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Oakland’s couchdate Makes Room for Creatives to Hang and Play

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Three men sit on a brown couch looking straight at the camera.
From left Afiba Ntama, Emmanuel Singh and Akh Graystone of couchdate in Oakland on Jan. 18. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

The album Shea Butter Baby by soul singer Ari Lennox came out in 2019. You can readily stream it wherever you like. Or, on this particular Friday night in January, you can go to a place called couchdate in Downtown Oakland to listen to it in surround sound among friends and fellow music-loving strangers. 

Here, your shoes are off (a house rule) as you lounge on vintage furniture or sit on one of the many patterned rugs lining the floor. Plants accent corners and shelves. The smell of incense wafts through the air. 

“It almost feels like you’re sitting in a friend’s living room,” says Alexis Barnes, a couchdate visitor. 

A blue-lit room filled with multiple people sitting and talking.
The early crowd at a vinyl listening party of Ari Lennox’s ‘Shea Butter Baby’ album at couchdate in Oakland on Jan. 26. (Ariana Proehl/KQED)

Indeed, a couchdate Vinyl Listening Party has all the cozy wants of home with the fun of being out — stimulating conversation, maybe eye contact with a cute stranger, while the music vibrates through you. 

“I feel like so much Black and Brown music is just seen as entertainment or candy that’s played in your car or at the gym,” says Emmanuel Singh, couchdate’s founder. “But rarely do we take the time to sit down and engage with this art and really appreciate it and find how we can connect to it — how we can connect to each other with it.”

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This night with Shea Butter Baby is a hotbed of connection. A crowd of about 80 people of diverse races and gender expressions, mostly in their 20s and 30s, occupy almost every inch of the space.  

Shoes piled by the door at couchdate in Oakland on Feb. 22. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

Before the needle drops on the record (“couchdate is an analog space. There’s no digital anything here,” Singh reveals), Singh leads everyone in a welcome ritual, reminding the crowd of the conversation prompt they got when they arrived: “What would you share with someone who isn’t here anymore?” 

After Singh, who grew up in San Jose, shares his own answer — “I would speak to my great-grandmother who helped raise me” — the music begins. The crowd quietly takes in the opening notes of the record. Soon, conversation bubbles up until it fills the room, along with the music. 

Two people kneel in front of a small TV screen while holding video game controllers.
Alexis Joseph, left, and Estrella Allen play Nintendo 64 at a vinyl listening party at couchdate in Oakland on Jan. 26. (Ariana Proehl/KQED)

Likely, new friendships are forming. “There’s many text threads and friend groups that have started here,” Singh says. “One group of people met here and last year took a trip to Italy together.”

The anecdote is noteworthy, especially after the U.S. surgeon general diagnosed the country with a “loneliness epidemic,” prompting more talk about the importance of third spaces — where people gather and build community outside their homes and workplaces.

The inclusive, people- and culture-first philosophy of couchdate supports these bonds. (The space got its name from an actual date Singh went on with a former partner to pick up a couch. It became a turning point in them truly connecting.) 

Four people pose in front of a sign that reads 'couchdate'
From left, friends Akadina Yadegar, Ann Yang, Justin Marquez and Thuymy Do attend couchdate’s Vinyl Listening Party on Jan. 26. (Ariana Proehl/KQED)

“couchdate highlights relevant voices. I feel like there’s so many in Oakland — so many important people, arts and messages — that don’t get heard,” says Singh.

Singh first began developing couchdate in 2019 at his former art studio in Jack London Square. Since joining forces last summer with fellow creative entrepreneurs Afiba Ntama and Akh Graystone, who co-run couchdate now, the space’s events calendar has expanded. In addition to the vinyl listening parties, which have a $15 cover, there are free, curated game nights on Wednesdays, and on Thursdays they host a jam session ($10 to hang, $5 if you come to jam). 

Three men stand in front a white wall that has a sign that reads "couchdate" on it.
From left, Akh Graystone, Emmanuel Singh and Afiba Ntama of couchdate in Oakland on Jan. 18. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

Ntama says couchdate fills a need for more affirming kinds of social experiences that he and others seek: “Less about partying, but [more about] connecting in genuine ways and giving room for people to express their creativity and lower their guard down.”

“We focus on being an oasis where there’s safety in being here,” Graystone adds. 

We’re jammin’

Artists regularly rent the venue for public events, like photography shows or fashion pop-ups. One Thursday a month, Fam Sesh, a jam that champions queer, femme and non-binary musicians, takes over the space. After Fam Sesh took off, Singh was inspired to get a house band for couchdate and make the jam sessions weekly.

The Ama Trio, led by Amarinder Singh, performs at couchdate in Oakland on Feb. 22. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

For that, he reached out to Amarinder Singh, a bass player he’d connected with on Instagram. Amarinder grew up in Berkeley and describes his sound as “psychedelic Punjabi funk.” His sets, backed by a guitarist and a drummer, include original songs mixed with covers of musical greats like Herbie Hancock and Aaliyah.

After Amarinder’s trio performs, the jam session opens up. Anyone who brought an instrument or wants to get on the mic can take the stage (really, the rug at the front of the room). Singh says anywhere from 30 to 40 musicians will pass through a given session. Amarinder says it’s a rich and rare opportunity for many local musicians, citing the loss of Spirithaus Gallery in 2020, a place he once frequented.

“[couchdate]’s bringing a resurgence, I’d say, of another communal space to check out and support,” Amarinder says. “We’ve had a lot of really beautiful nights in which so many people came and nobody really knew each other. So there were a lot of new connections, all due to the vibe that was created in this beautiful place.”

Finding community

Melika Tabrizi, 28, says couchdate is exactly the kind of creative community she was looking for when she moved to Oakland from Maryland last March. The first night she attended a couchdate jam session, she brought a camera and was filming a bit of the scene. Singh noticed and welcomed her to come again to shoot more. They’re now working on a film project for couchdate. 

“It’s been interesting using my art in this space, because I didn’t expect that. It’s just a hobby of mine. And it’s nice that they are seeing my vision,” Tabrizi says. 

Afi Ayanna (left) and Tiffany Austin talk together at couchdate in Oakland on Feb. 22. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

Chris Hall, a lawyer who lives in San Francisco, has been attending events regularly since the fall and comes back for the genuine interactions. “I feel like people present very authentically [at couchdate],” Hall says. “Listening to the music, getting to know the people you’re sitting around. You could go to a jazz club in the city, but you’re probably not going to really talk to anybody other than the people you went with.”

Engaging with new people was exactly what Samantha Sherman, a 32-year-old educator, had in mind when she attended a recent game night after learning about couchdate on Instagram. Sherman moved to Oakland from San Francisco last year and is making a point to get out more. 

“I am very aware that we don’t have any third spaces that are easily accessible and seeking to have us, too,” says Sherman, who’s Black. “We kind of make third space in coffee shops and, you know, random places. But this feels like an intentional space to be a third space. So it’s really cool.”

‘We believe in Oakland’

As Singh, Ntama and Graystone continue cultivating their warm, inviting oasis in Oakland, there’s no ignoring the city’s reputation is largely in the gutter right now, with national headlines calling out the surge in crime that prompted Governor Gavin Newsom to send in reinforcements.

couchdate in Oakland on Feb. 22. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

But that only has the trio doubling down on their commitment. “We believe in Oakland. We believe in the future of Oakland,” Graystone says. He adds that the next phase of couchdate is a project they’ve launched called Tribin, which aims to help local residents deepen their connections with small businesses. 

“Someone has to say, ‘I’m going to stay here,’” Singh says. He admits making that commitment right now means eating some costs, which the couchdate team is willing to do for their greater, community-building mission. “This is just one example of the types of spaces we can create.”

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couchdate is located at 1431 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Oakland. Upcoming events can be found on Instagram.

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