First things first with Oakland-based artist and activist Refa One: Vocabulary is important. “Graffiti,” for example, is a media-manufactured term; he prefers “aerosol” or “spray art.” “Conscious” hip-hop is a redundant concept (“hip-hop was conscious from the beginning”). And while we’re at it, what passes for hip-hop these days is nothing but a marketing ploy, Refa said: a perversion of the culture he grew up with as a young tagger in East Oakland in the mid-Eighties.
Call him a stick in the mud, but Refa’s stance runs much deeper than simple back-in-the-days grousing. When he started, hip-hop was less a musical genre than a lifestyle, buttressed by four pillars: DJing, MCing, breakdancing, and, uh, aerosol art. It was also fundamentally political. For Refa, the state of hip-hop is the state of the ‘hood, and he discusses it with all the conviction of a missionary. “Those of us who are serious practitioners of hip-hop culture, not only do we want to change it, it is our absolute responsibility to do something about it,” he said. “It’s time to take it back to the essence of what it is”
In Refa’s mind, much of this hinges specifically on rebuilding aerosol-art culture, which he said has been co-opted by middle-class suburbanites to the extent that it’s all but unrecognizable from the stuff he did as a kid. “Spray art has left the ‘hood,” he said flatly, and the essence of what it represented — community, cultural legacy, self-determination — has changed. Particularly as youth of color in Oakland face what Refa calls a “crisis of violence,” spray art can act as a monument to the dead as well as a positive outlet.
For two years in a row, Refa has curated and directed Aero Soul, a multifaceted, month-long effort to reclaim the city’s walls and recapture the community-oriented spirit of graffiti’s earliest days. Throughout February — which is also, not coincidentally, Black History Month — the Joyce Gordon Gallery (406 14th St., Oakland) will show work by more than forty urban calligraphers and muralists from all over the world. An opening reception on Friday, February 4, in conjunction with Oakland Art Murmur, will include dance, music, and artist presentations. There will also be a series of workshops and community events throughout the month. All together, it’s an art show with an activist soul. “This is basically reshuffling the deck and reclaiming the true essence of hip-hop culture,” Refa said. Aero Soul 2 runs through February 28 in various locations. See web site for full schedule. AeroSoulArt.com