Oakland jazz festival honors Malcolm X

Mat Weber,

The 17th annual Malcolm X Jazz Arts festival took place in Oakland on Saturday, filling San Antonio Park with music, spoken word, local artists, community activists, and a variety of other events. The free festival was originally started in 2000 by the East Side Arts Alliance, a nonprofit community cultural center, and celebrates jazz as a Black cultural art form and the legacy of civil rights leader Malcolm X.

“We put this together 17 years ago to show what a cultural center could do for the community,” said Elena Serrano, a founding member of the group and one of the organizers for this year’s festival. According to Serrano the alliance worked collectively to choose the event lineup, focusing their support on over two dozen community artists across three stages. The Pioneer estimates over 1500 people attended throughout the day.

With jazz as backdrop, other areas of the festival focused more heavily on the legacy of Malcolm X. “Are you awake and conscious?” asked multi-modal artist Mawauzo Fikira of a man who was purchasing a Malcolm X button from him. “We have to educate one another. We can’t rely on the system. Supporting your community has to be a way of life,” added Fikira.

His words parallelled those of Malcolm X, who in June of 1964 famously told his audience, “Education is our passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs only to the people who prepare for it today.” While Fikira believes the education system is a site of struggle in the endeavor to be more awake and conscious, others at the event were more hopeful for the future of the institution.

“The youth in Oakland are unafraid to question,” says Cecelia Jordan, a history teacher at Ralph Bunche High School who performed a spoken word poem at the festival. “They have the intellect to read social theory, they get it, but it’s a challenge to put social movement into their language.”

Jordan moved to California from Texas to teach at Ralph Bunche after hearing about the school’s restorative justice program, which approaches student discipline by repairing harm instead of zero-tolerance punishment. Coming from a background teaching at preparatory schools where students were less likely to challenge her, Jordan said she has learned from her students in Oakland. “You have to be open to listening, even if it sounds like disrespect,” she said. “They’ve taught me so much.”

The sentiment of openness was echoed by Yeni Lucero, a dance teacher at Elmhurst Community Prep middle school in Oakland. “These kids bring traumas with them to school, and we use dance to help identify these traumas in the community.”

Her students from the school’s dance team performed a choreographed routine alongside music from Kendrick Lamar, Common, and excerpts from the Netflix documentary 13th by Ava Duvernay which addresses inequality in the justice system.. Lucero says the performance calls attention to injustices in the U.S. prison system, an issue close to her heart after she spent three years working with youth at the Alameda County Juvenile Hall.

“Some of these kids, their father is locked up, their mother was shot, and we’re treating them like adult criminals, when they’re just kids,” says Lucero. She sees the dance program as an important intervention to help kids stay out of trouble and build positive relationships. “These kids weren’t friends before, now they’re sisters.”