On the tail end of the great Bay Area heatwave of 2017, a diverse crowd of hip-hop fans spent Labor Day hanging out between artist warehouses and towering Burning Man sculptures at 18th and Poplar Streets in West Oakland. In previous years, Hiero Day was held in the street and felt more like a block party — but for its sixth iteration, Hiero Day provided a full-on festival experience, though with a more grassroots, underground feel than Outside Lands or Treasure Island.
Along with members of the long-running East Bay hip-hop collective Hieroglyphics, who founded Hiero Day in 2012 and headline each year, Bay Area artists like Mistah F.A.B. and IAMSU could be spotted roaming through the audience. Rare out-of-town veterans like Bun B and Yo-Yo were a treat to see onstage. And though the festival ran slightly off-schedule, the mood was upbeat and mellow, with the new spacious festival layout giving fans room to get up close and personal with their favorite artists.
Check our recap of the five most outstanding acts at this year’s Hiero Day, and scroll down to see our photo slideshow below.
Rayana Jay’s rise over the past year has been a fast, wild ride, and the singer herself at times seemed surprised by how enthusiastically her audience sang along to tracks from her breakout mixtape, Sorry About Last Night. Jay premiered her new track, “Sunkissed,” a smooth, groovy track from her upcoming EP Morning After that celebrates black beauty. She prefaced the song with acknowledgement of the recent resurgence of white supremacists: “I wrote this song to say ‘If nobody else got y’all, I got y’all,’” said Jay to her fans of color. The ’70-hued track had her guitarist JHawk channeling Santana while Jay’s velvety voice soared. When she performed “Magic,” a funky, disco-inflected love song, Jay’s elementary-school-aged cousin came on stage and showed off her adorable dance moves. Jay closed out her set with two surprises: Guest performances from Mistah F.A.B. (who paid homage to Mac Dre with “Still Feelin’ It”) and Sick Wid It Records’ latest signee, OMB Peezy.
Dirty South legend Bun B was a necessary, grounding presence at Hiero Day. Though most of his set was upbeat, the Houston rapper took the time to hold a moment of silence for victims of Hurricane Harvey and other lost loved ones — including his longtime partner in UGK, Pimp C. Even as his hometown remained underwater, Bun B’s set offered a semblance of hope amidst continuing reports of the storm’s devastating effects. (Bun B is hosting a telethon to benefit hurricane victims on Sept. 12 at 8pm EST.) And on a technical level, he was impressive, rapping in his smooth baritone sans backing-vocal track and absolutely nailing every song. He paid homage to the South’s custom car culture with the candy-paint Cadillac anthem “Draped Up.” The audience rapped along to his defining verse on UGK’s “International Player’s Anthem,” and he also performed his features on Jay Z’s “Big Pimpin” and Three 6 Mafia’s “Sippin’ on Some Syrup.”
Goapele looked like a vision of summer in her cutoff shorts and billowing kimono, and murmurs of admiration for her voice, hair, and outfit could be heard throughout the crowd. “I’m standing up here as a mom, an artist, as someone who cares about the future. A daughter of immigrants, an activist,” she said before performing “Stand,” the protest song she wrote in response to Oscar Grant’s murder at the hands of police. She mostly played tracks from her recent EP, Dreamseeker, but the audience rejoiced when they heard the opening chords to “Closer to My Dreams,” a gorgeous, uplifting track about realizing your destiny. Oakland singer Adrian Marcel came out to fill in for BJ the Chicago Kid’s feature on “Stay,” and stuck around to perform one of his own tracks. But the emotional highpoint of Goapele’s set came when she sang part of Sam Cooke’s civil rights anthem “A Change is Gonna Come” a capella, sending chills up everyone’s spines.
Lil B’s set was the most climactic point of Hiero Day; as soon as the bass line of “Bitch Mob” came on, the energy in the crowd multiplied a dozen-fold. IAMSU and Rexx Life Raj climbed onto the stage, dreads swinging, while Mistah F.A.B., a godfather of hyphy, proudly looked on. Lil B also brought out Koran Streets, Kool John, and other peers in the rap scene, and everyone danced together gleefully, like one big family. Onstage and in the crowd, mosh pits erupted as Lil B performed “Like a Martian,” and throughout his set, he offered affirmations and goofy quips. “Yeah, I got fat and Donald Trump’s the president,” he said as he took off his shirt while performing “I Own Swag.” He then exemplified the message of peace and positivity he preaches online in the most beautiful way: He brought out his guitar and keyboard, and gave them away to two lucky young fans, encouraging them to learn to make music too.
Press about Hiero Day rarely goes into detail about Hieroglyphics, because they’re the headliners every year — but the legendary Oakland crew’s set was a reminder of why they’re the best at what they do. It’s pretty remarkable that the nine-person collective continues to collaborate after a decade-plus of working together, and their camaraderie was palpable on stage. The bandmates hyped each other during each other’s verses and all seven MCs got their due in the festival’s short closing time slot. Hiero classics like “You Never Knew” and Souls of Mischief’s “’93 Til Infinity” transported the audience to Hieroglyphics’ ’90s heyday and served a reminder of the fact that the crew helped pioneer the freewheeling, individualistic Bay Area hip-hop culture celebrated onstage throughout Hiero Day. Opio, one of the Souls of Mischief MCs, closed the show by inviting the audience to hold up peace signs in defiance of the recent white nationalist rallies in the Bay Area, calling for the community to stand together in a gesture of unity as the sun went down.