Ise Lyfe’s spoken-word career started when he was in eleventh grade at Oakland’s Skyline High, for the same reason that most other significant things happen in the lives of eleventh-grade guys: a fly-ass girl. He wrote a poem about the girl and liked it so much that he decided to read it at Skyline’s Black History assembly — which is tantamount to purging all your insecurities in front of hundreds of other eleventh-graders. Ise hoped the other kids wouldn’t playa-hate too hard.
But the young poet was wrong. “The whole school went crazy when I performed it,” he recalls. “I really felt validated.”
Granted, this wasn’t the first time Lyfe realized the heft and power of words. His love affair with language actually started in sixth grade, when he heard Langston Hughes’ poem “Let America Be America Again.” But he abandoned the romance of staying up all night and scribbling in a Mead notebook for the glamour of regular street hustles. A few years later, the world started falling apart all around him: His grandfather died of a heroin overdose and his brother went to jail. The East Oakland-raised poet still lived at his mom’s house, but was on his own, in many ways.
By the time he reached eleventh grade, he needed a way out. He found it in activism. Through activism, he came back to poetry.
Lyfe formed People Organizing with Each Other for Revolution (POWER) with Victor Duarte and members of what would become the hip-hop group the Attik. They provided healthy food for elementary school kids at Allendale Recreation Center in Oakland, and launched the Urban Living Summer Institute at Merritt College to teach youth “the root causes of violence in their communities.” Lyfe snagged a job doing marketing and promotions for Def Jam by lying about his age (the poet said he was 21 but was actually eighteen). He started booking cheesy after-parties for Ja Rule shows, orchestrating wet T-shirt contests, and making enough loot to bankroll his own organization. Eventually, the poet got fed up with watching pregnant women slug Coronas at nightclubs and “hearing white promoters call people ‘nigga.'” He knew that not everyone has the luxury of doing shit “Poor Righteous Teachers’ style,” but also realized the fraudulence of his position. He quit Def Jam, fully committed himself to POWER, and become one of the downest hip-hop activists in East Oakland.
Last year was Lyfe’s first time performing at Oakland’s annual Black August celebration. He not only likes the celebration’s focus on political prisoners — “I think it’s dope to be reaching out to people who aren’t there,” he says — but that it brings together different communities of color. In fact, this year’s event includes performances by Okinawan drummers, Aztec and Polynesian dancers, and speakers from the Native Youth Movement. Best of all, Black August “bridges the gap between elders and young folks. I remember being on stage last year and looking at an eighty-year-old woman in the audience,” the poet says, surprised, at first, that an intergenerational crowd would embrace his material with the same fervor as the kids at Skyline High. But as usual, there was no reason for self-doubt. Lyfe put his mic down, and the crowd went crazy.
This year’s Black August celebration kicks off tonight (Wednesday) at 6 p.m. at 2232 MLK (2232 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Oakland), and ends on Sunday at Historic Sweet’s Ballroom (1933 Broadway), with performances by Dead Prez, Rico Pabón, Nappy Tongues, and more. Call 510-658-7079 for details.