Lil Goo and Vari4Hun at Dope Era in Oakland, holding copies of their album honoring Devonte Thomas. Pendarvis Harshaw
Lil Goo and Vari4Hun at Dope Era in Oakland, holding copies of their album honoring Devonte Thomas. (Pendarvis Harshaw)

Telling the Human Stories Behind Oakland's Homicide Counts

Telling the Human Stories Behind Oakland's Homicide Counts

You know what kills me? When there’s a homicide, and the news writes a one-paragraph story. The sentences about rewards for information leading to an arrest and how to contact law enforcement are longer than any details about the person who just lost their life. Come on, man.

Well, here’s a solution: use this thing called journalism to actually tell peoples’ stories.

Last year I worked with the Snap Judgment team on a feature called Counted: An Oakland Story, which documents the lives of the 77 people who were killed in Oakland in 2017. The final audio piece was published earlier this month.

It tells the story of the death of musician David Deporis, who was dragged by car as he fought to keep his laptop which held his music files. The story of Anibal Andres Ramirez, who was the youngest person killed last year. And the story of Jason Coleman, who was homeless at the time of his death — well, not completely homeless. He lived in a literal hole in the wall, on the side of a freeway.

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There's also mention of the story of Devonte Thomas, the first homicide of the calendar year.

Devonte was a former student of mine at Oakland Tech. He was also a new dad. Devonte loved cars, kicks, and cracking jokes. He was just another kid from Oakland. Another kid who met death way too early. Another kid who had a story the world should know.

Lil Goo and Vari 4 Hun's 'Believe It or Not,' with Devonte Thomas on the cover.
Lil Goo and Vari 4 Hun's 'Believe It or Not,' with Devonte Thomas on the cover. (Dope Era)

Late last year, I stepped inside the former location of Mistah F.A.B.’s Dope Era clothing store in North Oakland, and spoke to two rappers who go by Lil Goo and Vari 4 Hun. In the middle of all the colorful clothing and hats, the two were seated, holding a CD with the face of Devonte on the cover.

It was their first combined album; something they wanted to release after the death of Devonte (who they also refer to as Vonte or Tay), to honor him.

In Oakland, you’ll see a number of different ways people pay homage to loved ones who’ve lost their lives. Some people wear string necklaces that hold laminated pictures of the deceased. Some people wear shirts or hoodies. Some folks get tattoos. Others put obituaries in the dashboard. And some carry their fallen friends' legacies on by way of making art — especially music.

Using art to deal with death is not only a cathartic outlet, it benefits the larger community as well. “I know a lot of people will see the tape and be like, ‘OK, this Vonte,’ they know he was a real dude, so they know it ain’t nothing but real on this tape,” Lil Goo told me.

He continued. “There were different ways we could’ve handled it, ya know?” To which Vari 4 Hun said, “Way different ways,” almost in ad-lib form.

“I feel like this was the best way," Lil Goo said. "Throwing my boy on the front of our cover, on our tape, handle it like that. Handle it the right way. By getting the message out, ya know?”

Mistah F.A.B., internationally known MC and owner of Dope Era, agreed. Making art to benefit the larger community works, “‘cause homicides aren’t going anywhere, so it’s on the community to do something about it,” he told me.

Mistah F.A.B. expressly said how proud he was of the young men, using art to express themselves as opposed to alternatives. “To say man, 'We’ve been BS’ing. We’ve been playing, let’s really put this music out.' And, 'Since us putting it out for us wasn’t enough, let’s put it out for Tay,'” F.A.B. told me, noting that the death of friends and family has always become a motivating factor in his pursuit of his dreams as an artist.

Once someone is memorialized through art, F.A.B. noted, there's no limit to who it can reach. “His mother, his father, will be able to see their son on an album cover that represents something positive," he said. "His son, when he gets older, he can be like, 'Man, they kept it lit for my daddy.'”

Listen to Snap Judgment's 'Counted: An Oakland Story' above.
Listen to Snap Judgment's 'Counted: An Oakland Story' above.

Keeping it lit, or keeping someone’s legacy alive, is what matters. That’s what the community will appreciate, that’s what the family will benefit from and ultimately, one day, that’s what his son will cherish.

“That day, I saw (Devonte) on the ground, man…” said Lil Goo, reminiscing on his childhood friend. “The last time I seen him before that was like, he was opening presents for his son. And that was the last time. I still got all the videos, I look at the videos every day. Just seeing, like, that was the type of guy he was. Just seeing, and that was one of the last times I seen him, like breathing. And he was like, opening presents for his son on Christmas.”

Less than two weeks later, Devonte would be gone. But his story remains. It’s bigger than a paragraph in the local newspaper. It’s more than just a number in the homicide count.

It’s the story of a young man who lived in Oakland, and who died way too soon. But the people who loved him made sure to keep his story alive.

Pendarvis Harshaw is the author of 'OG Told Me,' a memoir about growing up in Oakland. Find him on Twitter here.

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