When Justin Phipps looks at the Bay Area, and East Palo Alto in particular, he sees a diverse artistic community with strong cultural roots in danger of being displaced.
In response to rampant gentrification caused by the booming tech industry, and out of love for the area's rich musical heritage, Phipps founded Redtone Records to help preserve traditions, build community, explore social-justice issues and promote healing through music production. In collaboration with local artists and musicians, the label aims to amplify the voices of people of color.
East Palo Alto musician Kiazi Malonga has been playing contemporary and traditional Congolese music on the ngoma drums for more than 30 years.
"There's a space for you to express yourself, to make music that represents you and your culture," Malonga said of Redtone. "Making it available allows people to keep the identity of East Palo Alto before everything changed, when it was predominantly African American, Latinos and Pacific Islanders."
Redtone's East Palo Alto music studio serves as the base of operations. The label's digital output is available for download, as well as streamed across major platforms. Listeners can also show their support by subscribing to the label's Patreon. The range of musical styles represented includes blues, reggae, Afrobeat and more.
"We're trying to create a brand that embodies a particular spirit and promotes a particular sound within this genre of roots music," Phipps said. "Underneath all of that there is a deeper layer of cultural preservation and not letting this area be overrun by tech and short-lived trends."
Phipps, co-founder of Live in Peace, a youth development program, noticed increasing changes in East Palo Alto and beyond, citing the tech industry as the driving factor of a downward cultural shift to automation, artificiality and apathy. With that comes a decline in live music venues and other cultural hotspots in the area, he said.
Art and art education are in decline across the country, and East Palo Alto is no exception, Phipps said. Initially with Live in Peace, Phipps used his musical background and connection to the community to offer free music lessons to students in the Ravenswood School District. It began with a van full of instruments and equipment that Phipps and a crew of volunteers drove to several sites.
Eventually, Phipps and Live in Peace raised the funds to build a basement studio to serve as the meeting place for students to come for classes.
"It all began as a way to provide kids with the chance to get their hands on an instrument and be in a band setting," Phipps said.
Once East Palo Alto's dedicated youth arts center, Epacenter Arts, was founded, the Live in Peace music programs were no longer as necessary. According to Phipps, this put him in a position to think about what he could personally do in the fight against gentrification and how to make the best use of the studio space already built.
Musician Frank "Tebo" Thibeaux, a 61-year-old Belle Haven native, is the first recording artist for Redtone Records and writes and produces across many genres.
"Just knowing there is a studio in East Palo Alto, it's encouraging for younger artists to record their own music," Thibeaux said. "They will gravitate towards making sonically correct music and give them the chance to promote their roots."
The label's first single, "Silver for Your Soul," is about the destruction of the planet caused by selling out for easy money. Phipps said the label will produce music with themes of racial justice, the environment and personal healing.
Redtone is also collaborating with local venues such as Bottleshop in Redwood City to invest in bands and musicians by putting on live shows and encouraging artists to perform. This collaboration also allows specific venues not in financial position to host artists by having Redtone subsidize the costs of live music, which revitalizes the scene. Recently, Phipps got a band together for an East Palo Alto Kwanzaa celebration that otherwise did not have the budget for live music.
"A big part of the label's mission is to bring live music into cultural events and settings," Phipps said. "It's a healing presence and transforms the spirit of a space."
Down the line, the label plans to host monthly songwriting competitions for youth focused on a specific social justice issue.
"Ultimately, arts and music can tell a story and paint a narrative in a very powerful way," Phipps said. "With the label I hope the music we're producing can bring together different people and connect on a human level."
More information is available at Redtone Records.