Seattle may never shake its reputation as the birthplace of grunge, but it’s experimental and underground hip-hop that’s currently moving the needle for the city’s music scene.
To witness that zeitgeist in action, look no further than Nectar Lounge on Friday, February 19, when one of Seattle hip-hop’s standard bearers, Chimurenga Renaissance, will take the stage alongside pan-Africanist rappers Dead Prez for their local stop on a national tour.
The show offers a can’t-miss opportunity to see the Seattle duo of Tendai “Baba” Maraire (one-half of Shabazz Palaces) and Hussein Kalonji, who draw on their Zimbabwean and Congolese heritage, respectively, to fuse a forward-thinking blend of hip-hop, dub, electronica, jazz, soukous, and of course chimurenga.
Meanwhile, there is no group more uncompromising in contemporary black music than Dead Prez. The duo of Stic.man and M-1 inject a Garveyite message of self-empowerment into their rejection of corporate controlled hip-hop.
Their most recent album, Information Age (2012), tackles war, terrorism, police brutality, and climate change — all heady topics but nothing beyond the scope of the politically-charged outfit that called out every economic and social ill under the sun in Let’s Get Free (2000) and RBG: Revolutionary But Gangsta (2004).
In addition to their musical output, which also includes the mixtape series Turn Off the Radio and collaborations with Nas and Erykah Badu, both artists have been writing books, working the lecture circuit, and promoting healthy eating and fitness — in a way authentic to the pan-African experience, of course.
A Dead Prez pep talk may be just what Seattle hip-hop needs in the middle of Black History Month, especially following a recent discussion at Town Hall entitled “Black Lives Matter in Hip-Hop.”
The combination panel and concert on January 15 was organized by the same curators behind ongoing “The Legacy of Seattle Hip-Hop” exhibit at the Museum of History and Industry. With a roster of well-known local hip-hop and spoken word performers, the roundtable injected some heated debate into the typically buttoned-down civic forum.
As Seattle’s already small black population dwindles in the face of the city’s current boom, the fact that white artist Macklemore became the national face of Seattle hip-hop, with a Grammy to prove it, is a particular bone of contention.
“It doesn’t matter that Macklemore has ‘made’ it,” said Black Stax member Jace ECAj at the January panel. “It means that 70% of the city, which looks like him, goes out and supports that.”
At the same time, the city also still supports the other mainstream pillar of Seattle hip-hop: Sir Mix-a-Lot just played a sold-out, three-night stand at Nectar Lounge in late January with a rotating cast of local rappers. Fremont is not one of Seattle’s historic hotbeds of hip-hop, but a genuinely mixed crowd packed the venue for renditions of hometown favorite “Posse on Broadway” and crowd pleaser “Baby Got Back.”
It was enough to make Seattle ripper Outtasite, who backed up Sir Mix onstage, reflect between songs on how hard it used to be to book hip-hop shows in Fremont, a point echoed at Town Hall. MC Suntonio Bandanaz pointed his finger at “promoters, venues, [and] booking agents back in the era when they wouldn’t let us have hip-hop shows because it might lead to violence.”
Listen to Chimurenga Renaissance.
But back to the Macklemore phenomenon. While today the average hip-hop fan would be hard pressed to deny the genre’s roots in black culture, how that translates to everyday race relations is another matter.
“I walk down the street every day. I’m 6’3”, 225 pounds, and I’m a black man,” Jace ECAj continued. “Half of you wouldn’t even speak to me on the street. But you’ll come to a hip-hop show, pack it out, bob your head, and then say ‘We’ve got it together here in the great Northwest’.”
A wide-ranging conversation ensued, touching on gentrification in the Central District, the “non-profit industrial complex,” music education in Seattle public schools, and the loss of historic community venues like the Black and Tan, an integrated jazz club on Jackson Street at a time when downtown clubs were whites-only.
Even if the starving artist stereotype persists, public officials believe there is money to be made in the local music scene. The Seattle Music Commission estimates that the music industry represents over 20,000 jobs and over $2 billion. “How can more shared prosperity be created?” asked moderator K. Wyking Garrett, a member of the commission and president of the Africatown Center for Education and Innovation.
Such an inclusive vision is not just wishful thinking — it’s grounded in the not-so-distant past.
“We made more money as hip-hop artists in the city in the ’90s than we do today,” Jace ECAj lamented. “We’ve got to get back to black festivals with 10,000 people supporting each other — there wasn’t no City Arts coming to help us.”
Invoking the well-heeled arts non-profit also conjured up a clarion call for self-empowerment. In an elegy for the now closed Faire Gallery Café that gave Nikkita Oliver her start as a spoken word artist, she concluded, “To rebuild and own spaces, and use those spaces to build a culture that we respect, that’s going to require cooperative economics.” In her opinion, divesting of community assets like Capitol Hill’s Faire mirrors the gentrification currently underway in the Central District, where high home prices have enticed black owners — originally cordoned to the neighborhood by redlining — to sell and move out of the city.
The powerful economic forces reshaping Seattle are undoubtedly leaving winners and losers, the kind of black-and-white (pun only partially intended) outcome that Dead Prez has been rapping about almost as long as Bernie Sanders.
And if hip-hop is a reflection of its surroundings, then don’t be surprised if the next big Seattle rap classic isn’t about big butts or thrift stores, but gentrification and community displacement.
Dead Prez play Nectar Lounge on Friday with Chimurenga Renaissance, King Leez, Mic Crenshaw and DJ Swervewon. Tickets are $15 here.
This post has been updated. An earlier version incorrectly atrributed a quote to Suntonio Bandanaz that was actually from Jace ECAj.