On the night of January 19, 1996, Equipto’s best friend JoJo White was shot and killed in a random act of violence. JoJo had been a teacher, community organizer, and beloved member of Equipto's hip-hop group, Bored Stiff, and Equipto held him during his final moments.
“That changed everything,” Equipto says.
In the intro to "JoJo’s Song," from Bored Stiff's 2001 album Ghetto Research, JoJo's mother Naomi White -- an outspoken activist against the death penalty -- says Bored Stiff helped JoJo find other like-minded people "who were trying to collectively respond to a very frightening society, and to respond creatively, with hope."
"They got Mumia locked up / They got me locked up / And they had Bill Clinton stressin’ at the White House / Powers that be is thicker than the X-Files / Got pictures of me and my crew as a child." — "JoJo's Song," from 'Ghetto Research'
Fast forward 20 years to the present day, and Equipto (born Ilych Sato) shows signs of the weight he lost from a high-profile 17-day hunger strike against police brutality. What kept him going, he says, was the thought of Mario Woods’ mother and Alex Nieto’s mother, “who wake up everyday with the loss of their child.”
During the strike, Equipto slept in a tent, and occupied the sidewalk directly in front of the Mission Police Station. Just a few steps from the site of his protest stands a freshly painted mural dedicated to the four other community organizers who took part in the strike -- his mother, educator Cristina Gutierrez; two hip-hop artists and local activists, Sellassie Blackwell and Ike Pinkston (who, as Ike Plump, rhymed alongside Equipto in Bored Stiff); and Edwin Lindo, a lawyer and candidate for District 9 supervisor.
The hunger strikers arrived with a single demand -- the removal of Police Chief Greg Suhr, who'd presided over the SFPD's most turbulent period in recent memory. The SFPD had been involved in nine fatal shootings since 2014, including the highly criticized shootings of Woods and Nieto, and two scandals involving the exchange of racist text messages between officers had fueled mistrust between the department and the communities they patrol.
On May 20, after police shot and killed an unarmed woman of color in Bayview, Suhr resigned at the behest of Mayor Ed Lee. (Equipto's own history with Lee includes accosting the mayor at Max's Opera House Cafe about displacement in San Francisco in a video that swiftly went viral.)
Equipto's roots in San Francisco and the Bay Area's music scene run deep. He's recorded music for over 25 years; he's shared the stage with legends like KRS-One, De La Soul and Nas; and he’s toured internationally with Bored Stiff and collaborated extensively with Fillmore neighborhood rapper Andre Nickatina.
These days, Equipto still records and performs, but he's also highly involved in mentoring local artists and neighborhood youth. The independent label he founded, Solidarity Records, gives support to the current underground hip-hop scene, while his work as an educator at Los Compañeros Del Barrio, the Mission-area preschool that his mother founded, ensures that he’s in the ear of local youth for a long time to come.
“It’s humbling to put on some of these shows and tours for these youngsters," he says. "It’s fulfilling because a lot of this stuff wasn’t done for us.... That’s our job, and I pride myself on being a regular motherf––r too. I’m not standing for the people, I’m with the people. I never want to lose that.”
In lyrics from his 2015 album, Baby Steps, from a collaboration with local Bay Area rapper Otayo Dubb called “Yuk The World,” he’s self-deprecating about passing the torch to the next generation:
"Many have sacrificed just so we can speak our minds / And I hoped the true ones wouldn’t leave my side, a deep sigh / Lookin’ at my proud stumble / At the fam party I’m now the loud uncle." — “Yuk The World,” from 'Baby Steps'
For Equipto, hip-hop is more than just music or a career; he remembers the way it shaped the city. “It was a revolution in the streets," he says, "it was all these different ways for the community to come together and express themselves, without violence.”
As Equipto takes a step back from his musical career, he eyes a future in activism. “What I’ve discovered through this life in community activism is that others have been through these struggles," he says.
"When I started learning more about Ed Lee, Willie Brown, Ron Conway, Gavin Newsom, all these politicians, I realized that if I claimed I loved my city so much, I had to fight for it.”
From Frisco to FergusonGentrified cities trying to make the change permanentDevelopers, investors intention's to wipe out the cultureConditionin' the mind of young soldiersBut if we organize in the name of Alex and MarioUnite every hood, community in the barrioStand up and show em that black lives matterPower of influence of entertainers and rappersGet together our demands to the committeeAnd fight for itThen we gon' take back the city— Justice for Mario Woods Coalition, 2016