Marshall Hugh had been watching the livestreams as the Seattle protests developed after Minneapolis police killed George Floyd. The rapper and leader of local hip-hop fusionists Marshall Law Band isn’t usually shy about using his voice to call out injustice where he sees it. But it took a little nudge to get him out from behind the screen and into the heart of what would become the Capitol Hill Organized Protest (CHOP) area.

Things changed one night while Hugh was glued to citizen journalist Omari Salisbury‘s live feed as Salisbury and protesters were tear-gassed by the Seattle Police Department.

“That was really my true call to action,” Hugh says. “I couldn’t stand on the sidelines anymore and see people get tear-gassed, but I also knew it wasn’t my role to get tear-gassed. Where I was capable of being a leader was with my unit, playing positive and inspiring revolutionary music.”

Coordinating with veteran organizer/rapper Julie-C, Hugh arranged to have his good-vibing rap band set up at 11th Avenue and East Pike Street to play for protesters. Typically stationed a block from the East Precinct where cops and demonstrators engaged in an extended standoff, the idea was to provide an uplifting energy as protesters flowed in and out of the area. The location was close to the center of the action, but had enough of a buffer to hopefully not be too much of a distraction.

“We were strategically placed there to help bring the vibes to the people that were going to consistently be there night in and night out,” Hugh says. “[I] didn’t know it was going to be six nights in a row [laughs], but we were committed.”

The setup became a mini street residency, in the middle of a protest, that outlasted the police presence in the now occupied swath of Seattle’s nightlife capital. Though the Marshall Law Band has since taken a break from playing the CHOP, that initial run saw the crew playing five-hour sets for six straight evenings, plus two more shorter performances after mixing in a few well-earned nights off. During those extended jam sessions, the funked-out hip-hop troupe, which weaves hints of reggae, rock and soul into its full-band sound, would share the mic with various speakers, subtly playing behind them to accent their messages.

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Seattle police walk across Cal Anderson Park on Wednesday morning as they clear CHOP of protesters. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)
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Hugh says their mission was to “educate, inspire and to uplift” while displaying a sign outlining organizers’ demands that read: “Defund the police, fund the community, free all protesters.”

There’s an inherent sense of authority that comes from manning a PA system among a large crowd hungry for direction. With 200 shows under his hard-gigging sextet’s belt in recent years, Hugh is no stranger to playing master of ceremonies. But this was a little different, at times performing while flash-bang grenades boomed in the background and protesters streamed toward what he says felt like a war zone, at least one night when tensions were highest before police withdrew from the area. Most nights, however, all was calm.

“One minute you’re performing, you’re hugging people, burning sage, the next minute you’re negotiating, keeping the cops at bay while making sure Dan Gregory can get out safely,” he says of the night Gregory was shot while trying to stop a car from driving into a crowd of protesters.

Seeing a wounded Gregory raise his fist to the crowd as medics helped him through a sea of people was one of many powerful moments Hugh experienced while fronting the CHOP’s de facto house band. His first day at the protests “changed my life,” Hugh says, although not everyone was psyched about Marshall Law Band’s presence. In decentralized social and political movements with a multitude of organizations working toward a shared cause, inevitably some will differ on philosophies and tactics, including the role of music.

Hugh says he had the blessings of Black Lives Matter leaders, yet a number of people approached him to warn against playing music and dancing at the protests, “treating it as if this wasn’t something to have happiness and joy around.” Calls to curtail a party-like atmosphere in the CHOP to focus on the protest’s objectives have only grown since the area has become somewhat of a tourist destination. Hugh understands where the critics were coming from, though fusing music (upbeat or otherwise) with social movements is hardly without precedent.

“For these types of moments, I look to history,” Hugh says, pointing to the National Mall concert punctuating the 1963 March on Washington and late Afrobeat icon Fela Kuti, a vocal opponent of Nigeria’s authoritarian government in the ’70s and ’80s.

“You look deeper and deeper back, music has always been a part of any cultural revolution. And it’s because music is the most widely spoken language in the world. It’s not words, it’s vibrations. Those can go through the body and create any emotion. What it really created was a triumphant defiance and a belief that no matter who you were you could find a role and thrive within it.”

Just like he did.