Come as You Are

"Wisdom circles" ask deeper questions of hip-hop performers.

In Oakland, the persistence of your efforts and the integrity of your intentions count a lot. “The whole thing that creates a culture is stability,” says Marcel Diallo of the Black Dot Artists Collective. Black Dot started hosting its self-described “wisdom circles” at different spots in 1996, replacing the usual “I am somebody” of open-mike poetry, with events that sought to crack the orthodoxies of hip-hop performance and get people open to discuss the deeper questions behind their work. These efforts, which culminated when the collective opened a cafe and gallery venue in 1998, earned Diallo a place in The Source‘s “Dreaming Americans” series, which profiled cultural activists in hip-hop. But by the time the article ran in October 2000, Diallo’s dreams were homeless, following the eviction of the cafe.

Now that the dot-coms have come and gone and some landlords’ dreams of fantastical rents have faded, Diallo is reopening the Black Dot Cafe around the corner from its old space, with a month of opening events and a festival. But don’t call it a comeback, because Diallo says it never went away. “We’ve spent five years right here in this neighborhood,” he explains. “We’ve helped raise the neighborhood kids. All the kids that used to look out their apartment windows, into our courtyard, started coming over here. The neighborhood has changed … they’ve had the opportunity to develop their minds.”

Black Dot didn’t disappear when it lost its space, although it cut back performances. Instead, it moved in with the East Side Arts Alliance, a collaborative that provides arts classes for youth in the San Antonio and Fruitvale neighborhoods. Black Dot’s own “Beats, Flows, and Videos” workshop — which puts high-end audio and video production equipment into the hands of Oakland teenagers — has grown to serve thirty up-and-comers, who regularly fill the spot and the sidewalks outside with circles of rhymers on Thursdays after school.

This growth is one reason for Diallo to open the new space, which gives these youths a spot to perform on Thursday nights. Mondays are reserved for the Electric Church, the soul band that burned up Oakland parks with the Groovemobile this summer. Wednesdays are reserved for the historic hub of the Dot’s activities, its After Word series. Fridays and Saturdays are reserved for featured artists, with Amiri Baraka and Umar bin Hassan of the Last Poets scheduled for next month. Bin Hassan opens the festival on October 12 at 7 p.m., with the remainder of the schedule drawn from Black Dot regulars.

The theme of generations is important to Diallo, who recently celebrated the first birthday of his son Diji. Diallo recalls growing up on the “dope track” in Richmond and scoring his early electronic gear off white crackheads eager to dump it for money on “the so-called black market.” In contrast, the teens at “Beats, Flows, and Videos” can walk into a community-based nonprofit and get studio time. “They getting to use all this shit. They thinking about shit I wasn’t even thinking about, and they more articulate,” Diallo says. “No one has a sense of place. So if we can give ’em the tools to express theyself, they’ll tell us where we at.”

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