Nimsins Raps About East Oakland With Love

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Nimsins raps into the microphone at a sneaker boutique.
Nimsins performs at Renegade Running in Oakland on First Friday, Feb. 4. (Alan Chazaro)

The best First Fridays in Oakland end with a late-night street party and a heavy portion of barbecue links, green beans and mac and cheese on the walk back to your car.

Those kinds of nights aren’t always the norm though, especially these days. Expensive city fees have made it more difficult to throw events since the start of the pandemic, and residents are on edge after seeing a rise in gun violence in the past year. But there are still powerful moments of healing and solidarity to be found if you know where to look. A mosaic of local advocates have tirelessly worked to preserve positive outlets. One of them is Nimsins, an emerging hip-hop artist and sage observer of his hometown’s complex, sometimes contradictory dynamics.

“I’m from East Oakland,” he proudly tells me outside of Renegade Running, a downtown sneaker shop where a First Friday crowd gathered to see Nimsins rock the mic last month. “It’s different. I’m not out here [in this neighborhood] much, but things keep changing.”

Minutes before performing, Nimsins is chilling outside, observing the scene and exchanging daps and laughs with friends. They’ve all driven from the farthest end of the city to celebrate Nim’s recent rise in the rap world, capping off a solid run of two albums, a few EPs, and a handful of singles since 2017. He’s all smiles and good energy—something he maintains throughout the night—but switches modes once he begins to deliver his truth to the audience.

“You don’t know how it feel [when] construction all in your hood,” he raps. It’s a line from “Don’t Know How It Feels” off his 2021 project, More To Life. The intimately packed listeners sway along, nodding heads, attentively tuned into his energy.

The song is hyper-appropriate for Oakland in 2022, where a soon-to-open burger joint glows with neon lights across the street, with two police cruisers parked in front. Its presence indicates a shifting city, which continues to invest into the development and protection of certain neighborhoods and populations while neglecting others. It’s something Nimsins grapples with in his life and music, while he seeks to highlight the solidarity in his city.

With his stream-of-consciousness style, Nimsins celebrates being a Black man who grew up in a largely Mexican and immigrant community, eating homemade tamales, mole and arroz. He flexes his bilingual skills in titles like “La Verdad” and “Tostones en Harlem,” with a relaxed flow that effortlessly flips to Spanish mid verse over lo-fi, sample-based beats. He even has an upcoming track with local Mexican American rapper Nito on the way. 

But in his lyrics, Nimsins also criticizes the lack of infrastructural development in his neighborhood and the frustration he feels in seeing his people locked up. He toggles perspectives from track to track with an inviting, conversational tone: bars about admiring his young daughter while hooping at the park segue into a lesson on various historical factors at the root of urban decay. 

“We get redlined, we get criminalized / you get lifelines, you get dollar signs / this vengeance in my eyes I’m desensitized,” he says on “Redline”—a song that explains how his upbringing in an economically segregated part of East Oakland limited social opportunities for him and his neighbors. 

The track breaks down a form of discrimination that dates back to the 1930s, when the federal government systemically denied Black neighborhoods access to home loans and other resources. Even in Oakland, neighborhoods like Rockridge explicitly banned Black, Chinese and Japanese home buyers and renters. The legacy of these policies is evident in the pronounced wealth inequality we see in the city today. As the backlash to the recent school closures in East Oakland has shown, families still feel cut off from the “lifelines” of quality education, healthcare and infrastructure.

Rather than simply rapping about it, Nimsins has taken action to facilitate improvement.

“The messages we feed kids are contradictory to our growth,” he says. “Being a father and being a teacher made me mindful of what I put out and what I do. I can’t be on no bullshit.”

After being shot by a stray bullet as a two-year-old in 1997—a wound that left him with only one fully functional kidney—Nimsins has directed his life towards arts, civic engagement and uplifting his community. In the past, he has dedicated himself as an after school educator with non-profits like Pueblo and Safe Passages’ Get Active Urban Arts, visiting classrooms and teaching the youth in his neighborhood about knowing their rights, local histories and how to paint murals. A product of Fremont High School himself, he knows the value of his “predecessors” who were able to teach, guide and contribute to his journey. Today, he continues to do that as a rapper, father and graffiti artist.

“We get the kids to rock with art, cultural literacy, hip-hop. Homework and life skills, too,” he says. “There’s lots of Latinos out here so we also explore Aztecs and indigenous cultures, things like that. Just giving back to the community. Each one, teach one.”

Both his actions and his songs are like opening up a journal entry penned by an observant and tender-hearted activist who simply wants to see better for his neighborhood. There’s no flashy gimmicks of fame, no hyperbolic claims of toughness, no dissing his imagined foes. It’s purely meditative contemplation about his living conditions and an unfiltered glimpse of what he hopes to see changed. Yet, despite his warmth, there’s a roughness and urgency that seeps out from having experienced the consequences of poverty and discrimination firsthand. In other words, he’s never half-stepping.

His self-education about figures like the Black Panther Party, Che Guevara, Immortal Technique and The Coup have informed his sense of purpose and possibility as an artist and community advocate. 

In 2019, for instance, Nimsins spent six months calling the City of Oakland, trying to get a dilapidated basketball court fixed in his neighborhood with no success. His tweet about his frustrations went viral, and the Golden State Warriors took notice. They sent a team of workers to renovate Concordia Park—along with Steph Curry

Taking big shots with optimistic aim is at the core of everything Nim says and does. Whether it’s making music videos with kids in his neighborhood or sharing the meaning of his name (the “sins” part of Nimsins means “stay in school”), he is purposeful and genuine. 

“Kids die where I come from. People drop out at young ages. There’s no resources,” he says. “That’s what I’ve always known. My music reflects that. I actually come from this.”

With new music on the way, including collaborations with local rappers and producers Ovrkast., demahjiae, and Versâam, he’s sure to keep sharing love and “Bendiciones.” As he says in an unreleased track he sent me to preview his upcoming untitled EP,  “Black book in the crib, I’m working on my handstyles / I’m so thankful for all the game passed down.” And we’re thankful for the game he is passing down, too.

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