Rita Forte, owner of Olive Street Agency poses for a photo inside of the shop in East Oakland. Credit: Amir Aziz

Sign up for The Oaklandside’s free daily newsletter.

Rita Forte grew up on Olive Street in deep East Oakland and spent most of her youth pursuing a music career as DJ BackSide. Forte produced a slew of mixtapes during the Hyphy era of the 2000s, played at house parties, and worked as a DJ for the hip-hop radio station KMEL. 

Forte also had a side business making graphic tees, which included a “Got Bay?” t-shirt mirrored after the well-known “Got Milk?” ad campaign. Forte initially saw this as just another side hustle. 

“I definitely didn’t think I was a small business owner. I was just doing it for the love of the culture“, Forte said. “And I thought I could make a living off it, which I did for many years.” 

Fast forward roughly a decade, Forte owns Olive Street Agency, a screen printing shop and a marketing agency on MacArthur Boulevard near Mills College. She named the business after the street she grew up on, an homage to her East Oakland roots. 

The screen printing machine where shirts are made. Credit: Ricky Rodas

“My family has owned property here for over 30 years and my mother grew up around Olive Street, so I wanted to use it as the name of my business because it is my legacy,” Forte said. 

Forte was finally able to secure the funding needed to open her first brick-and-mortar space earlier this year and she held an opening ceremony on Sat., July 9th. Friends and family came out to celebrate, and even councilmembers Treva Reid and Loren Taylor stopped by. 

Her business has grown over time. Forte slowly assembled a team that could screenprint shirts and do embroidery work, create logo and shirt designs, as well as film promotional videos. The most profitable part of her business is still screen printing and t-shirt design, which stems from her days as a DJ.

An old music industry friend, DJ Aebel Dee, played music at the grand opening. “It’s really great to see her doing this now,” Dee said. 

Forte’s mother Mary, who also does administrative work at Olive Street Agency, is proud to see what her daughter has accomplished. “I feel like it’s taken 20 years to get to this point and she’s been through a lot of different things and it’s all culminated into this accomplishment,” she said. “We’re also still dealing with COVID and so many businesses have closed, so for her to actually open up a brick and mortar shop is a big deal; I’m proud of her.” 

Forte said that part of her decision to transition into marketing and screen printing stemmed from the misogyny she dealt with in the Bay Area’s hip-hop scene. She spoke about this experience in 2018 when she was featured in the Oakland Museum of California’s 2018 exhibition “Respect: Hip-Hop and Wisdom,” and interviewed about her contributions to the Hyphy movement. “I would say that being a female DJ was a love-hate relationship of being who I was, and that’s just being completely honest,” Forte told the museum’s curators. 

She’s also faced funding issues as a Black small business owner. Forte considered opening her business in San Leandro, as opposed to Oakland, because she found that there were more reasonably priced spaces there. “I wanted a space that could be both a production space and something that also felt like a retail shop where you could walk around and see the process of how we make the shirts,” Forte said. “We weren’t going to get that neighborhood retail shop feel in San Leandro.” 

Forte tried for years to get a loan from a bank to open a brick-and-mortar shop but no one would lend money to her. “For the past four to five years, I had been denied by banks. We’re talking about your major financial banks— Bank of America, Wells Fargo, etc. I have had a bank account with Bank of America since I was 16 but they wouldn’t give me a loan to upscale my business,” she said. 

Rita Forte and graphic designer Aizaiah Aquino discuss a new design for a client before printing. Credit: Amir Aziz

According to Forte, negotiating with banks became easier in 2020 after the George Floyd Protests forced large corporate entities to think more about supporting Black-owned businesses. Forte was finally able to get a loan from Pacific Community Ventures, a non-profit financial institution that provides loans and technical support to Black and POC businesses, because “they were specifically offering a loan for BIPOC business owners,” she said. 

Forte is grateful for that opportunity. “People need to look at the story of who they’re lending to. Are you lending any money to a Black-owned business, a woman-owned business? There are different kinds of folks in this society, and we’re supposed to be on the same level as everyone else.” 

On the following Monday after her grand opening celebration, Forte and her team went right back to work printing dozens of shirts for their clients, which consists of Oakland-based organizations and businesses such as Red Door Catering and Black Women Organized for Political Action. And nearby business owners and residents stopped by to let her know they’re excited she’s opened up shop in the community.

“A few folks from the neighborhood have come into the store and said, ‘We’re excited for you to be here,’” said Forte. “That makes me feel good.”

Ricky Rodas is a member of the 2020 graduating class of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Before joining The Oaklandside, he spent two years reporting on immigrant communities in the Bay Area as a reporter for the local news sites Oakland North, Mission Local, and Richmond Confidential. Rodas, who is Salvadoran American and bilingual, is on The Oaklandside team through a partnership with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and communities.