The novel coronavirus outbreak at San Quentin State Prison started at the end of May, when prison officials transferred inmates from another prison in Southern California but failed to thoroughly screen them for COVID-19 or quarantine those who showed symptoms. According to prison physicians, overcrowding hastened the virus’s proliferation. San Quentin’s is one of the largest outbreaks of COVID-19 anywhere in the country: 2,237 people have been infected, and 26 have died.
Blast Holiday, the Oakland rapper who’s incarcerated at San Quentin on a manslaughter and weapons conviction, is one of the prisoners who contracted the virus. “Most definitely they put us at risk,” Blast said in a recent interview with The Oaklandside, speaking from the 6-by-10 foot cell he shares with another man. “And we’re still locked down,” he continued. “No education, no programs, no pull-ups, no sitting and playing cards.”
Blast recovered from the virus. He also recently completed an album. No Hiding No Liar, due out in October, finds Blast building street panoramas above teardrop samples and keys in the mobb style of kindred realists the Jacka or Mozzy. He describes feelings of paranoia and camaraderie, bodies ravaged by addiction and abuse, and self-medicating to cope with trauma. Dense wordplay and knotted rhymes throw into relief the emotional contours of poverty and violence-stricken communities like the North Oakland flatlands where he grew up.
The album has a more reflective feel than much of the music Blast made in the years before his incarceration in 2012, but some things are the same, not least calling North Oakland “Ice City.” Blast, with local peers such as HD of Bearfaced and Mistah FAB, stylized their neighborhoods with hyperlocal lingo about “cold winters” in the “North Pole” of, say, Bushrod or Golden Gate. It was a madcap riff on the neighborhood’s relative coolness that arose during the hyphy era, in part, as a promotional tool: At the time, North Oakland hip-hop figures felt they were unfairly overlooked in favor of East and West Oakland artists. Police, however, criminalized these terms with the North Oakland gang injunction, alleging they referred to turf and feuds between gangs.
Blast, who asked us not to share his legal name because he fears complications when he’s released from prison next year, was one of 15 men subjected to the controversial 2010 court order, which severely restricted their right to move around their neighborhood and gather with each other. A “north pole” or “polar bear” tattoo, Oakland police argued at the time, was reason enough to stop someone on Shattuck Avenue and mark him as a gang member. The gang injunction drew protest and a civil rights lawsuit asserting that these men’s rights were violated by the police and Oakland City Attorney. Two years ago, a federal court deemed the tactic unconstitutional.
By repressing outspoken and conspicuous artists born and raised in North Oakland, the gang injunction advanced gentrification around Temescal. It stands as a vivid example of the direct role police play in rebranding and displacing poor, largely Black artists and other residents from neighborhoods marked for real-estate investment. This recent history adds a defiant dimension to Blast’s lines about Ice City, where his two children and other family members still live.
Blast spoke to The Oaklandside for an hour about the coronavirus outbreak in San Quentin, creating No Hiding No Liar from behind bars, and his anxieties and excitement about returning to North Oakland when he is released from prison next year. This interview has been edited for concision and clarity.
How did you learn about the source of the coronavirus outbreak in San Quentin?
We all learned together how it got here. You find little things out through inmates. Really, it was on TV we found out they allowed a bus to come in here with inmates from another prison that was heavily populated with the coronavirus. They signed off on them coming here anyway.
Did it seem to spread fast?
It was 20 people, then it was 50. Then they moved all of them into a secluded place, trying to quarantine them. Then the COs [corrections officers] working over there brought it over here.
Every day it was, “Man down! Man down!” Somebody screaming, trying to go to the hospital.
You just recovered from COVID-19 yourself. What was treatment like?
There really wasn’t a medical facility but that’s what they called it. I was there for 3 1/2 weeks. They treated us like we were on disciplinary, even though we were just sick, and told us we couldn’t have our own food or nothing. There was only two bathrooms for over 100 people. One pisser, two sit-downs, and they wouldn’t let us get to the porta-potty outside.
Then they didn’t contact our families. The whole time my family didn’t know nothing. I been down for eight years, nobody lives in the same spot, and I can’t just remember all them addresses. I was asking them daily can you at least call my family and let them know I’m sick?
What were your symptoms like?
I got asthma, so my symptoms were a little more severe. My breathing, it felt like I was getting bearhugged. I couldn’t breathe. It was like my ventilation closing up, then the flu-like symptoms.
The chills, no energy. Sometimes I had to get up out of bed and move around just to feel like I wasn’t going to die.
I’d start breathing on my inhaler and asking god, with everything I’ve been through, in the streets, standing up against these judges, standing tall in these cells in these institutions, I’m like, don’t let me die in here with this coronavirus.
When did you start work on No Hiding No Liar?
When being able to record was a little more accessible. I’d been writing the whole time I’ve been down but didn’t have the means to record and put it together. It was getting a little frustrating.
What’s your writing process like?
Mistah FAB, back when I started fucking with FAB, he got me in the zone of being able to write a verse in 15 minutes, quick, as soon as you hear the beat. I’d be taking an hour, trying to illustrate some wizardry on the paper, and he’d be like, bruh, you still writing? Being in here, I’d just be writing and writing but not being able to record, no beats. As soon as I did, though, it was on.
It sounds like a studio album. How’d you manage to record in San Quentin?
Just knowing some of the right people in here, shaking hands with some of the right dudes. Some of the people knowing I did music and they were like, oh yeah we know, woo oop, and I’m like, oh okay, for sure, you know. So they put me in the spot and I got it out to the right people for the mixing and mastering. Inside and outside relationships—you can’t burn every bridge.
I don’t think prison comes up in the lyrics. Would you write about your experience there?
I might do a bar or two to describe my environment here, where I’m at, a guard who might’ve pissed me off, but I don’t want to give them this part of my life—I don’t want them to have that much credit when people listen to my song. You know, this is my story, I don’t want them to get the shine. They already taking time out of my life, so they can’t have my music.
The music has a contemporary feel but it also connects to your earlier work.
I know the music has changed a lot in the time I’ve been gone. I just try to stay who I am. It’s underground. When we were coming up, it was always, who’s the dopest? That’s how I try to sound. Rest in peace, Jacka. A lot of people still true to Holiday so I gotta stay true to that, too.
What does underground mean to you?
Nobody’s going to listen to somebody saying they’re from 59th and Shattuck when they’re not. The people really from over there, who’ve been really struggling, they’re gonna go, who in the fuck is this? It might open the door for people to dislike you or maybe some other things. ‘Cus it’s their life—hip-hop’s a big story. You can catch on to the story if you listen from the beginning through where they are now. That’s why I love the underground. It’s different from mainstream.
So what part of Oakland are you from and what was it like coming up there?
I’m from the part of the city where it’s coldest. It’s the same sad song as every ghetto. Getting mistreated by the police, everybody out for themselves, mothers dying, babies crying, good friends no longer here ‘cus they died young—we grow up fast where we come from, you know.
In suburban areas, they shield their children from certain things. In our neighborhood, there wasn’t no shield. We got shielded from bad guys, like certain people, rapists, child molesters. But as far as police brutality, you couldn’t hide. Parents using drugs, you couldn’t hide. Domestic violence, too. These were things that happened every day in the neighborhood.
How’d you start off making music?
I always rapped. When I was younger, I listened to Digital Underground, Kurupt, Tupac, Snoop Dogg. I always tried to put my name, say their raps like it was mine. So I always did music.
Then me and my brother Mr. Morpheus, rest in peace—he was the greatest, way ahead of his time, he could rap with the lights off, with his eyes closed, forever and ever, saying things no one is saying to this day—we did music. We were together every day.
How’d you get your name?
The name Blast Holiday comes from Mr. Morpheus, my brother. He’d passed away. I’m big on dreams and déja vu and all that type of shit, you know. I don’t really think it happens by chance.
I was depressed after he died and was like, I ain’t finna make more music. I felt like people only listened to me ‘cus he was on the tape. But he came in a dream and said, nah, keep going, I got you. I woke up and “blast holiday, blast holiday the most” was one of the first bars I put on paper.
Tell me about the start of the North Oakland gang injunction.
We all got something in the mail. My parole officer was like, go here or you go jail. It was in downtown Oakland. One of my boys from the block was like, “Me too.” When we got out there, it was a lot of people from the neighborhood. We were like, “Hold on, is this a setup?”
We go into this building and it’s all police, some of them in suits. Everybody held a position. We got hoodies, hats, gold teeth, pants sagging. We came in from the streets. When they saw us they went “Nevermind, talk to your parole officers.” That right there—we were like, what was that?
Bruh was like, “That was homicide,” other bruh is like, “That’s the detective, that’s the task, that task was just hitting our block, that’s plainclothes.” It never settled with me. Next thing we knew was the curfews. We couldn’t hang out. If you tried they’d come through with the harassment.
At the time, there was more street crime in other parts of Oakland that didn’t get gang injunctions. Why do you think the police targeted North Oakland?
People in the neighborhood weren’t really making these complaints and calling the police. Well there was one neighbor, so we just avoided his house. It was people who wanted the neighborhood for themselves. People saw these nice old houses, the college up the street, the hospital down the street, and they wanted it for their own families, for their generations.
So you felt like the gentrification and police harassment came hand in hand.
How do you put it when the real estate and the police get together to move Black people out of the neighborhood? Fucked up. Injustice. I don’t know. White man’s justice, Black man’s grief.
To be clear, you’re talking about the exact block where you’re from and you knew everybody?
Yeah, we’d been there. This is where I grew up, 59th and Shattuck. We weren’t breaking into these houses, we weren’t stealing cars around there. It’s happening in other spots. I felt safe on my corner. I knew whose house here, whose house there. I knew what’s gonna happen if I walked down this street. I knew if I walked to this store I might want some security.
How do you think it will be to go back when you’re released next year?
Now, with the people they moved out and the people they moved in, I don’t feel safe over there. It’s not about an opp or an enemy. It’s about not knowing who’s looking out these windows.
In 2018, a federal judge basically said the gang injunctions were unconstitutional and violated people’s civil rights, including your rights.
I know. After we go to jail, a judge says the gang injunctions are unconstitutional. We’re gone, lives changed ‘cus of this, people have passed away, a lot of people from my neighborhood are behind bars, and that’s how they got the opportunity to drive up the prices, get the real estate.
But you’ve got family there still, right?
I’ve been blessed, I come home next year. When you inside you find out who really love you. I love my kids, my family, my mom, my sisters, my brothers, my auntie, my grandmother. Day one, my lawyer wanted twenty bands [$20,000]. That didn’t come from the people I was outside thugging with.
Are your kids growing up in the neighborhood?
Yeah, they’re 10 and 13. Now I can teach my son moral principles about being a man. My daughter, teach her self-love, plant some good seeds. North Oakland born and raised.