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If the area west of the Oakland Art Murmur had a mayor, it might be Diallo. And if the Murmur has a number one detractor, it's definitely Diallo. On July 18 at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, he gave it to the art kids with both barrels in front of a roomful of their peers. He was fired up because the esteemed San Francisco establishment had taken notice of the Art Murmur and curated a show, Sampling Oakland. Yet this show included only the new kids on the block as though Diallo and the Black Dot Arts Collective he's worked with for a decade didn't exist. So he basically elbowed his way onto the show's walls after being invited to sit on a five-person panel to discuss "the Oakland aesthetic," which Diallo took as an opportunity to "speak truth to power."
"You kids come into the Lower Bottoms, my neighborhood, and at night I got five hundred people from God knows where wandering around, drinking from keg cups, making a mess," Diallo told them. "We're at odds, and we don't even know each other."
The former spoken-word poet continued: "That's great. You're fearless. We bump our cars buh-boom-boom, while you come down here and play your music rrr-rrr-rrr. You like the funkiness. But tell me, can I go ghost-ride the whip in Piedmont?"
And lastly: "Hipsters are one of the worst aspects of gentrification," he said. "You are the arrow tip of all this culture. And it's the arrow tip that pierces you first and hurts the most. The punk rockers, the hipsters, and developers are all the same thing."
Yet while most day-job gallery owners wring their hands at the thought of a condo-ized future, Diallo has staked out his own turf in anticipation. In the early '90s, he bought his first vacant lot in West Oakland with $7,500 he'd earned as a spoken-word poet back before it became a coffeeshop gag. He now owns eight properties and is planning a Black Cultural District in the Bottoms. All are welcome to visit, but Diallo is doing his best to ensure that only blacks may buy. "Real estate is for real," he says. "God ain't making any more land."
After a lifetime of renting gallery space in the same neighborhood as the Murmur, Diallo says he's seen the light: "You are either a slave or a master, either paying someone or paying yourself. Pay yourself. Know what I mean?"
He wasn't born Marcel Diallo, but that's what he goes by nowadays. The agitprop artist was born in 1973 and raised by his mom in Richmond, along with his four brothers. More than sixty extended family members rented a tour bus to watch him graduate from Cal Poly, where he'd landed a full scholarship. "It was basically state bribe money to get kids from the ghetto to go to these all-white schools," Diallo says. "I basically majored in white people."
He views the art "invasion" through the lens of colonialism and white privilege, and reserves special loathing for the LoBot Gallery, which is near his house. LoBot is short for Lower Bottoms. "That's the name of the neighborhood," he says. "You can't just have that. That's people's gang: They write on walls in town, 'Lower Bottoms, bitch!' It would be like me moving into Tennessee and finding some redneck town with the Klan still in it and opening up the Ku Klux Klan Gallery. You think if I did that, it wouldn't piss some people off? ... It's that insensitivity they don't even think about it."
Shown Esteban Sabar's "Invade Through Art" flyer, Diallo laughs. "Invade Through Art. There it is," he says. "At least Sabar's honest. He's here to sell some rich-ass paintings. I respect that more. Now there's a Ghost Town gallery; I hope that's run by white kids. Ghost Town is the name for the area around 31st and San Pablo where everyone's getting murdered. I had a friend move to the Lower Bottoms from there. Now they got the Ghost Town gallery."
In Diallo's final estimation, even press coverage of the Art Murmur contributes to gentrification. "Ninety-nine percent of people in Oakland don't know and don't care that there's a Murmur and the media is treating it like it's this big thing," he says. "Why do they get this inequitable coverage?"
It's midnight back at the Art Murmur, and the invasion is in full retreat for now, at least. The kids depart for their after-parties and the drug dealers retake their usual corners.
On walking past the window exhibits, it's apparent these former college students have imbibed all the necessary post-modernistic maxims: We are a people who've lost our history; we have no identity; we have no special place; we are atomized by technology. So much local art rages against this cultural amnesia, homogeneity, senseless wandering, and loneliness.
And yet the proprietors of the Murmur prove as guilty as anyone else of ignoring the history and identity of their own neighbors. Like most people who share a fence, they barely speak to one another. One would hope that art, in its highest form, could increase understanding by illustrating the utter symmetry of all human endeavors. We live. We strive. We fail. As it stands, those messy ideas have yet to make it onto the whitewashed art walls of downtown Oakland.