I was raised in Oakland by my grandparents at East 23rd and Fruitvale. It was a diverse community made up of families with Asian, Black, and Mexican heritage. We had a great rapport. Our bonds were real and we watched out for one another.
I was educated in Oakland Catholic and public schools. I played basketball in local parks and ran track. I hung out at Eastmont Mall back when it still had big-name retail outlets.
On warm weekend nights, we went to sideshows. These were events that bloomed without planning or organization. Crowds organically gathered to check out souped-up, old-school muscle cars and watch them pull donuts in empty parking lots.
We’d just drive. We had nowhere to be and were content to spend the night playing music and bouncing from spot to spot. Gas was cheap. If your friends chipped in $5, you could cruise all night. The streets were awash with cars and ambling crowds. It was such a great vibe.
I also loved the Festival at the Lake. It was pure Oakland and represented the Town’s diversity. Black and Brown families gathered, ate, and socialized. It was just so beautiful.
I’m so grateful I got to experience Oakland in a different kind of way. When I was growing up, social life in The Town was more organic and accessible. People could afford to live here. These are the facts of my life that I love.
However, I was into fashion, and people told me I needed to leave to achieve my dreams, and so I did. First I went to Charlotte, NC to attend HCBU and then followed my cousin to Baton Rouge and attended Southern University.
I came back home when my brother was murdered a couple of blocks from my grandparents’ home. His death is a familiar story. Here, if you’re in a room full of Black and Brown kids, and you ask how many have experienced violence or lost someone, lots of hands will go up. So my brother’s death wasn’t a time to feel sorry for myself. I didn’t want violence to be the story I told the world about Oakland.
So, after a short stint in Chicago, I decided to come back home and make things happen here. I started a fashion accessory brand called Head Bangers with some friends. We vibed and created something special.
Our accessories were so bold you needed some confidence to wear them. It blew up and started a trend people called the Bang Movement. I learned entrepreneurship, got my nickname Shayla Bang, and proved that you don’t need to leave Oakland to create something incredible.
I also started organizing parties because the organic social life I loved growing up in Oakland no longer existed. Gentrification was happening and community life was changing alongside it. So my friends and I started hosting backyard BBQs.
Folks brought their own bottles, good music was played, and tables of food were laid out. The vibe was warm, casual, and peaceful. If you got tipsy you could just lay down until you felt better. You needed to know us personally to get an invite, but word quickly got around and the parties started to get bigger.
It was great, but in time, but I started to feel the urge to expand my horizons once again and decided to move to Atlanta and pursue a career doing professional make-up for films. My friends threw me the most amazing going away party. It was such a great bash.
However, during the party, I found out that my mother had committed suicide. I blacked out, collapsed and my good friends surrounded me with love. I don’t like people to see me sad, so I rallied, kept a smile on my face, and made it through the night.
I thought I could heal from my mother’s death quickly like I did with my brother, that I could keep functioning, move to Atlanta and leave death behind me. However, a couple of weeks later I realized this was going to be harder than I expected. I couldn’t get out of bed, didn’t want to get dressed, and often started crying for no reason.
I was depressed and homesick and decided it was time to go home for good.
It occurred to me during those dark days, that I came from one of the dopest cities in the world, and that I needed to stop running away. I felt I had a responsibility to create something beautiful in Oakland.
The organic social life I enjoyed growing up was evaporating because many of the things that made Oakland’s Black and Brown communities feel comfortable made newcomers feel uncomfortable. I realized that Black and Brown people needed a space to unapologetically celebrate in their own way and that I had the influence needed to create it.
When I returned from Atlanta, my friends threw me a massive welcome back party. I was standing on the stage, a little tipsy, looking over a crowd of 800 people, and thought to myself “wow all these people showed up for me.” I was in awe. It was a confirmation of my influence and of what I meant to Oakland.
I thought to myself “I am so Oakland” and the next morning SoOakland was born. Out of the gate, I wanted SoOakland to go deep and start a movement. I knew that a little liquor and good music could get people to pay attention to important things.
My goal was to challenge negative stereotypes and to expose the beautiful things going on in Black and Brown Oakland. I wanted to organize events that would help us trust each other, and feel safe around each other. I wanted people to come to events with large groups of Black people without feeling afraid of violence.
A short time later, we hosted our first event at the Revolution Cafe, chosen because it was the original meeting place of the Black Panthers. SoOakland supports Black and Brown businesses by inviting vendors to our events. We use our parties to solicit donations for homeless people and to get out the vote. We call it “partying with a purpose.”
Building SoOakland wasn’t easy. I worked my ass off to develop a good rapport with the police because they had trust issues with events that catered to urban communities. SoOakland now hosts several yearly festivals with no issues. The atmosphere at our events is always laid back, casual and welcoming.
In 2016, the Oakland Mayor presented me with a proclamation, officially designating July 30th as SoOakland Day. Since then, we’ve hosted three SoOakland festivals, each one bigger and more wonderful than the last. The final festival before the pandemic hit had 9,000 people in attendance.
I rested during COVID but also raised $300,000 and founded a foundation that helps Black and Brown-owned businesses impacted by the pandemic or vandalized during the George Floyd protests. I’ve received amazing support from large institutions like The Warriors and Target.
Today I am taking SoOakland on the road with the goal of showcasing the Bay Area’s culture, music, and food in other American cities. I want people to know the incredible and positive impact Oakland has had on American culture.
In the end, the thing I love most about Oakland is my people. I just adore their uniqueness and individuality. In Oakland, we are just ourselves. We don’t put up with shit. When racist things happen we just do not play. Black, brown, or white we all come together, and that is what makes The Town one of the best places on earth.
Shayla is an entrepreneur, trendsetter and the founder of SoOakland, an event business with a social mission.
In 2016, the Oakland Mayor designated July 30th as SoOakland Day her achievements in getting The Town “partying with a purpose.”
SoOakland hosts community events that celebrate Oakland’s culture, foster community service, and create safe spaces for the Black and Brown communities to gather and unapologetically celebrate in their own way.
Photos by Brandon Ruffin.
Oakland is diverse and Oakland is proud. 'We Are Oaklandish' is a storytelling project created to highlight just that.
These are stories that shed light on the different experiences, memories, and opinions of the people in the city we all love. They are people who give our city its oddball spirit, its passion for justice, and its creative vigor. They lift us up with laughter, peace, nourishment, and authentic hard work.
They make us proud to call this town our home. They are Oaklandish.
Read more: We Are Oaklandish