Oakland group, Red Bull support Black muralists, businesses
By Lou Fancher
Oakland has a new brew. The recipe? Kick-start the concoction with corporate clout and marketing muscle courtesy of Red Bull. Lift spirits and energy with the sparkplug-like upbeat timbre of a partnership with the Oakland-based Black Joy Parade that bills itself as a “hyper-positive nonprofit” supporting Black history, community and culture.
Next, infuse the creation with economic significance and bite by collaborating with primarily Black-owned downtown Oakland restaurants and bars that have been hit hard by sporadic shutdowns during the coronavirus pandemic. Finally, elevate and boost the initiative’s relevance, urgency, visibility and aesthetics by naming it Artist Lift Off and centering the optics on Oakland artists whose murals painted on downtown walls and windows during 2020’s protests declared that Black Lives Matter, Black joy is real and that rich Black history and culture are to be celebrated.
Black Joy Parade founder and CEO Elisha Greenwell says concern that the murals created to express the BLM movement’s mission and power would be taken down and never seen again was the inspiration for joining with Red Bull to produce Artist Lift Off. After raising funds to commission six artists, their art was recreated digitally and issued as limited-edition prints and tote bags and, in some cases, custom-painted for participating businesses on Red Bull coolers.
“It was a shame to me that all of this incredible, meaningful, iconic art would be temporary,” says Greenwell. “Artist Lift Off was developed to preserve this work by giving it homes that would last longer, reach more people and at the same time value the art and the artists by compensating them for their work via commission.”
Although due to the pandemic there can be no actual Black Joy Parade this year, Greenwell is often asked how the inaugural event in 2018 managed to draw more than 14,000 people, the majority of them Black, to Oakland’s downtown streets.
“I had never produced anything larger than a birthday party with 30 people,” she admits, laughing. “They came because everybody could access it. It was about a future all of us can believe in. We can all find ourselves; artists, business owners, activists, historians; even someone just looking for a path in life can imagine a world in which people are joyful. Every Black person found reason to come, to be loved, to celebrate.”
Greenwell says ultimately, a parade is about energy and movement. She is excited this year by partnerships such as Artist Lift Off and a new online “marketplace” that introduces and already supports the businesses of 30 Black-owned vendors. These and other initiatives expand and move the nonprofit’s impact beyond one-off events.
“We love Black art, yet we don’t purchase it at the same value and same rates as we purchase White artists’ art. Black artists contribute to our lives, they represent our feelings, they offer something relatable. What ways can we partner with artists so their lifestyles are more sustainable on their own?” asks Greenwell, who says small businesses are “up against a corporate machine” and face similar challenges. “They’re asked to pivot so many times, especially during COVID, so running a successful business with a stable foundation and growing it— we haven’t entirely figured that out.”
Halftime Sports Bar owner James Dailey witnessed the 2020 protests firsthand.
“They went right by my establishment. I loved to see the harmony of people Black, White, Brown and others. It was about people who live here in Oakland. We saw people in unity with one another. It definitely made me feel good.”
Dailey says respect for artists and their creativity led him to participate in Artist Lift Off, but Halftime also has actual need.
“I want poets, rap artists, graffiti artists, musicians who go hand-in-hand with Black-owned cafes and bars in good times to go with us now. One hand washes the other: we need them to come in and spend money to support what we do. If small businesses go away, they won’t have a place to display their talents.”
Before the pandemic, business was strong at Halftime, and support for local artists was consistent.
“We had a cultural partaking with so many different people; that was love demonstrated. During COVID, I’m not finding joy. The concern is we’ll have to close. Takeout doesn’t meet what we need, although it helps.”
One way Dailey and other people might find joy in Oakland is to scout out artist Rachel Wolfe-Goldsmith’s commanding mural “Our Movement,” painted with obvious expert craft by the artist with singular vision depicting a Black woman dancer. The seven portraits, set off on the warm, red brick building by a green-hued swish of color, follow a progression of not only physical movements but transition in fashion and hairstyle to tell a story.
“You see African tribal dance, hip hop, krumping and threads that connect African diaspora dance forms,” says Wolfe-Goldsmith. “The clothing transitions in the center when she has one tribal hoop earring and one with modern styling. Necklace chains turn into beadwork, and sneakers become bare feet, but her hair is consistent throughout. The braids add movement, and during the sequence they begin to whip around.”
Asked about Black joy, she says creating art, connecting to one’s Black roots, joining movements to deconstruct White supremacy and support the liberation of oppressed BIPOC (Black, Indigenuous and People of Color) throughout the world, sharing resources and knowledge to celebrate Black history and culture and similar activities nourish and empower her life and career. With unwavering optimism, Wolfe-Goldsmith says the next mural she’d like to paint would address homelessness and be located in a prominent position where “people who make decisions about public policy and housing every day” are sure to see it.