After nine years at West Oakland’s DeFremery Park, the Life Is Living festival can certainly say it has become a community—and neighborhood—institution. This year’s fete happened to coincide with the 50th anniversary, of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, aka the Black Panthers. Formed in Oakland in 1966, the Panthers became a national phenomenon, with chapters all over America advocating for African- American liberation, self-determination, and economic opportunity by the late 60s. The Oakland Panthers, however, made DeFremery Park – informally known as Lil’ Bobby Hutton Park, honoring a teenaged member tragically liked by police – a key part of their community outreach and neighborhood engagement efforts.
Ever since the festival’s beginnings in 2005 as a collaborative effort between several non-profits, 2005, LIL has intentionally evoked that history. Currently produced by the Youth Speaks organization, the Panther legacy, in fact, has been a significant influence on the festival’s conception, ideology, and scope. Past festivals have included large portraits of Hutton and Joan Tarika Lewis (the Panthers’ first female member) as part of artist Brett Cook’s “Reflections In Healing” series. Moreso, LIL has upheld the Panther tradition of using public gatherings to promote community solidarity, wellness, education, youth development, and multigenerational inclusion.
It would be remiss to call LIL simply a “music festival.” Yes, there was live music, including an absolutely killer set by the Coup (more on that later), but music is only one part of what the LIL experience is all about. Walking through the park, you hear drums and see dancers, poets, families with children, young people, old people. It’s just as welcome for the multicultural skateboarders perfecting tricks at the connected skate park as it is for the multigenerational community folks barbecuing on the side of the grassy, gently-sloping hill facing the main stage.
Because the focus is on service to the residents of West Oakland and fostering community love, LIL doesn’t quite have the same vibe as commercial festivals promoted by corporate interests, which feign to offer festival-goers a sense of shared community, but really just want to sell you stuff. There were a smattering of food vendors and local artisans hawking their wares, but any sense of over-the-top commercialism was absent. LIL is comparable to the annual Malcolm X Jazz Festival held in East Oakland’s San Antonio Park – another labor of love produced on a shoestring budget—which prides itself on a family- and kid-friendly aesthetic, along with conscious representations of resilient culture.
LIL is very pro-hip-hop, yet in-between the up-and-coming emcees who ciphered on one of the side stages and the more-established local artists like Nu Dekades, Jahi as PE2.0, and D.O.D.A.T., you’d be hard-pressed to find any misogyny, over-reliance on curse words, or lyrics advocating drugs or violence. Public safety was never a concern throughout the entire afternoon; even though there were no police and only a few security guards – a reality which embodied yet another of the Panther ideals, that of a self-policing community defined by mutual respect.
LIL also upheld the notion of female empowerment championed by the Panthers. Examples of this were almost everywhere, from the dynamic Women Rysing presentation which gave voice to the often-voiceless survivors of child sex trafficking, to the informative and educational conversation between former Panther Ericka Huggins and police accountability activist Cat Brooks, to the many strong female emcees and singers who graced the main stage.
A particular highlight was the Prince tribute by Girl 6, a talent-laden outfit which includes some of the East Bay’s most gifted women artists – among them Femi (Punk Funk Mob), Ryan Nicole (Nu Dekades), Antique (Antique Naked Soul), and Silk-E (The Coup). Backed by a tight band which included bassist Uriah Duffy, guitarist B’nai Rebelfront, and keyboardist Kev Choice, Girl Six powered their way through funky renditions of purple classics like “Kiss,” “When U Were Mine,” “America,” “I Would Die 4 U,” and “Cool” – which featured a show-stealing turn on lead vocals by Silk-E – that left the crowd wanting much more (on that note, Girl Six has an upcoming date October 28 at the New Parish).
The Coup’s fiery closing set was both fitting and appropriate. Few rap groups share as many points of connection with the Panthers as the Boots Riley-fronted outfit, from the rebellious attitude and socialist politics, to the outspoken critiques of the system presented within an entertainment context. As readers of Rickey Vincent’s book “Party Music” – a reference to an infamous Coup album title – know, the Panthers furthered their political and social agenda with the help of a funk band, The Lumpen, during rallies held at the very same location five decades ago.
It’s almost a misnomer, however, to label the Coup a rap group at this point. The group started out in the early ‘90s as a three-piece outfit (featuring since-departed members E-Roc and DJ Pam the Funkstress) which relied on the sample-and-loop aesthetics common to that era. Yet by the decade’s end, their stage show evolved through the use of live musicians – a trend which carried over to their studio recordings. Their current incarnation is a hardcore funk/rock outfit which draws influence from Funkadelic as much as Wilson Pickett and James Brown, while balancing Riley’s ultra-political lyrics with Silk-E’s Tina Turner-eseque affirmations of sweat-inducing soul.
The band seemed especially inspired to play a free outdoor show in West Oakland, which raised an interesting dichotomy: on one hand, the crowd may have been the blackest audience the band has played for in years. On the other hand, their set may have been the most rock music heard in DeFremery Park, ever. The one critique which can be applied to the Coup for longtime aficionados is that their set list hasn’t changed much in recent years. But then, for many people in the crowd, it was likely their first time seeing the group.
From the rabble-rousing opener “Everythang” to the anthemic closer “Fat Cats, Bigga Fish,” The Coup delivered on all counts. Riley’s dramatic kicks and spins punctuated his revolutionary-minded flow, yet Silk-E was an equally-dynamic stage presence. Riley jokingly referred to “5 Million Ways to Kill a CEO” as a traditional song performed by everyone from Harriet Tubman to Bob Dylan, and unleashed an unrepentant monologue about three-quarters of the way into the set which concluded that “the system must be destroyed.” Old Coup favorites like “Gunsmoke” ad “My Favorite Mutiny” played well with newer material like “Magic Clap” and “The Guillotine.” It’s no exaggeration to say that the only thing more blazing than the Coup’s set at LIL that day was the sun itself, which literally made this Saturday in the park hotter than July.