How one candidate’s rap identity is too provocative for San Leandro officials to Touch by Steven Tavares
Sara Mestas can’t walk on water. She says she’s no saint, but her rap persona Mo Wiley can. In a recent video for her single, “You Can’t Touch It,” her alter ego sashays across the Bay in high heels, tight-fitting top with a large crucifix dangling and blue jean rapping about typical hip-hop tropes of money, power and sex. “You can’t touch it unless I says so,” she sings, along with the tagline, “Now where’s my dough!”
When City Manager Stephen Hollister and Police Chief Ian Willis saw the video on the Internet, the image of scantily-clad women in the video along with the chorus were deemed unsuitable for the city’s youth, in their estimation. Hollister went further saying the subject was questionable for anyone. “The music conveys multiple messages that are not suitable for children or anyone, for that matter,” said Hollister, who then informed Mestas the city would not sponsor her proposal to help mentor the city’s youth through a program with the Police Activities League and a free baseball rec league sponsored by the San Francisco Giants.
In its aftermath, Mestas has faced a rude introduction to local politics highlighted by personal attacks, attempts by city staff to protect its own turf along with a vicious subtext of elitism. “I was introduced to dirty politics for the first time,” said Mestas. “I felt threatened like they were going to drag my name through the mud at all costs.” It will only get rougher for Mestas in the coming months. She is slated Tuesday morning to join two others in the race to unseat San Leandro Mayor Tony Santos for mayor this November.
Its quite common for aspiring citizens to enter the political arena without ever dreaming about representing their community beforehand. If you asked her about politics a year ago, she might not have had an answer until Mestas, like hundreds of parents of San Leandro schoolkids walked to the first day of school last fall only to find the familiar orange-jacketed crossing guards absent from the street corners across the city. Earlier in the year, the city council had cut funding for the program without much notice.
When asked for specifics, Willis said in the video, Mestas was “pointing to her vaginal area.”
Mestas volunteered to help. She worked the morning and after-school shift, donning a reflective orange vest, waving an aluminum stop sign and blowing a mean whistle. When the city government signed a deal with an outside contractor, she stayed on and was hired. Her numerous public comments before city leaders began to catch her notice around town. She met with some of them, talked about the school crossings fiasco and began to recall her own trouble childhood and the various city services in San Leandro she credits with helping her get back on her feet. Within months a savvy, quite different political animal was developing with new ideas in hand, a seat on the city’s rent review board and a few mentoring projects ready to be implemented–that was until a few city officials saw her rap video on the Internet along with rumors about her criminal past being worse than expected.
Hollister said he did not have a problem with Mestas’ background. “What somebody did in the past is not as important as what she is doing now and the things Sara is doing now is great,” he said found fault with her video. “In my interpretation it glorifies prostitution,” he said, “which is not only a crime, but also the objectification of women in general.”
Mestas says the San Leandro Chamber of Commerce CEO David Johnson also objected to the video, saying it was “overly provocative” and believed local business owners would scrutinize the partnership. He also proposed she change some lyrics and edit the video, according to Mestas, but she explained to Johnson she did not own the rights to the particular song or the video. She says her sole income over the past three years has come from her burgeoning recording career.
When she again met with Johnson on the subject of the PAL program, Mestas said, he responded by asking,” So you’re not going to go away?” When she told Johnson she was thinking about running for mayor, he called her “Don Quixote,” he of “Dream the Impossible Dream” fame. She recalls thinking, “I just wanted to take my ball and go home.” Later, Johnson said he did not fear pressure from the business community and added he did not want to appear like an “out-of-touch, old white man” and lauded Mestas’ tenacity to help the community.
The entire situation also ruffled feathers at the San Leandro Police Department. Working with Mestas and her rap music was one problem, but aligning the department with an artist whose music video featured attractive and fleshy women dancing to the groove would be too much for a department in the middle of sexual harassment suits brought forth by seven female officer against a the former police chief and one of his sergeants. “I already have sexual harassment cases going on in the department,” said Willis. “I really don’t think I can justify working with type of subject matter.”
“As a middle-aged man I don’t understand the music, but everything is up for interpretation,” Hollister said. “But I think the music glorifies criminal behavior.”
Willis said he had asked a number of peers in the law enforcement community about the video and what message it conveyed. There was a consensus, he said, the video “promoted prostitution and other criminal activities.” When asked for specifics, Willis said in the video, Mestas was “pointing to her vaginal area.”
Hollister now says the main reason the city declined to work with Mestas, specifically on the PAL project, was economics. The police department has not work with PAL for many years and the department did not have extra employees to work on an additional program during tight budgetary times, according to comments by Hollister and Willis. The department could lose up to 10 employees, including to 5 officers to budget cuts this June. Santos says the police chief has been consistent on the subject saying others have approached the police chief with PAL programs, only to receive the same answer Mestas received–a lack of available resources.
Mestas says some city officials and staff may believe she is intruding on protected turf and stepping on toes with her proposals. She points specifically to the grant she received from the San Francisco Giants for a month-long summer youth league entirely paid by the club and offered at no-cost to residents. Mestas says some city staff reacted stand-offishly to her since and believes the Junior Giants programs was not received well because it might take away revenues from existing recreational activities in the city.
The PAL program, though, is more connected with Mestas’ belief in giving back to the community. The program hopes to mentor teenagers helping them to learn how to present themselves better to employers when the times comes to enter the business world. She plans to teach kids how to dress for interviews, write resumes and have a more forward-thinking approach to their lives, something she didn’t learn until it was almost too late.
She says everybody in local law enforcement knew her during her wild teenage years. She does not shy away from the fact she was arrested numerous times as a youth and convicted of a felony grand theft charge at 18. In fact, it’s the reason troubled youths are attracted towards her and why she feels she needs to create an end road for troubled youth from feeling the pain she forced upon herself at the same age. Like almost all music, the lyrics she raps come from raw personal experiences.
“You can take my songs and perceive it however it relates to your life,” said Mestas. “Maybe law enforcement in this city has such tunnel vision that it focuses in on gangs and sex and they really don’t understand the young people. That’s why I wanted to start a PAL program with law enforcement in this city.”
Before she figured out a better way to live her life, she had three young children and a very limited support system. She was nearly homeless, but credits San Leandro institutions such as Girls Inc. and the Davis Street Family Resource Center for helping her through those dark times.
Dawn Valadez, the development director at the Davis Street Family Resource Center has known Mestas since the future mayoral candidate first went to Girls Inc. for assistance years ago. “She is doing amazing things,” said Valadez. “I’ve seen her come a long way to change her life.”
“She’s been there, done that and she knows that path leads to death,” says Valadez. “Her music is totally separate from who she really is, but it gives her street cred with these kids. Kids are smart and they can see through some of the stuff told to them.” Nevertheless, the presence of a stern-talking female voice rattling off dark, grimy staccato rhymes is for some who Mestas says come from another generation, not hers.
From the moment Mestas reached out to the city she says officials began “dissecting her music.” One song, in particular, the title track “Major League Ballin'” was deemed to be sexual in nature by both Hollister and Willis. “A lot of the slang they were interpreting was from their era of Woodstock, which I am not part of that era,” said Mestas. “I had no idea they used the word ‘ballin” to mean sex.” She told Hollister the definition of the word was generally accepted in pop culture as someone attaining “affluent wealth” not sexual in nature, per se. Hollister who has a background in law enforcement before becoming a city manager in the Central Valley, replaced John Jermanis last year. “As a middle-aged man I don’t understand the music, but everything is up for interpretation,” Hollister said. “But I think the music glorifies criminal behavior.” (Hollister says he has heard only one track from the album.)
During a function one evening at the city’s Marina Community Center, Mestas again confronted Hollister about his decision. The two walked outside to chat at the entrance of the building. Mestas says Hollister’s tone was “aggressive.” Hollister says it “was an honest conversation.” Mestas says she plead her case for her partnership with the city, but the talk went nowhere and centered on previous concerns–the provocative video and the romanticizing of gang violence. Mestas says the conversation became so animated that a police officer in his patrol car inched near the two before Hollister waved him off. Hollister says he does not recall an officer in the area of the conversation. Mestas says after the discussion appeared to be over before Hollister opted for the last word.
He lifted his clenched fist towards his face to mimic a handgun positioned to fire sideways–a scene he admits occurred–and said, “By the way, tell your friends, you don’t shoot a gun like this unless your at point-blank range.”