An Ohio Cousin's Spring Break Trip Through the Bay Area Arts Scene

Taevon Ransom (Jonathan Rodgers)

My cousin Taevon Ransom landed in Oakland around midnight a few Saturdays ago and told me he was hungry. I asked if he likes sushi. He told me that he'd never had it before.

Trying new things is the reason why a 20 year-old college student from Columbus, Ohio would visit California for his spring break.

Minutes later, we were at Kansai in North Oakland, where before long, he gave up on using chopsticks and began bare-handing a Lion King Roll. Taevon—my college-aged comrade with a passion for rapping and singing—didn’t know it at that moment, but that was the entry point for his tour of arts and culture in the Bay Area.

As I sat next to him, using my chopsticks to fish noodles out of a bowl, I had no idea Taevon's trip would allow me to re-see this place I call home, and appreciate it all over again. Through my young cousin's eyes, I got a quick refresher on the amount of traffic we navigate here; the sunshine glowing off the East Oakland hillside; the drastic income inequality manifested through latent racism, as well as a further appreciation of how superstars—world-renown talents—are just normal people walking the streets of the Bay.

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The next morning we stood on Faro Point, that little weird peninsula that juts out into the San Leandro Marina, and I gave him the lay of the land: Facebook is that way. E-40 is from up there. And the Pacific Ocean is beyond those funny-shaped buildings.

I wiped my hands. Geography was cake. This arts and culture thing is a bit more complex.

Taevon Ransom at San Leandro Marina
Taevon Ransom at San Leandro Marina's Faro Point. // Photo credit Pendarvis Harshaw (Pendarvis Harshaw)

That evening we slid into West Oakland’s Alena Museum and Art Gallery for a working session with artists of all sorts. I’m talking someone painting on a wall over here, someone hemming jeans over there, someone else drawing on paper in such detail that it looked like a printed photo.

And there was incense burning… And someone brought chili.

In a back studio, Githinji Mbire (you might recognize his work from the scene in Sorry To Bother You, where Tessa Thompson's character holds an art opening) was laying out a bunch of art pieces shaped like the continent of Africa—his staple. He’d constructed them from all sorts of pieces of wood, smaller than his other renditions of this design. He told me he plans to sell the small pieces on a sliding scale during the closing event at Alena at the end of this month.

Wait, Alena is closing? Seven Styles, the space's manager, confirmed that after a long back-and-forth with the property owner, Alena Musuem will close at the end of the month. And on March 30, they're  hosting one last party.

I gave my cousin some context about Oakland’s recent history with warehouse spaces used for art and music, and the story of the Ghost Ship fire. I told him how that led to stricter regulations of warehouses where artists work, and simultaneously made places for artists of color harder to secure than ever.

My old man river tale was interrupted by this kid with glasses named Jacob Del Oakland, asking if anyone in the room rapped. The universe knew to connect Jacob—an MC from Oakland who’s currently a senior at Kenyon College in Ohio—to Taevon, who's currently a sophomore at Ohio University. The duo instantly clicked, grabbed a mic and went to work. They were later joined by Aishia Karana, who played the guitar and sang a rendition of Andre 3000’s "Prototype," as Cadence Myles held down the drums.

I laughed as Taevon and Jacob fell the hell back and watched Aishia and Cadence do their thing. So often I've seen guys hog the mic in the cipher, but this time the young men just stood back, near the chili that Aishia had brought, and watched in awe for a few.

Taevon and I left with Andre 3000’s words stuck in our heads, and we bent a corner or two before we pulled up to my block. Across the street from my apartment, three candles lit the porch of Councilmember Lynette Gibson McElhaney’s residence. I told Taevon how the family is mourning the recent murder of her son, Victor McElhaney. Victor, a drummer who was well-known in artists' circles around Oakland, had been shot and killed in a reported botched robbery on USC’s campus in Los Angeles.

With heavy hearts, we called it a night and prepared for the morning.

Githinji Mbire at Alena Musuem and Art Gallery in West Oakland
Githinji Mbire at Alena Musuem and Art Gallery in West Oakland. // Photo credit Pendarvis Harshaw (Pendarvis Harshaw)

Monday allowed my cousin to see the other side of Bay Area culture: working… all the time. He buried his head in his psychology notebook while I read, wrote and took phone calls in a café.

That evening my cousin attended Second Mondays, an open mic series hosted in Tayleur Crenshaw's living room. I'd gone to last month’s event, and although I was few years older than most folks in the room, I was there for the vibe. The 25–30 poets, comedians and artists gathered there on a Monday evening were further evidence that there’s a need for safe spaces for artists of color to simply come together and be.

Taevon was starting to see that.

He was also starting to see that women in the Bay Area are uniquely beautiful. When I picked him up from the open mic, he told me he met a girl. I asked what she looked like. He said he couldn’t tell what race she was. I said, yup, that’s the Bay Area for ya.

Tuesday was the business side of the arts world. He met my KQED family, and got to attend a pitch meeting. He saw the life-sized Big Bird cutout in the green room, and got a peek at Michael Krasny hosting Forum.

And then we ran downtown to have lunch with my friend Teresa Johns at Twitter. Along the way, I asked him to be mindful as to where he sees African American folks in the city. A lot of people who are homeless or in service positions, he observed.

Teresa, a white woman with a heart of gold, showed Taevon around Twitter headquarters while I sat in the lobby and took more phone calls. While my cousin didn’t like the jackfruit tacos from Twitter’s lunchroom, he appreciated seeing the inner workings of the tech business.

We ran from there to Bandcamp’s new office in downtown Oakland. When we parked, Taevon said he had some quarters for the meter—and as he put them into the machine, he was shocked to see how little value each coin had. “Damn, it’s expensive here!” he exclaimed.

Before we dipped into Bandcamp headquarters, I ran across the street to take a photo of some graffiti: the words “RIP King Victor” painted on a wall at Broadway and 19th, further homage to the life of Victor McElhaney.

After Max Gibson gave us a quick tour of Bandcamp and a breakdown on how their music streaming business works, we stopped by Youth Radio—just so lil cuz could see where I came from.

A dedication to Victor McElhaney on Broadway in Oakland
A dedication to Victor McElhaney on Broadway in Oakland. // Photo credit Pendarvis Harshaw (Pendarvis Harshaw)

Later that evening we pulled up to Zoo Labs, where Fuze The MC gave us a tour, told us about selling a hologram he’d designed, mentioned his new card game—The Meme Game—and played us some cuts from his latest album. Another example of constantly working in order to make it here.

Before we ran out of Zoo Labs, Jennifer Johns ran in. I introduced my cousin and told him he just encountered greatness.

And then we made a beeline to the other side of town, where Kevin Allen was sitting in a studio, fresh back from a trip to Cuba. He spun a couple of tracks for us—including his new album with DJ Basta, which drops next month. And another track, a banger of a song, featuring Mani Draper and IamSu!

By then, it was late, and time to hit Colonial Donuts for the nightcap.

On the final day of his travels, I took my cousin to Richmond where my college buddy, Charles "Chuck T" Turner Jr., recently opened a studio called Rich City Studios. Taevon got an hour or two of studio time, and laid down some vocals on a track—his mission was complete.

Taevon Ransom at Rich City Studios in Richmond // Photo credit Charles "Chuck T" Turner Jr.
Taevon Ransom at Rich City Studios in Richmond // Photo credit Charles "Chuck T" Turner Jr. (Charles "Chuck T" Turner Jr. )

He networked. He performed. He recorded. He ate well and he even saw family.

Before we left Richmond to head to the airport, I poked my head into the East Bay Center for the Performing Arts—just to introduce myself to the organization, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary. In the lobby, there was a memorial table for Victor McElhaney.

Taevon and I then piled into the car to beat the five o’clock traffic. He held the aux cord, playing tracks from folks on the other side of the country, like Lil Tjay, Tae Fresh and Moneybag Yo—a bit of a cultural exchange, if you will. He said the highlight of his trip was the night at Alena—and that the lowlight was not getting any further than just meeting a girl. We laughed.

And as drove down 580, near the Grand Avenue exit in Oakland, I pointed out a recently posted hand-printed sign on an overpass: “Love Life 2019.” I told my cousin how that was slogan championed by Lynette Gibson McElhaney a few years ago, as a way to dispel the notion that Oakland is a city of death and despair.

Taevon said he admired how our community is attempting to come together, and wrap their arms around the McElhaney family. He also noted the amount of Maseratis he'd seen casually cruising the streets. He laughed at the fact there was a “packaged” date on a bag of marijuana. He pointed to the deep green springtime East Bay hillside in amazement. He got the experience he bargained for.

I can't afford to get my family a leg up in college, like some people here in the Bay Area, but I can afford to give them a first class ticket to the wealth that is arts and culture here in the Bay Area.

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He’ll be back again soon. And next time, we’re doing Ethiopian food.

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