matt Werner's shiny new book, Oakland in Popular Memory.  The idea of "popular memory" is a nice Jungian concept to befit a book on Oakland, California...

Chorus: Nobody really knows what happened in Oakland!

Chorus: People say Oakland was taken....

(Audience): Taken?

Chorus: Taken!

(Audience): Taken?

Chorus: Taken!

The world's "popular memory" of Oakland seems heavily stacked these days by large media outlets who let the bleedingest stories about Oakland lead.  Oakland has always "suffered" (or profited?) from a reputation "problem" (or asset?).  It has some similarities with South London, especially Peckham, Deptford, Southwark, Lewisham and New Cross.  Oakland used to be the end of the train line.  If you got on in New York and never got off, you'd finish in Oakland.  It's always attracted a renegade, even derelict spirit.  So, naturally, Oakland is the birthplace of the Hell's Angels and the place where Clint Eastwood was punished for riding his motorcycle on his high school football field.  

Vintage Oakland Hotels.

Oaklanders are often too busy to respond to criticism.  And, really, why should they?  It's an original idea to interview people who are actually from Oakland about Oakland, and publish it.  If it was ever done before, it was years ago.  Oakland was a different place.

Werner writes of the feeling in the air at Life is Living, the 2011 festival that headlined a free ?uestlove concert in either DeFremery or Lil' Bobby Hutton park, depending on who's asking, in West Oakland.  There was barbecue from the Oakland Black Cowboy Association.  There was a halfpipe.  There was corn on the cob.  There were a lot of creative eco-herbal neo-hairstyles.  But there was also a feeling that Oakland had become itself, for once, again, after everything.  It was the feeling I got when I watched the Oakland Technical High School football team when Marshawn Lynch played there.  Inspiring.

It was especially inspiring to see people of all walks of life smiling, around music, in a "problem neighborhood" in West Oakland.  Maybe if there's no there here, there need be no fear here, either.  ?uestlove, speaking into a mic handed him at the end of his set, said that he loved playing to so many people who "look like" him.  "I don't get a chance to do that very often," added the bandleader of Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.  

Gertrude Stein, straight outta East Oakland.

Werner talks about another phenomenon, "Oaklandphobia," we might call it, based on his Dora, a certain sorority girl at a UC Berkeley party, who claimed that Oakland is just the kind of place that nobody should go, with the possible occasional exceptions of Zachary's Pizza on College Ave. and the Pixared, world-famous, recently burnt to a crisp and rebuilt Fenton's Creamery on Piedmont.

Werner's sorority girl (can we track her down for an interview?  Which blog does she write for?) is a fleeting instance of a much larger epidemic: being afraid of stuff you don't know about.  I, too, am influenced by the epidemic: when I take an airplane, there's the part of my brain that refuses to know that airplanes do function relatively well (just as well as the guardrails on a freeway or the tests the FDA runs on meat).  You can judge and judge a community, a neighborhood, a school, a politician, but at the end of the day the only way to know about it is to engage.

Painted by

As the product of an engagement with Oakland, Werner's book is a fascinating glimpse into an emerging niche genre: Oakland studies.  There's something irreplaceable and labyrinthine in the history of Oakland, from Jack London to Cottrell Dellums' Pullman Porters, Too $hort to Tom Hanks.  The contemporary scene is just as exciting, from food to design to art and music.  Books about Oakland populate shelves around the world.

The Pointer Sisters.

In London, for instance, Kodwo Eshun showed Haile Gerima's Bush Mama (inspired by 1970's Oakland) to a discussion group at Gasworks Gallery in Lambeth.  Like the Idora Park days (when, for instance, one guy came to Oakland from the UK, pitched a tent at Lake Temescal, lived there with his family, and then founded an art school), 2012 is a time of Oakland welcoming people who use magazine articles to decide where they will move next.  

The idea of a municipality coming in and out of fashion can be strange to people who grew up in it.  Oakland was once a small town, and now it's well on its way to being a cosmopolitan metropolis.  It has been hellish and utopian, sometimes at once.  Contrary to popular belief, Black culture does not simply resist cosmopolitanization.  In many cases it openly promotes it, as in the 1980's when Oakland artists, from The Coup to 415, taught the world that Oakland is a place of its own, with a vibe of its own.

415, the group that started the career of Richie Rich, and inspired Snoop Dogg, Nate Dogg and Warren G.

Is the world becoming more cosmopolitan?  Kwame Anthony Appiah thinks so, and another West African philosopher, Achille Mbembe, has coined the word "Afropolitan" to account for the increasing diversification of cosmopolitanism.

Werner's book treats Oakland as a kind of collective misapprehension--a murky story, to say the least.  I like this approach because of its honesty.

Yet there is a kind of 'founding myth' that '1960's bay area radicals' like to tell.  It is at once inspiring, touching, and unnerving.  It tends to make its teller appear wise and neutral, and the world appear indescribably crazy.  It goes something like this:

The 1960's were a time full of repression, possibility and revolution.  That's true throughout the world.  The United States was hell-bent on destroying itself, based on a huge, traumatic war and a myriad of smaller wars at home led by people like J. Edgar Hoover.  

Bay area residents, perhaps more so than the residents of other places, saw that things were possible other ways.  They pulled off what Harry Hay called the "ugly green frog skin of conformity" and became who they already were.  As James Baldwin wrote,

There were many blacks and whites together: it was hard to tell which was the imitation.  They were so free that they believed in nothing; and didn't realize that this illusion was their only truth and that they were doing exactly as they had been told.

Something revolutionary went on here, goes on here, was here, will be here, lives here, sleeps here, thinks about here.  Oakland is the Hollywood of Radicalism.  The variety?  You name it.  Disabled rights, Tribal rights, slow food, Alice Waters' California Cuisine, Rick Ayers' "small schools movement," independently-owned music labels, and personal computing.

Embellishments aside, there's some truth to the founding myth.  There was something radical in the music--Alice Coltrane lived here, and I saw, years ago, someone playing a massive gong in public, and there was a man yelling through a megaphone, and you might (still) see an American car, with trimmings, rolling down the street like a bowling ball dropped on the ground, blasting a Zapp and Roger thumpy synthesizer slap-bass jam that your children will dance to in high school:

There were Hari Krishnas chanting and wearing thousand-year-old robe fashions, and there was a man who wore lily-white gloves and stood on the corner of 51st Street and MLK and waved at the line of commuters sifting away from the MacArthur Maze.  His street, formerly known as Grove, was renamed after King.  Scholars link many political changes to the influence of the Black Panther Party, founded as an organization for self-defense, in the building which is now the Children's Hospital Oakland Research Institute.

The Black Panthers have filtered into the rest of society, many of their community-service functions having been 'adopted,' however slowly, by other institutions, such as medical clinics and legal support groups for prisoners.  The Panthers are still in Oakland.  If you don't see any Panthers walking around Oakland, you're not really looking. If you're in London, go see bay area author/producer Pat Thomas at "Listen Whitey: The sounds of Black Power 1965-1975" presented by The University of East London at Iniva,  1 Rivington Place, EC2A 3BA on Monday October 15th at 18:30.

Like London, Oakland is more than what we've imagined.  Like London, it's not a "black city," or a "white city"--diversity is its defining characteristic.  

What do we mean by "diversity"?  We're not sure yet, are we?

I see diversity becoming the imagination of a hybrid future, rather than anything that exists now.  Diversity is breathing in the strange fresh air of science fiction, listening to Alice Coltrane and early Miles Davis, from Jack Johnson to Get Up With It, watching comedians like W. Kamau Bell and Dick Gregory, going to see the Otolith Group, and appreciating Marlon Brando for dodging military duty by reporting his race as "Human" on his draft card.

Maybe Werner will write another volume of Oakland interviews.  I'd love to see one with the Turf Feinz, M.C. Hammer, Shock-G, Billie Joe Armstrong, Michael Lewis, or Joanna Newsom.

Deltron Zero.

Sunday, 16 September 2012

The McGurk Effect

Hearing Lips And Seeing Voices: The McGurk Effect - The funniest movie is here. Find it
Via Joe Banks' Rorschach Audio - Strange Attractor Press (a wonderful book that lands between Steve Goodman's military-genic sonic ecologies and Steven Connor's other worldly enquires into Edison and ventriloquism....nice interview with Banks here)

edit - Joe Banks' blog here