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Finding Musical Gems in the Bay Area’s African Club Scene

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Originally from Kenya, DJAYSLIM has been playing African music in the Bay Area for 20 years. (Courtesy of the artist)

As a Ugandan American music journalist, African music has been at the center of my work and personal life for years. Before I moved to the Bay Area earlier this year, I’d spent countless evenings dancing to African music in clubs in cities with large, visible African populations like Washington D.C. and New York. I was aware of other hotspots like Atlanta and Houston based on the tour schedules of my favorite artists.

But one place that never popped up on my radar as a hub for African music was the Bay. That is, until I heard Fireboy DML’s inescapable 2021 hit, “Peru.” The globetrotting track name-drops other locales beyond its Latin American title, but it was a reference to the Bay that immediately caught my ear.

“I’m in San Francisco jamming,” Fireboy sings in the bridge. From there he reminds us that he “just flew in from Miami” before moving on to other topics like partying and romance. To most it might seem like a throwaway line, something that just sounded nice in the moment, but I wanted to know more.

Living in San Jose and working in San Francisco, I wasn’t seeing large African communities like the ones I’d seen on the East Coast. If Fireboy’s song was a clue to where I might find them, I was ready to start looking.

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I soon found out that Fireboy DML recorded “Peru” in San Francisco at the studios of the independent label and distributor, EMPIRE. Founded by San Francisco native Ghazi in 2010, the company made its name in the hip-hop world, inking distribution deals with popular artists like Kendrick Lamar and XXXTentacion. In recent years though, the company has been setting its sights on Africa, specifically the infectious pop music coming out of Nigeria and Ghana commonly referred to as Afrobeats.

Emboldened by this knowledge, I went looking for the Afrobeats scene, and within a few weeks of moving to the South Bay, I found myself at a monthly party called Soundgasm in San Jose. It’s organized by a DJ named Flygerian Jeff who runs an event company called United Tribes of Africa. Born and raised in Oakland to Nigerian parents, Jeff is one of the most active DJs and event organizers in the scene, throwing regular events all across the Bay Area.

But when I walked in, the first person I saw was DJAYSLIM.

He was queuing up hit after hit: “Assurance” by Nigerian star Davido, then “Case” by fellow Nigerian Teni. When his turn at the decks was over, we got to talking, and I learned that he has been playing African music in the Bay Area for close to two decades.

In 2001, DJAYSLIM, whose real name is Martin Mwangi, left Nairobi, Kenya and moved into his sister’s place in Oakland. Her boyfriend at the time was a DJ. Mwangi had never considered DJing, but his deep love of music and an open set of turntables in the house propelled him to give it a shot.

“I would just practice in the house when my sister [was] at work during the day. At that time my love was reggae and dancehall. That’s the time for ‘Everyone Falls In Love,’ ‘Heads High.’ That’s all you heard the whole time,” recalled Mwangi.

In the early 2000s, the reggae and dancehall scene in Oakland was robust. Clubs like New Karibbean City, Oasis and Air Lounge had regular events. African music, however, was a lot harder to find. The first time Mwangi heard someone playing African music at a club in the Bay, it came from an unexpected source. He went to an international-themed party at the Shattuck Down Low in Berkeley where he saw DJ Fuze, of the storied Bay Area hip-hop group Digital Underground, spinning the latest jams from the continent.

“DJ Fuze had gone on tour to Paris, France, and when he was there, he’s a curious guy so he’s like, ‘Oh, what music is this they’re listening to?’ So he collected [Magic System’s] ‘Premier Gaou.’”

“He played it while we were there at the club. I ran to the DJ booth. I’m like, ‘How does this guy know this music?’ There’s no YouTube, there’s nothing, right? So us Africans, we went crazy. And at that moment I was like, ‘This is what I want to do, and I want to do it the African style.’”

Mwangi started off throwing house parties for the Kenyan community, where he would cycle between dancehall, reggae and a few CDs of African pop music he would get from someone who had recently traveled home. It wasn’t the most efficient way to share music, but it worked in bringing together different groups of Africans in the Bay Area.

“Nigerians used to hang out with Kenyans a lot here,” Mwangi recalled. “One of the gentlemen used to be a promoter. [He] came to a Kenyan event and heard me play and he was like, ‘Yo, I’m gonna invite you for this Nigerian event. Just come, we’ll give you the music.’ And guess what he gave me? ‘No One But You,’ P-Square! He gave me that CD, saying ‘Play number one and number four,’ I’ll never forget!”

Artists with Pan-African hits like Ivorian group Magic System and Nigerian duo P-Square helped popularize African pop music in the diaspora. African DJs like Mwangi, capitalizing on this growing popularity, started pushing promoters to let them play African music in mainstream clubs. Eventually, Mwangi and another key figure named DJ Burt started one of the first regular events, a monthly night called First Saturdays.

“That was all African music from the beginning to the end. Now Africans had a place to go at a mainstream club,” said Mwangi.

Since meeting Mwangi, I’ve spent many weekend nights at African parties in Oakland clubs like AU Lounge, Zanzi and Parliament. These days, Mwangi is one of many players in the East Bay African music scene, which includes established event organizers like United Tribes of Africa and Afrobeats Oakland, the latter of which is spearheaded by a DJ named Juan G, who throws a huge Afrobeats day party at Lake Merritt every summer. But since I don’t live or work in the East Bay, I remained curious about other parts of the region, like San Francisco, where it was harder to find African communities.

The front of Bissap Baobab on Mission Street in San Francisco on Oct. 19, 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

My search ended when I found myself at the grand re-opening of Bissap Baobab in San Francisco’s Mission district last month. During the day it’s a Senegalese restaurant, and in the evening it’s a sweaty dance floor pumping out the latest African pop music. And it’s been serving this dual role in the community for more than 20 years.

The event was a re-opening because, in 2019, owner Marco Senghor sold the original space to help pay the legal fees of a sudden immigration battle. With help from community members and friends, he was able to stay in the country, but he lost his venue along the way. This fall, after a three-year absence, Bissap Baobab was finally able to reopen its doors.

Ricky’s Grupo Afro-Nativo perform at Bissap Baobab on Mission Street in San Francisco on Oct. 19, 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Inside, the space is immediately warm and inviting. The walls are awash with shades of orange, red, yellow and blue, murals and eclectic art. It doesn’t all go together, but it feels like that’s the point.

On the Friday night I attended, by 11 p.m. the dance floor was full of people letting loose. The DJ spun a blend of African, Latin American and Caribbean music, and the vibe was energetically joyful.

First-timer Ineza, who withheld her last name for privacy reasons, tells me she’s from Rwanda and that it’s shocking to find a space like Baobab in San Francisco due to limited Black visibility in the city.

“I feel like I’ve been transported to a metropolitan African city,” Ineza said. “I’m really enjoying the music and the vibes. I love the African art everywhere. It’s making me feel like home.”

The interior of Bissap Baobab on Mission Street in San Francisco on Oct. 19, 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Ineza’s shock at finding a Black venue in the city is not unfounded. The Black population in San Francisco is the only racial demographic in the city that has consistently declined since the 1970s. In 1990 San Francisco was 10% Black – lower than other major cities but still comparable to the national average of 12% at the time. However, by 2021, the city’s Black population had shrunk to 5.7% while the national average rose to nearly 14%.

Native San Franciscan Chris, who also withheld his last name, is a longtime attendee of Baobab’s parties. For him, Bissap Baobab represents much more than just a fun place to go out and listen to African music.

“[It’s the] last hope for the Black people around this community, pretty much,” he told me.

When I first set out looking for African music in the Bay I didn’t expect to find much of a community, let alone one as resilient as Bissap Baobab or as robust as the clubs and DJs in the East Bay. It’s a helpful reminder that there’s often much more than meets the eye. When in doubt, to follow the music.

If you want to hear some African music in the Bay this weekend, on Oct. 21 you can catch United Tribes of Africa and Afrobeats Oakland in the East Bay. Bissap Baobab has an African dance party every Friday and Saturday night. And on Oct. 23, DJAYSLIM will be throwing his Afro Sundays day party in Oakland.

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A longer version of this story first aired on the podcast Afropop Worldwide.

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