3 local artists share why Oakland is special to them

A little over two weeks ago, our newsroom hosted the first installment of a new quarterly live-event series, Culture Makers, where we celebrate local creatives through dialog, multimedia, and live performance. The inaugural event took place at the New Parkway Theater and featured three homegrown talents: documentary filmmaker Niema Jordan, journalist and fashion entrepreneur Akintunde Ahmad, and musician and community advocate Kev Choice.

We want to thank our guests and each and every one of you who attended and helped to make it a resounding success. We covered a lot of interesting ground during the live panel discussion, enjoyed some good food and drink, and the evening was punctuated by a moving keyboard and vocal performance by Kev Choice. 

We also collected questions from audience members, and there were so many great ones that we didn’t get the chance to ask them all. So we decided to share them with our panelists via email afterward (some were directed at a specific guest, others were posed for all three) and you can find their answers below, which have been lightly edited. 

If you were there and submitted a question that wasn’t answered, or missed the event altogether and are curious about our guests from that night, keep reading. We’ll also be sharing a video of the entire event in the days to come, so stay tuned.

The next Culture Makers takes place on Thursday, June 23, again at the New Parkway Theater. We’ll be revealing the lineup soon, but you may want to purchase tickets now (the first event sold out quickly). 

Questions for all three panelists

Can you share a turning point of transformation or change in your life as an artist?

Kev: I think my experience working with Ms. Lauryn Hill really changed my path as an artist. I already had a degree and had toured with multiple Bay Area artists, but the opportunity to work with such an incredible legendary artist—the things I learned from working with her, the way I was pushed to my limits and executed at a high level—made me realize I could achieve anything I put my mind to as an artist and that my purpose was to work hard, be my authentic self, and spread my message with the music.

Niema: I’d say getting connected with Youth Speaks. As a kid, I performed in the Martin Luther King Jr. Oratorical Fest. I loved it and I couldn’t wait to get to an age where I could read my own poems instead of reciting other people’s poems. Youth Speaks gave me that platform and helped me develop as a writer and as a leader. 

Tunde: For me, it was visiting Ghana in 2016. I was exposed to the world of fashion without any barriers—from the types of fabrics to the availability of tailors who could quickly and affordably bring my visions to life. It changed the way I viewed fashion and production and opened up my mind to actually venturing into fashion. 

How do we retain the spirit and vibrancy of Oakland in the light of gentrification? It feels like we are fighting a losing battle.

Kev: The best way to keep the spirit and vibrancy of Oakland is to support those who are actively engaged in representing Oakland culture. Whether that’s musicians, visual artists, or cultural practitioners in any capacity. 

Niema: I don’t think there is an easy answer to this or one answer. But, look to the parts of Oakland that still feel like Oakland to you. How are you supporting the people and businesses there? How are you supporting the institutions that have always supported the people of Oakland, but also new things like The Black Cultural Zone. Look to engage with the people, places, and things that feel like they are the gentrifying force. Are there opportunities to educate and connect those folks, businesses, etc., with community? Also, put pressure on the city government. I think those are great starting points. 

Tunde: This is a tough question that I ask myself daily. One on hand, I think we need to recognize that there are still Oakland residents who are rooted here and building upon the culture while also preserving the culture of the past. But we have to acknowledge that gentrification is continuing regardless of those who are still here, and it’s only getting worse. I think the city and its residents need to center long-time Oakland residents in plans (cultural, political, social, economic) rather than big tech and real estate developers. We can’t retain any spirit without the residents actually being here. 

What’s your favorite restaurant, bar, and store in Oakland?

Kev: Too many! Sidebar, Chop Bar, Baja Taqueria (lobster burrito), JJ Fish & Chicken, Lena’s Soul Food, Neecha Thai. Bars: Room 389, M2 (Mimosa on Grand), Bar Shiru, and Bardo Lounge. Stores: Dope Era, Oaklandish, and the vendors at the lake.

Niema: Such a hard question. My go-to restaurants are Ensarro and Sidebar. I’m always telling folks to hit Bar Shiru. SoMar will always have a place in my heart. Mushin is always a good time. Really, it’s a long list. 

Tunde: Restaurants: Everett and Jones, Kingston 11, and Bakesale Betty

Bars: Mushin, Sobre Mesa, and honorary mention to KARIBU by Wachira (a Black-owned wine bar in Alameda).

What does a “culture maker” look like? Who are some of your favorite culture makers?

Kev: A culture maker is someone actively engaged in the practice of creating, providing space, advocating, and representing for the culture. Some of my favorite culture makers are Travis Watts, Hodari Davis, Carolyn Johnson, Rod Campbell, Jada Imani, DJ D Sharp, and of course my fellow culture makers Niema and Tunde. Also: Alan Chazaro, Grand Nationxl, Ryan Nicole, Shayla Bang, Drew Banga, DJ Red Corvette, Lady Ryan, and soooooo many others!

Niema: A culture maker is someone who is in the practice of creating and keeping the culture of a city, town, space, etc., intact. It can be through education, arts, policy, or some other forum. When I think of culture makers locally, the list is extensive, but let’s start with: Pendarvis Harshaw, Favianna Rodriguez, Michelle “Mush” Lee, Lukas Brekke-Miesner, Candice Elder, Jazz Hudson, Tiara Phalon, Keba Konte, Durell “DCisChillin” Coleman, Iminah Ahmad, Shavonne Graham, Elisha Greenwell, Marty Price, Shawn Ginwright… this is not a fair question. *tears*

Tunde: I will defer to Niema’s response here, but add that culture is just the way we do things, whether it be the way we create and consume music, learn, cook, socialize, dance, etc. Some of my favorite culture makers in Oakland are Adrian Burrell, Adante Pointer, Drew Banga, Jaz Curtis, Kev Choice, Durell “DCisChillin” Coleman, Chadwick, and Dr. Chris from Wachira, Creighton Davis, and Mike Nicholls.

What hope do you all have for the generations after you, growing up in Oakland?

Kev: My hope is that they have safe spaces to be their authentic selves, to learn from elders, to experiment and explore creatively, and continue to build on the legacy of our community as beacons of social justice, our diversity, and standing for the people. I would also hope they would be able to see the world outside of Oakland and come back home, make a positive impact and keep our culture going. Also, hope they can afford to live here!

Niema: That they will have a deep love for The Town, a respect for its history, and that they are able to thrive here. 

Tunde: That they will have safe, affordable housing in Oakland, paired with adequate public education, and access to sports and the arts. 

Questions for Kev Choice

Kev Choice | Credit: Jeanette David

Why hasn’t the arts commission allocated resources to restore the Grand Performance Mural under the overpass, where I-580 goes over Grand Avenue?

I would need to look into that and see: Who were the original creators of the mural and have they asked for more resources? Where did the original funding come from, as well? Also, [those of us on the city’s Cultural Affairs Commission] are advocates to our Cultural Affairs Department and City Council. We also respond to community input, so if you want to bring this up at a Cultural Affairs Commission meeting, we would be happy to listen. 

What was the darkest point in the pandemic for you and how did you survive that time? 

I think the darkest moments were many nights sitting at home alone, because I live alone, feeling like if I got sick from COVID, I would end up dying alone. The only thing that got me through is my music and being able to get out, walk by the lake, and see people out. 

Questions for Niema Jordan

Niema Jordan Credit: Bobby Gordon

How did you become a filmmaker and what advice would you give young (or older) Black women and men who want to become filmmakers?

I attended UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. My emphasis was on documentary film, so in many ways, I’d say that’s how I got into the industry. But really, my career in film, like my career in journalism, has been about relationships. So for anyone interested in film, I’d say focus on your craft and building meaningful relationships with people—and not just the folks you think can put you on. Connecting with the people who are also trying to make it is so important. 

How do you celebrate the life of Black folks without getting overwhelmed by the trauma of their deaths?

I don’t think it’s ever not overwhelming, but I often think about their joy, the people who loved them, and the possible change that can be created by sharing their stories. 

Questions for Akintunde ‘Tunde’ Ahmad

Akintunde Ahmad | Credit: courtesy A. Ahmad

What advice would you give Black men and women who would like to venture into entrepreneurship?

That there is never a right time to start, that there will never be ‘enough’ planning and research done before launching, and that you have to be passionate about what it is you’d like to venture into. I’ve had no shortage of well-researched business plans, but this is the first I’ve went all-in on because of my passion for infrastructure and economic advancement in West Africa. 

As an African-American fashion designer, how were your designs accepted in Ghana?

I think because I’d spent so much time (literally 5 years) researching and familiarizing myself with the culture before launching my brand, my brand was well received there. While my primary audience is the U.S. due to the fact that most of my garments are outerwear designed for the chill of the Bay Area and East Coast weather, I’ve gotten lots of support from other designers in Ghana as well as other entrepreneurs. Centering equity and transparency in my brand have been key to garnering the support of the Ghana community. 

Kenneth Proto

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