The seventeen middle-schoolers could barely conceal the swagger in their step as they stood under the hot lights, each gripping a handmade drum in one hand and a stick in the other. Clad in button-down shirts and ties, the young men looked down at the whooping crowd with stoic reserve, though a few failed to stifle their grins. Earlier that day, they were just like every other student at East Oakland's Edna Brewer Middle School. But at that moment, they were opening a sold-out show at the legendary Yoshi's in Oakland.
"Brothers and Beats," a Black History Month Celebration that took place on February 5, marked a pivotal moment for its young performers, many of them taking the stage for the first time, as well as for the public and private organizations that made it happen, including the new arts and music nonprofit 51Oakland and the African American Male Achievement (AAMA) program. But it was one man, Oakland hip-hop artist Jahi, who helped bring everyone together, and it was his students who opened the show.
It started last September when the seventh- and eighth-graders joined an after-school program led by Jahi as part of Edna Brewer's AAMA program. An initiative of the Oakland Unified School District, AAMA started three years ago as a response to OUSD's dismal graduation, retention, and literacy rates for young black males in particular.
"We want these African-American youth to see who they are through a different lens," Jahi said. Most AAMA instructors teach their kids about the value of creativity, but not all of them steep their teaching in music like Jahi does. "Because I'm an artist, it's only natural that I'm going to infuse hip-hop into my lessons. Part of this is cultural competency."
In addition to his work with AAMA, Jahi is an artist-in-residence at 51Oakland, an arts and music education nonprofit founded in 2011 by Yoshi's co-owner and namesake, Yoshie Akiba, and Jason Hoffman, an Oakland entrepreneur and former educator. Part of 51Oakland's mission is to give Oakland youth an opportunity to perform at the world-famous jazz venue — a stage that has seen the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Harry Connick Jr., and Diana Krall — by regularly hosting youth concerts as part of its "Live at Yoshi's" series. But it was Jahi's connection to the nonprofit and AAMA that gave him the idea to hold "Brothers and Beats" at Yoshi's. "Why not my kids?" he recalled thinking. Once 51Oakland agreed to partner for the show, the real work began. Jahi had five months to get his kids ready to perform.
He used the show as an opportunity to teach his class about the power of the drum, syncopation, improvisation, cooperation, and the history of Africa. Using only wood, tape, nails, and hammers, Jahi taught his students how to build their own handheld drums, upon which they inscribed words like "positivity," "strength," and "pride." Next, they went about creating a setlist. They scrapped the idea of doing covers and instead wrote an original performance piece. Composed of about six hip-hop-inflected "movements," their set melded beat-making, rapping, spoken word, quotations, and even the talents of a couple trombonists in the group.
As someone who makes hip-hop, Jahi thought about how to present a more socially conscious style to his students without watering down the music or sacrificing its authenticity. "What I'm presenting to them is not an alternative or an either/or — it's adding to what they already know," Jahi said.
When Jahi's students kicked off their performance at Yoshi's, the many afternoons they spent practicing showed. As the clatter of the first drumbeats sounded, the crowd fell silent. The young men began with a powerful drum line-style number, a kind of percussionist call-and-response between one-half of the boys and the other. As they played, their sticks rose and fell in sync. When half the group skittered to a halt, the other half picked up the rhythm until the others joined back in, coaxing their simple, handheld drums into a crescendo. As soon as the performance ended, the crowd erupted into applause. Sure, most of them were parents, siblings, and teachers — but the enthusasm was deserved. The budding performers owned the stage like headliners.
Jahi's class wasn't the only crowd-stunner that night: The Edna Brewer Jazz Ensemble and groups from Skyline High School, Oakland Technical High School, Fremont High School, and the organization Young Gifted and Black also gave riveting performances, while Jahi — the show's director — proved a fun and engaging emcee, hyping the already-hyped audience as the night went on.
After the show, the performers, in particular Jahi's students, moved easily through the crowd like newly christened stars. Though the clamor never quite died down, one by one, parents declared it a school night and ushered their kids out of the building. But hopefully, they'll be back.