On a Thursday night this past December at the New Parish in Oakland, I saw a variety show unlike any I had seen.
For lack of a better term, you could call it a talent show, but it was far from a high school assembly. Included was an amazing West African dance performance, followed by a lyrical exhibition by an MC from East Oakland. Somewhere in the mix, I saw a pole dancing performance that made me look at my own abs in utter shame.
Around the room, vendors sold paintings and clothing. By the front door, someone passed out free pre-rolled joints. Outside the building, in the atrium, another vendor sold hot plates. And upstairs, a tattoo artist had erected a table for anyone who wanted to leave with some permanent ink.
It was as if the Bay Area art community was reenacting Noah’s Ark: two of every kind of artist.
The collage of creatives represented the latest installment in the DAM Events series, a variety show that's run for over seven years. Standing for Dance, Art and Music, and popping up every couple months in San Francisco and Oakland, it serves as a platform for artists to show their talents, build a following and most importantly: to network.
“There’s so much art going on!” Joseph Ramos, a tattoo artist who works at Sinful Art Studios in Albany, tells me. “If you want to see true art of all kinds, that’s where you want to be.”
DAM Events lead organizer Paymaneh "Bibi" Khalili tells me that "the events are a chance to showcase your talents. But the network, that's what you're getting involved in."
That network at DAM, it turns out, is an extremely diverse and talented pool of people. “I've seen them work together, do cross-promotion, and support each other by giving references for other gigs,” Khalili says.
At the time of our conversation, Khalili is in traffic, coming from a day job in Los Altos, where she manages a physical therapy office, en route to San Francisco to check out venues for forthcoming events, and then headed to a hip-hop dance class in Oakland. She covers the Bay Area daily — so it's no wonder the attendees, audience and performers at DAM Events are from all over the place.
“I didn't have your average Persian upbringing," Khalili tells me. Her parents have owned a Yogurt Shop in Menlo Park for 30 years, and felt that Khalili should follow in a similar path of small business ownership. She chose to prioritize the arts over traditional business, appreciative of the Bay Area's cultural melting pot; her life, both personal and professional, exemplify it. “My friends are all these diverse people, and they have all these diverse friends," she says.
She leverages these connections in order to create the arts bazaar that is DAM Events — which, with all the diversity and talent, would seem to be a flying success. But the problem they face is the same one many Californians face: the cost of space.
Venues aren’t cheap. And Khalili says it’s imperative that these events are hosted at venues such as New Parish, where other top names in the entertainment industry have performed, to ensure the artists aren’t overlooked in a different, lackluster setting.
And rightfully so. This display of art, culture and diversity should be on a pedestal; it's what makes the Bay Area unique. When South Asian performers share stages with burlesque dancers from New Orleans, and the DJ plays “Tell Me When To Go” between their sets — and the crowd goes crazy for it all — it’s something you’ll only find in the Bay Area.
But it’s gotten harder to keep the Bay Area culture of cross-cultural art connection thriving. Khalili says that a one time, Red Bull sponsored the series, but they don’t fund events like it any longer. She currently charges a fee to perform and/or vend, which artists and creatives can then recoup through ticket sales.
But she’s in the process of pivoting her business model. “What I want to focus on is connecting with more with school programs,” Khalili says, adding that the Academy of the Arts, FIDM and Oakland School of Arts are on her list; she'll also try to find sponsorships from small or large companies.
At least for now, Khalili says, "it's from artist for artist. Really ‘mom-and-pop’ kind of vibe... the artists have to be invested in this culture of support."
I agree. It’s on the artists to support the artists, before anyone else. And that means supporting the arts in general, not just your own form of art.
But there’s also way too many artists willing to starve for their beliefs. During a follow-up call, I ask Ramos, the tattoo artist who worked the December event, if people actually get tattoos at these types of events. He says “not often,” and then adds, “It’s not really about the business, it’s about showcasing your artwork and being around people who do artwork.”
As altruistic as spending your Thursday nights unifying with other artists might seem, we live in the Bay Area. Groceries, gas and good housing aren’t cheap. There has to be a larger priority on artists getting paid for their work — and that starts with the audience.
As a certain clan of artists once proclaimed: “Cash rules everything around me / C.R.E.A.M. / Get the money.”
DAM Events returns with its latest installment this Thursday, Feb. 22, at the DNA Lounge in San Francisco. Details here.