Lift this City: Performers Band Together to Elevate Oakland

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Photo by Katherine Brown.

Have you ever had an experience that put you on a natural high? A feeling that is so positive that it keeps you from falling asleep? An experience that motivates you to try and find a way share this feeling/moment/initiative with others? I experienced such a moment on the evening of Saturday, February 8, 2014. It began with a text from a good friend Vielka that afternoon, “Are you planning anything tonight… I may be able to get front row tickets to Sheila E tonight….” With initial plans that I had falling through, I quickly accepted Vielka’s offer. These tickets were for a the Elevate Oakland 1st Annual Benefit Concert at the Fox theater in Oakland. Elevate Oakland, spearheaded by Ms. Sheila E., is a collaboration between two organizations – Elevate Hope and 51Oakland – with the focus of improving academic achievement and increase student attendance by providing creative and relevant curriculums through Music and Arts Education.

For this benefit concert, artists like Ozomatli, the Bay Area’s own Goapele and Michael Franti, and host of other artists and musicians donated their time and talents for to raise money for this cause. The stage was also a platform for those that this concert was benefiting – youth of Oakland who have an intense passion for music and arts – a resource that over the years has experienced a decrease in funding and support. It is hard to capture into words how elated these youth were to share their amazing talents with the world – and it’s even harder to explain how beautifully this passion is evident in every note they played and lyric they sang.

As a product of the Oakland Unified School District, I remember fondly on the music programs of the schools I attended, and how much those experiences were positive forces in my life. My first music teacher was at John Marshall Elementary School, and his name was Mr. Tapiro. In the third grade, he taught us the very basics of music – how to read notes, about the legends and grandfathers of music (i.e. Beethoven, Bach, etc.). He also taught us how to play the recorder – the first tune I learned how to play was Transylvania 6-5000. He would refer to us students as his team – specifically, as his “Hoosiers.” Mr. Tapiro loved music, and did whatever he could to prepare the next generation in keeping this art alive.

My next music teacher was at E. Morris Cox, and her name was Ms. Newsome. She specifically taught our 4th and 5th grade chorus classes- my favorite songs to sing were “Lift Every Voice,” and “Believe in Yourself.” With Ms. Newsome, I also learned how to play the trumpet. I can still remember the strong smell of the valve oil, and the loud clicks of the latches on the tattered brown case I would tote my instrument in. I would guard this thing with my life, and there was NO WAY I was gonna let anyone “just play” my trumpet. It was my responsibility. It was my positive outlet. It was a necessity.

My last music teacher was Ms. Morrison, and she taught 7th grade chorus at King Estates Jr. High School. She would teach us about the history of music – specifically the origins of Blues, Gospel, and Soul. She could also play a mean piano. One of the songs we used to warm up our vocals with was “Do-Re-Mi,” a la “The Sound of Music” style. When Ms. Morrison would hit the break down, she would play these funky chords that had our class belting in a collective soulful “heyyyyyyyyyy!” She made music fun and engaging, something that us Oakland youth needed.

But as time went on, budgets got cut – and programs that were once viewed as required became electives. And eventually these electives became almost non-existent. However, with initiatives like Elevate Oakland, the importance of music and arts for Oakland youth is redeveloping the recognition and respect it deserves. I am sure somewhere, teachers like Mr. Tapiro, Ms. Newsome, and Ms. Morrison are proud.

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Mark Curry, comedian and Oakland native, addresses the audience and encourages the support for the Elevate Oakland Initiative. Photo by Katherine Brown.

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Los Angeles-based band Ozomatli donate their time and talents for this worthy cause. Photo by Katherine Brown.

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Members of the Castleers – Oakland’s Castlemont High School signing group – take in their standing ovation after their brilliant performance. Photo by Katherine Brown.

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Musicians El DeBarge and Peter Michael Escovedo share why supporting youth in music and the arts is important. Photo by Katherine Brown.

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A youngster from Oakland’s Westlake Middle School performs an a cappella number for the audience. Photo by Katherine Brown.

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Young musicians from Oakland’s Castlemont High School set to perform with Sheila E. It’s hard to believe that these extremely talented young men are 15 and 16 years old. Photo by Katherine Brown.

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The phenomenal Sheila E. giving her heart and soul in her performance. Photo by Katherine Brown.

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“A family that plays together…” Siblings (l-r) Juan, Peter Michael, and Sheila Escovedo bring down the house with their percussion skills. Photo by Katherine Brown.

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A young Oakland singer performs along side Bay Area-raised musician Michael Franti. Photo by Katherine Brown.

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Oakland native and Grammy award winning artist, Sheila E., gives an impassioned thanks to all that contributed to this uplifting event. Photo by Katherine Brown.

Reflections…

On my morning drive to work, it’s extremely rare for me to venture from my routine route – 580 West towards Berkeley, then to the exit that takes me to Martin Luther King Jr. Way (i.e. MLK) – the bridge between North Oakland and South Berkeley. Along this trek, I see the usual markers along my path – Children’s Hospital to my right. Upon approaching the intersection of 51st Street and MLK, I have to be cautious of the numerous jaywalkers – the majority of which seem to be hospital staff. I continue on, approaching the corner of 54th Street and MLK – as I glance to the right, I have fond memories of the beauty salon I used to get my hair styled at when I was a high schooler – now the property is a tax preparation center. The light changes, and I move on. I approach the corner of 59th Street and MLK, which on the surface, seems like your usual intersection. A four-way stop with traffic signals perched upon cold, steel posts. Throughout the year, these posts all look the same. Except for the month of January – in which one of these posts stand out from the rest.Image

 For the past 6 years, the post on the northeastern corner of the intersection is decorated with flowers, cards, balloons, and a picture. For years, I would past by this scene and reflect  – recognizing this all too common image that we see in my city. It was a shrine for someone that lost their life at this scene. A few years ago, I finally stopped to get a glance at the picture. In some way, wanting to get to know this person that was so affectionately appreciated by her loved ones, and not forgotten. Upon approaching the post, I felt a sense of guilt and shame – I didn’t know this person. What gave me the right to approach such a sacred place. But there I stood, staring at the picture. She was young. She was beautiful. She was no longer here. When I got home, I hoped on Yahoo! – hoping to get more of a sense of who this young lady was: Up popped this article:

 OAKLAND / Drive-by victim was single mom on way to family reunion

Her name was Kikhiesha Brooks. On July 21, 2007, the 21 year-old single mother was in the passenger seat, when the car she was riding in was riddled with bullets at the intersection of 59th Street and MLK in North Oakland. The shooting happened at 1 pm. She died 30 minutes later. She was on her way to a family reunion. To this date, her killers have not been identified or caught. At the time of her death, Kikhiesha’s daughter was 2 years-old. I can only imagine the pain and anguish this child probably feels to this day.

So the next time you come across a similar scene – decorated with flowers, cards, balloons, and candles – please send healing thoughts to that person’s loved ones. My hope is that with the advent of these scenes in the city of Oakland, that we do not become so numb and unaffected by the pain that the loss of human life presents.

Where’s Your Cape?

The other day, someone told me I wasn’t “superwoman.” I don’t think I know how to take that. My intent isn’t to be, but somehow this comment rubbed me the wrong way. I toggled and toggled over it – trying to figure out what was the intent of that phrase – or what I have done or am doing to give the allusion that I am a cape crusader.
I guess what trips me up is that what I see as resiliency may be misconstrued as something entirely different. If we rely on the definition noted by Merriam-Webster, resilience is defined as:

1: the capability of a strained body to recover its size and shape after deformation caused especially by compressive stress
2: an ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change

As I began to unpack this definition and integrate it within my experiences, my DNA, my upbringing, the communities I have been raised in – all of these attributes becoming interwoven and tightly bound – resulting in the cape that others may see.
One strand of thread that popped in my mind was an experience I had in 5th grade. I was a student a E. Morris Cox Elementary School in East Oakland, and my teacher was Mrs. Cheney. She was from Germany, and had an extremely strict structure to her teaching. But this structure was not strict with the overt intent to make us resilient and excel beyond our fullest potential – to me, the outcome of this environment was the polar opposite.
I can remember a particular incident so vividly. I had turned in my math homework that I had completed with care the night before. It was done on tan-colored recycled paper that was so thin, that if you erased too much or too hard, and fuzzy film would develop before the thin layer underneath ripped. In an effort to preserve this delicate sheet, I conducted my work on a piece of scratch paper, and proceeded to double and triple check my work before I transferred it on to that tan sheet of paper. With all this care, I neglected to notice that I didn’t not wipe off the part of the dinner table where I conducted my work very well. This resulted in three small stains – I didn’t think Mrs. Cheney would notice or even care. But she did. And she let the whole class know. Upon gathering the classes attention – she decided to make an example of what “disgusting work” looks like. She held it up and told my classmates, “Look at this. What a disgusting mess. I won’t even grade anything that looks like this.” After this declaration, she ripped my sheet up to pieces and handed back to me. I was 10 years old. I was in the 5th grade. I was broken.
I was at a complete loss as to what to say and do. My stomach was in knots, my head hurt, and I wanted to go home. When the bell rang at the end of the day, I think I was the first kid out of the school. My mom came to pick me up, and I jumped in the front seat without saying a word. In her usual, comforting way, my mom asked, “How was your day, baby?” Silence. All the way home. When we got in the house, she asked, “What happened today? Did someone bother you?” I reached into my pocket and pulled out the crumpled, torn pieces of the tan-colored paper, and handed to her before bursting into tears. Needless to say that my mom wasn’t happy about this in the least bit. Ok, that previous sentence was a total understatement – my moms was HOT! And when my grandmother found out about it, the anger boiled over. When things cooled to a manageable level, my mom called our principal, Dr. Cooke, and requested a meeting. She told him what Mrs. Cheney had done, and he was livid. The next morning, my mom, granny, and I visited with Dr. Cooke. I told him first had what happened. Shortly after, he requested that Mrs. Cheney come to the office. She tried to deny that the incident happened that way – that I had tried to submit some extremely messy homework, and when she didn’t accept it, I got mad and ripped in frustration. I was 10 years old. I was in the 5th grade. I turned in disgusting work. I was a liar.
Needless to say, Dr. Cooke didn’t believe her and she was reprimanded.
In looking back – I could have easily bought into the picture that Mrs. Cheney tried to paint me in. But being raised by two of the most resilient women that I know, that wasn’t even a factor. So am I bitter about what Mrs. Cheney did? No. But I do thank her for having a hand in crafting the cape that freely flows in the wind behind me.

The little things.

As I was walking the hound this morning, one of my elderly neighbors asked me for some help. She said her kids and grand kids have shown her over and over again how to turn on her radio, but she can’t remember. She asked me if I would come in and help her. She had planned on going to church, but decided to stay home and listen to some tapes. When I came inside and saw this radio – I could see how anyone could be confused. It looked like a spaceship – buttons and lights all over the place. But we figured it out – a sermon from Allen Temple began to fill the room. I then went round up my little hound, which she allowed to roam freely – and before I left, she gave me what you see pictured here. “Get your little puppy a snack,” she says. I tell her it’s not necessary, but she insists. It’s these random acts that put things into perspective – on the surface, it only looks like $2 – but moments like these are invaluable. #oakland #love

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