What began as a benefit for a departed friend's family has turned into an annual music and arts blow out that celebrates the Town's rich history as a key outpost of the West Coast hip-hop scene, as well as its resilience in the face of tragedy.
In 2010, Marty Aranaydo and members of the Oakland graffiti crew TDK threw the first Dream Day as an homage to Mike "Dream" Francisco, a legendary Oakland graffiti artist who pushed West Coast aerosol styles forward in the Eighties and Nineties but was senselessly shot in 2000. Although they're considered to be separate realms today, during Dream's heyday, graffiti was an integral part of hip-hop culture and his work helped define the visual aesthetic of Oakland's youthful underground scene at the time.
Many remember Dream for his magnetic personality and the ways that his friendships with graff writers, activists, b-boys, and rappers helped unify Oakland's different creative enclaves. This year's Dream Day takes place in the Greenpeace yard in West Oakland, and features performances from rappers Husalah, who started out as a member of The Jacka's former group, Mob Figaz; Equipto, a leader of the recent #Frisco5 protest movement; and Nump, a rapper and audio engineer for Bay Area rap royalty such as E-40. In keeping with tradition, new murals will be unveiled and graffiti artists will paint live.
Organizers suggest a $5 donation to enter, and proceeds from the event will benefit Dream's sixteen-year-old son Akil Francisco, who was just ten months old when his father was killed and only ten years old when his mother later died of breast cancer. Dream's brother, John Francisco, who teaches break dancing and hip-hop history to youth at Eastside Arts Alliance, raised Akil after he lost both his parents. And after completing his senior year in high school this year, Akil will be on his way to the University of Hawaii on a football scholarship.
While Dream Day has helped mythologize Mike "Dream" Francisco as a larger-than-life figure, its origins have a more personal backstory. Aranaydo, who's also a popular local DJ known as Willie Maze (full disclosure: he's booked me to DJ at his party NVR OVR), threw the first Dream Day party in 2010 to help raise funds for legal fees for John Francisco to formally adopt Akil.
Each year, proceeds from the event have helped the Francisco family provide for the young man. And while Dream Day has helped imprint Dream's legacy into Oakland history, it has also left the artist's son with an invaluable understanding of what his father's legacy means to his community.
"The impression that's kind of left on me was my dad, Mike Dream, was one of the best graffiti writers in the world — not just the Bay Area, but the world," said Akil in a phone interview. "One thing that really stands out to me [is] he was a real guy and he would tell you what it is and what it isn't."
"The biggest tragedy is he made an amazing body of work in his time but he was nowhere near done yet. He was still becoming," said Aranaydo, adding that Dream introduced a social consciousness to graffiti at a time when most painters were more focused on its stylistic aspects.
Indeed, in a 1993 video interview for a cable show called Hip-Hop Slam TV, Dream reflected on graffiti's role as an outlet for youth in inner-city communities plagued by violence. "Every time I get hassled by the police, I gotta go out and do me a piece, you know what I'm sayin'," he said on camera at the opening of an anti-police brutality art exhibit called No Justice No Peace at downtown Oakland art gallery Pro Arts. "No Justice No Peace represents the young teenagers in this community who are releasing their anger through this medium."
Equipto knew Dream personally, as well, and remembered him for his honesty and authenticity. He wasn't driven by ego, he said, but his genuine personality and the respect he showed to others made people look to him as a leader.
"He didn't do it because he one day wanted to have a Dream Day or to be acknowledged to be one of the greatest artists of hip-hop history," Equipto said. "He did it out of the goodness of his heart and that's what makes Dream Day special. He wasn't trying to be a leader or trying to be a martyr. He didn't separate himself from the people or try to make himself seem like he was on a pedestal. He embodies what Bay Area hip-hop culture is and should be: It's a balance of the hustle and the struggle."
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