The Root Cities: Oakland's Hip-Hop Activism

Boots Riley of the Coup (Getty Images)

One of the hallmarks of Oakland, Calif, is its activism and politics and its longtime alignment with hip-hop culture. When I say "aligned," I'm not talking about a rapper doing a song where he spits a couple of cool verses with a socially relevant message. Don't get me wrong; that's important, too, but that's just surface stuff. Political involvement requires much more. As a radio journalist, writer and activist who's been living in Oakland for the past 22 years, I feel privileged to live in a city where hip-hop and political activism are so closely linked.

The attitude in Oakland is that everything is political. Even being apolitical is political. Folks understand that politics is a rough-and-tumble sport; a closed mouth doesn't get fed. Here, the end goal is not just getting the chosen one elected into office. Holding folks accountable is paramount, and going beyond the limits of electoral politics is how many see the political landscape. Voting is a tool, but not the only tool to bring about change. Hip-hop is another tool, a potent way to communicate with the masses.


In Oakland, hip-hop activists have been intimately involved with progressive movements originating in the Bay Area, from "Green for Jobs for All" to "Justice for Oscar Grant and Police Accountability" to "Media Justice" to the landmark 1999 "Fight Against Prop 21" (Juvenile Crime Bill). In addition to creating mixtapes and compilation albums and doing shows and performances at rallies and demonstrations, many artists and practitioners are also organizers, message framers and rank-and-file participants.

There's a long list of Oakland hip-hop acts who see themselves as political organizers and musical artists: Boots Riley from the Coup; Ise Lyfe; T-Kash; graf writer Refa 1; Queen Deelah of Turf Unity/Silence the Violence; Prophet of Anhk Marketing; Zakiya Harris and Ambessa Cantave of Grind for the Green; Malkia Cyril of the Center for Media Justice; Marcel Diallo of the Black Dot Cafe; Seazons and J-Bless of the Oakland Green Youth Arts & Media Center; and Marc Bamuthi Joseph of Youth Speaks

The notion of the artist as activist is rooted in a long tradition that goes back to the heyday of the Black Panthers, the Black Arts Movement and other organizing efforts around the Black Power movements and liberation struggles that were popular here in Oakland during the 1960s and '70s. Back then, activists figured out that one of the most effective ways to engage a community was through cultural expression.

The Panthers did this effectively with the artwork of Emory Douglas, who was their minister of culture. They also did this via their revolutionary band, the Lumpen. Acts like Last Poets, the Watts Prophets and Gil Scott-Heron had an influence on early hip-hop in Oakland. But so did the more politicized works of popular acts like James Brown, Sly Stone, Parliament and Fela Kuti.


Early on, key elders from past liberation movements, such as former Black Panther Kiilu Nyasha, aka Sister Kiilu, sat down with Oakland's hip-hop community to educate them about activism. Sister Kiilu said that in the late '80s, when she was organizing events in support of then-political prisoner and former Panther Geronimo Pratt, her daughter was heavily into the emerging gangsta rap scene.

To turn things around, she used Pratt's birthday party as a way to engage some of the rappers. She invited them to perform and help organize the event, but she had a caveat: In return, they were required to take her political-education classes at her home. One or two sessions grew into many; other elders from the freedom-struggle movements started coming, too, including poet-author Piri Thomas. Among the younger generation who showed up: Money B of Digital Underground, Boots of the Coup, Michael Franti of Spearhead, Del tha Funkee Homosapien and Chris Burger of Alphabet Soup.


Tupac Shakur didn't come to Kiilu's lessons, even though Kiilu and his mother, former Panther Afeni Shakur, were close friends. Once, she said, 2Pac, who was part of a writer's collective in nearby Marin County, rapped about Pratt, who was his godfather.

Also working with young rappers was the late Rafiq Bilal, a former member of the Black Man's Volunteer Army of Liberation, an offshoot of one of Malcolm X's organizations. Bilal, a Muslim and former drug counselor at the Haight Ashbury Free Clinic, saw the potential of hip-hop. Wanting to create a safe space for those gravitating toward the culture, he opened the Upper Room, an alcohol-free spot in downtown San Francisco, ostensibly to create a space for his son, Mohammed, a local rapper with the group Midnight Voices.


Eventually, as the Upper Room grew in popularity, Bilal moved operations to Oakland, renaming the club the Nu Upper Room, where everyone from KRS to the Last Poets to the dance crew Housing Authority would come through not only to perform but also to have political discussions. Many of the artists, like Will Power, who was also a member of Midnight Voices, started experimenting with what we now call hip-hop theater.

Bilal's daughter, Aisha, remembered her father mentoring artists who became the who's-who of Bay Area hip-hop: members of the dance crew Housing Authority, DJ Mind Motion, DJ Dedan, spoken-word artist Marcel Diallo, dancer Tracy Bartlow, singer Daria Niles, graf writer the late Dream and activist Keba Konte. By the 1990s, many of these artists would become active in fighting the anti-immigration Bill 187, Prop 209 and Prop 21, the Juvenile Crime Bill.


This marked the beginnings of Third Eye Movement, a youth activist group, which later morphed into the Ella Baker Center, headed by activist lawyer Van Jones. But the Third Eye folks weren't working in a vacuum; there was a host of multiracial and multicultural organizations like Olin, Storm and Soul, which used hip-hop to mobilize folks. Jones emerged as an activist, standing alongside other hip-hop activists like Tony Coleman, Malchi Garza, Laatefah Simon, Krea Gomez and so many others.

Meanwhile, previously unknown musical acts such as Goapele, Mystic Journeymen, Local 1200 DJs, Amandla Poets, Son of Nat Turner and Tha Deliquents began to step up.


But in the midst of all this agitating, hip-hop was under attack in Oakland. Police, citing threats of violence, banned rap concerts. Artists were left with little choice but to become political. In 1989, members of Digital Underground and local rapper and organizer Chill EB led a group of their fans down to a Berkeley City Council meeting, demanding that the moratorium that Berkeley and Oakland had put on rap concerts be lifted.

At the meeting, Sleuth Pro, a member of Digital Underground, reminded the city council that the group had a hit record, The Humpty Dance, that had sold close to 2 million copies at the time.


"We have 2 million people doing the Humpty Dance; don't let us put out a record where we get a million people to vote you out of office," he warned.

The ban in Berkeley was lifted soon after; it took a bit more doing to repeal the ban in Oakland. A group of law students from UC Berkeley formed the Group for Rap Industry Protection (GRIP). They sat down and spoke with a number of local artists and promoters and developed a proposal that addressed safety concerns at rap concerts. As a result, concert promoter Bill Graham, who was also looking at ways to put on safe shows, produced a show with Too Short and Ice Cube as headliners to prove that rap concerts were safe.


Politicians took notice, understanding that there was a sizable hip-hop community to court. Today you have mayoral candidates like Jean Quan putting out rap videos in an attempt to capture the eyes and ears of the hip-hop community.

For example, to this day I have no idea what rap groups, if any, Alameda County supervisor Keith Carson listens to, but over the years he's come to welcome the type of relationship someone involved with hip-hop could and should have with elected officials. The key word is "relationship." He's opened his doors; we've opened our doors to him. He's engaged us on issues we find important.


Then there's Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), who heads up the Congressional Black Caucus. She's long been revered in the hip-hop community. As with Carson, I'm not sure who she listens to, but we do know that she's loaned her support on a variety of issues, and we have done the same to many issues important to her.

In fact, the very first interview she gave after her historic lone "no" vote to the war in Afghanistan after 9/11 was on our hip-hop talk show, Street Knowledge, on commercial giant KMEL, and later on Hard Knock Radio, which aired on community station KPFA. Today Lee sits on the board of the Washington, D.C.-based Hip Hop Caucus, which routinely engages congress to speak to issues impacting the hip-hop community.


Over the years, we've seen those vying for public office aggressively seek endorsement and support from key members of Oakland's hip-hop community. Current Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums made no bones about seeking out the support of Oakland rapper Mistah FAB when he was campaigning back in 2006.

Dellums was impressed with what Mistah FAB had to say at a town hall meeting, where he spoke about the need for elected officials to make complex policy accessible to young people. The rapper then volunteered to help Dellums. Shortly after he was elected mayor, the former congressman asked FAB to join a youth-outreach task force.


When he was running for mayor of Oakland in 1999, former California Gov. Jerry Brown also saw the importance of reaching out to Oakland's hip-hop community. It wasn't unusual to see Brown at popular nightclubs and freestyle battles seeking votes. At the time, he was running against six other candidates, all African Americans, who took umbrage at a white former governor running for mayor in the predominantly black city. But Brown told me that he was going to be a mayor for all the people of Oakland, and he would go to where they were to let them know his vision. And he won the election, serving as mayor from 1999 to 2007.

Brown even recruited popular artists like Dwayne Wiggins to help him host hip-hop events at his loft in Jack London Square. At one concert, more than 500 people were crammed in the crib, doing a freestyle battle from East and West Oakland.


That night, Brown found himself in an impromptu freestyle battle as artists stepped to the mic and started dissing him and his plans to crack down on Oakland's popular cruising activity called "sideshows." Brown was forced to address the issue, but it wasn't enough to stop the lyrical onslaughts. He eventually had to create space for the young freestylers to give their suggestions as to what could be done.

The Jerry Brown freestyle event was not the first or the last time elected officials seeking the support of Oakland's hip-hop community would find themselves in trouble if they stepped out on the wrong side of an issue. In the 1990s, Boots Riley of the Coup would show up at City Council meetings with his crew of young activists, called the Young Comrades, and give then-Mayor Elihu Harris grief for policies that they felt were unduly affecting young people.


Recently, during the Oscar Grant rallies, Dellums found himself on the receiving end of anger from Oakland's hip-hop contingent. Many, including myself, felt that he had taken too long — seven days — to respond to the shooting death of an unarmed black man by police on a BART subway station.

It's not likely that members of the hip-hop community will be silent. As long as hip-hop remains a viable cultural expression embraced by folks in Oakland, you can expect its politics and activism to be a vital part of the city.


Davey D is a journalist and community activist from the Bay Area. He hosts the daily syndicated radio show Hard Knock Radio.

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