At the end of Homeless Oakland Heart, comes a plainly stated self-description from one of the members of the group producer Ian Brennan has recorded under the name Oakland Homeless Heart Collective. “I am the one true God, the creator himself, the Lord,” he begins. “Oakland is where I created the human race.” Behind him, the roar of BART grows – the public transportation system that connects the region from SFO to the East Bay. That rush of wind is as ominous as it is comforting to any Bay Area local. It’s a sound of connection, of brief spurts of mobility, a part of the soundscape that marks you as not being too far from something you might call home.
Also a part of the Bay Area soundscape are the performers of the Oakland Homeless Heart Collective and their fellow displaced citizens. The homeless population often faces the steepest uphill struggles against legislative bodies. Sit-lie ordinances and tent city sweeps have long aimed to remove people without homes from sight, but fail to provide feasible solutions as to where they should go next. Also, the ever-increasing socioeconomic gap that continues to strain relations between Silicon Valley workers, landlords, and anyone unfortunate enough to fall outside those two groups, hits the homeless the hardest. But the homeless are still constantly dismissed and overlooked by everyone else – techies and townies alike.
Not so on Homeless Oakland Heart. Here, Oakland native Ian Brennan – a producer of many sounds from the Bay and far beyond, including Tinariwen and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, takes his expertise for amplifying the voices of the disenfranchised (at full force in his work on Zomba Prison Project and Tanzanian Albinism Collective) back home.
Across more than 20 short tracks, Homeless Oakland Heart captures the broken heart of the Bay straight from the mouths of some of those who have suffered the most at its feet. The spoken poem “Home Is Like a Heartache” makes for a melancholy opening track, capturing the gnarled connections between its author and the city he still calls home. “Not Going Back There” dwells on a more pressing concern with chants of “I’m not going back to prison” spoken over a simple metallic rhythm.
Sparsely accompanied or unaccompanied tracks are, by necessity, in the majority. Brennan instead indexes the environment through the recognizably urban background sounds and lets the lyrical delivery speak for itself. Some tracks are sung, like wistful “Mother in My Heart” and “Mr. Telephone Man (There’s Something Wrong With My Line)”, a breathless performance of the first few lines of New Edition’s single. “Money Honey” becomes less about love and more about necessity, while “Can’t Remember How I Became Homeless” tells the story of life almost fully spent without a reliable place to live.
Other tracks, filtered through electronics, take on a noise music quality, one that is becoming more and more iconic to the Bay Area’s economically oppressed and noise-inundated. “Misunderstood” is thoroughly garbled. “Food Not Drugs” starts with the line, “They think we want drugs, but we want food” and layers it with jarring octave shifts. “Sidewalk Cemetery” fades in and out, with a title evocative of those who die on the streets, whether quietly or at the hands of police and other assailants from whom they have no means of escape.
Each track resonates in its own way. The delicate acoustic guitar lines of “Water” drop as beautifully and with as much sheer emotion as any given Damien Jurado track. “Oaktown Homeless Crew” is a joyful, freestyled expression of solidarity. Perhaps the most moving sentiments, though, are the seemingly contradictory. The performers of “Born & Raised in Oakland” and “Berkeley Love” sing the praises of their titular cities, the same ones in which healthcare, housing, legislation, and economic policies have made life excruciatingly difficult.
Ian Brennan notes in his article introducing the album that he tried to explain the concept of American homelessness to a guard at Malawi’s Zomba Central Prison, only to be met with shock at the idea that any nation, much less the United States, would let its people go without shelter. In Oakland and the Bay Area, such is not only the case but openly so, persistently so, in ways that even local government continues to both allow and implicitly encourage with policies that neglect real needs. Homeless Oakland Heart does not provide a solution, but it stands in the face of the majority who try to pretend that systemic prejudice against their neighbors without homes is not their problem. Perhaps making these sonic connections will take us one step closer to the outcome the narrator of “I, the Creator” intends to happen at the end of his track: “Good wins. Evil dies.”