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In Oakland, Building Black and Asian Solidarity at the Street Level

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Khafre Jay at a mural he recently restored in Oakland's Chinatown.
Khafre Jay at a mural he recently restored in Oakland’s Chinatown. (Brandon Wong )

“Stop Asian Hate” has been a hot topic of late, rivaling the Derek Chauvin trial as America’s most compelling and current racialized narrative. One emergent storyline has pitted Asians against another marginalized ethnic group, African-Americans. Yet activists, educators, artists, and community organizers in the Bay Area are creating an alternate narrative of Afro-Asian solidarity against what they see as both a common enemy and root cause: white supremacy.

Khafre Jay, Executive Director and founder of Hip-Hop for Change, relates how he grew up hardscrabble in Hunters Point; during the 90s, he roamed Muni lines robbing vulnerable passengers alongside his “Asian patnas.” That guy is not the same Jay of today, who speaks in both pragmatic and optimistic terms about principles of organizing and building effective movements which transcend racial and cultural lines.

In early 2020, after an elderly Asian man was robbed and called racial slurs in a viral video which drew national media attention sensationalizing “Black-on-Asian racism,” Hip-Hop for Change held its first solidarity event, bringing together Chinese community organizations, Black community leaders, and local residents. “That was the beginning of my work with the solidarity stuff. When this stuff started popping off again, we started organizing again,” Jay says.

This past February, following the assaults of elderly Chinese by a homeless, mentally ill person who happened to be Black, Jay heard about a mural in Oakland Chinatown, painted during the George Floyd protests, that had been defaced. The message of “Black Power for Black People”—part of a racial solidarity theme—had been crossed out. He grabbed some acrylic paint and some brushes, drove out to the location, and restored the mural.

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While he was there, he received fearful looks from some elderly Asians, while other Chinatown denizens were more appreciative and welcoming when they saw him painting.

“The Bay Area’s very interesting,” Jay says. “We’re so diverse. But we’re very segregated. And what that means is, our elders are having a very different experience than our young people.”

Over the past few months, Hip Hop for Change has hosted three virtual solidarity-themed events online, and is planning a future collaboration with the Asian Art Museum. “What I’m trying to do is connect some of these young activists so we can create a groundswell that’s gonna get our elders to say, ‘Oh, I have some hope maybe something can change.’” 

Emily Tian and Kev Choice have collaborated for live performances and developing curricula.
Emily Tian and Kev Choice have collaborated for live performances and developing curricula. (Courtesy Kev Choice)

Oakland composer and educator Kev Choice said he’s feeling “a lot of pain from the violence against the Asian community, from the trauma and just all of the historical things that it brings up.”

Like Jay, Choice grew up around Asian people, and in the past, he’s collaborated with fellow Oakland School for the Arts faculty member Emily Tian in live performance and developing curricula. When tensions started to rise, he, too, saw the opportunity to counter the divisive rhetoric.

Choice and his fellow Cultural Arts Commissioners Michelle “Mush” Lee and Roy Chan co-produced “Stories of Solidarity,” a virtual town hall with Oakland City Council President Nikki Bas, whose district includes Chinatown. The event featured live music, visual art, and spoken word performances—including two new Choice compositions incorporating a traditional Chinese instrument, the erhu. “I knew that would be a powerful example of solidarity,” he said. “Two cultures coming together that we don’t often see.”

Oakland’s Cultural Arts Commission—reconstituted in 2020 after being dormant for almost a decade—had never weighed in previously on issues of such gravity. “If we’re gonna sit on this seat, it’s only right to use that Commission as a voice and set an example,” Choice said.

Roy Chan, best known for the Chinatown Oral History Project, says the pandemic has further isolated ethnic communities from each other. “Then you throw in the increased mental illness and trauma that’s happening that leads to violence out there that we’ve been seeing the last few weeks,” he says. “Elders who have been perceived as the victims in these attacks feel like they’re suffering alone. In some cases, small businesses feel like they’re suffering alone, and they have to suffer against people on the outside. Those sentiments add to the challenge that we have.”

He adds that cultural practitioners are particularly well-suited to address issues that require bringing people together to find solutions. “The arts remind us that we are connected to each other, through music, through spoken word and all the other ways we’ve been communicating with each other.”

Hip-hop culture has been at the forefront of multiculturalism, Choice says, noting that Asian people have long been active in b-boying, turntablism and aerosol arts. The culture has “risen above all of these historical differences, these historical tensions, and brought people together. If that is one element that we know as a unifier and also a communicator, that needs to be a driving force behind these conversations.”

As for Asian MCs, few are more prolific than Lyrics Born, the Japanese-Italian American rapper and mainstay of the legendary Quannum collective. Born just released a new single, “Anti,” that speaks directly to the current climate, linking it to attempts to blame the pandemic on Asians: “COVID ain’t the most contagious disease / Racism’s number one and the hatred it breeds.”

The song exemplifies what Choice maintains about the power of hip-hop as a vehicle for social commentary and solidarity. “The cultural aspect of it, that’s the one thing that can build that commonality, that can build that togetherness, that can build that unity. It’s been there, but it’s about us remembering and highlighting it and getting back to that essence of creativity, expression and culture.”

Solidarity has also been the topic du jour on several other recent discussions in the Bay Area. Bas recently convened a town hall chat with fellow councilmember Carroll Fife, who is African American, countering a narrative by Oakland mayor Libby Schaff that falsely blamed the council president for recent cuts in police services to Chinatown. Bas actively supported Black Solidarity Week, and later appeared on a Commonwealth Club panel against anti-Asian violence, in which she advocated for replacing Oakland police officers with mental health professionals on 911 calls involving mental health crises. (The city is currently developing a program called MACRO to do just that.)

This past March, Oakland-based Hip Hop TV hosted a “Solutions Only” panel discussion that convened a multiethnic, cross-generational group to identify pathways moving forward. A key takeaway was the idea that the present moment is informed by efforts of the past.

“Even before the pandemic, in the educational arena, there was a lot lacking and a lot to be desired,” said panelist and former Black Panther Party member Dr. Saturu Ned. He pointed to the Panthers’ community service programs, noting that the majority of the organization’s members were teenagers or young adults. “In terms of young people coming together, we began to understand the aspect of how we work together.”

One of the Panther programs, he related, was the Third World Alliance, composed of “Asian students, Black students, Latino students. We all came together.” It’s crucial, he said, to study the racial solidarity efforts of the past “to relieve some of this mental anguish” which may exacerbate trauma already impacting communities of color.

Tao Shi, Kev Choice and Howard Wiley (L–R) perform in Chinese Garden Park in Oakland. Adding an ehru to his jazz ensemble was "a powerful example of solidarity," says Choice.
Tao Shi, Kev Choice and Howard Wiley (L–R) perform in Chinese Garden Park in Oakland. Adding an ehru to his jazz ensemble was “a powerful example of solidarity,” says Choice. (Courtesy Kev Choice)

Former Oakland School Board member Jumoke Hinton Hodge commented that youth voices need to be heard more within public education circles; to that end, OUSD’s Office of Equity has been engaging AAPI, Afro-Latino, and Middle Eastern/North African students and amplifying their voices through a series of solidarity-themed events and activities.

Still another cross-cultural panel, convened by Filipino-American DJ Ren Salgado for his True Skool platform, brought more even voices into the conversation. The discussion grew tense when venerable Oakland aerosol artist Refa One went in on Asian-Black relations, demanding stronger Asian advocacy against Chinese anti-Blackness and neo-colonialism in Africa as a precondition for allyship.

Jay and Choice both say building racial solidarity doesn’t necessarily require that everyone be perfect allies. What’s critical is to take a stand against a common source of oppression and go from there. As Chan notes, “We have shared interests, we have shared values, we have a shared history in oppression, and we have a shared interest in pushing the powers that be that [are] impacting our communities collectively.”

Reaching out to emergent, youth-led organizations like Asians With Attitude is a priority for both Jay and Hip-Hop TV CEO Shawn Granberry. Choice, meanwhile, says he’s still processing the “Stories of Solidarity” event, and considering future cross-cultural collaborations and embracing more worldly elements in his music. As the national conversation continues to evolve, the Bay Area conversation continues to move forward with purpose and intentionality.

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“Not only is this an ongoing situation,” Jay says, “but I think it’s an optimal opportunity to impact change and organize.”

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