Festival Shows That Hip-Hop is Alive and Well

Photo: LOse your head. Concertgoers stormed Zellerbach's normally respectable stage during Zion I's performance last Friday.
Jeremiah Hair/Staff
LOse your head. Concertgoers stormed Zellerbach's normally respectable stage during Zion I's performance last Friday.

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Picture crusty, old Zellerbach, packed from stage to ceiling. Instead of the usual scarf-adorned alumni patronage, we had a mostly under-30 crowd. As Oakland rap group Zion I shook the theatre, throngs of kids were going dumb under clouds of smoke. The ratio of people having fun to Zellerbach workers getting pissed was proportional and thus unsustainable. The Man cleared the stage, and "Activism Right There" had its momentum squelched.

But that moment defined the evening. For a few glorious minutes (or vainglorious, depending on your perspective), students had "taken back" one of UC Berkeley's stodgier institutions. In a flourish or near spiritual exuberance, kids were jumping in unison on the forbidden stage. It was perhaps a metaphor for a populist activist phenomenon. Or it was just some kids getting hyphy and creating a safety hazard.

Like the legacy of political activism here, the essence of the event is still hazy. The promoters wanted to exhort a new generation towards social change. The thesis went like this: The youthful spirit that engenders positive activism is the same many feel when making art, and perhaps some particularly awesome art could stoke dormant activist sensibilities in the students. Obviously, no one grabbed a microphone and shouted that long-winded sentence, but that seemed to be the gist of things.

It started with a panel discussion dedicated to examining the legacy of activism at Cal. There was a considerable trickle-down of Reagan-hating, as well as credit given to the "cultural revolution" that subversively accompanied his reign. The discussion seemed to be one part reflection, one part torch-passing. Older alumni (like former ASUC president Jeff Chang and Free Speech Movement veteran Bettina Apthecker) were conveying a tradition to the next generation.

Some of the rhetoric was vague. Activism was praised, activism was encouraged, but not too many distinctions were drawn between good and bad crusading. Not all causes are equal, after all. Were the oak-squatters doing something productive or just squandering resources in the name of protest? Since we are about to be blessed with the protests, counter protests and counter-counter protests of "Israeli Apartheid Week," it'd be nice to lay down some ground rules on what constitutes positive social uplift. Affirmative action was specifically mentioned, and racial issues often dominated the discussion. Not to take away from importance of these issues, but other facets of American misfortune and inequity deserved more spotlight. Of course, positing that activists could have better spent their time and energy on some other topic is a pretty cliche argument against a protest. Overall, the panel was engaging.

Boalt Hall School of Law professor Kirk Boyd then delivered a speech about his crusade for international human rights standards. The crowd seemed receptive to the lecture, but many were antsy for rap. There were shades of "The Simpsons" scene where Bart gets tricked into a dentist visit with a promise of Dinseyland.

And then NPR gave way to rhythm. There was the slam poetry, spoken word art and hip-hop dance. Marc Bamuthi Joseph (HBO's "Def Poetry") started a roar when he yelled, "And I pray that George Bush will get a blow job so we can finally impeach his ass!" That might not be poetry, but it's pretty damn funny. The barb began a crescendo that reached apogee with Zion I.

Gabriel Teodros, the polytonal Zach de la Rocha, warmed up the crowd. He shouted pounding verses into the mic while onstage breakdancers went nuts. Zion I combined great music with great energy, nearly breaking the stage with a mesmerizing rendition "Da Bay." In other words, their rap show was good enough to possibly ban the group from Zellerbach. Those dudes were a little too hyphy for such a venue.

Party for your right to fight with Ethan at [email protected]

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