Kehlani mural at 7th West in Oakland. Artwork by Timothy B. and Steven Anderson. (Timothy B.)
If there's one thing I've learned in the past two months, it's that a worldwide pandemic can’t stifle the artists of Northern California. Which makes sense—it's one of the most innovative places on the planet. Creativity is in our cellular membranes and the culture pulses through our veins. Plus, the rent is too damn high to quit.
Let's start with the well-known names. This past weekend, Oakland’s own Kehlani hit No. 1 on the Apple Music charts with her latest album, It Was Good Until It Wasn’t. As the project took off, Kehlani made videos in quarantine and took to Twitter sharing intimate details of her experience to promote the album. It was something she had to do—otherwise, citing the coronavirus, her label would've postponed the release of her album.
The Bay's even getting active in television. Check the soundtrack for this season of Insecure, which features previously released music from Michael Sneed in one episode and Kamaiyah in another. And, of course, the Bay’s own Nijla Mu’min directed Insecure's fourth episode from this season.
As for getting active in Hollywood, check Netflix’s All Day and A Night. The story of an aspiring rapper from Oakland, the film has star power from Oakland's Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and a bunch of cameos from Northern California folks, including members of the dance crew Turf Fiendz and Oakland’s Rolanda D. Bell. The film was written by San Francisco’s Joe Robert Cole, was filmed in Oakland and Alameda, and its soundtrack features Tia Nomore, SOBxRBE, Paris, the Conscious Daughters, P-Lo, Mac Dre and more.
Further evidence that despite catastrophic circumstances, we don’t know how to stop.
For artists in the Northern California, being creative is damn near synonymous with breathing. Even when we leave our region, we carry it with us. Ask Oakland’s own Nappy Nina, who's currently living in New York and bringing heat to all the MENcees out there. Nappy Nina’s latest project 30 Bag, full of quality vibes and strategic wordplay, dropped on her 30th birthday.
Need that more twang in your tunes? On Texas rapper Siddiq’s latest album, Slide Music, his southern delivery pairs well with the production of Oakland’s 1-O.A.K., Alameda’s Trackademicks and the rest of the HNRL crew—even NPR thinks so. The track that caught my ear is “Wantanabe,” produced by Oakland’s Drew Banga.
I’ve talked to Banga on a few occasions, I can assure you he's a really bright guy. But I’m thoroughly convinced the term “take a break” isn’t in his lexicon.
Banga just released a song and dance, “G-Step,” with San Francisco’s Jordan “Stunnaman02” Gomes. Banga then turned around and announced he’s got an upcoming project with Oakland lyricist Stoni called Ferrari Fawcet, set to drop in July. Evidently, Stoni isn’t familiar with slowing down either, as she’s been occupying her time by drawing folks on commission—she’s done over 20 pieces.
One of the silver linings of this downtime is the ability to get familiar with artists I should've been listening to. For example, San Francisco’s Troy LLF, who just released Til Death Do Us Part II. Troy LLF's mature lyrical approach is a great counterbalance to the party music our region's often associated with.
Another artist who’s newly on my radar is Oakland’s Mahawam. I couldn't help but notice Mahawam's recent video for, "HOPING NO ONE NOTICE." And if you like that trippy-hop vibe, I'd suggest checking out the work of MH the Verb, who calls Oakland home now but is originally from New York by way of Philly. The new 420-friendly video for his song "Birthstones" is a great introduction to his lyrical space odyssey of an album, Afronaut.
Need more vibes? Check out Ashia Karana—she grew up between New Jersey and Atlanta, but came to the Bay to study sound healing. The people she met influenced her so much that the cover art for her new project, Trust, is done by Bay Area singer, songwriter and graphic designer Stoney. (No relation to the aforementioned Stoni.) I listened to Ashia's project twice last weekend, and ended up on the floor of my apartment holding a staring contest with the ceiling. I won.
Another mention along those vibe lines: Oakland's Jada Imani dropped a new atmospheric single while sheltering in place, called "I Think That I Am."
Need more of that romantic R&B feel in your life? The new single from Union City’s LarrenWong, “Out My Way,” almost made me text an ex. But then the pure vocals from Oakland's Dom Jones, on her latest single "Crazy Town," reminded me to put my phone down.
Soon after that, I was told to remain focused on my craft by an elder statesman, Vallejo’s E-40. He just dropped The Curb Commentator, the first of a four-part EP series scheduled to drop throughout the year.
I repeat: E-40's releasing a four-part project this year, and he’s 52 years old. What’s your excuse?
Someone with a similar consistency and penchant for putting real-spill over dope beats is San Francisco’s Larry June. I honestly didn’t know he even dropped a project last week until I started writing this article. I checked his Twitter, just because dude drops a new project every time the fog comes in over the Golden Gate, and sure enough, his latest project Cruise USA is on all platforms.
A good example of an "I'm not letting COVID stop my artistic flow," is Allen "Loove Moore" Moore. He's from West Oakland—specifically, Acorn–and he's a musician, multimedia maker and a self-proclaimed introvert who's found solace in creating a safe place for others to be themselves. That space was a weekly talent showcase called "Loove at the Lake." Last year, in its first year of operation, it was featured in the San Francisco Chronicle.
But now that people aren't (supposed to be) gathering en masse, he's spending his time shooting and editing videos for the music he's continually making. How's he staying inspired?
"I march to my own understanding of life," Loove Moore told me during a phone call, sitting outside of a studio working on a podcast. "I feel like self-expression is needed, so I don't explode."
He says it's not just the resilient mentality that comes with being raised in West Oakland, but "the spirit" from the black church that has pushed his artistic endeavors. And now, he creates something new, constantly. When asked what the key to it all is, he simply says: "I just participate in life, bro."
And it's as simple as that for some of us. Creating is just how we participate in life.
Hats off to the artists from this region who haven't stopped creating. To those who've been sitting on work and finally dropped it, as well as those who've used this time in isolation to get creative.
I'm looking forward to the work of Class of 2020 high school graduate (and future NYU student) J.Walt, who's dropping a project called Yours Truly this weekend.
Keeping an eye as well on East Bay lyricist Ruby Ibarra, who just dropped a new video this week and is guaranteed to be working on more.
Berkeley's Caleborate also dropped a five-track project called "Sparks In The Studio," just this week. I've yet to listen to it, but given what I know of the guy's work, it'll be worthwhile.
Fellow Berkeleyite Rexx Life Raj announced a new video coming Friday. I'll watch that in tandem with Kamaiyah's latest song, as she's just announced that she's dropping new music every Friday, starting this week.
As a consumer and fan, I want to thank y'all for your art. It's needed all the time, and especially right now.
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