As Yirim Seck walks along 23rd and Jackson in the Central District, he has little trouble pointing out where historical buildings once stood and where open spaces have been replaced by modern structures.
He has spent most of his life in this neighborhood. The music he creates as a hip hop artist speaks to the changes in his neighborhood and the changes in larger society. Seck is one of many Seattle hip hop artists who embody resistance in the form of music and art that pushes for local activism.
“As artists we have a responsibility to raise awareness or insert ourselves in conversations to incite change,” Seck said.
“We call it a culture. It returns art to the people,” Julie C said, another local hip hop artist. “Community is a core. Hip hop acts as a mechanism of activism.”
The music is specific to Seattle, but also speaks to larger issues.
Draze, a local artist also from the Central District, released a song last year called “Irony on 23rd,” on the controversial pot shop Uncle Ike’s on 23rd and Union and the gentrification in the greater Seattle area. It became an anthem for the rally that shut down 23rd and Union last year.
Draze’s song “Hood Ain’t the Same” was archived by Seattle Mayor Ed Murray at Seattle’s Museum of History and Industry, giving context to the current and past African American communities in Seattle.
Seck’s song, “We Call it Murder,” talks about gun violence against African Americans in recent years and its media portrayal versus its reality.
The song includes the lyrics: “Contrary to the footage they said the suspect was a black assailant. Homie was a daily patron, but that’s not what they said on paper.”
“The content itself resonated on a social community level. People who are currently aware of the current state of the world,” Seck said.
The idea of community involvement is essential to Seck’s work. He is a construction contractor, performs at local venues, speaks at local nonprofits and organizes concerts in his neighborhood. To create his music he works with local artists, videographers and producers and uses their music to flavor the messages and sounds in his songs.
Within the past year and a half MOHAI had an exhibit titled, “The Legacy of Seattle Hip Hop,” which covered the impact and history of the genre in Seattle.
Exhibit curator Jazmyn Scott is the manager for Langston, a new nonprofit at Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute and owns and operates production company The Town Entertainment. The other exhibit curator Aaron Walker Loud is the founder and director of the production company Big World Breaks, and being an educator, musician, producer and operator of various music programs in Seattle schools. For both of them, music is a centerpiece of their lives.
The exhibit featured a variety of topics — from graffiti to fashion to gentrification — to give a full picture of hip hop as a way of life and a form of art.
The exhibit was not only about the music, but also the people, process and culture behind it.
“It’s important anytime we talk about hip hop to not just acknowledge that black people started the art form, but that they continue to push it forward and are the holder and keeper of that culture,” Walker Loud said.
Walker Loud and Scott are now working on “50 Next,” a website that showcases the current and historical hip hop scene. It contains a Soundcloud playlist and a short film with a variety of local hip hop groups, which help give a sense of the significance and growth of the Seattle hip hop scene over time. They hope to update the project as the hip hop scene continues to grow and change.
“There’s definitely an interest in figuring out how we can keep documenting, keep telling the story, keep growing it, with partners, with college age students. We’ll see how it plays out. It’s an ongoing story and it’s never complete. It’s evolving constantly,” Walker Loud said.
Hip hop artists are also trying to push back against gentrification by preserving and creating spaces in changing neighborhoods to share the genre’s music, art and culture.
For example, UBUNYE, a project by a network of hip hop artists called 206Zulu, aims to preserve spaces in rapidly gentrifying spaces in Seattle so that underrepresented community groups can come together in order to share their music, art and culture that may not otherwise be showcased. HiphopBruha is an online platform provides a “critical analysis on everything from Hip Hop, Pop Culture to all things political through an intersectional feminism lens.”
The mix of musical influence, Seattle experience and political activism makes Seattle hip hop one-of-a-kind.
“It adds a little bit of uniqueness and almost mystery because you can’t put it in a box. You can’t put Seattle hip hop in a box,” Scott said.
Here you can find a Soundcloud playlist of the local artists featured in this article, as well as other local artists.