The curatorial vision for West Oakland’s annual Life Is Living Festival is one seemingly simple-yet-loaded question: What sustains life in West Oakland? As one might expect, the answer is multifaceted. And according to festival executive producer Hodari Davis, highlighting that diversity is the goal. “We’re trying to use the festival as an opportunity for artists, community activists, young people, and some of the historic institutions that exist in West Oakland, in particular, to actually answer that question,” said Davis in a recent interview. “For some people, it’s skateboarding that sustains life. For some people, it’s visual art, or it’s poetry, or it’s live dancing, or it’s theatrical works, or it’s graffiti, or it’s health and wellness.” So, Life Is Living offers all of that, and more.
The festival will take place for the eighth time this Saturday, October 10 at the historic deFremery Park (1651 Adeline St., Oakland) from 10 a.m.–8 p.m. It’s an annual, free event put on by Youth Speaks, the national, Bay Area-based organization that works with youth to tell their stories through spoken word. Davis co-founded the festival with its former artistic director Marc Bamuthi Joseph in 2008. It began as a way to engage youth and community with art and environmentalism — “Browning the green movement,” as Davis put it.
After the first year of producing Life Is Living, Youth Speaks received a grant from the Doris Duke Foundation to expand the festival, and bring it to cities across the United States. Since then, the organization has presented the event in Chicago, New York City, Houston, Atlanta, and San Francisco, treating each iteration as an opportunity to refine the event. Early on, it became clear that environmentalism wasn’t the most pressing topic in the communities that the event is intended to engage. As Davis recalled, that realization fully set in during Life Is Living in Harlem, New York in 2009 when one youth poet presented a piece with the line: “How can we talk about ‘green’ when our trees are stained with blood?”
That sentiment was echoed by many community members Davis spoke with. “When they saw that word ‘life,’ it less related to trees and more related to their children,” said Davis. “So, their interpretation of Life Is Living was, ‘How can we use this festival to celebrate the lives of our people and also to acknowledge the deaths that have happened?'” Listening to that feedback, Davis and fellow organizers maintained the underlying environmental standards for the festival, but shifted the focus to showcasing community talent and vibrancy and nurturing social change where needed.
Now, Davis sees the established event as a large-scale manifestation of Youth Speaks’ mission to create individual transformation by presenting opportunities for self expression. “Life Is Living essentially was us taking this microcosmic pedagogical idea and turning into a macrocosmic idea,” said Davis. “Replacing our focus on individual transformation with our focus on community transformation.” Oakland’s Life Is Living fosters that transformation through a thoughtful hybrid of artistic and social justice oriented engagement categorized into various zones, each dedicated to celebrating different aspects of life in West Oakland.
On the artistic end, the “Oakland Is Fly” stage at this year’s festival will feature a long lineup of local musicians. Town Futurist will also be hosting a hip-hop dance party featuring Bay Area youth MCs and rappers. Youth Speaks will have an all-day lineup of poetry performances taking place on two different stages, one dedicated to food justice, and another for young poets to speak about racial profiling and police violence.
Like most years, the event will also feature a skate zone at Town Park hosted by Keith Williams — the local artist and skate advocate known as KDUB. That section will host skateboarding contests and exhibitions along with DJ workshops, live music, a bicycle obstacle course, a graffiti battle, and other youth-oriented activities. For youth under the age of twelve, “Emily’s Butterfly Kids Zone” will offer learning stations, arts and crafts, a petting zoo, and performances.
The Marketplace will host more than seventy vendors offering food and other locally made goods. It will also include a “Beauty Zone” with natural beauty products, spa treatments, and other salon services. The Marketplace’s Cowrie Village will feature vendors offering their products in exchange for other goods and services, thereby fostering a barter economy. Meanwhile, the “Wellness Zone” will be dedicated to various healing practices, with practitioners offering both information and onsite services, plus movement workshops and light yoga.
Although Life Is Living has focused on music and visual art in the past, the arts curators this year chose to highlight dance and theater. The theatrical stage will include a production of Black Joy in the Hour of Chaos, a series of short performances employing music, dance, and spoken word poetry along with a massive parachute prop. The participatory piece was composed by Bamuthi Joseph, evoking the legacy of hip-hop, the Great Migration, New Orleans parade culture, and contemporary racial politics. It has only been performed previously in Central Park. The stage will also present works by Dalak Brathwaite, Josh Healey, Campo Santo, and Cal Shakes — totaling six hours of outdoor theater.
With “Dance Is Life: Africa in Oakland,” the dance stage will offer free dance classes throughout the day, highlighting the Malonga Casquelord Center for the Arts’ resident teachers and dance companies. Yak Films will have its own space to present an “Oaktown vs. the World” dance battle and exhibition. The legendary iDummy, Kidd Strobe, and Krow will represent Oakland against dancers from Tennessee, New York, and Brazil. Plus, to ensure that the day is historic, Life Is Living partnered with Friends of deFremery and Oakland Parks and Recreation to bring people out to the park at 8 a.m. to attempt to beat the World Record for longest Soul Train line, which would require more than 425 people dancing nonstop for four to six hours.
Along with the Soul Train line, the festival will begin — as it has for the last five years — with a free breakfast program in tribute to the Black Panthers. While the People’s Kitchen and other participants serve a healthy meal for every attendee, local food justice organizers will be rallying the community around the issue through performances and other informational engagements. Last year, the Life Is Living Free Breakfast Program fed approximately 700 people, and this year, they aim to feed 1,000.
From Davis’ point of view, every aspect of the festival is of equal importance, because each requires the others to exist. “Youth cannot speak unless communities are empowered,” said Davis. “We can’t really empower the young people to live to their fullest potential if the communities they are living in are not — not actualized, not realized, not safe, not healthy, not fun.”Correction: The original version of this article incorrectly listed Karl Watson as the host for the Life is Living festival’s skate zone. In fact, it is Keith Williams.