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The Evolution of Art & Soul Festival in Oakland

Oakland Art and Soul Festival 2017

August 19th and 20th was the 17th annual Art & Soul Festival in Oakland. I had not attended one in a few years and it was nice to get out and enjoy the music, performances, food, and most of all, the community. 

Before there was Art & Soul, there was the Festival at the Lake (Lake Merritt), which occurred from 1982 to 1997 every Memorial Day Weekend. The Festival at the Lake was a family oriented event, with the same concept of Art & Soul. “Festival at the Lake is the city’s chance to show off its array of cultural gifts.” I grew up with the Festival at the Lake. It was the place that showed Oakland’s diversity and it brought different cultures and age groups together. It was where I ate food from different cultures and saw different groups perform. There were cool activities for the kids, like the fire department showing off their trucks and watching kids dance and sing. “There was a time, before public perception changed, when the fair was considered one of Oakland’s cultural jewels. Billed as a multicultural extravaganza, it was an opportunity to explore, to share and to appreciate the city’s different races, along with their different foods, music and customs” (SF Gate Article in November 1997).

Oakland’s newish Eastlake Music Festival at Lake Merrit now takes place on Memorial Day weekend (4 years running).  eastlakemusicfestival.org

The event was so popular that over time, the neighbors complained about the traffic and it began targeting specific groups of people. One of the things that changed the atmosphere was the police’s presence and their interaction with the younger crowd in 1994. Despite them trying to be more inclusive with the younger crowd and getting their feedback, it changed the dynamics of the community. The attendance decreased and after struggling to keep it sustaining, Memorial Day of 1997 was the final Festival at the Lake (SF Gate Article in November 1997).

via Oakland Art and Soul Festival facebook

In 2001, the first Art & Soul Festival appeared. Even though we had not seen anything like it for a few years, we recognized it and appreciated its evolution from Festival at the Lake. Art & Soul is literally blocked in from 14th and Broadway to 11th and Jefferson, and very accessible to Bart and public transportation. That is quite some blocks to check out different stages and vendors, which makes it easier to navigate.

There were different vendors selling artwork, books, clothes, jewelry, and etc. The food provided had some of everything, from lumpia, jambalaya and Creole cuisine, Ethiopian, soul food, and other cultural foods.

Joy Elan with Armand Carr of KBLX, the host of the main stage on Saturday

There were different stages for specific performers. There was a Turf Battle and Kida The Great was there (he is a successful teen dancer and choreographer from Sacramento, who has danced with Usher and other hip hop singers). Some of the main performers on Saturday were Oakland’s own Adrian Marcel, Los Rakas, and headliner, Goapele. I was able to see all of this for $12! Everyone put on a great show. There was something else that was really cool too; there were two American Sign Language interpreters there to interpret the lyrics (yes, Deaf/hard of hearing people like music too, but that is another topic). I did not attend Sunday’s show but the lineup on the main stage was still great with Sydney Nycole, Lakeside, and Angie Stone.

Oakland native, Adrian Marcel singing, with accessibility to an American Sign Language interpreter at the bottom of the stage

When I walked around in between acts, I saw so many people there, including Oakland councilmembers with their families and the community was very engaging. Another cool thing was I met another Broke-Ass Stuart writer, Jamal Frederick there and we took an “us-ie.” He came with his family and it was like meeting a cousin at a family reunion, which is the point of the event. Based off of the pictures on Instagram and Facebook on my timeline, everyone had a great time and it was like our farewell to the summer celebration. I am looking forward to next year’s event and seeing the community out in the open again.

Meeting fellow BAS contributor, Jamal Frederick

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Joy Elan

Joy Elan

Joy Elan is an award winning author and spoken word artist from Oakland and Berkeley, CA. She received her BA degree in African American Studies at UC Berkeley and her MA degree in Education at Stanford University. Her books are available on www.amazon.com (poetry, non-fiction, and fiction genres). For more information, go to www.authorjoyelan.com.