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Making Waves: 100 Artists Putting the East Bay on the Map

A master list of musicians, artists, writers, dancers, directors, actors, and poets shaping the culture, all from the East Bay.



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Boots Riley, with Jermaine Fowler and Terry Crews

Photo: Pamela Gentile/SFFILM

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Daveed Diggs with spoken-word artist Rafael Casal in Blindspotting

Photo: Ariel Nava/Lionsgate

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Nijla Mu'min

Photo: Courtesy of the artist

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Marcus Gardley in Black Odyssey

Photo: Devin Berne/Cal Shakes

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Sadie Barnette

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Work by Sita Kuratomi Bhaumik

Photo: Sana Javeri Kadri

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Work by Woody de Othello

Photo: Courtesy of the artist/Jessica Silverman Gallery

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Work by Marisha Farnsworth

Photo: Courtesy of the artist

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Tommy Orange

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Editor’s Note: This is one of many stories San Francisco is publishing over the next month as part of the June 2018 East Bay Issue. To read stories as they become available online, click here.

How We Built This List
Listen, we love Tom Hanks. And E-40. And Isabel Allende, Amy Tan, and Michael Chabon. But for this collection, we wanted to spotlight the next generation of East Bay stars. To do that, we turned to a team of experts and fellow culture junkies to source and curate this list: Susie Kantor and Lucía Sanromán (curators, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts), Larry Rinder (executive director, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive), René de Guzman (curator, Oakland Museum of California), Cherilyn Parsons (executive director, Bay Area Book Festival), Elizabeth Bernstein (S.F. Writers Grotto), Aaron Axelsen (music director, Alt-105), Eric Ting (artistic director, Cal Shakes), Michael Zwiebach (editor, Bay Area Classical Voice), and Noah Cowan, Caroline von Kühn, and Rachel Rosen (SFFilm).


1. G-Eazy
Hip-hop ambassador | Raised in Oakland
It’s late morning—shake-off-the-hangover time—and Gerald Earl Gillum is sprawled out on a couch inside the Hotel Zelos in SoMa, where he’s promoting his new partnership with whiskey company Stillhouse, talking about The Great Gatsby. As we’re sitting there, Gillum—G-Eazy to his legions of fans— has the top Billboard pop song (“Him & I,” a collaboration with girlfriend Halsey) and a top-20 album (The Beautiful & Damned) and is fresh off the first of two nights of sold-out homecoming shows at the Bill Graham and Oakland’s Fox Theater. But for an artist who has risen, improbably, from slinging homemade mixtapes as a 16-year-old on Telegraph Avenue to becoming the region’s biggest musical star since Green Day, he’s awfully focused on the things he doesn’t have. “I don’t have an ounce of complacency in my body,” he says. “There’s that perpetual unrest or craving or hunger for something that’s out there.” Like Gatsby, though, he has trouble describing exactly what that is.

“At times there’s this feeling of inadequacy or wondering if I’m good enough for what I want to achieve,” he explains. “Like feeling shy in the biggest of moments.”

G-Eazy, with his good looks and gold records and A-list friend group, remains torn on fame. The Beautiful & Damned, his third studio release following the surprise 2014 breakout These Things Happen and 2015’s When It’s Dark Out, is a double album, meant to symbolize the two sides of stardom: the glitz and glamour of celebrity and the psychic weight of having to measure up to expectations. “It’s a teetering balance,” he says. “I’m living on that edge.... People see you at the awards show and you’re dressed up as nice as you can look, cleaned all the way up. But who knows what happens the next morning?” On songs like “Sober,” he confronts that directly: Rather than an ode to nihilistic pill-popping debauchery (there’s plenty of that elsewhere on the album), it’s a morning-after lament. “Why do people do things that be bad for ’em? / Say we done with these things, then we ask for ’em.”

To be clear, it’s not all existential brooding for the Berkeley High–reared rapper. The Bill Graham show, where he was feted as a conquering hero returned home, was a symbolic full-circle moment for him. One of his first big shows was opening for Kid Cudi there; that night, he invited Bay Area rap legend E-40 onstage with him. This time around, he set aside interludes for East Bay MCs P-Lo and SOBxRBE. “Whatever my reach or profile has become, I want to use that to open doors behind me and shine a light on where I’m from,” he says.

He smiles, remembering that first show. At the time, he was renting a loft in the Bank of America building on Fifth and Market. He walked the few blocks to the concert. “I might take BART to the show today,” he says. A few hours later, he does. As if to underscore just how far he’s come, a photo posted online shows him clutching the train’s overhead handrail. Within hours, it has half a million likes.

2. Tune-Yards
Electro-art rockers | Oakland
Leave it to Oakland’s Merrill Garbus to make a white-guilt album that still goes hard. In her latest project as Tune-Yards (with partner Nate Brenner), I Can Feel You Creep into My Private Life, Garbus interrogates her own privilege and whiteness (check out “Colonizer”), yet retains her signature joyous energy. Garbus also teamed with Boots Riley this year to score the much-hyped Sundance hit Sorry to Bother You. As always, she remains reliably ahead of the curve.

3. Fantastic Negrito
Soul-steeped bluesman | Oakland
Since his star-making 2015 triumph in NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert Contest, Oakland troubadour Fantastic Negrito has carried the East Bay’s blues torch, writing trenchant songs set to deep-in-the-pocket grooves. With a 2017 Grammy for The Last Days of Oakland, he’s now a global blues prophet. The searing Please Don’t Be Dead, out this month, is a shot across the bow of our foundering ship of state.

4. Toro y Moi
Trendsetting producer | Berkeley
A multifariously creative songwriter, producer, and graphic artist, Berkeley’s Toro y Moi (Chaz Bear) is often pegged as a progenitor of chillwave, but he’s far from that easy to sum up. An expert at teasing surprising textures out of ostensibly familiar settings, he revels in odd juxtapositions. After years of playing hide-and-seek with his cryptic lyrics, he offered a sly peek at the sonic wizard behind the curtain on last summer’s stunner, Boo Boo.

5. Kehlani 
Baddest bitch | Oakland
Bouncing between L.A. and Oakland since becoming an emancipated minor, the 23-year-old major-label crooner saw her first album, SweetSexySavage, debut at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 last year. This year, she’s toured (and made out onstage) with Demi Lovato, guested on Cardi B’s Invasion of Privacy, and brought sexual nonconformity to hip-hop via a series of tweets explaining, in frank detail, why she identifies as queer.

6. Shannon Shaw
Vintage garage rocker | Oakland
Shaw, frontwoman for Oakland garage-punk act Shannon & the Clams, goes it alone this month: On her solo debut, Shannon in Nashville (out June 8), produced by the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, she’s less punk than usual. Still, the vintage sound on “Broke My Own” is every bit the earworm that Clams fans expect.

7. Russell E.L. Butler
Pulse-pounding DJ | Oakland
Butler’s amorphous dance music—a fixture of the inclusion-minded local techno circuit—nods to sci-fi, healing, and their (Butler’s preferred pronoun) Bermudan roots. The pulse and point of view of the 2017 four-song EP I’m Dropping Out of Life appear poised for international export.

8. Rayana Jay 
Confessional R&B riser | Richmond
With a gift for brutally honest lyrics about love, hate, sex, and everything in between, the 24-year-old singer seems destined for big things: Her 2016 debut, Sorry About Last Night, was a critical darling, and the follow-up Morning After proved it wasn’t a fluke. In March, her track “Everything” was featured on the TV series Atlanta.

9. Spellling
R&B on the avant-garde | Berkeley
The stirring, R&B-adjacent incantations of Tia Cabral’s 2017 self-released debut, Pantheon of Me, are the talk of the regional underground as well as voguish East Coast indie labels, forecasting a new moon for the Berkeley conjurer known, confoundingly, as SPELLLING.

10. Kamaiyah
Throwback swagger rapper | Born in Oakland
With vintage bravado and a crystalline cadence, Kamaiyah is a maverick rapper boasting co-signs from Drake and YG ahead of her major-label debut, Don’t Ever Get It Twisted. The artist whose breakout single asked how it’d feel to be rich is due to find out.

11. P-LO
Pinoy club banger | Pinole
As a producer with the late-aughts tastemakers HBK Gang, P-Lo architected the Bay Area’s rattling “post-hyphy” sound. On his second solo full-length, More Than Anything (2017), he emerged a coolly confident rapper in his own right, snaring an elastic verse from E-40 on the slapper “Put Me on Somethin’.”

12. Sjowgren
Superpowered popsters | Fremont
The out-of-nowhere success of the 2016 pop anthem “Seventeen” by Sjowgren (pronounced show-gren)—23 million plays on Spotify—seemed to take even the band by surprise, as it essentially went dark for a year following its initial three-track demo. But a steady stream of singles has been forthcoming lately, including the moodier “Now & Then,” suggesting that, at long last, a full-length release may be on the way.

13. Rexx Life Raj
Emo hip-hop star | Berkeley
The Berkeley hip-hop artist has Drake’s smoothness without the head-in-the-clouds narcissism. His latest release, last fall’s Father Figure 2, earned Raj (born Faraji Wright) mainstream recognition, including a spot on Marc E. Bassy’s recent tour, a portent of bigger collabs to come.

14. Lil B
Based rap progenitor | Oakland
Alternately thrilling and mystifying, Lil B was wise early on to the promotional value of meme-able stunts. (See: 1.6 million Twitter followers.) But on Black Ken, he emphasizes instead his creative breadth and vision, revealing the doting study of hip-hop that’s enabled him to shape its course.

15. Vverevvolf
Electro-pop monsters | Berkeley
Berkeley darkwave synth duo Vverevvolf—that’s Kelsey LaRae and Dylan Gallagher—cite as influences 1980s horror iconography, bubblegum pop, and shitty exes. Seems about right! The outfit’s extra-slick EP Electric Blue, released in February, sounds like Depeche Mode crossed with Grimes.

16. Still Woozy
Bedroom dream-pop maven | Oakland
Combining warm, acoustic pop with hard-edged electronic beats, Moraga-born Sven Gamsky has devised a sound he calls “wooz.” One listen to his Soundcloud page (starting with the excellent “Lucy”) clarifies the moniker—it’s the sonic equivalent of coming down off ’shrooms.

17. Kev Choice
Genre-blending jazzman | Oakland
Although he’s lived and performed all over the country, Choice’s soul is 100 percent Oakland. The multi-hyphenate pianist-producer-MC flows between hip-hop, jazz, classical, funk, and R&B both as a solo artist and as one of the most in-demand sidemen in the business. Case in point: He’s played SFJazz and composed for the Oakland Symphony, been Lauryn Hill’s bandleader, and performed with Too $hort.

18. Caleborate
Entrepreneurial rapper | Berkeley
An introspective lyricist with a sense for soul-inflected production and syrupy hooks, Caleborate (Caleb Parker) is influenced more by Bay Area hip-hop’s strident independence than by its classic sound. He now works with United Masters, a venture-capital-backed distribution startup that’s out to supplant traditional record labels.

19. Meklit
Ethiopian jazz siren | Oakland
A visionary both on and off the bandstand—she cofounded the Nile Project, a music-powered East African conservation NGO—Ethiopian-born vocalist, composer, and bandleader Meklit Hadero continues to expand on an infectiously grooving sound that embraces innovation by way of Addis Ababa Ethio-jazz, East Bay grease, and singer-songwriter self-interrogation.

20. Tiffany Austin
Classic jazz vocalist | Oakland
After her 2016 debut release Nothing but Soul earned rapturous reviews, Austin followed up with the even more impressive Unbroken. A meditation on African American resilience, the album is a soul-steeped affirmation that brings in blues, spirituals, and bebop. Whether caressing Dizzy Gillespie’s “Con Alma” or belting out the civil rights–era standard “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize,” Austin never sidelines her music’s freedom fight.

21. Club Chai
Global party-starters | Oakland
West Oakland DJs Esra Canogullari (aka 8ULENTINA) and Lara Sarkissian (FOOZOOL) founded dance party Club Chai as a vehicle for cultural exchange, prioritizing the work and dignity of queer and trans people of color. Since then, the project has grown into one of the area’s most transcultural—and hottest—events, period. Last year, techno tastemakers Boiler Room devoted a monthlong Oakland visit to documenting their scene.

22. Samuel Adams
Second-gen composer | Berkeley
The son of composer John Adams (Nixon in China, Girls of the Golden West), Samuel Adams, 32, has made his own name through his atmospheric, captivating compositions. In 2012, the San Francisco Symphony co-commissioned his piece Drift and Providence. Adams remains composer in residence at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, but recently returned home with wife Helen Kim (a violinist with the San Francisco Symphony).

23. Howard Wiley & Extra Nappy
Sensual hard bopper | Oakland
Every night is date night for tenor saxophonist Wiley, who puts the sex back in sax with his sensuously grooving, organ-powered hard-bop-meets-R&B combo Extra Nappy—beloved veterans of the Bay Area’s jazz club scene. Wiley embodies the continuity of black music in the East Bay while projecting the region’s soul via collaborations with East Coast improvisers. 

24. Diana Gameros
Folk music sin fronteras | Berkeley
If difficult times call for extraordinary voices, Berkeley singer-songwriter and guitarist Gameros is the woman for the hour. The Mexican-born trovista draws on her long experience without papers to explore the plight of border crossers of all stripes, bringing luminous humanity to a topic defined by searing heat rather than light. Her latest release, Arrullo (2017), is a beautifully textured acoustic session of Mexican folk songs and an artistic triumph for these ethnophobic times. 

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