A lot has happened in Ilyich Yasuchi Sato's world since he galvanized the Frisco 5 hunger strike against police brutality in 2016.
The San Francisco rapper, better known as Equipto, has continued his relentless fight for social justice—and not just on wax, but in the streets. In October 2017, he led a 14-day, 95-mile march from San Francisco to Sacramento to pressure California Attorney General Xavier Becerra to prosecute the officers who shot and killed civilians Alex Nieto, Mario Woods, Amilcar Perez-Lopez, Luis Gongora-Pat, Jessica Williams, Kenneth Harding Jr. and Derrick Gaines. Again and again, Equipto has demonstrated his willingness to put his comfort and safety on the line for his beliefs.
In the midst of his activism, Equipto also took the time to record new music. This time around, the veteran rapper got together with other San Francisco artists to form a new group called The Watershed. The Watershed features Baghead, Professa Gabel, Mcstravick, Brycon, MC Pauze and Monk HTS—rappers and producers with deep roots in San Francisco's underground hip-hop scene. Their self-titled May album is "an open letter about our love and hate with the city, and a way to honor hip-hop culture,” Equipto says.
“Hella San Francisco" is a perfect example of that love-hate relationship. It shines a light on how gentrification has altered the city's demographics, displacing many lower-income people of color. "Take a walk past Valencia, even up Guerrero / Anymore you can’t even recognize Divisadero / So the people and the city are supposed to sit back and tolerate it? / They build a system where they got us all dollar chasin'," rhymes Equipto over a smooth, tambourine-driven break beat laced with funky guitar.
The album also touches on controversial subjects like the housing crisis. The track “Timmy the Wino” pays homage to a down-and-out veteran Equipto once knew. “It’s a true story in a sense," he says. "Timothy used to live off 16th and Valencia before Valencia got gentrified. It’s a song that we wanted to embody and let people know that this is part of San Francisco.”
Equipto laments: “The people you shun or think they are nobodies, these are actually people of San Francisco, and they make the city."
My conversation with Equipto coincides with the announcement of London Breed's victory in the San Francisco mayoral race, and it's impossible to talk to the rapper about The Watershed and not include politics in the conversation. Equipto is one of Breed's most fervent critics, despite her being a San Francisco native and the city's first black, female mayor—a selling point for many voters.
Equipto talks at length about propaganda in politics, and how we, as people of color, are conditioned to believe that we have to support a candidate simply because they are also of color. “I can imagine what she went through as a woman of color growing up in the Fillmore, so I have nothing but respect for her on that level,” Equipto concedes.
But he points out that in 2014, when Breed was District 5 supervisor, she voted against a resolution to recognize racial bias in police departments, calling the post-Ferguson resolution “divisive.” Indeed, Breed also refused to call on former Police Chief Greg Suhr to resign after a racist texting scandal and several police shootings, and failed to attend meetings with African American residents facing displacement in her district during her campaign.
“Her voting is documented history,” says Equipto.
The Watershed are starting to hit stages across the Bay Area to promote their album and its underlying message of people power. On June 24, they're slated to perform at The Uptown in Oakland for Housing Oakland Now, a fundraiser for the East Oakland Collective and The Village, two grassroots groups building shelters and providing services for Oakland's homeless residents. Local hip-hop stars like Mistah F.A.B., Gift of Gab of Blackalicious and DJ Davey D are on the bill, along with cumbia band La Misa Negra.
The show was originally slated for The New Parish, but last Thursday, East Bay Express reported that Jason Perkins of Parish Entertainment Group allegedly harassed homeless residents in San Francisco near his other venue, Brick & Mortar Music Hall. After conflicting information appeared as to whether Perkins still had ties to The New Parish, The East Oakland Collective decided to switch venues.
Equipto is not letting this controversy derail his purpose. “We need brothers and sisters that are artists with well known platforms to lock arms with frontliners," he says. "It’s the time to stand up when you have such a strong influence.”
Equipto and The Watershed perform at Housing Oakland Now on June 24. Details here.