Last year, Philthy Rich’s hometown release-show for Hood Rich 4 was supposed to be a victory lap. The staunchly independent local rapper’s previous album, Real Niggas Back in Style, climbed to No. 5 on Billboard’s “Heatseekers” chart, and Philthy seemed poised to clinch that distinctly Bay Area rap-game ambition: local empire, national reputation.
But on the day before his November 18 gig at downtown nightclub Vinyl, venue owner Oscar Edwards says an Oakland cop visited him personally to tell him that Philthy’s show, advertised for weeks, was a “problem.”
Abruptly, Edwards and Philthy called it off. It was a familiar situation: Edwards said the department edits and censors local hip-hop lineups “all the time.”
For Philthy, it was a costly disappointment. He’d flown in three guest performers, put them up in hotels, and chartered a van with a driver and a security guard to bring everyone to the club. Philthy’s manager, PK (for Prashant Kumar) estimated the loss to be approximately $10,000.
“There’s no way it wasn’t malicious,” PK reckoned of the department’s motive. “‘Let’s let him set up the show — and then cancel it at the last minute.’”
The Oakland Police Department says it “does not cancel shows,” but Philthy isn’t the only local rapper who, following police pressure on promoters, has been removed from lineups or had shows canceled outright.
In fact, several artists, promoters, and club owners who spoke to the Express in recent months described two different approaches to nightlife oversight in Oakland. They say genres besides hip-hop seldom if ever receive police scrutiny, while rap — one of the Town’s most prized cultural exports — is subjected to burdensome, costly regulations that critics call discriminatory.
Oakland rappers aside from Philthy, including Birch Boy Barie and Project Poppa, even have the impression that they’re banned from performing in their home city — a prospect that alarms civil-rights advocates.
“It’s very disturbing,” said Oakland attorney Dan Siegel. “Even if some of these guys have had run-ins with the cops, what does that have to do with whether or not they can play a show?”
The rap shows in question are legitimate concerts at permitted Oakland venues, not underground gigs or secret warehouse parties. And while Oakland city code requires police to provide written explanations for denying special-event applications, venue owners say they’ve never been offered such documents, and police nightlife overseers declined to be interviewed for this article.
[pullquote-1]San Francisco attorney John Hamasaki, whose defense of Richmond artist Laz tha Boy brought attention to government prosecutors’ punitive use of rap lyrics as evidence in criminal trials, said the opacity with which Oakland police censor shows “indicates that OPD knows they’re infringing on these artists’ right to perform.”
Even the City of Oakland’s cultural affairs manager, Roberto Bedoya, is troubled by the apparent uneven enforcement. “The city’s commitment to racial equity needs to be considered when it comes to how these policies are enforced,” he told the Express. “Any racial bias at play in policing artist speech — that’s worth looking at.”
Philthy, born Philip Beasley, 34, supported Hood Rich 4 with an incident-free, seventeen-date West Coast tour earlier this year. Conspicuously absent was a gig in Oakland, the subject of affection in so many of his songs. Last November, the day after his canceled local show, the rapper and his out-of-town friends handed out 500 turkeys at the Rainbow Recreation Center in his East Oakland neighborhood of Seminary.
His charity didn’t go unnoticed: The Alameda County Board of Supervisors formally proclaimed November 19, 2016, as “Philthy Rich — H.U.G.S./F.O.D. Thanksgiving Day.” The supervisors also thanked the rapper and his co-organizers for their “philanthropic hearts.”
“I’d love to play Oakland, but I’m not even trying to talk to a promoter about doing shows there,” he told the Express while on the road. “I don’t want to disappoint people when I’m not allowed to show up.”
“It is heartbreaking. Usually tours end in your hometown.”
No More Nightclubs
City of Oakland public records show that there are 46 venues licensed to regularly host live entertainment. Their so-called “cabaret permits” come with many of the same, standard-issue conditions, including: Operators must submit a venue’s monthly entertainment calendar to the police department’s Special Event Unit, inform the unit about events scheduled with less foresight, and acquire an official Special Event Permit for shows that involve non-payroll promoters, or that could require extra police resources.
But operators of five prominent cabaret-permitted venues told the Express that, for them, enforcement of these requirements is lax. For instance, these venue owners openly advertise the use of outside promoters, but never obtain special permits. Some weren’t even aware of the requirement to send monthly calendars to the police, or inform the department of last-minute additions. And multiple independent promoters, who book shows at various venues, confirmed that they never hear from the police about costs and restrictions.
What do these venues and promoters have in common? A lack of rap and hip-hop shows on their calendars.
[pullquote-4]Edwards, 31, who runs the three-story, 800-capacity establishment Complex on 14th Street near Broadway (formerly known as Venue, Vinyl, and Crate), experiences a very different sort of oversight. He submits his live-music calendar every month, and applies for Special Event Permits any time he works with outside promoters. That precludes a lot of programming, since the special-permit application process is supposed to begin 21 to 30 days before an event. And even shows booked in-house are often treated as “special events,” Edwards said, since SEU often insists his club pay for police security.
What makes hip-hop and rap events “special” seems mysterious to Richard Ali, 40, who owns two popular venues, New Karibbean City and Level 13 (formerly Shadow Ultra Lounge). “Technically, you need [a special entertainment permit] for outside promoters, or when you’re expecting a bigger show,” he said recently during an interview at Level 13. “At New Karibbean City, we’re sold-out all of the time — so what’s a bigger show?”
Special events get expensive. Public records show that, in recent years, the department has repeatedly billed New Karibbean City and Vinyl, along with their partner promoters, as much as $5,000 for individual events — a sum comparable to the costs imposed on much larger outdoor festivals. For instance, the police-security fee for the 2015 rock festival Burger Boogaloo, which drew 10,000 people over two days to Mosswood Park, was also approximately $5,000.
Meanwhile, records show that other popular Oakland venues, ones that forego hip-hop or don’t strongly identify with the genre, paid zero police security-fees in recent years.
Ali said that he sometimes recovers the cost in ticket prices by adding, say, $7 to the cover charge. But more often the estimated security fees, which sometimes require a sizable deposit beforehand, pre-emptively sabotage potential bookings.
In fact, he said that, due to the fees and discouragement of last-minute booking, he turns down twenty-to-thirty national touring acts a year.
For example, the night before Ali spoke to the Express, he wanted to host celebrated Baton Rouge rapper Boosie Badazz. But just a week earlier, Oakland police estimated security fees at an untenable several thousand dollars. Ali and Edwards’ foregone bookings often appear instead in San Francisco — but Boosie Badazz just skipped the Bay altogether.
“It could be that they don’t want hip-hop shows in Oakland,” Ali speculated of the police department’s motives.
One condition of New Karibbean City’s late-night permit, which allows the club to operate until 4 a.m. on weekends, supports his suspicion: It explicitly states, “No Hip-Hop events will be planned for the extended hour days.”
In civil-rights attorney Siegel’s estimation, “The ‘no hip-hop’ condition is an unlawful violation of First Amendment rights, and likely an act of racial discrimination.”
“The police are not here to enforce moral judgments,” he added.
For more than a month, Oakland police spokesperson Johnna Watson declined the Express’ multiple requests to discuss these allegations of racial discrimination and censorship against the department. This past Monday, she wrote via email that she’d forwarded our questions “for review” to OPD’s internal-affairs division and the city attorney’s office.
Edwards says he has turned down artists such as Gucci Mane and Rick Ross, and even an after-party for Lil Wayne, among other mainstream artists, because of the same prohibitive fees and lineup scrutiny. Other locals nixed from Edwards’ lineups after police intervention include longtime West Oakland rapper and Livewire Records founder J. Stalin.
“They’ll say, ‘We have concerns about this artist,’” Edwards explained. “And it is what it is. It’s in my best interests to listen.”
[pullquote-3]The Express was denied an interview with officer Jorge Cabral and Sgt. Andy McNeil, who according to public records, emails, and nightlife operators are the Special Event Unit members that oversee police security-fees. They also review news reports, department records, and rappers’ social media accounts when evaluating hip-hop clubs’ calendars. Sometimes, they seem to go on hunches, according to venue owners. “I think their main tool is Google,” Ali said.
Police spokesperson Marco Marquez explained to the Express in an email that, when OPD reviews an application, the department assesses “any impact to public safety,” such as “fights, shootings, crowd control management.” Then, SEU officers speak with venue owners and explain their “research.”
Edwards and Ali sometimes appreciate the police vetting their bookings. Incidents, such as a 2012 shooting outside New Karibbean City, have “drastically reduced,” Ali said, since he took more precautions. Last year, for instance, an SEU officer told Ali that there was a shooting in 2013 at an event in Vallejo featuring Atlanta rapper Lil Scrappy (though the artist wasn’t actually present), who was also scheduled at New Karibbean City. In that case, Ali was inclined to call off the show himself.
Most times, though, police concerns are less persuasive. On May 9, 2015, local rapper Birch Boy Barie was scheduled to open for Detroit rapper Peezy at New Karibbean City. But that day, Ali says that an Oakland police officer visited him at the club and insisted he remove the artist. “[Barie] had a new song out called ‘Fuck the Police,’” Ali said. “And I remember they were concerned about the lyrics.” OPD did not respond to an email request to discuss Barie’s exclusion.
Following police concerns about the lineup for popular hip-hop website Thizzler.com’s 2015 Bay Area Freshmen 10 concert at The New Parish, the promoter rescheduled the show in Walnut Creek. Later that year, records show that Thizzler’s inaugural Thizzler Jam event, at Vinyl, cost approximately $5,000 in police security fees, and the 2016 installment, at New Parish, cost approximately $3,500.
Thizzler has reliably promoted local artists on the brink of stardom, such as Sage the Gemini, IAMSU, and Nef the Pharaoh. But considering the impact of police fees on the company’s bottom-line, founder Matt Werner says he expects to take the next Thizzler Jam to another town.
Promoters such as Werner and Edwards agree that the regulatory burden is driving hip-hop business and cultural activity out of Oakland.
Earlier this year, Edwards decided to replace his second-floor nightclub with a restaurant, Smelly’s Authentic Creole and Soul Food. He’s also changing the first-floor into a coffee shop and smaller events space, called Feral. The top-floor is still available for intermittent concerts, but the shift to food follows Edwards’ long-term sense that incoming residents will silence nightclubs downtown — especially without entertainment advocates in City Hall.
His decision was hastened, though, by the costs and stresses of promoting rap shows in Oakland. “We’re not going back to nightclub activity, because it’s too much of a hassle. I’m going to do concerts that end at eleven, and not work with so many local people,” he explained. “How are we supposed to compete with other cities when even artists who are from here can’t play here?”
Silencing the Sounds of the Flatlands
Birch Boy Barie sat on a bench at the 88th Avenue Mini-Park near Birch Street, his namesake, in the Webster neighborhood of East Oakland. Young kids wheelied on dirt bikes. Friends hollered from passing cars. Barie wore a hat that read “YHGANG,” the company run by his friend and frequent collaborator Young Gully. This writer’s ballpoint pen was fading, so he suggested heating its tip with a lighter, and it worked. “Used to do that all the time,” he said.
This is where Barie, born Jabarie Johnson, 27, grew up with his best friend, Ghost (Rashard Acuna), who was shot to death in Las Vegas in 2014. Barie recalled how Ghost taught him to make a chorus pop; they used to play songs quietly, so that just the beat was audible, and freestyle on top. The video to “Long Live Ghost,” from 2015’s Welcome to Oakland, shows Barie on the nearby stoop of his late friend’s home. The hook goes: “The pain when I wipe my tears away / The pain cus I never see your face.”
“Fuck the Police,” from the same album as “Long Live Ghost,” references high-profile police killings such as Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Oscar Grant. Barie feels that his struggle to perform at venues in Oakland is a sort of punishment for his circumstances: the fact that tragic violence stalks the disinvested, predominantly Black community that he raps about.
Barie says that police have repeatedly targeted him on local lineups. For instance, a week after being taken off the Peezy show at New Karibbean City in 2015, police also removed him from a gig headlined by Young Gully, at One Fam Community Center in West Oakland. In each instance, Barie recalled how promoters relayed the police’s demand that not only was unable to perform: He couldn’t even attend.
“I think they trippin’ on people who really be outside, talking about where they’re from,” he said of the cops.
Nowadays, Barie mostly plays in other cities. When asked to play in Oakland, he has a script. “I always tell ’em, ‘If you put my name on the flyer, it might get shut down,’” he explained. “‘So if that happens and you lose money, it’s not on me — I warned you.’”
One thing he knows is that it’s only like this for rappers. “I don’t understand, because nothing has ever happened at my shows — and I’ve been rapping for eleven or twelve years,” he said of police concerns over public safety.
Blocks away in the flatlands, it’s the same story. The cover of Project Poppa’s most recent album, War Outside, depicts the trenchant East Oakland rapper with two guns pointed at his head, one held by a civilian and the other by a cop. He’s another young artist who, after difficulties performing in Oakland, now just plays out-of-town.
“They try to say the gang thing, try to label me,” he said, rolling his eyes. “But this is just where I’m from, my whole life. It’s all I know.”
He stood in a strip-mall parking lot at the corner of International Boulevard and 65th Avenue, the main gateway to the public-housing project with a decades-long reputation for violence where he grew up, Lockwood Gardens. Poppa, born Darren Mathieu, 24, wore a jade elephant necklace that twinkled in the sun and a yellow shirt that read “Own Lane,” a motto about self-determination that’s also the name of his own record label.
Poppa’s War Outside encompasses menacing swagger and vulnerable elegies, such as “Nay World,” a tribute to his cousin Reggina Jefferies, a 16-year-old dancer who last year was fatally struck by a stray bullet in downtown Oakland. Like Barie, Poppa thinks that his effective banishment from city clubs stems from the harrowing experiences and observations that color his lyrics.
“It’s frustrating,” Poppa said. “And it fucks with my money.” And, when it comes to police, shows are but one obstacle, he said. “Like, if I was trying to do a music video right here — that’d be a problem.”
Poppa’s friend optimistically interjected. “That’s my little brother and I always tell him, ‘But you got the streets listening,’” he said. “It’s like a blessing and a curse when you from this ‘hood — ‘cus it’s legendary.”
[pullquote-2]Even Too $hort, who last year turned 50, seems to remain a “red flag” to the police, according to Oakland Music Festival founder Alfonso Dominguez. He recalled how, in 2015, SEU officers “basically said ‘Hell no’” to his proposal to book the seminal local rapper as headliner.
“Are they stricter with hip-hop? Yeah,” Dominguez said, adding that he “stopped doing the big outdoor thing [for Oakland Music Festival] because of all the [police-imposed security] fees.”
But even last year, when the festival instead spread throughout several smaller venues, an event at Lake Merritt featuring revered DJ Chuy Gomez prompted an estimated last-minute security fee of $4,000, Dominguez said.
“And we canceled because we couldn’t afford that. It is what it is. … That was supposed to be a free event, all about showing love for Oakland.”
‘An Ongoing Struggle’
The Henry J. Kaiser Auditorium was once the City of Oakland’s center of civic life. It also has the ignoble distinction of imposing a yearlong moratorium on live rap, in 1989. “Looking back, that was real unfortunate, because 1990 was a peak year for Bay Area hip-hop,” longtime culture scribe Eric Arnold once wrote. “You had $hort, Hammer, and Digital Underground all at the top of their game, selling hundreds of thousands and even millions of units, playing sold-out national tours, and they couldn’t even do a show in their hometown.”
More recently, Geoffrey’s Inner Circle owner Geoffrey Pete largely blamed police overtime costs for temporarily driving his storied club out of business in 2009 (it reopened in 2012), which spurred a federal civil-rights lawsuit against Oakland police. The suit was dismissed, but it typified what downtown club owners decried as a shakedown.
In 2011, Pete and operators of other venues, including Luka’s Tap Room, formed an Oakland Cabaret Alliance. Chief among their concerns was, again, police’s selective enforcement against hip-hop clubs — especially punitive use of permits and fees.
Club owners and promoters say those protests led to little reform. And now, amid gentrification and a residential boom downtown, Edwards worries that the impact of uneven regulation will exacerbate the displacement of cultural activity that attracts a largely Black audience.
“There will be no nightclubs left,” he predicted. “It’s not part of the downtown plan.”
After the Ghost Ship fire this past December — which claimed thirty-six lives at a Fruitvale warehouse, all but one attendees or performers at an underground electronic music event — Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf issued an executive order that, among other things, directed the city administrator’s office to convene a special task force to re-evaluate Oakland’s music-and-entertainment permit process.
But it’s unclear if the task force, coordinated by the city administrator’s special projects director Kelley Kahn, will address the concerns of nightclubs such as New Karibbean City. Kahn said the task force is focused on the barriers to legitimately organizing smaller gigs, such as those in galleries or warehouses (read our previous coverage of entertainment-permit red tape: “Critics Say Oakland’s Entertainment Permit Process Too Arduous, Contributes to Unsafe Spaces Like Ghost Ship,” from our January 17 issue).
Kahn declined to share which nightlife operators attended the task force’s preliminary stakeholder listening-session. But neither Ali nor Edwards were invited. Still, notes obtained by the Express that recap the March 7 meeting reflect some of the two men’s concerns, such as the imposition of special-event conditions on cabaret-permitted venues, and “OPD harassment based on race or lifestyle.”
“One of the things we’ve heard clearly is that there needs to be someone in the city who’s on the side of the event operator — someone to work almost as an advocate,” Kahn told the Express.
Civil-rights experts caution that censorship of rap reflects a more systemic set of issues. Records show that Black men in Oakland’s flatlands — particularly those who, as Barie observed, spend time outside — are disproportionately targeted by police in general, such as with traffic stops and surveillance. They say that the resultant accumulation of data and criminal records, coupled with implicit biases, contributes to an outsized, or false, sense of the public-safety risk posed by rappers from East Oakland.
Attorney Hamasaki said that the same process of “criminalizing” Black communities in Oakland that challenges employment and education “also, in this case, prevents people from making a living through their art.”
Underlying law enforcement’s punitive treatment of rap, Hamasaki believes, is their perception of it as literal confession — rather than complicated expression, involving hyperbole and persona, that gleans meaning from delivery and context. Indeed, Hamasaki learned how East Bay prosecutors use rap lyrics as evidence of wrongdoing, often ignoring the traditional distinction between author and narrator (read our feature story “Rap’s Poetic License: Revoked,” from April 2015, for more on how district attorneys use song lyrics and rap videos to prosecute artists).
“That’s been an ongoing struggle in hip-hop, where as a Black artist in America you’re not allowed to be an artist — you’re automatically burdened with all of the ills of the community you come from,” Hamasaki said. “You don’t get to escape through art.”
Attorney Siegel, meanwhile, is troubled by the police’s vague, deflective explanations for “limiting the rights of both artists to perform and venues to host them.” He continued, “The police have to demonstrate something besides fear.”
Poppa — in an understated War Outside highlight — put it differently: “They wanna blackball a nigga / They wanna see me in a cage / They wanna see me in a grave, bruh / Before they see me on a stage.”