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More than a Sideshow: Getting Hyphy in the Bay Area

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In East Oakland, engines rev. People gather in the dozens, forming a wide circle. Cars are scattered throughout this circle, their doors propped open and people leaning out the doors and windows, or sitting on the hoods. Music plays loudly from the car’s speakers, heavy with bass. It’s hyphy music, and people are dancing and singing along to the songs they know. In the center of this wide circle, amateur drivers demonstrate stunts in souped-up vehicles, twisting in donuts and riding on top and outside of their cars, an impressive—if not certainly dangerous—show of skill. This spectacle is a sideshow, a long-standing tradition that began in East Oakland. Sideshows remain a unique mode of cultural expression, and they often represent the ways predominantly Black & Brown communities in the East Bay fight for control over space and resistance to systemic oppression. Unfortunately, sideshows are greatly misunderstood and misrepresented.

Sideshows have been taking place in Oakland for decades, and though they are often portrayed negatively in the media, they are unique community gatherings and spaces for the disenfranchised of the East Bay to congregate. According to longtime local and hip-hop expert, Sean Kennedy, the origins of the sideshow go back to when there was a carnival at Foothill Square in East Oakland, which had a popular skating rink. In the parking lot of the skating rink, many people gathered to cruise in and look at classic cars, but “no one did doughnuts or spun their cars.” The gatherings were about showing off and admiring the cars, which individuals spent hours on, customizing and updating. “That,” Kennedy says, “was the original sideshow of East Oakland.” 

Initially, most of the cars you’d see were classics—Falcons, Mustangs and Cougars. People even shipped their cars in from other parts of the state and country to participate. Business at local garages boomed, and people brought their cars to places like A1 Springs Service, who still boasts the best suspension services in the Bay Area. Workers at the garages helped their customers make their cars “low and slow,” and they added features like hydraulics, speaker systems, and customized patterns and colors. These garages were places in which incredible mechanical skill was demonstrated, and more than that they also became

community hubs. Overtime, particularly as hip-hop emerged and arrived to the West Coast, sideshows changed from focusing on slow cruising to speed racing and fast tricks. Perceptions of the practice changed with these shifts, too.

Oakland was becoming a hub for hip-hop music and a new genre emerged called “hyphy,” which totally transformed East Bay culture. This new genre of music coming out of the East Bay made the music industry take West Coast rap seriously, and it became a national phenomenon. Hyphy music innovated hip-hop with creativity and vision, and it made the East Bay more visible to the rest of the world, allowing musicians and rappers to tell their own story rather than have the news tell it for them. East Oakland became known for this music and for the sideshows with tricked-out cars and their elaborate stunts, rather than just being known for statistics on crime and gang activity. Along with the music came dance, fashion, and new language. It was a cultural renaissance. At the same time, media narratives were growing that hip-hop was a violent genre devoid of cultural value, and there were many claims made that hip-hop brought violence into communities, rather than seeing the ways hip-hop demonstrated the resilience of people navigating harsh realities of economic despair and systemic racism. These narratives were similarly launched about sideshows.

Sideshows started to be viewed as a problem, and the people who participated in them were viewed as criminals. Certainly, there were incidents of violence and injury present at a number of sideshows, as there are few rules and regulations regarding how people participate in these gatherings. Missing from the media narrative of the incidents however was an understanding of the broader outside factors that led to the infrequent violent events. Both hyphy and the phenomenon of sideshows came out of a particular moment for East Oakland when its residents were really struggling. In the 1980’s, thousands of jobs in the city were lost, and people’s financial struggles increased greatly.

 Systemic racism and barriers to success prevented many Black and Latino East Oakland residents from achieving success and financial stability, and options were limited. The introduction of crack cocaine devastated communities. These wider issues are at the root of the East Bay’s struggles with drugs, gangs, and violence, not the presence of sideshows and the popularity of hip-hop. In a landscape of little opportunity to thrive, individuals turned toward other modes of support and community-making. The verynarrow media narratives erase the creativity and cultural value behind the world that these young kids made, in the face of harsh living conditions. They also erased the mechanical and artistic skill invested, and the unique vision that was forming.

Not only were sideshows places for people who had very few other places to go, they often reflected a direct resistance to police abuse of power. Following the murders of many Black and Latino individuals in the Bay Area, many people used sideshows as a way to reclaim space and take a stance against routine violence inflicted by law enforcement. Sideshows are illegal, and very visibly so. The spectacle itself became a kind of community pushback to unevenly enforced laws and to the control that police had over the streets and lives of the Black and Brown residents of the Bay Area. The spectacle of the sideshow has only grown more in recent years, with the presence of social media. Cars, more broadly, have often been interpreted as symbols of freedom and independence. This was no different with sideshows—people were expressing their individuality and self-determination through their cars. According to Sean Kennedy, people saw cars “as an extension of their self”.

In the early 2000s, many anti-sideshow laws were passed including one that would allow law enforcement to arrest spectators, and one that would allow them to impound any car suspected to be involved at any point. The latter law in particular made this kind of enforcement very personal to Oakland’s residents—particularly when we think about how connected people are to their cars. Along with these laws, Oakland is transforming as rents soar higher and higher. Many cultural aspects of the city are in flux, as long-term residents find themselves unable to afford the cost of staying and are instead packing their bags. However, sideshows remain.

 Broadly, cars often play very significant roles within cultural practices, and they can take on a tremendous amount of symbolic importance for a place and the people that inhabit it. While we should certainly be weary of the dangerous activity that occurs occasionally at sideshows, we should also be weary of the simplistic and overly negative narratives that are promoted about them. In the future, I hope to see an Oakland that can address the city’s root issues while finding a safe way to sanction sideshows and regulate them further, always while appreciating their artistic integrity and contributions to Bay Area culture.

Submitted by Erin Reid 09/03/2020

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