It’s an East Oakland Thing

Youth UpRising helps Los Rakas and others get ahead in the industry.


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Raka Dun and Raka Rich.

Lori Eanes

On a recent afternoon at East Oakland’s Youth UpRising, a handful of teenagers and young adults were stretching their musical muscles in the airy facility. Past the spacious lobby and front desk, a row of soundproof recording rooms buzzed like a hive, each tricked out with a new Mac, keyboards, microphones, and acoustic wall treatments.

There was a sense of purpose and possibility in the air—and on the walls, where successful records were framed. Many long-term professional relationships have been formed here at Youth UpRising, a community center headquartered next to Castlemont High School on MacArthur Boulevard near 88th Avenue, which boasts multiple stages and dance spaces.

One such success story is the bilingual rap duo Los Rakas, which has parleyed its East Oakland roots from peddling mixtapes in front of Rasputin to signing with a major label in Miami, recording with childhood friends to collaborating with childhood idols, and performing in local dives to a gig at the White House.

The Panamanian-born cousins, Ricardo “Raka Rich” Betancourt, 28, and Abdul “Raka Dun” Dominguez, 27, with their signature “Panabay” sound and “flow californiano,” were signed 2½ years ago to Universal Latino. June’s major release Los Rakas saw them recording with Grammy-winning producer Sebastian Krys and featuring guest artists such as Reggae en Español star Kafu Banton, Latin pop singer Kat Dahlia, former Prince percussionist Sheila E, and Scoop De Ville.

And they’re not the only East Oakland rappers living the dream.

“Kamaiyah—she’s the most recent up-and-coming,” said Raka Rich. “She’s been doing her thing for a while, representing for the ladies.”

 

 

Summer saw Kamaiyah collaborating with Bay Area great E-40 as well as alongside Drake on a track produced by CT Beats. The 21-year-old East Oakland native grew up in foster homes surrounded only by brothers, fueling the bravado of her hit debut mixtape, A Good Night In the Ghetto. Five tracks were produced by CT Beats.

Another East Oakland native blessed with talent and focus, CT has overcome hurdles (including the name Clarence Thomas) to become an in-demand producer whose sound has what Vibe magazine praised as “the attitude and swagger of the West Coast’s signature gangster lean.” In a career move any musician could envy, CT has signed a songwriting deal with Warner/Chappell Music.

All these MCs and more owe their success not just to street smarts and rap battles, but also to business and recording mentorship gained in community youth centers— Youth UpRising chief among them.

“I was the director of multimedia arts at Youth UpRising in 2009,” said Joey Xanders, who today manages CT and rappers and singers from his ’hood, including Lala, Hi-Ke, Jae Laws, Reggio, and Crystal.

As Los Rakas ambled through Youth UpRising for a photo shoot, the two members reminisced about their early days there. Pointing to a photo of a girl dancing on the outdoor stage, Raka Rich noted that the open mics and dance battles were a vital part of the East Oakland music community. The duo didn’t discount how much of a boost it got at Youth UpRising.

“We were the ones who baptized it,” Raka Rich said. “I was part of BUMP records, which was a youth record label program. We started at Youth UpRising in 2005 and became a group in 2006. We learned everything we could from Youth UpRising. They had the videos, the studios, the resources that we needed to start with the music. In 2011, that’s when we became international. We put out a double disc—a mixtape and DVD so people can understand our flavor,” Raka Rich said.

On this quiet afternoon, two singers—Daja Cotton, 16, a Castlemont student, and Taylor Valentyne, 15, a Lighthouse Community Charter School student and Montclair resident—arrived to work with their mentor, Shakeea Smith. “I asked around, but there was really nothing like this in Montclair,” the soft-spoken Valentyne said.

As Cotton practiced a stunning ballad, Shakeea shook her head when Valentyne tried to harmonize, then sang the correct note herself with beautiful ease. She balances her musical dreams with study at Laney College and a National Guard job.

The youth programs have undeniably boosted many artists, but the socioeconomic struggle is also very real for those “Deep East” Oakland rappers who may never experience success beyond its borders.

“Ghetto out here is ghetto,” Raka Rich said. “In Oakland, it can get real Third World. But going back home to Panama, the economy is way different. It’s uglier. What’s ugly out here is paradise to us. Your hustle is a little different when you are [an immigrant].”

Published online on Oct. 20, 2016 at 8:00 a.m.

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