Shock G of Digital Underground will be the headliner for the Life is Living Festival

by The People’s Minister of Information JR Valrey

Hodari Davis stands in front of “African Independence,” the world famous statue of Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana.
Hodari Davis stands in front of “African Independence,” the world famous statue of Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana.

In today’s vernacular, a giant is a normal person whose actions greatly exceed normal expectations. Hodari Davis has been on this level in the Bay Area for a long time.

Although the name might not ring a bell, I am sure if you have spent time on the cultural scene, you are familiar with some of his work – whether it be through the annual Life is Living Festival or through the Black history oratory and poetry group Young Gifted and Black or through Youth Speaks or through the statewide initiative fighting Type II Diabetes called The Bigger Picture, and the list goes on and on.

Hodari is something of a renaissance man. Check him out as we converse briefly about his history and what he is up to now …

M.O.I. JR: How did Young Gifted and Black come about? What went into the name? Who founded it and what was the concept behind the group?

Hodari: Young Gifted and Black was founded in 1981 by a group of teachers in Ithaca, New York, in response to the low expectations of district officials, teachers and administrators about what Black youth were capable of. The leader of this group of teachers was my mother, the former and current director of YGB, Laroilyn Davis.

In 2009 YGB of Oakland was formed to address the low self-esteem and pride of African American youth in the Bay Area. Many of the founding members of YGB, who are currently known as YGB Gold, were winners of the OUSD MLK Oratorical Festival and formed a group called the Oakland Ensemble to highlight literacy in Oakland. After a series of performances and interest from kids outside of OUSD, the group eventually became Young Gifted and Black of Oakland, including kids from 23 different schools throughout the Bay.

Currently YGB is 40-plus youth ages 6-17 who teach Black history through historic poetry, contemporary rap, personal narratives and freedom songs. YGB is made up of three different groups: YGB, The Black Sheroes and YGB Gold. Members of Black Gold have taken three international trips to London, Paris and Ghana, West Africa.

M.O.I. JR: How have the youth that you work with responded to being a part of YBG?

Hodari: From the elementary to the high school, YGB has a really dedicated membership. Parents of kids in the group speak at great length about the role YGB has had in developing confidence, courage and self-esteem in the youth.

The youth themselves have overcome shyness and stage fright to perform for larger and larger audiences and to represent in high stakes moments, like at Fox Theater, Yerba Buena and UC Berkeley. The youth have also become more outspoken advocates for their own education and for the authentic and accurate teaching of Black history.

They also report more resilience in the face of peer pressures or other forces set on distracting them from their personal and collective goals. The high school youth have become community leaders and are often honored by institutions and community leaders for their courage and outspoken calls for justice.

M.O.I. JR: What kind of events has YBG been featured at recently?

Hodari: Most recently YGB has been called on to perform at the Freedom Archives fundraiser with Dead Prez and other community artists. YGB was also commissioned to produce a video for their song “Don’t Shoot” as part of the larger national campaign around Mike Brown.

YGB Gold in Ghana – these are some of the founding members Young Gifted and Black.
YGB Gold in Ghana – these are some of the founding members Young Gifted and Black.

YGB Gold returned from their latest Ghana tour in early August, after performing at the Emancipation Day ceremony at Cape Coast Castle, they also performed at the Elhalakasa Poetry Festival in Accra, and at One Africa in Elmina.

M.O.I. JR: Can you talk about some of the work that you have been recently engaged in, in Philly and in Ghana?

Hodari: I personally serve as the national program director for Youth Speaks and lead a number of national projects and state wide initiatives. Some of these projects include a statewide initiative fighting Type II Diabetes called The Bigger Picture (thebiggerpicture.org), a sourced storytelling program called the Off Page Project (offpageproject.org), and an initiative aimed at identifying and promoting youth voices about the Drop Out Crisis (raiseupproject.org).

The Raise Up Project culminates on Sept. 27 with a show at the Kennedy Center in D.C., featuring five winners of a national poetry contest that we facilitated last spring. These five finalists will perform alongside Black Thought and Quest Love in a contest that features celebrity appearances, including Russell Simmons and Rosario Dawson, among others, and live performances from youth from around the country.

In Philadelphia, I just facilitated the largest youth poetry festival in the world, Brave New Voices. For the past eight years I have been organizing this 17-year-old festival, which brings together 600 youth from over 70 organizations from around the world to share their stories, participate in town halls and workshops and compete in a poetry slam.

Each year this festival is presented in a different American city and features over 54 events over the course of four days, culminating in a large community festival known as Life is Living and the Grand Slam Finals, which have at times been featured on HBO. The winning team at this year’s festival was the team from Washington, D.C., Brave New Voices (bravenewvoices.org).

After the festival ended in Philly, I, along with my wife, Antique, escorted eight youth from YGB on a tour of Ghana, which included live performances, museum tours, visits to expatriates, studio recording and the making of a music video.

M.O.I. JR: How was the Life is Living Festival founded? By who? What is the concept behind it?

Hodari: Life is Living was founded by a group of employees of Youth Speaks and residents of West Oakland. The point of the project in 2008 was to highlight the blighted nature of Defremery (Little Bobby Hutton) Park and to use art and hip hop as a vehicle to facilitate a community investment in its reclamation and improvement.

We framed this dialogue in the language of green economies and environmental sustainability. The first festival featured a graffiti battle, a skate board competition and a concert. Marc Bamuthi Joseph, Chinaka Hodge, Joan Osato, Estria, KDub, Jason Mateo and myself were the original founders of the festival.

After the initial festival, folks like Brett Cook, Eli Jacobs Fantauzzi, Rolando Brown, Candice “Antique” Wicks, Zakia Harris, Susie Lundy and others joined the leadership group and helped to articulate what Life is Living was and what it could become. In 2009, Life is Living was presented in Harlem, NYC, and Chicago as part of a larger initiative to utilize the festival as a vehicle to foster community investment in other parks and public spaces around the country.

Life is Living 1014, web
Click to enlarge

We learned so much from this experience, and every time we took the festival outside of Oakland it helped to strengthen what happens in Oakland. Since 2009 we have facilitated two Life is Living Festivals in Houston, Texas, one in San Francisco and another this July in Philadelphia as a part of the Brave New Voices Festival.

The festival is centered by the pedagogy of Youth Speaks, informed by a central principal: “Life as Primary Text.” For the past 17 years at Youth Speaks, we have applied this principal in our individual writing workshops and used it as a vehicle to encourage young people to share their stories and explore their own personal narratives.

The Life is Living Festival was an attempt on our part to extrapolate this principle to community and to ask and display, in the case of Oakland, “What sustains life in this city?” We use the festival as a vehicle to identify the narratives, address crises and through the arts reformulate these narratives into action.

It is through the action and documentation of it that community transformation is fostered, as individuals begin to see their own connection to the public space and become advocates for its enrichment. In Oakland this process has contributed to a complete renovation of the park, including the installation of a new softball field, basketball court, tennis court and now skate park, as well as other significant aesthetic and programmatic improvements.

M.O.I. JR: Who are some of the headliners of this year’s festival?

Hodari: The headliners of Life is Living are in fact not the famous performing artists who we book but rather the community artists and activists who bring their projects to the park. From our perspective, our headliners include K Dub and Town Park, Brett Cook and his Reflections of Healing Project, Zakia Harris and The HIVE Bay Area Stemposium, Antique and her Naked Beauty Zone, and The People’s Kitchen Free Breakfast Program.

Performance headliners include Shock G of Digital Underground, a Kev Choice All Star band featuring some of the musical legends that have contributed to Bay Area soul music over the past 30-plus years, spoken word artists The Universes, Amir Suleiman and YGB Gold, and DJ Rashida (Prince). Other performers include PE 2.0, Town Futurist, The Bigger Picture Poets, DJ Cavem, Dr. Chris Emdin of Columbia Teachers College and Harvard University, and other very special guests. We have more folks coming but many of them we cannot announce officially in advance of the festival.

M.O.I. JR: Who have some of the past’s festival headliners been?

Hodari: Past Headliners and performers at Life is Living include Los Rakas, Goapele, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Questlove, Linda Tillery, Pete Escovedo, John Santos, the Coup, MC Lyte, Kurtis Blow, Rahzel, DJ Q’Bert, Queen Godis, Pharaoh Monche, Saul Williams, The Glide Memorial Choir, Dead Prez and a host of local performers.

The People’s Minister of Information JR Valrey is associate editor of the Bay View, author of “Block Reportin’” and the newly released “Unfinished Business: Block Reportin’ 2” and filmmaker of “Operation Small Axe” and “Block Reportin’ 101,” available, along with many more interviews, at www.blockreportradio.com. He can be reached at blockreportradio@gmail.com.

 

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