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Black musicians rising from the East Bay underground

Maya Songbird is releasing new music this year.
Silence Demall
Maya Songbird is releasing new music this year.

From the extraterrestrial Sun Ra Arkestra to the bed of creativity fostered by Mills College, the East Bay has long been a bubbling cauldron of experimentation. The following artists all arose from similar roots in the Bay Area experimental music community, yet their sounds have taken unique and authentic turns leading to their current embodiment. Each of these artists deserves a brighter light but, for now, we recommend dimming the lights, sitting back with a beverage of your choice, and soaking in the sounds of these innovative Black musicians.

Zachary James Watkins

Zachary is one of the many talented musicians to emerge from the esteemed Mills College. He received an MFA in Electronic Music and Recording Media, studying with such luminaries as Chris Brown, Fred Frith, Alvin Curran, and Pauline Oliveros. With past releases compared to the electronic sounds of Mort Garson’s Plantasia, Zachary once modestly described his sound as just some “f*cked up dub”. We believe listeners will agree it is so much more. His 2024 album, Chatty Mandrill Volume III, was released in January on sixtyhurts records.

Maya Songbird

“You Should Be Dancing” is everything that Maya Songbird does so well. It’s an enticement and an order to get on the dance floor from this self-described “Castro Kid,” embodying much of the sultry passion and abandon of San Francisco’s queer disco era. Maya is one of the hardest working musicians in the Bay Area, in this writer’s opinion, which means that you will have plenty of opportunities to see this performer live. But don’t let that be an excuse to wait– you should be dancing–now. Blending lyrics of witchcraft, magic, and desire amidst pulsing synths and sweat, I’ve yet to see an audience resist Maya’s siren call to the dancefloor. Fans can look forward to new music from Maya Songbird this year.


The first time I saw Spellling perform was in a now-defunct Oakland basement venue known as The Hole to a crowd of twenty or so punks and weirdos sipping Pabst as floral smoke hung in the air. Most recently I saw a transformed musician taking the stage as a powerful band leader at the playful and immersive festival which she curated at Children’s Fairyland with the support of Sacred Bones Records and Atlas Obscura and included performances by the Sun Ra Arkestra, Naila Hunter, Larajji, and many more. This track is from her first release, Pantheon of Me, a self-released album that was later re-released by the quintessential Oakland underground, experimental label uplifting Black, Brown and Queer Artists, Ratskin Records.

Like what you hear? There’s more where this came from this Thursday, Feb.15 from 10 p.m. to midnight on KALW as DJ Maria Yates takes you on a deeper dive into the Oakland underground and the best of Bay Area Black musicians that should definitely be on your radar.