East Bay hip-hop group Trey Coastal at BART in downtown Oakland. (Photo by Shawn Washington)
Last week, BART was under fire again, as an investigation into what truly occurred leading up to the shooting of Oscar Grant by former BART officer Johannes Mehserle on the morning of Jan. 1, 2009 was made public.
Meanwhile, in the same week, the culture within BART’s car doors got some shine by Oakland-based rap trio Trey Coastal as they dropped their single "End Of The Line"—an ode to the folks who dance on BART.
Granted, the revelations around Grant's killing and the music video are mostly unrelated. But after reading the news report and then watching the music video, it hit me: BART is essentially one big 121-mile, 1000-volt barometer of the Bay Area’s culture.
BART is a big deal: 679 trains that take riders from 48 different stations on over 126 million trips annually. Just last year, Governor Brown approved a bill allowing BART to develop land around their stations for higher-density housing. And in 2016, BART got a $3.5 billion bond through the voter-passed Measure RR, aimed at rebuilding and maintaining key aspects of the system's infrastructure.
But before last week, I don’t think I’ve ever taken a moment to really appreciate how much BART reflects the Bay as a whole. From the 1950s photos of the state taking people’s property under eminent domain to construct West Oakland BART to the photos of President Nixon riding the newly opened BART in 1972, it’s all a sign of the times. Even BART's recent expansion into Antioch and Silicon Valley reflects the population growth and lack of affordable housing in traditional city centers.
People dressed in wild costumes headed to Bay To Breakers show the Bay Area's kooky-creative side. The protests that blocked the trains on Black Friday in 2014 show the Bay Area's strong political will. And although the shooting of Oscar Grant was over 10 years ago, the new revelations around that case illustrate the importance of AB 1421, the police transparency bill.
So when I see Trey Coastal's song dedicated to the dancers who use BART as their stage, I can’t help but also see the significance in something some see as mundane.
“That’s what makes it so special,” says Anshil Popli, the director of photography on Trey Coastal’s video. “BART is something that we take every day... dancing is a huge part of that. It’s one of those things we look past every day, but to have that on video makes it special to me.”
Popli tells me he was blown away at some of the responses he got at certain stops while filming. “I call them 'white stops'—places where you know you're going to see an upscale crowd in a changing Oakland. To bring back something that's so simple, art in its rarest form, is what it’s about,” says Popli. “And the people I thought wouldn't appreciate the dancing and the music actually did. Man, we live in a strange time. It's good to see that art alleviates the pain.”
For some, BART dancers are artwork. For others, they're annoying. And to BART officers, dancing for money on BART is illegal.
The issues around BART dancers aren’t new. Five years ago, Nubia Bowe was abused and aggressively arrested for reportedly dancing on BART and soliciting money. I've personally seen people dancing on BART since the years when base fare was $1.10. It’s part of a long tradition, and part of the larger picture of artists navigating the Bay's high cost of living.
“Dancing on BART been poppin’ since I was in high school,” says "End of the Line" director Noah Coogler. “Every time I look at the video, I think we captured a piece of history.”
Coogler, the brother of director Ryan Coogler, says they shot the dance routines in about three hours. “While we were there, I felt like nobody felt off-put… I even saw a couple of white folks give out dubs,” Coogler tells me.
Yung Phil, one of the dancers in Trey Coastal's video (as well as several other Bay Area music videos, including KQED’s recently released If Cities Could Dance: Oakland), tells me the reception on BART is about 50/50. And even with his success in videos, he still regularly gets on trains and performs. “It's like representing the culture, the underground culture that the Bay has,” he says.
Yung Phil also explains that there’s a safety aspect to dancers on BART. “The fact that we dance, it takes people’s minds off of being so tense, or thinking that someone is going to run up and rob them,” he says. (I hadn’t thought about it before, but as people film the dancers, it doubles as a surveillance mechanism.)
You can look into a train car on any given day and see the nationalities of the local population, the fashion of the time and even the technology of the age. BART is a microcosm of us, a crystal ball of change: in 2019, AirPods show our attachment to detachment, and cashless tickets show our momentum toward digital currency.
That said, there's also things like Marshawn Lynch and Marcus Peters riding BART back from the Coliseum after a Thursday night Raiders game. A prime example that it’s possible to keep it lit for the Town, even when the Town is changing.
There's a photo of Trey Coastal in Oakland, sitting on a BART platform. The image has become a special one: it was captured by Shawn Washington, a friend of the crew and talented photographer from the Bay. Washington recently passed, and now the photo is a snapshot of the group's moment in time with their friend.
Cam Moss, one-third of the Trey Coastal crew, tells me that the intention behind "End Of The Line" is to exude Bay Area pride. When asked about BART dancing seen a nuisance, Moss says that the dancers are “young cats that are out here, expressing themselves and not harming you in any way. This art. This is the same thing as going to museum and seeing a painting.”
Adds Moss: “Some people may look down on public transportation, but that's really where it all starts."
For arts stories you won’t read anywhere else, come to KQED’s Arts and Culture desk.