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A Personal Tribute in Music to a Mission District Organizer

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a Black man wears a button down orange shirt and holds a guitar standing against a gray wall
Musician David James will explore the legacy left by his father, youth advocate Jesse James, in a new performance premiering Sept. 22 at Brava Theater in San Francisco. ( Lenny Gonzalez)

After singer and guitarist David James ran into his estranged father, Jesse James, in late ‘90s San Francisco, they met up at the St. John Coltrane Church on Divisadero Street to reconcile their relationship. But it wasn’t until after his father passed in 2005 that the musician learned the full extent of the elder James’s legacy in the city: In 1965, he founded Mission Rebels, an organization that provided job training, educational opportunities and apprenticeships to impoverished youth.

On Sept. 22 and 24, David James and seven ensemble musicians will pay tribute to Jesse James — known to some as “the Rev” for his reputation as a street minister — in a multimedia performance titled Mission Rebel No. 1. Accompanying projected images of his father and samples of his father’s voice, the music includes jazz, funk, classical and hip-hop, says James, adding that he formed the set from an intuitive and emotional place.

“In a weird way, it is a love letter to my dad,” says David James, of the performances at San Francisco’s Brava Theater and Palo Alto’s Mitchell Park Community Center. “I guess it’s me trying to understand him a little more.”

a black and white photo of an older Black man using a wheelchair
‘The Rev’ Jesse James, date unknown. (Linda Wilson)

Each segment is based on a moment in Jesse James’ life. One is centered around his life in Harlem — before he moved to San Francisco in the ‘60s — and his experiences with addiction and incarceration as a Muslim man.

“I realized that this person’s life is quite a story,” says his son.


While David James grew up in the Mission and then West Oakland without his father, he found a love for music that he later learned was a part of his father’s life too. In one image featured in the performance, Jesse James, wearing a houndstooth blazer and large glasses, bellows into a microphone.

David James, meanwhile, sang as a kid, picked up multiple instruments, joined a band just out of high school and later played with Bay Area bands Spearhead, The Coup and the Afrofunk Experience. (He now plays with the band GPS, which in 2016 released the locally acclaimed album Billionaire Blues.)

a Black man with long hair sits in a blue shirt and red pants, holding a guitar and smiling
David James says that learning about his late father’s work has been inspiring. (Lenny Gonzalez)

Since embarking on this historical recovery of his father’s life and impact, James has been inspired by his findings. His father’s legacy in San Francisco, for example, lives on through Horizons Unlimited, a program that grew out of Mission Rebels and still serves young people of color in the city.

“It’s this ripple that he put out just through his life and talking to these kids,” says James, “which wound up becoming so much bigger.”

‘Mission Rebel No. 1’ premieres at 8 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 22 at the Brava Theater (2789 24th St.) in San Francisco. Tickets here.

A second performance takes place at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 24 at the Mitchell Park Community Center (3700 Middlefield Road) in Palo Alto. Tickets here

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