Welcome to KQED Arts’ Bay Brilliant, a series celebrating 10 local artists, creatives and makers who are pushing boundaries in 2018. Driven by passion for their own disciplines—music, dance, theater, visual art, performance, writing, illustration and more—these artists are true vanguards paving the way in their respective communities.
If there's one word to describe SOL Development, it's intent.
The Oakland-based hip-hop group, whose recent song "Helicopter" instantly became a KQED Arts favorite, rarely does anything without intention. And in a commercial music landscape that works fast to monetize the latest trend, SOL Development is thoughtful and deliberate in their moves, learning from the knowledge of their predecessors, playing the long game.
That sort of patient approach could come from their individual roles as founders and educators at Roses in Concrete community school in Oakland, named for a famous Tupac Shakur poem. It could come from their own life experience in black communities in Sacramento, San Francisco, Washington D.C. and beyond. But ask any of the members, and they'll eventually attribute it to their light—a term they use often, with multiple meanings of love, wisdom, spirituality and centeredness.
I recently spoke with three members of SOL Development (the "SOL" stands for "Source Of Light") about their work: Karega Bailey, Felicia Gangloff-Bailey, and Lauren Adams. Together with fourth member Brittany Tanner, they're natural honorees for our Bay Brilliant series.
Oakland has this amazing history of activist movements and music, which continues to today. How does Oakland and the Bay Area inform your work as a group?
Karega: The Bay Area represents a conversation-based liberation. I know people go around the world crying equity all the time, but really it's been a region that has shown itself heavily in elevating organized voices. Oakland is just a rich, fertile oil here filled with movement for liberation. Roses in Concrete lends itself to a lot of Panther philosophy, too. So it was definitely the elders here and what has been done before.
Felicia: I'd like our music to provide a soundtrack for the black experience for freedom, for justice, for hope, for freedom fighting. It's no coincidence that we were able to come here to be a part of opening this school in the home of the Panthers. I value being in this space. It's like a liberation town.
Lauren: The way that it informs our work, especially as educators here in the Bay Area, is that we see what happens when the black experience isn't treated with humanity, with care, with love. You see what Tupac called "roses in concrete"—these beautiful children that we teach every day, and we see the struggles that not only they go through, but their parents have gone through, and their grandparents, when they come to pick up their family. When I listen to music and what it's standing for, it has a way of baptizing me all over again to continue working toward liberation and freedom. But the black experience in the Bay Area gives us a whole other leg to stand on— or rather, shoulders to stand on, because we're standing on the shoulders of the Panthers, and the Brown Berets, and everybody else that came through Oakland and did their part.
Karega: When I got to Oakland, I learned of the great migration and how this music has really traveled from the South and New Orleans and gathered in West Oakland. I realized that Black American music can have a spiritual context of its own—and it's not to be confused with spiritual music; the music has spirit. We came on the heels of that. The music has a migratory pattern, and this was the application place. A place where art and activism really blends incredibly well.
There's this idea in mainstream circles that rap with a direct, positive message is this outdated thing. That it got branded as "conscious rap" and seen as a relic of the '90s while a new wave of SoundCloud rap is taking over. Do you think music with a positive message ever really goes out of style?
Karega: Does people's need for light ever go out of style? I don't think it does. Insofar as the human experience continues and evolves, there's always going to be that need to be that reminder of hope. Black, brown, API, European, it doesn't matter who you are, there's a quest for light that every human experiences. Circumstances around us are as dismal as they've been, so no, it ain't going out of style no time soon. In fact, we're repackaging that style.
Felicia: When we first started performing in Oakland, it was at First Friday. People are walking around, you kind of get into whatever you get into, however you flow and whatever your vibe is. And after every show, people would say "Thank you, I needed to hear that." They're like, I was looking for this. People, they crave it.
Lauren: The only way this goes out of style is that every issue or problem that we are discussing in our music goes away. You know what I'm saying? Donny Hathaway, Curtis Mayfield, Roberta Flack, Nina Simone, these people were putting out positive messages during the darkest of times, so that people were aware of what was going on in the black experience, and what was happening in neighborhoods.
Karega: Genre umbrellas are often too large to capture the nuances of what an artist really comes to bring. If you call it conscious, however you experience consciousness, you'll then define conscious rap as whatever conscious is to you. If you're in a space where people are constantly banging on the system, and you call that conscious, then you'll think that is what we came to do. But what we came to do is really develop the light, which means that sometimes we have to go to the darkest spaces to emit that light. Sometimes those darkest spaces might be social issues. Sometimes those darkest spaces might be political issues. Sometimes those darkest spaces might be relegated specifically to the black experience. But if we make you conscious of the light, then yeah, you can be conscious. That's the consciousness we're bringing. That light.
One word comes up a lot, talking about your music: healing. You've personally had family that's been incarcerated, you've had family that's been murdered. When you put out a song like "Helicopter," you must have deep discussions among each other when you create a song like that. What are those discussions like? You talk about needing to go into the darkness before providing light. What's that process like as a band?
Karega: It's beautiful.
Lauren: Those conversations happen, probably one, more often than you think. These are friendships that are 15-plus years in, so these conversations started in Sacramento, on a basketball court, when I first met Felicia and Karega, and these conversations continued while we were in undergrad at Hampton University, and now as teachers together. You have a member who sees one of his darkest days and you're listening to the music that he's putting out because of the tragedy. You're reading about how he's surrendering to everything that's going on in his black experience. And you come back together in Oakland and you're discussing, again, all these experiences together and what you went through.
Felicia: It's necessary for your wellness, for your mental health.
Lauren: Part of this trauma that you've just experienced, how did you keep your light on during this? Or what did I do as a friend to help keep your light on during this time? And now we're opening this conversation to everybody else. We no longer want to just have it between the four or five of us. We want to invite everybody to see that in your darkest moments, your tribe is going to keep your light on, your faith, your black joy.
Karega: We make the music. But you can just look into the audience and see who's carrying the light and you feel them on that level. They are an extension of us and we are an extension of them. It's an infinity group when you really look at it, of folks who have similar experiences. A place to practice, a place to sympathize. It's a place to become healthy.
You're all teachers now, making an impact on young kids. What are some people or places in the Bay Area that made you who you are today?
Karega: I'd say Jennifer Johns and Kev Choice—that was like in the first few days of coming here, Kev Choice and I had did a show in Sacramento where we opened up for Mos Def. I'd also like to name The Way Church. And the McBrides: Jim McBride, Michael McBride and BJ McBride. The McBride family. Roses in Concrete, naturally, that's our hub, that's our home. Mercedes Martin and Tres Mercedes. YBG, Young Gifted and Black, the young folks. And man, the Lake, for sure. Lake Merritt is like an open history book. You know what I mean? If you get a chance to experience what it is, and to hear the stories of how it used to be. It's like an ongoing family reunion.
Lauren: A lot of the black churches here in Oakland. Olivet Church, Pastor Humphrey passed away, but they brought a certain brand of black spirituality that was definitely open, and still is to this day. But as Karega said, the McBrides, they're from San Francisco. Some of the things that they found in the city mirrored everything they've seen in Oakland and Berkeley, and it's inspiring to see them use their light in such a powerful and unapologetically black way, that hasn't been seen. Lastly, I would say definitely my grandmother. She let me experience Oakland for myself. She let me walk around the neighborhood with my little cousins in tow and let me lead them to the corner store and to the park and to other friends' houses. Just showing us never to be afraid of our people, never be afraid to be in spaces where our people live and where they gather. So I owe a great deal of that to her, being here in Oakland.
Felicia: My granny's brother. My granny is here from Louisiana and worked here on the railroads and in Alameda. But her brother, he actually just passed not too long ago. He was 95 but he'd lived here for many, many years. Roses in Concrete, of course, because it was that bridge that brought me back. I would also have to say one of my very first experiences coming into Oakland as an adult was the Umoja Festival and I will never forget how that felt. Being in D.C. for so long, and living that black experience in D.C.—which is an easy experience, almost, because it's just so black—and then coming to Oakland and being at the Umoja Fest and seeing how being black was celebrated here in California. That was just mind-blowing for me. I had never seen that before.
What does your ideal future look like for artists in the Bay Area?
Karega: Well, if I can't secure an ideal, I still want to secure a place for us to be and exist. Oakland is changing and spaces are becoming limited; we've seen that with the Alena Museum and what's going on with them. So as Oakland changes, and keeping a space for artist communities, live music is a real thing. Having spaces that honor live music. I can't stress it enough. Lastly, man, ways for artists to monetize so the community is able to support them as they want to.
Felicia: Oakland is so unique in terms of valuing community. I didn't learn that until I moved here. So, to what Karega said, don't push us out. Just don't push us out.
Lauren: I've seen what the music scene here in the Bay has been in the past, and I always wanted the Bay Area to be respected more for what we do bring to the musical table. I look at all the many artists who have come out of Oakland and there's a ceiling placed above them, being overshadowed by the larger musical scene in Southern California. It's finally beginning to open up for the Bay to get a little more sunshine. I tell people, "We've got the sun out here too!" Since I've been back in Oakland, I've seen an influx of tourism, and I'm from San Francisco, so I know what tourism looks like in your city. People are coming in droves, and I think this is a perfect opportunity for musicians, local artists, local creatives to finally get the whole world looking at them. I think we're in a great spot.