- Portrait by Sam Zide
- DNas: "In order for us to make sure we're going somewhere, we have to remember our past."
Leon Sykes II is as Oakland as it gets. He once transcribed Black Panther newspapers when he was a student at Laney College. A classmate of his at the time was Mistah Fab, one of the north Oakland’s finest. And, speaking of the north, Sykes — or more commonly known as DNas — attended Oakland Technical High School, along with Marshawn Lynch, who was his swim teammate.
In 2001, while a sophomore at Tech, Sykes joined Youth Radio, the media education and production organization headquartered in downtown Oakland. There, he found a platform for his high energy, love of community, and journalistic curiosities. Beginning in 2007 and until last year, he hosted Streets is Talking, a show streamed on Youth Radio’s in-house internet station, AllDayPlay.FM.
Founded in an era before ubiquitous podcasts and YouTube uploads, Streets is Talking was prescient, both in its informal format and its video streaming, and it became an important and affirming launch pad for independent local musicians. “That place saved my life,” Sykes explained of Youth Radio. “Literally and figuratively. Because I didn’t know what I wanted to do.”
Today, Sykes, 32, does a lot of things. Officially, he is a lifeguard at West Oakland’s McClymonds High School (which he insists has the best pool in all of Oakland). “I’m there as a lifeguard, but I’m a father, I’m a counselor, I’m an uncle, I’m a teacher, I’m a brother. I’m all facets of a community person when I’m at the schools,” he explained.
And that might be the title best suited for Sykes, a “community person,” or model citizen.
When school is closed, Sykes spends his summers managing Oakland’s municipal pools. His outpost since 2004, DeFremery Pool, is undergoing renovation, so these days he’s at Temescal Pool. “My whole adult life has been working in West Oakland,” he said.
Around the time he began his lifeguarding career, Sykes was also doing security for 2232 MLK (where Starline Social Club is currently located). He rattled off acts he saw there: Daghe, the Pack, Jacka, Planet Asia, Hiero—connections that proved vital when he started his show Streets is Talking.
The show featured a roster of rotating co-hosts — including his mentor DJ Aebl Dee, journalist Niema Jordan, rapper Beejus, singer Rayanna Jay, and Daghe’s More Vibes crew — chatted and helped him curate music from independent hip-hop and R&B acts that weren’t getting radio play. “Podcasts were so brand new. We were on this thing called Podomatic. I had like 150,000 subscribers,” he recalled.
While West Oakland is a focal point of his life, Sykes is actually from Lake Merritt. “We live a block away from Piedmont, and we called it ‘Deep East Piedmont,’” he joked. “I’m a Lakeshore boy ’til the end.”
He ended up in West Oakland through his childhood friends, brothers Beejus and Aebl Dee, a.k.a. Brandon and Ross Robinson, who he met at Oakland’s Feather River Camp back “when the town was Black,” he says. “I went to West Oakland and I fell in love with a part of the city that I was scared of as a youngster.”
In Lakeshore, he grew up alongside his cousin, filmmaker Obatala Mawusi. Mawusi’s mother Seyana founded an African Saturday school where Sykes, his older sister, Mawusi and a dozen other children learned ancient African history.
During our interview, the influence of his Afro-centric early education becomes apparent when Sykes, a year into fatherhood himself, wearing a Revolt Silkscreen t-shirt that reads “Oakland Against Gentrification”, explained why he’s so passionate about his hometown. "When I think about my son and I think about Oakland, it's encouraging that if we fight, we can try and preserve as much as we can.”
That past includes less displacement and more black-owned business and events. “I want my son to be able to have what I had with Festival at the Lake and all [that] culture surround him.” he reminisced. “[Fatherhood] making me think about fucking politics! Make sure my son has a city to grow up in. Make sure we don't get pushed out of here.”
Over the last couple months, on his Twitter account, Sykes has been posting friendly reminders of Oakland city council seats up for election next year, even going as far as hinting at a city council run himself. Politics aren’t new to Sykes. In 2011, he served as a contract negotiator for his union, SEIU 1021, during budget planning. In 2015, when the city was enforcing a ban on barbecues and drinking at Lake Merritt, Sykes joined an advisory subcommittee of Oakland Park and Recreation to advocate on behalf of his community. “We had concessions. We took away coal and added in propane, but there were a few of us that were a part of the community that really [worked] with Park and Rec to make sure things were being done.”
But he remains frustrated by what he considers a focus on major housing developments and a lack of emphasis on job growth. For Sykes and many of his peers, that’s the central dilemma of living in a city that feels like it’s outgrowing its hometown residents.
For his part, Sykes is seeking solutions. Later this month, he expects to bring back Streets is Talking after a year-long hiatus. But, as for a city council run, that’s still up in the air.
“I don’t know if I want to do it yet,” Sykes admitted. “But what is making me consider everything is I’m able to walk around with a ‘Oakland Against Gentrification’ shirt through my neighborhood, go to my jobs. I’m able to be who I am and set this example and be the voice of my people who aren’t ready to talk yet. I want to make a change.”