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A Professor X for Oakland: Mistah F.A.B. Is On a Quest to Uplift His City

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Mistah F.A.B. outside of his streetwear boutique, Dope Era, on Jan. 20, 2022.  (Nastia Voynovskaya)

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hen Mistah F.A.B. was a kid growing up in North Oakland, he took notes from his heroes. Malcolm X and Huey P. Newton ignited his political consciousness. Tupac showed him that hip-hop could move the masses. And Stan Lee taught him about the power of imagination.

Now, just days after his 40th birthday, the beloved Oakland artist is reflecting on how these lessons prepared him for all that he’s accomplished in rap, community activism and business. And it’s Lee, the creator of the ever-expanding Marvel universe, who’s inspiring him to think about what he wants out of his next chapter. As he enters his fourth decade, he’s preparing to open his new downtown Oakland nightclub, Dezi’s, and is starting to work on his biggest ambition: a youth development-focused community arts and culture center called Dope Era Academy.

“In my mind, it’s like Professor X, and this is the school for mutants,” he says, dropping an X-Men reference on a recent afternoon at his streetwear boutique-turned-community hub, Dope Era. “If you’ve ever had a creative side and you’re an artist or you’re a dancer or you have some genius, you have this mutant-like ability. But coming from the areas that we come from, we don’t have the luxury of having Professor Xs. There’s no one that’s cultivating that.”

Mistah F.A.B. celebrates his 40th birthday at Bowlero in Alameda on Jan. 24, 2022. (Amaya Edwards)

Mistah F.A.B., born Stanley Cox, wants to be that guiding force in his community. He opened Dope Era six years ago at its first location in his childhood neighborhood on the corner of 45th and Market Streets. Before he signed the lease on a humble storefront next to a laundromat and a barbershop, he sold sweat suits and T-shirts out of the trunk of his car, much like he used to sling CDs when he was a rising star of the hyphy movement in the mid 2000s.

The shop was decorated with murals of Mac Dre and Mistah F.A.B.’s childhood friend Nguyen, both lost to gun violence. An airbrushed portrait of his biggest champion and best friend, his late mother Desrie Jeffery, watched over the space like a guardian angel. Dope Era became a love letter from Mistah F.A.B. to his neighborhood, a hub for his Thanksgiving turkey giveaways, school supply drives and many other community initiatives to make sure that his people were fed and taken care of.

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The 45th and Market location had its challenges: in 2017, there were instances of alleged racial profiling by police, and the storefront was damaged in a case of what Mistah F.A.B. suspected to be arson. But there were also great successes on the other side. In 2018, Mistah F.A.B. moved Dope Era into a bigger, swankier location on 19th and Broadway, and the brand became a pillar of downtown’s retail landscape. As upscale bars and new high-rise apartments continue to spring up, Dope Era offers a vision of Oakland’s Black pre-gentrification culture evolving and thriving alongside new developments.

Dope Era’s colorful, Super Mario-inspired logo has basically become an Oakland uniform, and when Snoop Dogg, Amber Rose, Lil Jon and E-40 started rocking it too, the brand’s reach spread well beyond the Bay.

Mistah F.A.B. is harnessing that momentum into Dezi’s, located at 1802 Telegraph Avenue across from the Fox Theater and around the block from the trendy hip-hop club Hello Stranger. The soft opening this Saturday, Jan. 29, is part of his F.A.B. Week of 40th birthday festivities, which also include multiple parties and club nights Thursday and Friday, and a brunch and celebrity basketball game to close things out on Sunday, Jan. 30. E-40, Marshawn Lynch, Steph Curry and Too $hort have already joined in on the celebrations, which started last Sunday.

Too $hort bowls at Mistah F.A.B.’s birthday party at Bowlero in Alameda on Jan. 24, 2022. (Amaya Edwards)

“I don’t want [Dezi’s] to be a performance club, but to be more like a lounge where people can come network and listen to some good music,” he says. “I want to represent for the Bay Area growth. I want to show the other artists that are on the up-and-coming—and some of my constituents and peers that are colleagues now—that there are other ways and avenues for us to do things, for us to continue to be successful.”

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ith plans for Dezi’s in motion, Mistah F.A.B. is looking for capital and space to realize his dreams for Dope Era Academy. Ideally, he’d buy a building with multiple rooms that could support a music studio, business classes, culinary classes, coding classes and all kinds of other creative and professional development. Young people would be the target audience, but he doesn’t believe that there’s an age cap for learning and self-improvement.

And he’s in a unique position to reach those a lot of other organizations might not. The Bay Area nonprofit and educational fields are known for having a majority-white leadership that often comes from wealth. Even with the best intentions, they can’t always relate to the cultures or struggles of the people they want to serve.

That’s where Mistah F.A.B. comes in. “I think it’s very much so possible, especially living in the areas that we live in, and we got all these major millionaires and billionaires that are looking for ways to help,” he says. “They need some people that they can actually trust with those intentions in the community. And if you look at our track record, my track record has shown nothing but that. I may not have done it the NAACP Image Award way, but we did the work and we got it done.”

Mistah F.A.B. is now going on his 19th year of community work (in 2014, Mayor Jean Quan created a day in his honor because of it). People from rough family backgrounds, survivors of neighborhood violence and those who’ve been incarcerated feel comfortable around him. He knows that struggle himself: he lost his father when he was 12 years old (Stanley Cox Sr. contracted AIDS from shared needles). His mother was also addicted to drugs but got clean and became the provider and role model he needed. That’s why Mistah F.A.B. is conscious of the fact that people need acceptance when they’re dealing with trauma—he’s never scolded anyone to pull their pants up. With big hugs, firm handshakes and warm smiles, he’s constantly welcoming people into his orbit.

Mistah F.A.B. greets friends and fans at Bowlero in Alameda on Jan. 24, 2022. (Amaya Edwards)

“There are some people who are very brilliant and very smart, but they may have a speech impediment so they don’t want to talk,” he says of his non-judgmental approach. “There are people that may be social introverts, but could do something to change the social dynamics of the world. They just don’t know how to express themselves. There are people who are autistic who are still artistic. You know what I’m saying?”

A project like Dope Era Academy is Mistah F.A.B.’s way of contributing to a vision of a community that leaves fewer people behind, and he sees it as part of a long-term solution to Oakland’s gun violence problem. In 2021, Oakland saw more killings than in any other year since 2006, and neighborhood shootings leave families caught in the middle of cycles of retaliation and more violence.

“A lot of the gun violence comes from young, frustrated youth who are going out venting, and they haven’t had an ability to heal,” says Mistah F.A.B. “We grow up in the ghetto. You know, PTSD. You watching your friends get killed every day. You got to heal from that. … Children 15, 16 years old with a wall full of obituaries. That’s not normal. That’s traumatic.”

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t 40, Mistah F.A.B. sees his music as an extension of his quest to uplift the community. At the top of the new year, he lost his close friend and collaborator, Traxamillion. And this week is the anniversary of the passing of G Field, who was his right-hand man at Dope Era. With so many important hip-hop artists who’ve died in their 40s and 50s over the past couple of years (Shock G, DMX, Zumbi and Gift of Gab also come to mind), Mistah F.A.B. wants to make a statement about maturation and growth.

He’s putting finishing touches on his next album, Black Designer, whose title pays homage to Black people’s immense contributions to art and culture world over. “It’s the music that a 40 year old should be making,” he says. “It’s easy for me to make hyphy music or whatever the sound is now to modernize my flow. … But I think in doing that, a lot of people are just making music that’s popular. But will it last?”

Though he’s best known for his hyphy songs from the 2000s (“N.E.W. Oakland,” “Sideshow” and “Super Sic Wit It” are considered classics), Mistah F.A.B.’s discography since then has been wide-ranging. He’s released emotional albums about trauma (see the Thug Tears series), missives about racism (Amerikkka Don’t Love Us), player anthems and party music. But with Black Designer, he says we’re getting a different, more grown-up side of him. In fact, for the first time, there are no curse words on the album.

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“I’ve got kids now and I got responsibilities. … I’m running several businesses now. Things are different. Life is different,” he says. “I’m growing. It’s not that I’m not keeping it real. I would be keeping it fake if I was still in the neighborhood. I think it’s imperative that we show the next generation what growth looks like.”

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