OMCA’s Park Jam swirls up eclectic celebration of hip-hop’s past and present

Sanni Shukla/Staff
Sanni Shukla / Staff

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Picnic blankets sprawled across the gardens at the Oakland Museum of California, or OMCA, on Saturday as the museum held its first Park Jam. Families and guests of all ages fluttered around the gardens, moving between the main stage, which showcased rappers, dancers and DJs throughout the day, and local vendors’ booths that dotted the edges of the garden, selling everything from homemade soaps to Black Lives Matter T-shirts.

The event was one of many held in conjunction with the museum’s “RESPECT: Hip-Hop Style & Wisdom” exhibition, which highlights the cultural and social impact of the genre over the course of the past half-century. Onstage, emcee Ryan Nicole made sure to pay homage to hip-hop’s rich past as she introduced the figures who make up its vibrant present incarnations. Above all, she expressed her delight at having seen hip-hop grow to the point where it could be showcased as a cultural phenomenon in a major museum. “When we would do field trips here in elementary school I never thought I would see hip-hop being played here,” she said.

The afternoon served as an introduction to hip-hop as well as a celebration of it. When dance collective Knuckle Neck Tribe took the stage, older fans gathered tightly around the stage to cheer. Meanwhile, some of the youngest audience members broke away from the main crowd to attempt to bust their own moves around the lawn.

Later in the afternoon, Nicole once again took the stage to give more context to the performances that had taken place throughout the day. She explained the idea of the cypher, the perfectly balanced circle of rappers and dancers, and its centrality to hip-hop culture. Hip-hop needs more women, she explained, in order to maintain its gender balance and to ensure that the cypher continues to exist. Between Nicole herself and the various performers, the Park Jam had quite a stable gender balance in its lineup.

The mellow energy of the afternoon fell apart completely when Nicole announced that the event’s headlining act, clipping., would soon take the stage. The event’s attendees — from the very youngest, who sat atop their parents shoulders now, to the elderly — closed in around the stage. Cheers erupted when Nicole introduced the band’s frontman, Daveed Diggs. “Everywhere he goes he represented the town in its full complexity,” Nicole said of him.

Diggs took a moment to smile and wave to the crowd before issuing a warning to the parents who stood with their young children. “You may expect me to do some Jefferson shit,” he said in reference to his character in the Broadway musical “Hamilton.” “And this is not that shit.” He invited families to leave if they expected to feel uncomfortable. No one moved.

Seeing clipping. in concert is a somewhat disconcerting experience, especially in broad daylight. Diggs delivers the band’s violent, morbid lyrics with classic showman’s flourishes and a wide smile on his face all the while. The industrial clamor of the individual songs is glued together with a jovial sense of humor that should seem out of place but by some miracle works perfectly. Meanwhile the band’s two producers, William Hutson and Jonathan Snipes, stand silently behind Diggs, fine-tuning noise into danceable rhythms.

The set also included the first-ever performance of “The Deep,” a song on Afrofuturism that the band wrote for NPR’s “This American Life.” The crowd laughed along with Diggs as he explained that he hadn’t quite learned the lyrics yet and would be reading them from his iPad. Two tempo changes later, by the end of the song, the crowd was grooving along to a track that had initially seemed unfamiliar to most.

Diggs paused later to give a taste of what older clipping. shows had been like. “It’s like the worst basement you’ve ever been in,” he said as the opening of “Wriggle” played out in the background. “Act accordingly.”

Initially the reactions to his request were mixed, with some, including the oldest audience members, doing what they could to thrash along to the song while others stood in awkward silence. After enough encouragement from Diggs, though, the entirety of the crowd began to, at the very least, bop along.

The afternoon ended with Diggs giving several shoutouts to Oakland, first by playing the Coup’s music and encouraging the crowd to see Boots Riley’s new film “Sorry to Bother You,” and then by very explicitly telling everyone to keep supporting local businesses. As the crowd dispersed back into the outer reaches of the garden and beyond, Nicole’s words from earlier in the afternoon began to feel true: “Never mind what you’ve been told about hip-hop,” she had said, “it is this, it is you, it is right now.”

Contact Sannidhi Shukla at [email protected]. Tweet her at @sannidhishukla.