Simmering Sounds: Oakland's Insurgent Culture and the Roots of Rebellion

Simmering Sounds: Oakland's Insurgent Culture and the Roots of Rebellion

Nobody who knows what they’re talking about can seriously say they were surprised that Oakland was host to the first American general strike on over sixty years. This is a city that helped birth the Panthers and has remained a stronghold for the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (arguably the one union whose militancy has remained unbroken over the past thirty year). It also, not so coincidentally, is where the last general strike in American history took place in 1946.

James Curtis, an executive board member of the ILWU, proclaimed from the front of Oakland’s docks on November 2nd that “this event is long overdue... now they have awoken a sleeping tiger.” That it took sixty-five years and Scott Olsen taking a teargas canister to the forehead speaks to just how deep the tiger’s slumber has been.

Not that it hasn’t been a longtime coming. Oakland has always been much more than San Francisco’s angry cousin; it’s a town whose working class culture has shined through even when the American nightmare sought to bury it. It’s a town whose rowdiness has always been matched by a very real confidence that emanates from its residents. A short piece in Mother Jones published the day before the November 2nd action quoted this scene from the ‘46 strike:

“‘Pistol Packin’ Mama, Lay That Pistol Down’, the number one hit [by country musician Al Dexter], echoed off all the buildings. That first 24-hour period of the 54-hour strike had a carnival spirit. A mass of couples danced in the streets. The participants were making history, knew it, and were having fun.”

Obviously, lots has changed since those days. There was no Taft-Harley Act preventing certain unions from coming out in sympathy (which there was this time around). One would be similarly hard-pressed to hear anyone suggest a country song be blasted over the speakers at a general strike in 2011. Neither of these cold hard facts, however, cover up the fact a culture of down-and-out rebellion has long permeated this city. In fact, it’s difficult to find a single aspect of American culture--in particular music--that hasn’t been transformed for the better by Oakland and the Bay Area.

Isadora Duncan, the radical activist and dance innovator, cut her teeth as a pianist and music teacher in Oakland’s nascent bohemianism in the late 1800s. In 1936, Carla Bley, a major figure in the ‘60s free jazz movement and collaborator in Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra, was born in Oakland.

Both left at a relatively young age; Duncan for Paris, Bley for New York. Both, however, have spoken fondly of the city. A far deeper influence of Oakland’s rough and independent culture can be felt in what are arguably the most significant styles of rebel music of the past thirty years: punk and hip-hop.

Growing up, like most young punks, I idolized the punk collective at 924 Gilman Street, officially located in West Berkeley but nonetheless organically connected with the Oakland scene. Here is the venue which had hosted the last show of Operation Ivy, the first shows from Green Day and countless other gigs from grassroots punk mainstays like Bikini Kill, Chumbawamba, MDC and Propagandhi.

Collectively run since 1986, this is a venue that wasn’t only a safe-haven for misfit kids but flat-out refused to book racist, sexist or homophobic bands. I first heard the words “Food Not Bombs” connected to Gilman Street, and also learned that it hosted some of the initial Rock Against Racism shows in the Bay Area (featuring, of course, Op Ivy). Even growing up in DC, the home of Fugazi and Bad Brains, it was impossible to ignore the lessons that this scene had to teach me.

The seamless interplay between punk and the Bay’s radical culture isn’t hard to find. Rancid, arguably the best-known band other than Green Day to emerge from the Gilman scene, have repeatedly written songs chronicling the struggles of working people, in particular to unionize. Let’s Go, the band’s 1994 album notably included the track “Harry Bridges,” an homage to the Australian immigrant leader of the San Francisco dockworkers, who in 1934 spearheaded a general strike that signalled the beginning of the Depression-era strike wave.

Likewise, one doesn’t have to go far to see how the culture of the Bay Area and Oakland has driven hip-hop forward. It was in Oakland that Tupac Shakur first attended the poetry classes of Leila Steinberg in 1988. Steinberg would end up Tupac’s first manager, and assembled the show that got him signed the very next year. One might easily call Shakur’s good fortune in Oakland a kind of kizmet; his own mother Afeni had made it a point to raise him with the revolutionary values of the Black Panthers--founded, of course, in Oakland.

During the early ‘90s, when hip-hop ceased being an “East Coast thing,” Oakland and the Bay Area became second only to Los Angeles in its output, albeit with a great deal less fanfare. One of the many rappers Tupac had occasion to work with while in Oakland was Boots Riley, he too the son of ‘60s radicals, an out-and-out communist and founder of the Coup (in fact, both ‘Pac and Boots appear in E-40’s 1993 video for “Practice Lookin’ Hard”). The city, in particular its East side has produced MCs as diverse at Too Short, Yukmouth and yes, even MC Hammer.

This potent combination of Oakland’s uniquely radical past with modern day rebel culture continues today. After Oscar Grant was killed, local MCs like Mistah FAB were some of the first to pen verses protesting the flagrant police brutality. In the wake of the cops’ near-murder of Scott Olsen, 924 Gilman Street was one of the first venues to assemble a fundraiser to help out with the former Marine’s medical bills.

From Pharoah Sanders to Zion I, from Raphael Saadiq to Filth and Crimpshrine, the East Bay and Oakland have helped produce an artistic voice that’s impossible to ignore. Of course, these pockets have their counterparts elsewhere--in Chicago, New York, Austin and Portland. Calling the rebel culture that’s gestated in the area a predictor of November 2nd’s general strike would be flat-out silly. To say they have nothing to do with one another, or that the unstoppable momentum of the nation’s Occupy hasn’t opened up the greatest opportunity in decades to forge new and exciting forms of insurgent art, would be equally silly.

That our heads are once again turned toward Oakland in that pursuit is simply fitting. It also bears pondering: if this kind of eclectic, diverse and vibrant culture can sink such deep roots without bursting forth until now, how many more explosions of this type do we have in front of us?

Alexander Billet, a music journalist and activist living in Chicago, runs the website Rebel Frequencies. He is a columnist for SOCIARTS and has appeared in several other publications including Z Magazine and He is a founding member of Punks Against Apartheid and is on the Arts & Recreation committee for Occupy Chicago. He can be reached at