Rightnowish: Refa One, Spraypaint in Hand, Honors West Oakland's History

4 min
Artist Refa One with his mural honoring Huey Newton at 14th and Peralta in West Oakland. (Pendarvis Harshaw/KQED)

I stand on the corner of 14th and Peralta in West Oakland, marveling over a mural painted on the broad side of the Sav-Mor liquor store. With a brilliant blue background, African Adinkra symbols along the top and the image of Black Panther Party co-founder Huey Newton squarely in the middle, the words “Serve The People” send a simple, clear mission statement.

“We are standing at ground zero, where the Black Panther Party started,” says Refa One, the artist behind the mural. “And there is nothing in this neighborhood of any consequence that is promoting the legacy of the Black Panther Party.”

Until last year, that is, when Refa painted the mural, giving visual honor to one of the most well-known organizations to emerge from the Bay Area.

Refa One's mural honoring Huey Newton of the Black Panthers.
Refa One's mural honoring Huey Newton of the Black Panthers. (Pendarvis Harshaw/KQED)

Having his work on the walls around town isn’t new to Refa—he’s been active since the 1980s, when he painted with the graffiti crew BSK. You can see his work under the 580 overpass at Market, or on 8th Street, between Campbell and Willow. He’s currently working on a mural dedicated to the memory of Oscar Grant at Fruitvale BART station, where Grant was fatally shot 10 years ago.

Still, the Huey Newton piece is directly representative of the reason Refa, founder of the AeroSoul art collective, is invested in art. Both of his parents were Black Panther members, rank-and-file, as he called them. His dad, Ducho Dennis, served as official photographer for the Panthers, and walls of his photos transform Refa’s living room into a sort of mini-museum.

Refa One in West Oakland.
Refa One in West Oakland. (Pendarvis Harshaw/KQED)

“Yeah I'm a collector of many sorts, mostly related to art. Whether it's sculpture, paintings, music, you know, I’m also an archivist,” says Refa as we walk into his house. “There's times where I will meet rank-and-file panthers, and this documentation may be the only physical documentation that records their involvement in the party, and that means a lot to their family.”

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And it means a lot to me.

Knowing how rapidly West Oakland is changing, this documentation is gold. The stories from this soil need to be told, no matter their form. To let them dissipate into history would be a disservice to those who came before us—as well as those who come after us.

Artist Refa One with his mural honoring Huey Newton at 14th and Peralta in West Oakland.
Artist Refa One with his mural honoring Huey Newton at 14th and Peralta in West Oakland. (Pendarvis Harshaw/KQED)

Refa One would agree about the importance of that intergenerational connection. Along with his parents' involvement in the party, his son Senay Alkebu-lan runs a clothing line called MADOW FUTUR, which features images of the Black Panther logo on the apparel.

When asked about his art’s purpose, Refa One doesn't have to deliberate. “My mission statement can be capsulated in the Black Panther commemorative mural around the corner from here: to serve the people.”

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