Black muralist Kufu attacks the walls of East Oakland to show us our fighting heart and soul

Kufu’s unfinished mural at 87th off of International in East Oakland depicts Marcus Garvey, Huey P. Newton, Malcolm X aka El Hajj Malik Shabazz and Angela Davis, alongside many other community heroes.

by JR Valrey, Black New World Media

Driving down International and 87th Ave, like I have done so many times throughout my life, I noticed a mural being drawn on the opposite side of the block from the East Bay Dragons Motorcycle Clubhouse. I stopped, because I saw the faces of Marcus Garvey, Huey P. Newton and Malcolm X, among others. 

I took notice because Huey’s face was starting to be seen more in Oakland. After he was murdered in ‘89, it took the community about 25 years to put up the first mural of him, in the Lower Bottoms community of West Oakland, which he frequented. Soon after, the East Oakland Youth Development Center made sure Huey was one of the faces on their main mural in front, after their organizational facelift on the building. 

After noticing Huey’s face on this recent East Oakland mural, I noticed the artist’s name responsible: Kufu, who has been a childhood friend of mine since high school, and is one of the most, if not the most, prolific, political and passionate Black muralist in Oakland.

I hadn’t seen him in over a decade, since the police murder of Gary King Jr., which was prior to that of Oscar Grant, so it was good for me to pop up on a remnant of his unfinished work in East Oakland. I was able to catch Kufu in action at the mural a few days later, and this interview is a result of that exchange. 

In reference to the mural-in-progress, it is a roll call of revolutionaries and community people who are highly respected by Oakland’s Black community: Marcus Garvey, Huey P. Newton, Malcolm X, Angela Davis, Cesar Chavez, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Minister Farrakhan, Assata Shakur, Tarika Lewis, Dr. Frances Cress Welsing, Sharazad Ali, Muhammad Ali, Nelson Mandela and Colin Kaepernick. Artist Jonathan “Kufu” Brumfield is in the process of putting a legendary art piece in Deep East Oakland, which we haven’t seen since Plan B’s mural was painted in the ‘90s, decades ago. 

JR Valrey: What is the story behind you putting up the Black Power mural in the heart of Deep East Oakland? Where is the mural?

This part of the mural depicts Tarika Lewis, Dr. Frances Cress Welsing, Shahrazad Ali, Muhammad Ali, Nelson Mandela and Colin Kaepernick.

Kufu: So the mural you speak of is located on the corner of 87th and International. This mural came to fruition based on a conversation my barber of 30 years and I had. The owner of the shop wanted a mural and the initial idea had several of our freedom fighters seated in chairs with a barber shop and hair salon theme. The goal was to have the youth from the community support in painting the mural, but financial issues and then COVID slowed the process. 

I offered my services free of charge and set up a day to come and paint an alternate version of the initial mural to promote social distancing for the youth that may potentially paint the wall. The owner and community members would choose a figure from our culture and I would paint the outline of their face. The rest will be left up to me once they agree with the faces in the mural. 

JR Valrey: How did you choose whose face was going to be featured, because I saw some people that are regularly in murals, and some faces that aren’t?

Kufu: The cool part about being of service to the people, for me, is having the flexibility in your creative process to incorporate everyone’s voice into the mural itself. Of course, some faces were chosen by community members who wanted to express their continued support for those individuals, while other faces were chosen based on their relevance now for the community and what we are facing. 

Being that it’s in East Oakland and we don’t have many murals with some of the more staple figureheads in the movement, the owner and other community folks wanted the youth to see and remember the names and faces of those ancestors. One person on the wall was requested based on their Latino heritage, and reference to essential workers. 

JR Valrey: How has the community responded when they see you painting these Black Power heroes and sheroes?

Kufu: The community has responded with love and humbling gestures of donations and physical support. The community has voiced their opinions on who is and shouldn’t be on the wall, which I heard and made the requested changes. The male dominated images that the community initially asked for, was changed to a more balanced representation based on community input. 

It’s not always about getting paid, and if we are out here for the people, we shouldn’t always expect to be compensated for things we should be doing for the cause, not the commerce. 

JR Valrey: Why have the rebellions created an explosion in Black Power murals being painted and going up all over Oakland? Mentally what’s going on with Oakland’s Black visual artists in this era directly following the rebellions? 

Kufu: That’s an interesting question and one I have asked to several peers as of late. I think many have seen the COVID atmosphere as an opportunity to take advantage of the open canvas space that businesses have created with the boards. 

It’s funny how we have a very difficult time acquiring commission murals or even open space to do free mural work in our own city but, when a “rebellion” happens, it’s all good to paint anywhere. Again, many have taken advantage of less enforcement on open air painting in the meantime, but then there are others who have found the time and resources to share their visual voices due to being under the stay in place order. 

It’s always a form of mental health and wellness for artists to express their pain through their visual element, which I also believe is happening amongst my peers. Lastly, you have some that are not Black and are using this moment to push their art careers and appropriate space and culture. 

JR Valrey: Your mural reminds me of the work of Emory Douglas, the Minister of Culture of the Black Panther Party, who was famous for painting pictures of revolutionary icons in the Black Panther newspaper. How has his work influenced you, as well as how much do you think his work has influenced the artists of the Bay in this era?

Kufu: Wow, I don’t think influence or inspiration would sum up that man’s contribution to our spirits and work. For myself, he has been the heartbeat to how I approach much of my illustrative and political education work with the youth and community. He has been a driving force for the Black Arts movement in Amerikkka and abroad for decades. In the Bay, he has a special place in the hearts, minds and work of many who speak out against systemic racism and injustice through visual arts. 

JR Valrey: What do you want people to get out of this mural?

Kufu: Well, for the community that requested it, I want them to be proud of the final product and for it to be something that resonates with those residents who pass by daily. For all who view it in general, I want the public to know that there are not enough walls to put our leaders on but also we don’t always need to import our heroes which is why elders like Tarika Lewis and Huey Newton are on there to represent Oakland leadership. 

I want the youth to research the people, their solutions and their enemies’ strategies against them so they may be able to devise a new and improved plan for their own generation’s liberation. 

This part of the mural depicts Cesar Chavez, Martin Luther King, Louis Farrakhan and Assata Shakur.

JR Valrey: In a recent convo that you and I had, you talked about being a visual artist for the people. What does that mean to you in reference to painting this mural? And how do other Black artists pimp that phrase?

Kufu: What I was taught from the East Coast to the West Coast and have witnessed globally, when you’re in service to the people that’s what it really means, in service to the people. It’s not about what I want or what I need, it’s about how my craftsmanship benefits the people. 

I don’t expect the people to pay me because I will go and garner the resources for the project myself if the people are without the resources to pay for my services. We can barter each other’s services, instead of concentrating on getting compensated with money the community doesn’t have. 

If you’re an artist, you have materials and resources that you can use to donate to the people and provide a platform for the community to have a voice that is now visually impactful for those who engage with the mural. It’s not always about getting paid, and if we are out here for the people, we shouldn’t always expect to be compensated for things we should be doing for the cause, not the commerce. 

JR Valrey: Do you have any other murals up in the Bay? Where?

Kufu: I have several throughout East Oakland, West Oakland and North Oakland. I am going to begin one on Fruitvale and International soon. I have a few downtown as well. I have one I just finished on 54th and International. I will start posting the locations. 

JR Valrey: How could people keep in touch with you?

Kufu: @kemest510, kemestrycs@gmail.com 

JR Valrey, journalist, author, filmmaker and founder of the Black New World Journalists Society, can be reached at blockreportradio@gmail.com or on Facebook. Visit www.youtube.com/blockreporttv. All stories related to COVID-19 were partially made possible by the Akonadi Fund #SoLoveCanWin.