Ahamefule Oluo doesn’t make it into the city much these days. The veteran Seattle jazzman and multidisciplinary artist has spent much of the pandemic at a family cabin in Hood Canal where he’s built a studio and recorded albums with his modern jazz troupe Industrial Revelation. With his social and gig calendars wiped out by the persistent coronavirus, there’s little reason to stay in the city. So on the rare occasion he treks back into town, it’s typically for good reason.
Oluo was recently back in the Central District for one such worthy occasion, lending his trumpet chops to a “March to the Ballot Box” event. The voter march also served as a memorial for his late friend Rahwa Habte, an organizer and former owner of Hidmo — an Eritrean restaurant that became a community hub for artists and activists during the late 2000s. So for Oluo, the mass display of democratic participation amid “the most important election of our lifetime” was both personal and political.
“The things for me that justify the inherent social irresponsibility of getting together with other people right now have often centered around the change that is definitely needed,” he said. “Doing whatever you can to increase voting right at this moment, I don’t think there’s a better way to honor what [Habte] stood for as a person.”
Oluo is among a legion of Seattle musicians this year who are using their voices (and instruments) to advocate for social justice and, as Election Day approaches, boost voter turnout. It’s no surprise, as activism and civic engagement are deeply ingrained in Seattle music culture, perhaps more than in most cities, with a spirit intensified by forces pulling at the fabric of its communities.
Get-out-the-vote efforts, in particular, have long been a celebrity favorite, a safely nonpartisan cause (at least it used to be) that wouldn’t alienate fans. Seattle music A-listers have used their platforms to encourage voting through livestream concerts, star-studded sketch videos and Instagram freestyles. Pearl Jam’s sophisticated “PJ Votes 2020” initiative drew attention from The New York Times political team for resembling a savvy, modern day political campaign targeting battleground states.
Asked about Pearl Jam’s famous activist streak ahead of 2018’s Home Shows at Safeco Field (now T-Mobile Park), guitarist Mike McCready chalked it up to their Seattle upbringing. “If we have any kind of platform, we owe it to use it somehow for good, because what else is there?” he said. “I feel like that’s just part of my DNA and growing up here, in terms of how I was raised and how the city is.”
But Seattle artists don’t need Pearl Jam’s stadium-sized budget to smartly target and leverage their voices. And often it’s the Seattle artists whose livelihoods are more severely impacted who are putting their blood, sweat and tear-gassed eyes on the line amid 2020’s pivotal election and racial justice uprising. There’s nary a livestream show put on by local artists and clubs that doesn’t include a fundraising component for one cause or another.
An unexpected grassroots fundraiser
When the pandemic hit, pop/R&B singer Hollis Wong-Wear didn’t expect to turn into a grassroots fundraiser. It just happened. Hopes to tour her budding Hollis Does Brunch events — think music/food day party pairing artists and local chefs — were dashed, so she took it online. After Minneapolis police killed George Floyd, an edition she hosted raised $12,000 for a Minnesota-based Black liberation nonprofit. The social and political components became more intentional.
“My concept of being a creative, an artist and a musician is completely stemmed from the activist community in Seattle,” says Wong-Wear, a product of Seattle hip-hop’s Hidmo era who came up with electro-R&B trio The Flavr Blue. “There was an inherent social justice woven through the fabric of our artistic community. It was almost like ‘Why do you do music?’ It’s to be part of a movement and to push society forward and build and shape culture.”
In the weeks leading up to the election, Wong-Wear organized virtual fundraisers and events aimed at increasing voter turnout among marginalized groups in swing states, including a Zoom letter-writing party with live DJs and roller skaters. She also appeared in a virtual phone bank event reaching out to Chinese Americans in Michigan, a significant and often overlooked voting bloc in the battleground state that President Donald Trump narrowly won in 2016. Wong-Wear felt motivated, she said, to “band together with fellow Chinese Americans and think about how we can reach out to our own people and actually make a difference.”
For Wong-Wear, who released her first solo EP as Hollis this year, some of her newfound virtual event experience has even led to paid gigs, including some behind-the-scenes work for an online fundraiser supporting Black women political candidates in Washington, which featured performances from Seattle artists Lady A, Parisalexa and Stephanie Anne Johnson.
Tradition passed between generations
It’s not surprising that the music community in progressive, politically engaged Seattle is particularly active, and it’s a tradition often passed between generations. Julie-C, a veteran rapper, activist and educator, points to the city’s DIY ethos and the close ties between the artist and youth services communities as one driver. Those values were instilled in her during her earliest forays into Seattle’s hip-hop community with programs like Poetry Experience at Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute, where Macklemore also had formative experiences. That work continues through programs and organizations like Macklemore’s The Residency and 206 Zulu, a hip-hop-oriented youth development organization where Julie-C serves as a teaching artist.
“In many ways, I feel like the younger generation is super evolved,” she said. “I’m 36 years old. … Some of the youth that I work with, I learn a lot from them.”
Cameron Lavi-Jones has emerged as a leader among Seattle’s younger generation of artist-activists, organizing a demonstration at the CHOP this summer and playing various rock-the-vote events the past few years with his band, King Youngblood. While this election season they’ve all been virtual, in 2018 the Seattle rockers went on a voter registration minitour through local high school and college campuses, playing on a flatbed truck and registering 3,200 first-time voters.
For the 21-year-old son of musical parents, including his Black Panther father, art and activism have always been intertwined. But across the Seattle music scene, Lavi-Jones said that spirit is strengthened by a sense of community and “understanding that the issues we’re facing right now are much more important” then advancing their individual careers — especially among Black, Indigenous and other artists of color.
“For Black and brown and Indigenous artists in this community, there is really no other choice,” he said. “We have to stick up for ourselves, we have to speak up and we have to work with one another, because if not, we’re all facing the same threats, the same marginalization and the same oppression.”
Is this politically engaged artistic culture endangered?
With Seattle’s tech boom and rising costs of living making it harder for cultural workers and activists (and communities of color more broadly) to live in the city, questions have arisen about whether Seattle might lose that sense of community and the radical, creative spirit that nurtured its culture of politically engaged artists. Wong-Wear fears the city’s artistic and progressive edginess is being “defanged” by the influx of wealth. One of the reasons she left for L.A. was her feeling that creative industries were more valued there.
As Oluo sees it, there’s a clear connection between the conditions and spirit that gave rise here to two of the richest people in the world and both the WTO protests 20 years ago and the CHOP this summer, in which local musicians made their presence felt.
“I think it creates a cognitive dissonance that really makes people feel a sense of responsibility,” Oluo said. “A lot of the movement to move away from the broader capitalist system that wreaks havoc on both this country and the rest of the world, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that a lot of the strongest activism against that comes from the place where we have people that have benefited from that system more than anywhere on the planet.”
Even in the face of Seattle’s changing demographics, Julie-C is optimistic. She hopes the pandemic will slow the forces of gentrification and create opportunities in the real estate market to secure more cultural spaces, ideally with affordable housing components. As neighborhoods like the historically Black Central District flip one row of tall skinnies at a time, maintaining and cultivating those communities across generational lines — helping that legacy of art and activism continue — might be more important now than ever.
“Especially in a city that has experienced so much displacement and is growing so rapidly,” Julie-C said, “some of the art and cultural networks are all that people have left.”