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Oaklanders celebrate local talent at SwayFest

on October 23, 2019

Amidst pounding basslines, Oaklanders gathered downtown last Friday on the streets below Pandora’s Oakland headquarters to celebrate SwayFest. The event was held to commemorate the new partnership between SiriusXM, a satellite radio company, and Pandora, an automated music streaming service, and it was an opportunity for Sway Calloway, a musician, journalist, and radio host, to come back to his hometown.

The block party featured performances from Bay Area legends like percussionist and singer Sheila E. to rappers Mistah Fab, Kamaiyah and G-Eazy, performing a variety of Bay Area anthems that had those in the crowd singing their lungs out and rapping to every verse.

In February, SiriusXM acquired Pandora, creating the largest streaming music provider in the United States. The combination of both companies is meant to make their two business models work in tandem: SiriusXM currently only has subscription options, while Pandora has a free version of its service. In August, SiriusXM officials announced a new subscription-based package aimed at college students. At $4 per month, the package includes SiriusXM radio stations and personalized stations that are powered by Pandora. Other benefits, such as on-demand concerts, are included in the package.

Calloway has had a show on the SiriusXM platform since 2011, and as a result of the merger, has taken on additional responsibilities as the voice of additional channels and podcasts. He currently hosts a morning show on Eminem’s Shade 45 SiriusXM channel titled “Sway in the Morning” that airs Monday through Friday.

Calloway was born in Oakland, and began his career as a rapper and dancer. Following high school, Calloway formed a duo with DJ King Tech, eventually signing to Giant Records, leading to the release of their first album Concrete Jungle in 1990. Later, they would co-host their own radio show on San Francisco station KMEL. They released another album under their own record label called Bolo Entertainment, and then went on to obtain a record deal with Interscope Records to release their album This or That in 1999. 

Calloway has also worked with MTV, reporting on news in the hip-hop industry. After Calloway and King Tech moved to New York, Calloway’s appearance on MTV made their syndicated radio show, The Wake Up Show, more popular. In the mid 2000s, Calloway negotiated a contract that allowed him to bring his own projects to MTV, like high-profile interviews, such as with former president Barack Obama.

Calloway still works in New York City, where SiriusXM is headquartered. But, he said in a phone interview the day before SwayFest, “Recently I made a conscious decision to do more work in The Bay. I used to do a lot of foot-on-the-ground, toes-on-the ground community work in the 90s and in the early 2000s and as of late I try to come home and support as much as I can.”

“We’re facing a lot of challenges right now,” he continued, speaking of Oakland. “Losing a pro sports team. People being priced out of Oakland. All of these things are happening. How to we stay strong, how do you stay hopeful, how do you put the spotlight on the community?”

He also spoke about how he thinks that hip-hop will evolve as the digital market does, too. “I see hip-hop taking more control of its business, and it being more individualized in terms of how people run their business and run their brand and whatever they’re doing creatively,” he said.

Expanding on this, he noted that hip-hop is changing, as a new generation begins to fuel its development. “I think, sonically, it’s going to consistently continue to grow. People are going to push boundaries that’ll make you question, is that hip-hop or is that not? And I think that question is arbitrary,” he said. “If you’re dedicated, you’ll find artists that have substance and that have meaning who are pushing the culture forward through their art.”

In a press release for the event, Scott Greenstein, SiriusXM president and chief content officer wrote: “Sway Calloway has been an integral part of the rise of SiriusXM over the years. We want to celebrate Sway’s national accomplishments in Oakland, a place he has so much passion for, and which also serves as the home base of Pandora, which is now fully integrated with SiriusXM.”

Sway Calloway talking to the crowd at SwayFest 2019

At the festival, Calloway emceed and kept the festivities moving at an engaging pace. All of the artists had been chosen by him, and he noted that the event would highlight organizations that give back to the community. He said it hopefully would help his mission for the event to be a space of inspiration and celebration.

One of the organizations was the Choose College Education Foundation, which focuses on educating people about the importance of going to college. Their presentation was followed by an energetic dance performance by people enrolled in the program. The dancers moved to songs from various pop and hip-hop mixes, swapping members out when songs would change, or giving the older and more experienced dancers space to shine. Towards the end of the performance, almost 20 young adult performers were on the stage at once, sharing Intricate footwork and synchronization, and wearing matching black graphic t-shirts advertising the foundation.

“I think the point is to help bring people together. Show unity in the community,” said Jaylen Edmonds, an Oakland native who came with his brother to support up-and-coming rapper Rexx Life Raj from Berkeley. Edmonds also spoke about the significance of Calloway organizing the event. “I think they can take away that he cares a lot. He cares about the Oakland and the people here. It’s good that he came out and did this, because he didn’t have to,” said Edmonds.

“I’m very proud of Sway and everything he’s done with his career. He always represents Oakland really well,” said Shawn Granberry, the CEO of HipHopTV, just before the kickoff to the event. “He can use the power that he has as he speaks to millions every day to really rally around causes in Oakland. This could be a rallying point for them, for him to truly uplift the town that he’s from.”

As the scheduled performances began, Rexx Life Raj took the stage with a smooth and encouraging rap song, rapping over saxophone riffs and evoking a jazz influence. The second song found the rapper moving back and forth across the stage, occasionally stepping onto the speakers and motioning for the crowd to move their hands up and down as the melodic chorus exploded from the speakers on stage.

Oakland rapper Jwalt’s first performance took more inspiration from spoken word as he rapped without a backtrack, or instrumental. Staring at the audience, microphone in hand, Jwalt spoke about his pride for Oakland. Jwalt commanded attention from the crowd with his confident stage presence, his blue shirt with an Oakland graphic peaking out now and again from underneath his denim jacket a reminder of his roots.

Kamaiyah performing at SwayFest 2019

Established acts Kamaiyah and G-Eazy performed some of their top-charting songs, firing up the audience and giving entertaining performances even though they had short set times. The crowd couldn’t help but bounce to Kamaiyah’s hit “Fuck It Up,” a hype song about her rise to fame that pays homage to classic Bay Area melodies. G-Eazy performed both old hits and new material from his recently released Scary Nights EP. During his performance, G-Eazy jumped onto the speakers and barricades, allowing him to interact with those in the audience and sign a few things people had brought.

In the final minutes, the fans were treated to an electrifying performance by Mistah Fab, an Oakland rapper, producer, and entrepreneur who also has a history of being involved in the community through ventures like organizing annual Thanksgiving events and back-to-school giveaways for children. As the opening instrumental of his song “N.E.W. Oakland” began to play, people in the crowd rapped in unison with one another.

Towards the end of the performance, Calloway came out onto the stage and began to pass out black hats with “SwayFest” embroidered on the front. People cheered as Calloway thanked the performers, those on his team, and those in the crowd for coming.

“It felt like watching Kanye West’s Sunday Service, but with somebody local,” said attendee Grayson Givens, referring to the event West runs that is similar to a church service, but with a choir performing both gospel songs and gospel-inspired remixes of songs from various genres, with various celebrities like pop artist Katy Perry, artist Asap Rocky, and actor Brad Pitt making appearances.

Givens said he had come looking for inspiration and to be surrounded by good people. Throughout the performances, Givens rapped the lyrics back, never missing a step, with his phone in hand recording the memory.“I really enjoyed the performances I loved everything about it. The whole vibe felt like a family reunion. I really got that family spirit feel from it,” he said, unable to hold back a smile.

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