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Mandela Arts Center's Hiphop Lyricism Sessions

Robert Gaines, 16, and Amber Walker, 20, are poised in front of microphones, recording flows over beats Gaines created on a video-game system. A few feet away, Rashidi Omari Byrd, 26, of the hiphop crew Company of Prophets, has manned at the sound system and is busy with the specifics of recording.

We are the middle of Mandela Arts Center's Hiphop Lyricism session at the Youth Empowerment Center, a space for youth aged 14 to 22 years old to drop in and rap about their passions, in the form of poetry, spoken word, singing and rap.

Mandela Arts Center was opened by youth and youth adults with the mission of reclaiming hiphop as a culture promoting knowledge, unity, community, social justice, respect and love.

These sessions have been going on under the direction of Byrd since September of last year. Every Wednesday from 5:30 pm to 7:30 pm, youth have been gathering to write and share thoughts about issues like capitalism, sexism, racism and heteroxism.

Byrd sometimes offers up writing exercises, or what he terms "brainstorms," for the youth, who mostly decide how they want to express themselves. Byrd offers guidance and knowledge gleaned from over ten years of lyric writing.

Byrd has been involved in performing since he was young, first as a dancer, then as a part of the rap group Identified in high school. For the past five years, heís been a part of Oakland-based Company of Prophets, in which he both raps and performs spoken word.

"Itís free form. You donít have to be on a rhythm," says Byrd of why he likes spoken word as a creative medium. "You can make the rhythm up with the way the words are written."

Located in a large warehouse space that houses many different youth-based social justice organizations under the Youth Empowerment Center, Mandela Arts Space is dominated by large murals created by youth and speaking to different issues in the community. One, entitled "Companeros Horning Revolutionary Cultural Workers," features a community of female activists and cultural workers including such Bay Area role models Yuri Kochiyama, Aya de Leon and Betita Martinez. Another, entitled "Seventh Street Story: A History and Vision of West Oakland," depicts the story of one familyís experience in West Oakland.

Both Walker and Gainesís lyrics deal directly with their experience growing up in West Oakland. Today, Gaines and Walker are practicing and recording for a CD project they came up with, titled Raparations. The atmosphere is laid back and friendly, with performance tips traded back and forth among the youth. Byrd's tips range from how close to the microphone a performer should be to pronunciation exercises.

The youth have been Gaines and Walker have also been involved with producing a hiphop benefit performance on December 21st, soliciting performances from their mentors as well as organizing a poetry slam, B-boy and B-girl battle, DJ battle and MC battle.

The proceeds of the show will be used to provide a free community dinner for those in the area who do not have enough to eat during the holidays. Mandela Arts Center also hosts other drop-in art sessions for youth, including mural painting, DJ skills, video production, breakdancing and hiphop dancing.

Mandela Arts Center's Hiphop Lyricism Sessions
Youth Empowerment Center
1357A 5th St., Oakland, 510.451.5466 x 316
Every Wednesday @ 5:30 pm - 7:30 pm
free, ages 14-22 years old

The UniverSOUL Food Show
Youth Empowerment Center
1357A 5th St., Oakland, 510.451.5466 x 316
Saturday, December 21 @ 5 pm - 9 pm
$5 pre-sale, $10 at door, all ages

The UniverSOUL Feast
Jubilee West
1485 8th St. @ Chester, Oakland, 510.465.4346
Monday, December 23 @ 5 pm - 7 pm