They emerged on stage a unit.
Dressed in all black, hoodies up, the seven young rappers, products of hip-hop youth program The Residency, shared what was likely the biggest spotlight of their nascent careers in a packed Paramount Theatre last month. The head-nodding, mic-swapping thunderstorm of a performance was just as likely to please the “old heads” on hand for The Residency’s five-year celebration and fundraising concert as it was the post-SoundCloud generation likely to enroll in the coming years.
Joining the former pupils for the closing bars was the master himself, the evening’s headliner, Macklemore, who popped on stage wearing the same all-black uniform to deliver his verse from “Glass Ceiling” — an instant Seattle classic from Residency alum-turned-major-label-artist Travis Thompson that features several generations of local hip-hop dignitaries paying homage to those who came before them. The choice hardly felt coincidental in kicking off what amounted to an intergenerational showcase of homegrown hip-hop talent, with performances from Residency teens to the godfather Sir Mix-a-Lot.
The Residency, a joint venture by Macklemore and producer Ryan Lewis, MoPOP and youth organization Arts Corps, began in 2015 as a two-week rap summer camp held at MoPOP for Seattle-area youth under the tutelage of established artists.
Before becoming the chart-topping, Grammy-bagging rapper Macklemore, a young Ben Haggerty cut his chops in high-school lunchrooms and the basement of Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute alongside other aspiring rappers. Sensing the lack of a space in Seattle where young hip-hop artists could sharpen their skills together, Haggerty and childhood friend Ben Secord — director of philanthropy and community engagement for Macklemore & Ryan Lewis — started kicking around ideas that spawned The Residency.
“The internet drastically shaped the way we engage in the hip-hop community in the physical sense,” Macklemore said during a wide-ranging interview the night before the show. “In terms of actually occupying a space together, working with people, it had just kind of vanished. And I wanted [them] to be amongst their peers to really experience what hip-hop is all about, which is … community.”
Since starting as a two-week pilot program, The Residency — which is largely funded by corporate and philanthropic donors, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis and some King County grant money — has expanded its core summer intensive into a monthlong curriculum at MoPOP with hands-on training from experienced artists. Geared toward teenagers ages 16-19 from low-income families, the tuition-free Residency, which gets around 100 applications a year, aims to create artist-development opportunities for underserved youth.
Operating on an annual budget of about $400,000, the program enrolls up to 45 students each year while paying them a $600 stipend to participate and providing lunches and bus tokens. Students take part in writing workshops and recording sessions and learn how to navigate the music industry from veteran artists. Beyond the deal-inking Thompson, alumni have gone on to perform at Capitol Hill Block Party and pursue audio-engineering careers through a Shoreline Community College scholarship program.
After five years of gradually adding more programming like a winter writers camp, speaking engagements with industry professionals during the year and free studio sessions, The Residency is looking for a space of its own where its cast of respected teaching artists — which over the years has included Jace Ecaj of Black Stax, Nikkita Oliver, Gabriel Teodros, ubiquitous producer Elan Wright and beatsmith/rapper Sax G among others — can continue nurturing the next generation of Seattle hip-hop.
“As we’ve developed programming to be much more of a year-round model, we’re really feeling like having a home could help take us to the next level,” Secord said.
While they’re still somewhere “between the dream phase and the execution phase,” Secord has had preliminary talks with developers and landlords as they look for the right model. Options range from renting a privately owned space to partnering with numerous investors in a mixed-use development, perhaps with an affordable-housing component. It’s still a dream in progress, but Secord said having their own space would help them expand year-round programming and broaden areas of focus from the vocal and production tracks currently offered. He envisions the facility being a creative hub students can take ownership in, with recording studios, rehearsal and events spaces, a multimedia lab to add training in graphic design, video and photo editing, and possibly space for coding and tech programs.
One wish-list item that’s less negotiable is a location within Seattle city limits, ideally in central or South Seattle where many of Residency students live, and near major transit hubs. While The Residency attracts students from Everett to Tacoma, the majority live between the Central District and southern suburbs like Renton and Kent, said Secord. “With Seattle changing so dramatically over the last five or 10 years, with gentrification and displacement pushing communities outside of Seattle proper, I think there’s a really strong argument to be made to try to preserve, protect and grow spaces for art, culture and creativity in our city,” he added.
It’s a notion that resonates with Residency teaching artist and hip-hop elder statesman Ecaj. The lifelong South Seattleite (“They can’t displace me,” he says with a chuckle) has seen a number of “big contributors” to Seattle’s cultural landscape leave due to cost-of-living increases. “I like to say we’re hidden by all these trees and then you come into the Emerald City — we’re the hidden jewels of our culture,” he said. “But when you start taking those jewels out, you lessen the treasure. I believe with this new generation of young folks, we want to keep them here.”
Before auditioning for The Residency while attending Rainier Beach High School, Sharmaine Tillmon didn’t even know Seattle had a music scene. She laughs at the confession in hindsight, now that the 21-year-old singer has a supportive network of artists and friends through the program she credits with giving her the tools to pursue a career in music — everything from performance technique to behind-the-scenes business acumen.
After going through The Residency’s program twice as a student, Tillmon returned as a paid intern and helped organize the alumni performances at the recent Paramount show. Though she initially had no intention of performing herself, Ecaj and Secord weren’t having that. She was invited to duet with Macklemore on his hit “Good Old Days,” a proposition that triggered an internal freakout, despite her best efforts to play it cool.
“Once it was show day, I was like ‘Am I gonna survive today?! Is this really happening?!’” Tillmon said. “So surreal.”
One of the biggest takeaways for Aurelio Valdez-Barajas (class of ’17) from his Residency experience was the “strong family connection” he made with his peers and the teaching artists, who he says “have my back” year-round. That first week was a little intimidating, though. Then an Everett high schooler, Valdez-Barajas rode the bus up to two hours each way on a bad day to get to MoPOP. He barely knew the city, let alone any of the other artists in the program, and came in looking to prove he was “the best rapper out of everybody here.”
That competitive mentality, which he says was pervasive the first week, vanished when Ecaj — whose seminal Silent Lambs Project Valdez-Barajas grew up listening to — led a session with the male students unpacking misogyny in hip-hop. “I remember very vividly, after that class almost every single man in that group left crying, because it really broke down our insecurities, our vulnerabilities,” Valdez-Barajas said.
“The youth come in to learn skills in music, but they also are building life skills,” Secord said. “It’s really a youth-development program at its core.”
As the various speakers and performers took the stage at the Paramount, many spoke of lineage, tradition and passing the torch to the next generation between those donation pitches. “Eventually, they will be the teaching artists. They will be the executive directors, the artists getting worldwide fame and acclaim,” Ecaj said. “And what do they do with that?”
That’s something Valdez-Barajas, now 20, is already thinking about. The third-year political-science and sociology student at Seattle Pacific University, who credits his Residency mentors with empowering him to merge music and advocacy, has already helped launch a youth organization of his own. Formed as a spinoff of a youth-led Northwest Folklife committee, the Hydrant aims to stoke creative activity through all-ages networking events and showcases.
“A lot of us are still young,” Valdez-Barajas said. “We’re still in that teenager, early 20s [stage]. What happens when we have a steady career in music — in whatever we want to do? We are literally the future of the city of Seattle.”
Applications for next year’s Residency program will start being accepted in March 2020; more info: theresidencyseattle.org/howtoapply