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When Pittsburg is Home, But Oakland is the Motherland

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Infamous TAZ is rockin' a yellow Spongebob hoody and some shorts as he's posted on a park bench at Pittsburg's City Park.
Born in Oakland, Infamous TAZ and his family soon moved Pittsburg, part of a two-decade shift in Bay Area demographics. (Pendarvis Harshaw)

“I was born up in Deep East Oakland / The world knows us for hyphy and ridin’ in scrapers, yokin,’” raps Infamous TAZ on “Home Town,” the final song of a six-track EP he dropped last month, A Negus In The Sun.

Later in that same reflective verse, TAZ opens up about his father’s drug addiction and his mother’s decision to move the family out of the Town. “We moved in with my auntie, she stayed up in Pittsburg / It used to be a suburb where the rich folks stayed reserved / Just like our ancestors, we thought moving would make us better off/ Until we saw the suburbs transform like Decepticons.”

He’s rapping about the changing demographics of the Bay Area. And he’s doing so from lived experience. TAZ is one of many, specifically working-class Black folks, who’ve relocated to the Delta, the Central Valley or out of state, but still call Oakland home.

Since 2000, Oakland’s overall population has grown by 33,000 people, but the percentage of African Americans has dropped from 35.7% to 23.8%. A smaller percentage of a larger number of people–something that often gets overlooked.

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On the other side of the Caldecott Tunnel, just down Highway 4, is the city of Antioch, where two decades ago the population was just over 90,000 people, with Black folks making up 9.7%. According to the latest census, “the Yoc” now has a total population of more than 111,000, of which African Americans account for 21.5%.

In 2000, nearby Pittsburg had a total population of over 56,000 folks, of which nearly 19% were African American. Now Pittsburg has grown to over 72,000 residents, and 15.4% are African American.

TAZ, a graduate of Pittsburg High School’s class of 2015, has seen it all unfold. So, a couple weeks ago, I pulled up to the far East Bay to see Pittsburg and Antioch through his eyes.

Infamous TAZ cracks a smile as he sits on the staircase in front of his old apartments in Pittsburg.
Infamous TAZ on the staircase in front of his old apartments in Pittsburg. (Pendarvis Harshaw)

TAZ points to the Riverstone Apartments on Sycamore Drive, his first home after moving from Oakland. A little further down, in the parking lot of a small shopping center, sits a makeshift memorial for a homicide victim. This area is where a lot of drama occurs, TAZ tells me, and news reports of federal agents focusing on that area confirm it.

“The difference is,” TAZ says to me, “you gotta find trouble out here. In Oakland, it’ll find you.” He and his family moved out here to escape it. But that didn’t exactly happen.

Back in the day, his brother had long locs, was into turf dancing, and wore airbrushed T-shirts. “He had to fight his way home just off the strength that he was from Oakland,” TAZ tells me, as we bend corners through the neighborhood. The beef has since died down, but when he first moved here, TAZ says, “there was a war going on between Oakland and Pittsburg.”

He adds that during those early years, people would do dirt in the Town or the City and then hide out in Pittsburg or Antioch—his brother included.

TAZ, who has an older sister as well, is the youngest in the family. Because of that fact, he was often protected. But there’s only so much sheltering available when there’s drama inside the house too.

We park inside of the Villa Serena apartments on E. Leland Road: “Apartment 209, that’s it,” TAZ says. This is where TAZ realized the economic situation that his family faced; a realization that catapulted him into adulthood.

He paints a picture for me of what went on in the house—dice games with money on the floor, weed smoke in the air, ashes on the table, shotgun under the bed, glock under the couch. Essentially, it was a trap house, he says, except it wasn’t abandoned. His family lived there.

“It was days when my mom was crying because she didn’t have rent money,” TAZ recalls. “My brother was selling drugs to make money to keep us in here.” The juxtaposition of activity inside the house versus what was going on outside messed with his teenaged head. “Outside, I was in Pittsburg. But inside I was in Oakland.”

Music became an escape.

Infamous TAZ takes a sip of a beverage as he posts in front of Angelo's, a store around the corner from his old high school.
Infamous TAZ takes a sip of a beverage as he posts in front of Angelo’s, a store around the corner from his old high school. (Pendarvis Harshaw)

As a kid he was deeply into hip-hop, but not the hip-hop of the time. When Young Jeezy and Gucci Mane were hot in the early 2000s, he was listening to the Fat Boys and the Funky 4 + 1. Known for beatboxing, TAZ rocked Gazelle-styled shades and fat laces in his kicks. He even developed a New York accent.

“I’m out here,” TAZ says, pointing to the ground we’re standing on. “I’m telling you I’m from East Oakland. And I’m talking like I’m from New York.” He laughs at the confusion. “Na, B, I’m really from out here!”

He got deeper into writing raps, publishing his first project while in high school. After class, he’d post up in front of Angelo’s Pizza & Wings & Mini Market to sell pot and freestyle with other students and folks from the neighborhood. And while he hung out with seedy crowds, he never got in trouble with the law—something he credits to his family, his own moral compass, and getting into theatre.

In his senior year he landed a role in a hip-hop musical, playing a gangsta. “It helped me reenact everything I had seen over the years, and it put me around positive people,” TAZ tells me, taking a swig of lemonade. Suddenly, he didn’t have to dumb himself down anymore. He could freely discuss poetry, spirituality and chakras. He also saw a lane to pursue his dream of being an entertainer.

While at Los Medanos College in Pittsburg, he got deeper into acting, even doing out-of-state shows—including one at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C.

Infamous TAZ and Angelo, owner of Angelo's Pizza and Wings, share a moment.
Infamous TAZ and Angelo, owner of Angelo’s Pizza and Wings, share a moment. (Pendarvis Harshaw)

Outside of school, he pushed his music, which led him back to Oakland. He got connected with United Roots and the Urban Peace Movement’s Determination Black male mentorship program, where he met mentors Adimu Madyun (WolfHawkJaguar) and the late Dr. Prince White.

TAZ watched Dr. Prince White’s efforts to free Dajon Ford from Santa Rita Jail, where he had been sitting for four years awaiting trial. When Ford was released, TAZ says, it one of the most remarkable things he’s ever seen. “I never saw a group of brothers get a Black man out of jail,” says TAZ. “That made me believe in (Dr. Prince White) a whole ‘nother way.”

When Dr. Prince White passed unexpectedly in 2018 from a rare medical condition. “When he passed, it was deep for me. It felt like that moment when niggas lost prominent leaders in the ’60s,” TAZ laments. “That’s why I had to give him that shoutout on “No Peace” … I felt like everyone who fights for peace ends up dying.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_–5ZeZ-Raw

Around the same time, TAZ started running with a peer named Leo Mercer, who helped him reconnect with Oakland.

“I was away from Oakland for so many years that everyone I knew in Oakland was either dead, in jail, or they moved out,” TAZ says. “So he got me reacquainted with the Oakland scene as it is now.”

Growing up in Pittsburg, TAZ looked at Oakland the same way some Black folks in America look at the continent of Africa. Constantly questioning how his life would’ve been if he’d been raised out there. “To me, Oakland was the motherland,” he says as he sits in the passenger seat. “Especially after I learned about the Panthers.”

Once disconnected from the heartbeat of the Bay, TAZ now spends plenty of time in Oakland. He’s a regular at community events and underground shows. “Now that I’m acquainted with Oakland and Pittsburg, I get the same feeling,” TAZ says, letting out a laugh of frustration. “I gotta get out of the Bay!”

It’s true. Like many Bay Area residents, TAZ wants to leave his hometown—or hometowns—for a place where the cost of living isn’t as expensive and career opportunities are vast.

He’s working on it. He’s dropped two albums in the past 18 months, has done more shows out of state, and is doing weekly freestyles on Instagram, calling them #TazForceTuesdays. He’s pushing.

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And he says the glimmers of success he’s had so far are God’s way of showing him that he’s headed down the right path—wherever it might lead next.

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