Euphoria Under a Blood Moon: The First Annual Bay Area Vibez Festival Rocks Oakland, CA
By Shelah Moody
“Artists are the gate keepers of truth.”—Paul Robeson
The city of Oakland became jewel of California when Tour’N Entertainment presented the first annual Bay Area Vibez Festival at Middle Harbor Shoreline Park during the weekend of Saturday Sept. 26 and Sunday 27.
It was truly an historic event. Billed as an urban lifestyles festival, Bay Area Vibez is perhaps the only festival of its kind; where superstars perform alongside upstarts and indie artists, where reggae fans sporting dreads and red gold and green mingle peacefully with electronic dance music revelers decked out in day glow haircuts, tutus and pajama pants. Bay Area Vibez is perhaps the only festival where you see T-shirts declaring mantras such as “Straight Outta Oakland” “Music Never Dies” and “In This Great Future, You Can’t Forget Your Past.”
More than 11,000 music lovers attended the inaugural Bay Area Vibez Festival, which drew artists, vendors, volunteers and audiences from diverse backgrounds from as far as Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Nevada, Massachusetts New York, Texas, the Caribbean, England and Zimbabwe.
The Bay Area Vibez festival is the longtime vision brought to life by Tour’N Entertainment, a group of Oakland-based entrepreneurs which includes Yurel Hassan Cooke, his father, Ali “Papa Pretty” Cooke (who is also Damian Marley’s longtime tour manager), Tressa Wells and Alreca Smith. Collectively, they are musicians, music industry professionals and lovers of real music.
“My father had a promotion company called A Little Piece of Jamaica, based in the Bay Area,” Yurel Hassan Cooke, who literally grew up watching large scale music events take shape. “He promoted concerts throughout the 90s. During my elementary school years, he promoted shows that featured The Fugees, Super Cat, KRS-One and Gregory Isaacs to name a few. He actually promoted the first Spearhead concert at the Kennel Club in San Francisco and Dennis Brown’s last Bay Area performance at Maritime Hall. He has been a tour manager since 1994. He tour managed Michael Franti and Spearhead for more than a decade. I was raised in the concert and touring industry. At five years old, my job was to walk around the venue at my dad’s shows to sign people up for the mailing list. During my junior and senior years of high school, I served as production manager at the Avalon Ballroom in San Francisco while my dad was on the road with Michael Franti & Spearhead.”
The peaceful, family vibe of the First Annual Bay Area Vibez crowd challenged the stereotype of Oakland, particularly west Oakland, as dangerous and violent and proved that “Oaktown” is not only one of the most rapidly growing U.S. cities; it is also a hub for music, culture, technology and progressive thought.
Bay Area Vibez endorsed HipHopSavesLives.org as their charity partner. Hip Hop Saves Lives works in conjunction with Sankofa.org to better spread social justice, through youth and music, with a plan to bring portable music studios to community centers in both San Francisco and Oakland.
Part of Bay Vibez’ unique charm was the venue– a pristine, expansive piece of land situated at the port of Oakland, with the regal Bay Bridge, with connects the cities of Oakland and San Francisco, and the San Francisco Bay and the giant cranes (the Bay Area’s unofficial state bird) as a backdrop. Historic performances were delivered on two stages against glorious sunsets in the evening and under a mystic blood moon at night.
Indeed, the Bay Area Vibez were strong enough to draw the “Don Dadda”—reggae/dancehall/ hip hop legend Super Cat— out of recluse and onto the main stage on Saturday evening. With raps like “Si Boops Deh” and “Dolly My Baby,” Super Cat has influenced a generation of younger reggae/dancehall artists who have achieved mainstream success including Damian Marley, Sean Paul, Shaggy and the list goes on.
Fishbone, legends of alternative rock, funk and ska, made a huge impact on the Bay Area Arts scene in the early nineties, performing at the Fillmore in San Francisco, the Greek Theatre in Berkeley, Reggae on the River and other high end venues. Led by vocalist/saxman Angelo Moore, the six member band revved up the crowd on the second stage with their protest lyrics and ballistic energy.
Backed by Sankofa Sound, conscious neo soul singer/songwriter Aloe Blacc, a musical heir to Paul Robeson, Bill Withers and Marvin Gaye, took the audience to church on the main stage with reggae gospel and hip hop infused versions of his hits “I Need a Dollar” “Wake Me Up” and “The Man” from his 2014 Grammy nominated album “Lift Your Spirit.”
Blacc also gave a nod to the Oakland based hip hop duo Luniz with a sample of “I Got 5 on It.” Acclaimed saxophonist Dean Fraser was spotted rocking to Blacc’s performance in the wings as he prepared for his set with Tarrus Riley and Blak Soil. After his performance, Blacc headed to a press conference hosted by Moore Media TV, accompanied by Gina Belafonte, daughter of legendary entertainer/activist Harry Belafonte, visiting professor at California Arts Institute in Los Angeles and director of the social justice organization Sankofa.org
“Sankofa.org is national organization that was founded by my father,” said Belafonte. “It’s an organization that solicits the support, collaboration, donations and love of artists, leaders of thought and celebrities in partnership with other organizations. “We deal with issues such as juvenile justice and youth incarceration. We deal with issues of income disparity and poverty. We work with immigration issues and how those issues feed into issues of poverty and incarceration. We also work around issues of violence, eco justice and food justice.”
According to Belafonte, Blacc and Sankofa Sound are part of the vibe that Harry Belafonte was inspired to create, which involves using instruments from the African Diaspora to tell the larger story, to weave the fabric of our cultures together.
Blacc has been asked to write a song for a film based on the life of athlete and activist Jessie Owens. He commented on the meaning behind one of his most popular compositions “The Man.”
“The song is about self-determination,” said Blacc, who a Panamanian descendant and hails from southern California. “It’s about picking yourself up by your own bootstraps and inspiring yourself when there’s no one else to give you that inspiration. It’s about recognizing your faults. I open the song with ‘I believe every lie that I’ve ever told.’ It’s recognizing that many of us have sinned, but we have to admit, recognize, repair and move forward.”
Belafonte, who was born and raised in New York, NY, shared one of her fondest Bay Area memories of yoga in the park with Michael Franti and Guerilla Management’s Power to the Peaceful Festival in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco.
Coinciding with Bob Marley’s year-round 70th birthday celebration, the Bay Area Vibez festival picked up the Catch A Fire tour, featuring Ghetto Youths International artists Black Am I and Jo Mersa Marley and reggae greats Tarrus Riley, Morgan Heritage, Stephen “Ragga” Marley and Damian “Junior Gong” Marley. Memorable moments included headliner Damian performing his R&B/hip hop infused rap “Beautiful,” from his Grammy winning album “Welcome to Jamrock,” to the tune of Dean Fraser’s signature lyrical sax riffs.
Stephen Marley was in fine form, performing songs from his Grammy Winning albums, “Mind Control” and “Revelation Part I—The Root of Life” including two of the most “Rastamantic” songs ever written, “No Cigarette Smoking (in My Room),” in duet with vocal powerhouse Rica Newell, and “Pale Moonlight.”
Stephen also introduced his nephew, yes another Bob Marley grandson, Skip Marley, who performed his viral hit, “Cry to Me,” and became the darling of the Bay Area Vibez Festival. Taking it all is was none other than Skip’s proud mother, the gorgeous Cedella Marley, daughter of Bob, former member of Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers and founder of the Catch A Fire clothing line. After the show, a gracious Stephen held an informal meet and greet with children and hardcore fans near his tour bus, as Skip Marley and Black Am I headed to the Moore Media TV tent for a press conference.
Skip Marley, a congenial and photogenic artist, definitely knows how to engage with the press. When videographer Carmelita Harris of IrieVision TV playfully asked for an impromptu “Cry to Me” duet with Skip, he obliged her and even taught her to how harmonize on the chorus.
According to Skip, being a part of one of the music’s biggest dynasties is a blessing. Skip acknowledged his mother, Cedilla, for molding and coaching him and providing feedback when he first began singing, songwriting and playing the guitar. “We always sing together but we’ve never sung on together on stage,” said Skip.
Kicking off the Bay Area Vibez festival Sunday afternoon on the main stage was a proud moment for unsung heroine Sister I-Live, a reggae dancehall diva who built her career in Oakland after arriving from Pennsylvania via Westmoreland, Jamaica in 1980s. Sister I-Live made a name for herself performing at Bay Area clubs such as the DNA Lounge and Pier 23 Café in San Francisco. Sister I-Live, the mother of Bay-Vibez co-founder Alreca Smith, has also performed regularly and taught Jamaican dance at the Ashkenaz in in Berkeley. Incidentally, I-Live was also married to and produced by another Oakland-based Bay Area Vibez singer/songwriter, Fenton Wardle of The Reggae Angels. Together, they have a daughter, Angel Wardle, who works in the financial industry in southern California and proudly came out to sing backing vocals for both of her parents at the Bay Vibez Festival. These family connections leant a heartwarming element of the festival. Sister I-Live and her band performed tracks from her upcoming CD, “Rasta Woman,” which will be released in December, 2015.
Sunday proved to be another perfect sunny day in the Bay with performances by Forest Day, conscious Jamaican artists Courtney John and I-Wayne.
Lovers of real music got the rare opportunities to see Grammy nominated musician Meshell Ndgeocello–the high priestess of net-soul and spiritual heir to Nina Simone–and her band perform up close and personal on the second stage. Ndgeocello’s set included covers of Whodini’s eighties hip hop classic, “Friends,” and Nina Simone’s “Sinner Man.”
Sunday also marked the explosion of conscious rap music at the Bay Area Vibez festival. Angelo Moore blew several minds when he recited a poem that he had in his head in the Moore Media TV tent. DJ Z-Trip kept the crowd dancing with his signature hip-hop/dancehall/EDM mixes. Latin rapper Oscar Brown, a protégé of Cypress Hill, performed with his multicultural band Krooked Treez, named after the city in Belize where his grandfather was born. Three of Oakland’s hip hop and R&B leaders–pianist Kev Choice, vocalist Jennifer Johns and guest rapper Baba Zumbi aka Zion I pulled off a rare feat by jamming together on stage and capturing the attention of the audience along with Sterling James, a popular radio hostess on the Bay Area’s most popular R&B station, KBLX FM.
“I’ve put together bands for everyone from Zion I to Jennifer Johns to Lauryn Hill and Too Short; that’s what I do in this community,” said Kev Choice. “From a musician’s standpoint, you’ve gotta understand that Oakland is historically rich for music; it’s a hub,” said Kev Choice. “It goes back to the blues era on 7th Street, which is not too far from here, to the funk of Sly Stone, to the jazz to the hip hop. Musically, we have a diverse pool of musicians and musical history to pull from. It kind of makes us, as musicians, have a connection with so many different styles. It’s all rooted in blues, funk and soul—music that you can really feel, that comes from the heart. I mean, Prince, Stevie Wonder—some of the greatest artists have taken musicians from Oakland.”
Zion I also commented on being an independent artist from the Bay Area.
“Hip hop wise, I feel that people always trip off how unique and organic the characters are,” said Zion I. “You have E-40, Too Short, very unique voices in the cannon of hip hop culture. I feel like that’s Mac Dre. We have our own slang, our own way of dancing; we do turf dancing, and we don’t do anything else. The way that the Bay Area and particularly Oakland expresses itself is unique to this region, so when it goes out, it’s a unique flavor that hits across the country and around the world.”
You could feel the collective energy surge and euphoria when the Illmatic, Grammy-winning rapper and lyricist NAS, took the stage. NAS performed some of his greatest hits, including “Hip Hop is Dead” and “If I Ruled the World” as well as tributes to two of his influences, Michael Jackson and Bob Marley. Many expected Damian Marley and Nas to reunite on stage at the Bay Vibez festival and recreate their “Distant Relatives” tour, but the Marleys and the Catch A Fire tour had an engagement at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles.
The concert ended, appropriately with EDM superstar DJ Lorin Ashton, aka Bassnectar keeping the crowd partying into late night, under a blood moon.
According to Yurel Hassan Cooke, the 2016 Bay Area Vibez Festival is already in its planning stages and promises to be even more spectacular than the first year. For more information, go to www.bayareavibez.com.