It looks like some dude’s apartment: ratty old couches pushed against the wall, big-screen TV in the corner, with a bunch of guys lounging around, languidly nodding their heads to the beats pumping out a pair of nearby speakers. All that’s missing are empty beer bottles, a bong and a pile of unwashed clothes. If it weren’t for the giant Police Activities League mural overhead, it’d be easy to mistake this as a scene from any average college-age slacker’s Friday night.
But it’s not. For one thing, no slacker would choose to spend the weekend in school. A defunct school, yes, but a school nonetheless. And these two-dozen or so young adults aren’t just hanging out and vegetating. They’re working — working to preserve a culture that’s been commodified almost beyond recognition. As hip-hop has grown into the dominant global phenomenon of the last quarter-century, influencing everything from fashion to the way soft drinks are marketed, many feel the trade-off has been the artistry that made it so vital in the first place. What’s happening here, in a building on the grounds of the former Oxnard high, is a group of kids are reclaiming a bit of that artistry for themselves.
“I’ve been into hip-hop since back in the day. I just love it,” says Victor Granados, a 24-year-old Ventura break dancer who’s been coming to this as-yet-unnamed weekly gathering since it began two months ago. “It’s all about expressing yourself, whether lyrically, with your body, with scratching — it has everything you could possibly do.”
Self-expression is the mission statement behind this meeting of minds, bodies and microphones and, for organizer Kingsley Mannasa, 22, hip-hop is only part of the equation. Wearing a low-slung brown cap with a thicket of dreadlocks tucked underneath, a goatee extending inches away from his chin, Mannasa is one of the self-described “elderly cats” of the homegrown hip-hop community. He began rhyming in elementary school and hasn’t stopped, performing anywhere and everywhere, either solo or with his crew, Epsilon Project. When he stepped to the turntables for an impromptu DJ set earlier in the night, however, his selections ran the gamut from pre-rap building blocks, such as Curtis Mayfield and the Meters to Bitches Brew-era Miles Davis. For him, hip-hop was a gateway to an entire world of sound and he hopes this event — which he refers to as a “workshop” — ultimately comes to serve the same purpose for the younger attendees.
“It’s something for the community that I feel Oxnard never really had, for artists to express themselves regardless of where they come from or whatever genres of music they’re into,” Mannasa says in a husky, rhythmic baritone. “Since I’m a hip-hop artist, I guess people can feel that I gear it more toward the hip-hop field, but my mind is open to all kinds of stuff.”
At this point, though, the focus is decidedly on the fabled Four Elements of Hip-Hop: rapping, deejaying, break dancing and graffiti writing. Unlike similarly-minded get-togethers that have come and gone in the past, Manassa wants to keep his as loose and spontaneous as possible, allowing space on the agenda for people to show up and do their thing no matter if they’re scheduled to be there or not. And unlike those previous events, this one has the approval of local law enforcement. Mannasa has worked for the Oxnard branch of the California Police Activities League for six years, so it didn’t take much persuasion to convince the director of the program to let him take over their game room every Friday — despite rap’s mainstream reputation for violence. “He knows I don’t promote the negative, that’s why he gave me the OK,” Mannasa says.
Now in its eighth week, the workshop is steadily gaining momentum, attracting a consistent core of participants from around the county through word of mouth and Mannasa’s contagious enthusiasm alone. “He’s like a philosopher,” Granados says. “It’s like a religion to him. He’s always pushing it and pushing it.”
Although it’s still in its early stages, Mannasa says there are already artists with serious potential who’ve made this their home. Over the next few years, he believes the workshop could follow the path of collectives such as Project Blowed, which gradually expanded from its Los Angeles epicenter to gain renown in the underground hip-hop scene nationwide. Considering Oxnard has already spawned an artist the caliber of widely respected and uber-prolific rapper-producer Madlib, the idea isn’t so far-fetched.
“The ultimate vision is building the home, building the temple, building the place where heads know this is where the skills is at,” Mannasa says. “No fighting, no gunplay, no knives, none of that shit — just words, life, living, instruments, music, talking, getting to know one another. Build the family, y’know what I mean?”