The Rumpus Interview with Oakland Artist Ise Lyfe

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The recent controversy between Ise Lyfe and the white Oakland rapper V-Nasty using the N-word in her songs has sparked much debate in the Bay Area hip hop community. However, these types of issues are not new to Ise Lyfe [pronounced “Ice Life”], an Oakland hip hop artist, HBO Def Poet, playwright, and community educator.

Ise recently wrapped up a 6-week run of his play “Pistols and Prayers” packed with sold-out shows in Downtown Oakland. The play features Ise performing a series of poems, short stories, and vignettes about perceptions of race and the challenges of life in Oakland.

He often has a witty comparison or insight—observations that shift one’s perspective and reframe the debate in a humorous, but profound way. He incorporates a variety of voices into his descriptions of Oakland. Topics covered in the interview include Ise’s white grandmother using the N-word, could Michelle Obama rock an Afro?, hipsters gentrifying Oakland, and Ise’s reaction to the sentencing of BART police officer Johannes Mehserle who killed Oscar Grant.

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The Rumpus: In your book, your longest story is the autobiographical piece My grandmother died today. I was wondering if you could talk about the turning point in this story, where your white grandmother is afraid that your sisters going to the beach will make them tan and come back too black, and looking like the N-word.

Ise Lyfe: This is one of the heaviest pieces for me in the book. It’s the piece that draws up the most conversation. It’s the piece that no interviewer has been brave enough to ask me about, so I appreciate you for asking about it.

Putting the piece in a book to be interpreted and for people to read it and know that about me—even for me as an artist, a man who stands up and advocates for black folks, most people don’t know that my grandmother is white. This brings a whole ‘nother conversation in the realm, and all these other assumptions that come.

I had someone in the Q&A ask me after the play once, “So, would you say the catalyst for your disdain; the fuel for what keeps you going is this moment in the kitchen where your grandmother calls you a nigger?” What she was doing in asking her question is minimizing everything I was saying, and saying that I’m just hung up on some issue from when I was a kid.

And that’s the real vulnerability. Because that was asinine, but you’re putting yourself out there like that. As an author, you have to be selfless and understand that you’re writing something and understand that the reason you’re putting it out isn’t for people to think that you’re so cool, or be impressed with what a good writer you are, but it’s more so from the hope that someone will see what you’re writing and grow from it, and connect with it.

And it also brought a sense of closure to the piece. Those were the words I should’ve had with her. And that opportunity is gone, and I hope that people can read that and apply it to a variety of different types of situations and know that you gotta get that outta yourself, ‘coz 30,000 people have read that, but not the one person that needed to.

Rumpus: Do you think what she said was expressing a long-harbored feeling, or [was it] just something she said flippantly, and then later regretted?

Lyfe: And did she see me as a nigger? Historically, a nigger is a black person. She said, “They’re going to come back looking like little niggers.” My sisters are clearly brown-skinned, nappy-headed girls. They’re black. [Up until that point, did my grandmother] not see us as black children?

I’m black, but I’m not Black, though. Obama was elected by white people—hands down. If he was three shades blacker, his hair was a little coarser. Or, if he was that color, but claimed no white heritage, [would Obama have been elected?] We saw when his daughters went to Europe, and they had their hair in twists, and there was this big uproar about the representation of the first family.

Could his wife not have her hair permed to a T every time you see her? Could one day could she kinda rock a ‘lil afro? Would that be acceptable? No. Hell no.

That’s another thing that I think that my grandma, and people in general [subscribe to]. There’s the type of black people that we feel comfortable with, and then there’s Black people. If you go on university campuses, and if they’re tall, black, and strong, they better be on a basketball team or football team, or else, no one’s comfortable around them. They’re threatened by them. And that’s another layer on top of this story.

But this conversation that we’re having now and the one in my book is what I wish I had with my grandmother. [The question for white folks is] would I be able to fully embrace, fully love and be comfortable with my children if they were black? And I think that my grandmother, who probably feels like, “Shit, I got a black husband. I live in the ghetto in East Oakland—I’m not racist.” But clearly, look at what she said.

And remember in the story, my mother’s there. That’s a key piece. Her silence was a co-sign—that’s Dr. King. And she didn’t say anything. It was a great healing moment, to be honest about what our comfort levels are, and what they are not. That’s what I hope can come out of this.

Rumpus: What’s your reaction to the Johannes Mehserle verdict and sentencing? We talked on my radio show back in 2009, not long after the unarmed Oscar Grant was killed by the BART Police officer. I’ve read your Note from a County Courthouse that touches on this incident and listened to your song Hard in the Paint. But I was wondering what role do you think YouTube played in shedding light on this homicide?

Lyfe: YouTube cuts out the chicken shit. YouTube is like, do you care about this? There it is: bam.

People always see police brutality in inner-city communities, and just look at it. Stand around and watch it, but just feel powerless, like there’s nothing that we can do about this. But we don’t stand powerless around violence in general. Take the police officer out of the situation, and lets say Oscar Grant was on the platform and some kids his age got off BART and started swinging on him, beating him up. A riot would break out. People would get up and a fight would break out because people aren’t going to sit by and watch that.

But there’s this wall, like it’s a transparent iron curtain that falls when a police officer is doing anything that may not be in the best light. People don’t know how to engage it—not just physically engage it, but after the fact. Where do I go report this? Who do I go talk to this about? When this thing happened and it was on video tape, I think it forced everyone to react. However, when do you put the camera down, and come in front of it and act?

What stood out to me is that when Mehserle killed Oscar Grant, he was 27 and Oscar Grant was 23. What that tells me is that 10 years before, both of these kids were sitting in high school classrooms, in totally different communities. And how could the fate of both of these men be changed if they had institutional education around police brutality, gun violence, and—this would be hard to push, but white supremacy.

We hear “white supremacy,” and we hear “the Klan or Nazis.” No. It’s the idea that white people are better than everybody else.

I don’t think Mehserle pulled Oscar Grant off that train and thought, “I’m going to pull out my gun and kill you.” I think that to the average white person walking around anywhere, the average black man is a monster. They’re terrified of black people.

I’ve seen it in me. There’s nothing I think outright threatening about me, but I’ve seen my 160 pound stature terrify white people. Just my presence.

That’s what the whole “He reached in his pocket.” Or, “He raised his voice, or he flinched at me.” All of that is being terrified of black people. Because Mehserle’s only real contact with black people is in this job where you’re coming into contact with people in a hostile way all the time. And, when you come home, and you’re only 27 and a white kid from Napa, you’re playing video games like Grand Theft Auto. And you see rap videos, you hear the language that these kids are using, and you don’t understand it.

Rumpus: What do you think is the best way to address this disconnect? More diversity training, conflict resolution courses, to promote understanding between the many cultures in our communities?

Lyfe: It has to be an institutional conversation. Diversity shouldn’t always be we need to keep our numbers even. But it should be because in order for the world to be better, we need to be interacting with each other more.

On the flipside, let’s say that something happened and your parents couldn’t afford to pay for private school anymore, and your parents dropped your ass off at Castlemont, which is around the corner from Bishop O’Dowd [the private Catholic high school the interviewer attended in East Oakland]—literally, a 3-minute drive, but it’s a whole different reality. Those kids would try to eat you alive. Because they don’t understand you. They’d have all these assumptions about you. And that’s what’s dangerous, man. Because at some point we have to intersect.

Rumpus: The 2010 Census reports that a large percentage of African Americans have left Oakland between 2000 and 2010. When I was born in Oakland in 1984, the city was almost 50% African American. In 2000, the city was 36% black. These latest census results show that 33,000 black residents (25% of the total black population) left Oakland in the last decade, and that blacks now only make up 27% of Oakland’s population. Why you think this is happening?

Lyfe: I think it’s an interesting word choice they use, when they say 25% have left. No, no. 25% have been pushed out, gentrified, tricked out: “Did you know that your house is worth $200,000?” So some grandmother who bought her house for $40,000, goes, “Whoa, really? What could I do with that kind of cash?” And then takes $200,000 and moves to Antioch, and they come and demolish her home, build an apartment complex. And it’s worth $2 million, like that [Ise snaps his fingers].

I think that it also speaks to a lack of ownership and a lack of community within the black community. Everything can’t be for sale. There has to be some stuff, where we go “We won’t sell this, and this is important to us, and this is why.”

There’s also this very trampling, inconsiderate attitude of the new people that’re moving into Oakland, where Oakland’s for the taking. There’s this very inconsiderate “We’re here now”—this new, young white business energy in Oakland that’s really building on top of black people in Oakland. And they’re invited by and courted by former Mayor Jerry Brown, who’s now governor. He got that ball rolling.

In my opinion, former Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums was kinda like this statue that was in Oakland for 4 years, which allowed this system and this machine that had been built by Jerry Brown to be put in place. It’s not just a loss of black home ownership— [almost] all the black clubs in Oakland have been shut down. While now white club and business owners have been offered opportunities to apply for special permits where their businesses can be open until 4 o’clock in the morning.

The East Bay Express just printed an article about unjust raids, where they’re coming and checking for liquor licenses and cabaret licenses at 12:30 in the morning, when the clubs are packed—those few black establishments that’re left—with 10 police officers. When you bring 10 police officers to a black establishment, everyone’s leaving. We have a different relationship with the police.

Rumpus: Back to the black population in Oakland declining, I was wondering what’re your thoughts about white hipsters moving into the flats of Oakland? In Pistols and Prayers you ask, is having a white child the cue for these white couples to “leave their exhibition in the ghetto?”

Lyfe: I wonder, will we see white people raising their children in Oakland? The defining issue on that’s gonna be: What’s the black number in West Oakland for me, if I’m going to raise my kids here? Even though Oakland is getting white, there ain’t a rise in white kids in the schools. In fact, where the fuck are these kids going to school at?

These kids’re living in West Oakland. They’re not going to these black schools. Have you even set foot in Cole Middle School to know that it’s terrifying? So what do you do? You do what my mom did. She got a fake address so that I could go to Skyline. Or you’re putting your kids in private school.

There has to be a desire and an organized front of black people who care about staying in Oakland—not to box other people out, but to build and continue our legacy in Oakland. What happens when there’s this huge exodus? Where they’re going to is: Antioch, Pittsburgh, Modesto, coffins, the penitentiary, and hospitals.

There was white flight in the 1950s and 1960s when white people moved out of Oakland, running away from black home ownership, and they moved to the suburbs. But now their grandchildren are coming back, and now they don’t give a fuck about black and brown folk in Oakland—particularly black folks in Oakland.

And we’re not equipped. Our vote doesn’t matter as much. We definitely don’t have businesses that we patronize as much. So we’re not equipped to keep a stronghold in Oakland, and I hope it’s something we can all rise to the occasion to.

Rumpus: However, many in the white community in Oakland see Jerry Brown’s projects as revitalizing Oakland’s downtown.

Lyfe: The Uptown?

Rumpus: Yes, the Uptown, and the restoration of the Fox Theater.

Lyfe: The Fox Theater, dead-smack in the middle of Oakland, ten blocks from West Oakland, brings no artists to that theater that anyone black gives a fuck about: Girl Talk, Modest Mouse. How do you do that? Can I go out to Napa and open a fuckin’ hyphy joint? So how do you come to Oakland… it’s ridiculous. It’s so crazy.

Personally, I’m opening an art bar on 14th and Broadway, and I’m doing what I can to represent. And not represent in a way where “this is only for black people,” but anyone can come in and experience a black culture experience in Oakland, from a black perspective.

Ise Lyfe will be touring universities across the U.S. this fall performing Pistols and Prayers and Is Everybody Stupid? For more about Ise, see http://www.iselyfeonline.com/.


Matt Werner interned and volunteered at McSweeney’s Publishing for five years. He currently works as a technical writer at Google. His interviews and DJ mixes can be found at mattswriting.com. More from this author →