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Boots savors those times when his own neighborhood comes together and its sense of shared culture is apparent. "When it's sunny, we have block parties," he says in a later interview. "One dude has one CD of MP3s and one big speaker. That's his setup. It's a big crowd, pulsing and moving, not standing on the wall."
Such notions of community mean a lot to Boots. "My attachment to Oakland is not just in the land and the turf and the trees," he says. "It's in the people." In Boots' worldview, personal, family, community, and cultural identity are intrinsically linked; where you live is a big part of how you live. "There are plenty of people right here on this block who work at jobs they don't want to, just to support their family," he says. "A lot of these guys you see selling dope are doing it to support their family.
"We criminalize the act of young black folks standing on the corner," Boots says. "What do you think we were doing back in the day? I say that because some of these folks are older black folks who got caught up in the dialogue of 'What happened to our youth?'"
Overall, violent crime in West Oakland is down from a few years ago. Still, homicides are up this year, and there are occasions when residents don't feel safe. "A friend of mine just got killed three houses down; Tarus Jackson," Boots says. It was reported in some accounts that Jackson was a member of the group, but in fact he sold merchandise at some of its performances.
The murder's immediate aftermath cast a pall on the block. "People around here were shocked," Boots says. "For a little while after that, people weren't out on the street as much. It affected the sense of community." Yet with the weather getting warmer, the neighborhood's spirit appears to be on the rise.
The section of West Oakland that Boots calls home is a society in transition, from a predominantly African-American community to one that's much more integrated. Arab-immigrant-owned liquor stores stand opposite brand-new condominium complexes housing young, mostly white professionals. Proud Victorians with front and back lawns some well tended, some overgrown sit next to stucco apartments with chain-link fences. A storefront sign advertises "Beer Wine Lotto Liquor Groceries Deli." Kids walking home from school pass by alcoholics passed out on bus stop benches, their brown-paper-bag-wrapped tall cans in plain sight. Young mothers stroll by with babies on their shoulders. Pickup trucks with professional-grade aluminum ladders are parked on the streets next to shiny new SUVs and broken-down buckets. Laughter and music emanates from Esther's Orbit Room, an old-school watering hole already entertaining clientele at 3 p.m. There's a fair amount of urban blight, but also much evidence of greenery flowers, shrubs, trees. It is, in short, a neighborhood with a discernible sense of community, but one currently undergoing a transformation.
Boots' place is one of the nicer houses. A multistory Victorian owned by D'Wayne Wiggins of Tony Toni Tone fame, who plays guitar on one track of the new album, it boasts sizable lawnage, plenty of windows, and room for several children.
Boots says his block consists of black families who have lived there for decades and know all their neighbors, white bohemian types who reside in live-work lofts and tend to keep to themselves, and middle-class black artists who he says are always saying, "We gotta create a culture." This latter mentality, he believes, tends to reinforce the generation gap and a general mistrust of youth. To him it's just another form of elitism that ignores the indigenous urban culture in their midst.
To Boots, hyphy hip-hop, neighborhood block parties, and other examples of what he calls "sideshow culture" are all more positive than they've been portrayed by the media. "There is a media attack on youth culture," he claims. "Youth culture is demonized." At some level, he believes, there is "an underlying message of unity" behind all of these phenomena. What the young participants are really saying, he believes, is "we're gonna make our own enclave of culture."
Toward that end, he has faith in the power of street-level movements to help change the system. "On the album, I say, hustling and hyphy are eloping," he says. "If you combine the two, it gives you force to make change."
The need for change, he believes, stems from society's basic apathy about the social conditions that created hip-hop culture, compounded by attempts to co-opt and exploit that culture. "How do you get white kids to listen to hip-hop, but not relate to black people at all?" he wondered at the Stanford panel. "Because if you relate to the problems that black people have, you might start thinking about the system itself. The way to do it is to characterize this music as being less than up to par.
"Ten years from now, it's gonna be some white kids making music that sounds like Lil' Jon, and black folks will have moved on," he said. "But that music is gonna be what's called 'the intelligent music.'"
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