Really living at the Life is Living Festival (and now there's a stage show too!)


Every once in awhile, an festival comes along that seems so seamless, so positive, and so needed that it's like it sprang from the Bay Area gods. Such an event is the Life is Living Festival, which took over West Oakland's De Fremery Park last Sat/8 in big, happy puppy pile of art and kids and music. "We began this, but as you can see, it's expanded so that it's kind of everyone's thing now," says Marc Bamuthi Joseph, the founder of the Life is Living organization which has overseen the event's growth into yearly happenings in Harlem, Houston, and Harlem. Bamuthi, who helped start the Bay's pioneering spoken word nonprofit Youth Speaks, seemed as gleeful to be out in the Oakland sunshine as the kids flipping head over heels at the padded beginner's parkour course set up in one side of the park.

In another corner, a spoken word stage pedal-powered by the velo-minded geniuses of Rock the Bike. In another, a simple floor set up on the grass where drummers pounded away for an all-are-welcome dance show-and-tell. A woman in her forties gyrated joyously in precisely free African patterns. A kid that didn't go up to my waist breakdanced to thunderous applause, finally sitting down in a folding chair just offstage, rubbing the spot on the back of his head that had just been supporting his entire body in an upside-down spin. 

In between stellar sets by Panamanian-cum-Oaklanders Los Rakas and Questlove, a man took the stage to vocalize what it seemed like many in the crowd were already feeling -- that this day, with its serenity and family-friendly vibes, was a big deal for West Oakland. He talked about how we were all standing on a corridor of public land. Across the street was a senior citizen's center. It was a Saturday and its doors were locked. Was this, the man asked the crowd, acceptable? He encouraged us all to utilize public land as something that could nurture community, not to let it lie fallow. 

Such was the overall message of Life is Living -- doing stuff with what we have, while we strengthen our voices to ask for more. What we had wasn't too shabby -- a food justice information area, a health and wellness zone that offered free HIV testing, shows from local hip-hop duo the Coup and Haitian dance troupe Ra Ra Loumen. 

Not to mention another of the festival's major draws: the Estria Invitational Graffiti Battle. Around the country, Bay Area graff legend Estria Miyashiro has been organizing themed graffiiti contests. Competitors hear the word of the day's showdown (Saturday's was "proud") and create vivid works of aerosol cleverness in an alloted time. When the panel of expert street artist-judges had tallied up their impressions Los Angeles artist Vyal received the day's top honors for the second year in a row. 

The feel-good event of the year, I'm calling it. And community organizers are in luck: Life is Living directors and artists have come together to produce a performance piece about the festival that will combine its environmental agency, a call to arms for members of underserved communities across the country, and the festival's graffiti art for visual punch. It starts on Thursday at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Especially if you missed the message on Saturday, it's a production that demands attention. 


"Red Black and Green: A Blues"

Thu/13-Sat/15 and Thu/20-Sat/22 7:30 p.m., $25 ($5 on Thursdays)

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

701 Mission, SF

(415) 978-ARTS


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