Life Between the Stages: Lil Kayla and San Jose Jazz

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Lil Kayla holding court during a performance at The Chapel on Friday August 12, 2022.
Lil Kayla holding court during a performance at The Chapel on Friday August 12, 2022. (Pendarvis Harshaw)

Mentally I'm somewhere between a Lil Kayla show and the San Jose Jazz Summer Festival. Yup, that's where I'm at in this stage in life. It clicked this weekend after attending both.

I'm an old head at the Lil Kayla show, and a youngsta at the jazz fest. A position that grants me a unique view on the culture around me. I had a moment of gratitude this weekend for being where I am; I like this stage, the in-between stage.

Fans capture footage as Lil Kayla performs at The Chapel in San Francisco on Friday August 12, 2022.
Fans capture footage as Lil Kayla performs at The Chapel in San Francisco on Friday, Aug. 12, 2022. (Pendarvis Harshaw)

Lil Kayla, a young lyricist with a big personality and a larger following, is the pride of San Francisco's Sunnydale projects.

On Friday night she brought out the neighborhood, devoted fans and her grandmother. A large portion of the audience inside The Chapel were young women with Xs marked on their hands, a sign of being under the legal drinking age.

Girls with big eyelashes passed Backwoods back and forth, others revealed braces on their teeth as they smiled. I saw a person with a ring light attached to the back of their phone—a handheld personal stage, ready for her to show out.

A portion of the crowd at the Lil Kayla show at The Chapel in San Francisco on August 12, 2022.
A portion of the crowd at the Lil Kayla show at The Chapel in San Francisco on Aug. 12, 2022. (Pendarvis Harshaw)

Opening acts from San Francisco's Mya'Mya and East Oakland's "hyphy princess" Journey B. The Reason were interspersed with sets from DJ ShellHeart and Drew Banga. The crowd was already going when event host Troy LLF announced Lil Kayla was up next.

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Phones came out, camera lights came on, arms went skyward, and the from the moment she walked on the stage the crowd recited Lil Kayla's lyrics bar for bar.

About two-thirds of the way into her set, Lil Kayla invited a few audience members to come on stage and spit her rhymes without skipping a word. Three out of four of the women who participated did so without an issue. Crowd participation on another level. Everyone was Lil Kayla that night.

While standing directly next to the stage taking photos of Lil Kayla, I got a tap on my shoulder. It was a younger brother who was wearing a ski mask, despite the Tucson-like temperatures. Before asking if he could get past me to get on stage, he said, "Excuse me, sir."

That's where I'm at in life!? "Sir," in the middle of a Bay Area hip-hop function? Well I'll be damned. Let me take my geriatric ass to a jazz festival.

Radio host Greg Bridges and photographer Robert Birnbach engage in a conversation about jazz, photography and more during the 2022 San Jose Jazz Summer Fest on Saturday August 13, 2022.
Radio host Greg Bridges and photographer Robert Birnbach engage in a conversation about jazz, photography and more during the 2022 San Jose Jazz Summer Fest on Saturday, Aug. 13, 2022. (Pendarvis Harshaw)

The next morning I drove to the San Jose Jazz Summer Fest, and posted in the back of the Tech Interactive's New Venture Hall. On stage sat jazz scholar and radio show host Greg Bridges and photographer Robert Birnbach.

“Photographers have a way of adding to the story that the music is telling,” Bridges said at the onset of the conversation. Birnbach discussed best practices for photographing musicians and their instruments from different angles on stage, among other topics.

Jumping around from photographic example to photographic example as he talked, Birnbach told the audience his preselected collection of images had gotten out of order. As Birnbach fished for a specific picture, Bridges reminded the audience, "This is jazz, we improvise."

Alabama Mike poses for a photo after performing at the at the 2022 San José Jazz Summer Festival.
Alabama Mike poses for a photo after performing at the 2022 San Jose Jazz Summer Fest. (Pendarvis Harshaw)

I went into the jazz fest not knowing what to expect. Improvisation was my entire game plan.

After the August sun bounced off of Alabama Mike's gold teeth as he ran through his set, next up was Diunna Greenleaf. As she settled into a chair on stage, she said that sitting on stage isn't her normal forte, but if she were to fall no one in the audience would be strong enough to pick her up.

A big woman with an even larger voice, she held the crowd down from her perch. That is, until she deemed that the crowd wasn't giving back what she was putting out.

During Greenleaf's rendition of Ray Charles' "Hard Times," she got out of the chair and slowly walked down the stage's steps to join the crowd. The grass where people were sprawled on blankets chillin' became an impromptu stage. With no microphone, standing in the middle of the crowd and nearly wailing, Greenleaf pushed audience members' emotional buttons. One person in a white dress was in tears. Another in an orange shirt clasped their hands together, as if in prayer.

Diunna Greenleaf performs "Hard Times" in front of a captive audience at the 2022 San José Jazz Summer Festival.
Diunna Greenleaf performs "Hard Times" in front of a captive audience at the 2022 San Jose Jazz Summer Fest. (Pendarvis Harshaw)

What stage of grief produces this kind of art?

After Greenleaf's performance, came Tribal Gold, a combination of the New Orleans Suspects and Big Chief Juan Pardo & the Golden Comanche. They hit the stage and it was instantly Mardi Gras, with the area in front of the stage becoming a dance floor—a sub-stage, if you will.

Big Chief Juan Pardo & the Golden Comanche of Tribal Gold perform at the San José Jazz Summer Festival on Saturday August 13, 2022.
Big Chief Juan Pardo & the Golden Comanche of Tribal Gold perform at the San Jose Jazz Summer Fest on Saturday, Aug. 13, 2022. (Pendarvis Harshaw)

A toddler dancing to the the jazz and blues got me thinking about the stages of life: how it's less about age, and more about where your spirit is at that place and time. I'm clearly at that stage between hyphy and swinging jazz. But I still have questions.

How much say do we have in choosing what stage we're on? Is the stage between stages a stage in itself? What differentiates those who love the limelight from those disabled by stage fright? If life is a series of stages, is it real or is it... staged?

Rapper Pallaví aka Fijiana watching friend and fellow rapper Stoni perform in the Regulars Only backyard on Saturday August 13, 2022.
Rapper Pallaví aka Fijiana watching friend and fellow rapper Stoni perform in the Regulars Only backyard on Saturday, Aug. 13, 2022. (Pendarvis Harshaw)

These thoughts ran through my head as I pushed north, up 880 to the final event of the evening: a backyard bonfire and performance at the Regulars Only house.

A long list of artists, including Passwurdz, Fijiana, Mksmth, The Dakota WytefoxxGee Pop, WantMoren8, Tia Nomore, Poo$ie, JourneyB tha Reason, Kevin Allen, Stoni and more graced the stage.

The audience itself was full of talented individuals who could've easily rocked the mic with the scheduled performers. Folks like MADlines and Ian Kelly, King Tahoe and Guapdad 4000. Champ Green held down the grill, while Rexx Life Raj was in full photographer mode.

Wantmoren8 spitting rhymes during a performance in the Regulars Only backyard on Saturday August 13, 2022.
Wantmoren8 spitting rhymes during a performance in the Regulars Only backyard on Saturday, Aug. 13, 2022. (Pendarvis Harshaw)

At one point Raj hit the stage and grabbed the mic, just to take an orchestrated photo of the crowd. A sea of who's-who. Smiles and peace signs. Only a portion of the full list of attendees that evening, but it captured the sentiment.

The view from the stage shows people at the function, and it shows a house in the background, one that's being remodeled.

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This weekend was a reminder that it's not always about reaching a new level or getting to that next platform, it's more about appreciating the stage you're on—even if you're in between stages.