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Sights & Sounds of East Oakland: Sideshow memories

The sideshow is a car culture movement, born in Oakland, where people build up and engineer their cars and sound systems, then go out to display their work in the streets and parking lots. This sometimes includes a car performance aspect, showing off tricks like doing donuts, or dipping.
For the past year, KALW has focused in on East Oakland. We've hosted live community events, partnered with neighborhood journalists through the Oakland Voices program, and taken our collaborative journalism project 'Hey Area' there to answer your questions about East Oakland.

One area of East Oakland culture that's gotten a lot of interest has been the sideshow. Some people asked about the the origins of the sideshow are, and though we weren’t able to find a definitive answer, we did talk to someone who knows.

Oakland Voices graduate Damu Dailey met up with DJ D Sharp to talk about his memories  of the sideshow, and below he shares some of his own.

My grandmother drove a Cadillac, my father drove a Cadillac, and as a result so do I.

This is how my own personal sideshow story began. It’s also a story about growing up Black in Oakland.

Oakland being as far west as we could go, cars became our mobile form of expressing a newfound freedom. On the coast of the Pacific Ocean, there was more freedom from the overt racism of the Jim Crow south. People in communities of Oakland, including World War II and Korean War veterans fought for these types of freedoms (the freedom to go and come as we please in the manner we choose) when they returned from war. They worked in factories, docks, owned hair shops, worked at hospitals and schools to purchase their own showroom-level vehicles. They saved their money “on the side” for years, and worked on their cars at night and during the weekends, and out of this history was birthed the sideshow in Oakland.

People would gather in East Oakland and post by the locations on 81st Avenue and East 14th, and by the Lake, among others. The sons and daughters of those who migrated from the south in the 30s, 40s, and 50s were more free in their music, dress, politics, and of course in their vehicles. Cars reflect the society they serve and Oakland in the 70s and 80s was no exception. This is when the sideshow began to have a name recognizable on the streets.

From the black cars Huey P. Newton and the Black Panther Party drove, to the bright cars of legendary pimps and sex workers by San Pablo’s California Hotel, to Oakland politicians like Ron Dellums, to hall-of-fame athletes like Reggie Jackson and Ricky Henderson of the Oakland A’s. From musicians like Sheila E and her father Pete Escovedo to Too $hort, Tony! Toni! Toné!, and MC Hammer.

Siding: the act of driving by, standing by, or sitting in a stylish vehicle in a proud manner

Watching local stars drive by “siding” — for we could only see one side of the car, and that being all the show we needed to see sometimes to inspire moments we would memorize as kids for years.  

But as crack cocaine was dumped in Black communities across America in the early 80s — as detailed in Gary Webbs’ “Dark Alliance” book based on his investigative series in the San Jose Mercury News — this affected the urban communities, and as a result it affected the music we listened to. And so did it affect the cars people drove by siding in, and also the legality of the jobs some took to get there. The cars were brighter, flashier, and the music was louder, certain street people finally now had the money to outshine celebrity athletes, famous musicians, and politicians in Oakland they saw drive by and “side” on them with nicer rides for decades.

The sideshow was legendary from then on we would say — it was high competition on steroids.

The sideshow is an underground Oakland / American car classic. Like hip hop, it has roots that go deeper than what appears on your screens today. And yet, those who only know it in today’s terms will judge it only by what they see before their eyes on the news.

We’ve moved from delayed gratification to instant — thus the insta-gram, and the rush of the sideshow in instant pictures doing riskier tricks for the gram. But this is no different from the rest of the world we live in today, evident in people who now take death-defying selfies over skyscrapers and mountainous cliffs. The helicopter in the sky can be seen on the news giving chase to those who don't know any better. Those who don’t respect the history and the culture of displaying a well-crafted vehicle, these are the ones given the most time on local news whenever the sideshow is reported.

Because the sideshow until now has mostly been reported on by those outside of the culture of Oakland native communities, even getting people to speak on it has been difficult. People are wary of being portrayed incorrectly, or of their culture being misunderstood. So counterbalance in the media about people of color and their cars is needed. D Sharp being a married family man with two beautiful sons, a nice job with the Golden State Warriors, and a wonderful wife, and me being a reporter birthed from a family who expressed itself through the hard work they put into their cars in Oakland — this is the inspiration of the audio piece above, to tell the hidden truth, a story of how it began, the ethnomusicology of its songs, and its positive contribution to pop culture today.

Knowing its original history, like other things, is the only way to get back to the sideshow of honor and respect. Those are the rules, the ones my friends and family of Oakland know and love. We are survivors of the crack era. We are the remaining sideshow Warriors. Go Warriors!