Oakland group hosts local dance parties to raise awareness of youth unrest

Top Ten's promotional fliers for its two part event,

Top Ten's promotional fliers for its two part event, "London Calling: Stories from the Diaspora." Tonight, the series will wrap up with storytelling through music and dancing.

Today, Oakland’s New Parish club in Uptown will be hopping with music and dancing for part two of “London Calling: Stories from the Diaspora,” the latest event series produced by the Oakland-based community organization Top Ten Social. In the wake of recent riots in London this August, “London Calling” is meant to provoke community discussion about youth-led unrest both in London and Oakland.

The two-part event began Thursday at the Oakland School for the Arts, with a panel on socioeconomic similarities between urban areas of Europe and Oakland. Moderated by German novelist Victoria B. Robinson, the panel featured London native Darren Benjamin, also known as DJ Daz-I-Kue; the Director of the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency, Fred Blackwell; and Greg Hodge, the former president of the Oakland school board.

Eric Arnold, Top Ten Social’s PR consultant and a contributing editor and photojournalist for Oakland Local, said he believes art and song about shared challenges, such as the impact of the global recession, can be transformative. “Through this event, we’re not only relating to our own community, but we’re also becoming aware of a global community that’s facing some of the same issues that we’re facing,” he said. “And what’s a better way to do that than through arts, songs, and storytelling?”

The idea for “London Calling” began in the kitchen of Michael Orange, the creative director of Top Ten Social, which organizes community events that fuse education with artistic expression. Orange said he learned details about the riots from a friend. After the fatal shooting of 29 year old Mark Duggan in Tottenham, England on August 4, 2011, young people exploded into a spree of rioting, looting, vandalism and arson, which spread rapidly over the course of the week to different cities throughout the country. Five people died, at least 16 others were injured and approximately 3,100 people were arrested.  

As London’s government officials tried to answer “Why?” reports emerged that Duggan’s death was being characterized as the last straw for young people dissatisfied with the government’s budget cuts of social programs, “which hit the country’s poor especially hard,” as a New York Times article put it, “especially large numbers of minority youth.”

After researching the riots, Orange said he came to believe Oakland and London had similar urban problems, such as tension between police and people living in low-income urban neighborhoods. He decided to produce an event connecting troubles in Oakland, including government cutbacks of youth programs, with those of other urban cities, in England as well as Germany.

James Orange (top left corner) stands with his wife Satia and other Top Ten Social founders at the organization's Annual Gala in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1967

Top Ten Social was founded in 1966 in Milwaukee by Orange’s father, James, and a group of his friends. The ten founders noticed a dissatisfaction with the lack of social services in their neighborhoods, Orange said, especially among young black men, and they decided to build an organization which would “connect the social arm to the civic arm.”

The younger Orange has continued the tradition in Oakland. Past speakers for Top Ten Social events have included Mayor Jean Quan, CEDA Deputy Director of Economic Development and Redevelopment Gregory Hunter, and BART Chief of Police Kenton Rainey. Last year, in response to the earthquake in Haiti, they hosted the first relief benefit in the Bay Area, which raised $16,000.

Among the storytellers tonight are artists such as Darren Benjamin, who performs as DJ Daz-I-Kue. Two weeks after watching the riots on television from his home in Oakland, Benjamin returned to London to check in with his family. “It was quite astonishing to see London on fire,” he said.

“It wasn’t as straight forward as the media was portraying it, of youth going wild and being greedy,” he added. “It was more complicated than that.”

Benjamin said he thought the London riots could be attributed in large part to the government cutbacks of social services, especially youth programs. “Tensions were building. There was a big disconnect between the people in power and the community,” said Bejamin, who witnessed the 1995 riots in Brixton, England, in which several hundred looters and rioters took to the streets amid mounting racial and ethnic tension. “It was like a pressure cooker environment,” he said, “and the top was finally blown off.”

Like other Top Ten Social events, the arts play an important role in ”London Calling.” For Benjamin, being a DJ means more than just playing music that pushes people to dance. “For me as a music maker, I think it’s a duty and service to provide them with information” about political issues they should know about, he said. Tonight Benjamin will remix songs he grew up listening to as a teenager in London with tunes from Oakland.

“Borders are not born for us,” Orange said. “There’s got to be a bond. We need to share our stories with each other.”

Part two of “London Calling: Stories from the Diaspora” will be held tonight from 9pm – 2am at The New Parish club in Uptown. Presale tickets are for sale for $5 at www.bit.ly/oakstories. To learn more about Top Ten Social events, go to www.toptensocial.com

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