UPDATE, 10/12/17: Due to the fires, the 10th Annual Life Is Living Festival has been postponed. Stay tuned for updates at LifeIsLiving.org.
In the past decade, gentrification in West Oakland has intensified. Some homes in the neighborhood now sell for upwards of $1 million, and massive buses shuttle tech workers to Silicon Valley from locations off 7th Street. Just blocks away are new homeless encampments. The neighborhood once known for being one of the country’s most historic blues, jazz, and Black arts corridors west of the Mississippi is now advertised as “the new edge of Silicon Valley.”
All of this makes the existence of the Life Is Living festival even more crucial. The annual community event, which will mark its 10th anniversary at DeFremery Park in West Oakland on Saturday, celebrates the art, music, and spirit that are critical to the Town’s cultural survival. Along with the Malcolm X Jazz Festival, Life Is Living is one of the only free, community-lead and -funded events in Oakland.
Presented in collaboration with more than 100 local artists and organizations, the all-day event features multiple stages, live performances, DJs, installations, and local vendors, and will serve as the official 51st anniversary celebration of the Black Panther Party. X-Clan, M-1 of Dead Prez, A-Plus of Hieroglyphics, and others are among the performers.
For Hodari Davis, co-founder and director of the festival, this year’s Life Is Living is “a testimony to the lives we’ve been living in this city in the last 10 years.” The festival’s growth has coincided with improvements to the park itself: Town Park went from second-hand wood ramps to a globally recognized, permanent concrete skatepark. A Black Panther Party logo made of black and blue ribbons tied to the tennis court’s chain-link fence has remained for years. The DeFremery Recreation Center, housed inside a historic Victorian in the center of the park, has been recently remodeled. Davis said during the first years of the festival, the building had faulty electrical outlets. According to the festival’s website, the city of Oakland has invested $650,000 into park restoration efforts since the event began.
While it’s called DeFremery Park by the city, it’s Lil’ Bobby Hutton Park to locals, named after the Black Panther Party’s first recruit and treasurer who was killed during a shootout with Oakland police in 1968. The festival is held at the park to honor the legacy of the Black Panthers, once headquartered in the park, and to spark a new generation of community-driven arts and activism.
The festival begins by maintaining the West Oakland tradition created by the Panthers of providing a free healthy breakfast, provided by the People’s Kitchen Collective. In the kids’ zone, festival favorite Emily Butterfly will host A Faery Good Time, a vibrant inclusive space that Butterfly has curated for six years. Live theater performances will occupy multiple stages: The Black and Brown Resistance theater stage, which is curated by Campo Santo and Cal Shakes and begins at noon, will be hosted by Lisa Evans, soundtracked by DJ Dion Decibels, and feature a full afternoon of performances by Bonafide Rojas, RYSE Performing Arts, the Fine Ass Queer Artsy Heauxs Collective, and many others. DelinaDream Productions will host the Africa in Oakland stage showcasing dance styles from Congo, Senegal, Brazil, and beyond.
Hood Games, an annual youth skateboarding competition, will take place at the acclaimed Town Park skatepark, while author and illustrator Robert Liu-Trujillo will preside over the book zone featuring storytime readings for children and parents. West Oakland mainstays The Crucible will host the Crucible Unity Quilt, including a presentation of their collaboration with Skate Like a Girl, in which 10 participants made their own skateboards from scratch. Vendors and art installations will connect the different zones across the park.
The hosts of this year’s Life Is Living are the artists behind Oakhella, an amazing collective known for their own micro-music festivals and brunch parties hosted in community gardens in West Oakland. Having new and inclusive projects like Oakhella take leadership roles at Life is Living is critical to ensuring that the festival is passed down to a new generation that’s equally committed to preserving Oakland’s artistic and cultural community.
The festival’s longevity and impact are reminders of the type of local, microcosmic power articulated by one of Oakland’s most accomplished writers and Life Is Living co-founder, Chinaka Hodge: “Life is Living is a campaign aimed at using the resources around us to make our lives the best that they can be while still supporting the life of the planet in which we live.”
José Vadi is a writer and former staff member of the Life Is Living festival, living in Oakland.