2020 has been … a year. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced the world to navigate a new normal, an economic crisis piggybacking on the global health emergency. At the same time, we’re in the midst of a new civil rights era, a reckoning with systemic racism and an uprising against police violence.
As artists do, Seattle musicians have responded with songs that capture the experience of life in 2020, practically in real time. This small sampling of songs features stories told with love and anger, hope and despair, and even a little humor. As this consequential period in our history continues to unfold this fall, these songs can be agents of change or sources of comfort knowing others are feeling the same way we are.
One day, they will be among Seattle’s cultural artifacts from a truly unprecedented time.
(Note: These videos, and some of the songs, contain explicit lyrics.)
Dave B — “Worthy”
It started as a four-bar poem after “a super emotional day” at a protest. The demonstration in Los Angeles, where Seattle hip-hop luminary Dave B has lived since May, sparked conversation among his friends that night about the daily weight of being Black in America.
“Even this morning, I woke up and I’m like damn, I’m really waking up to trauma,” Dave said, calling the morning after a Wisconsin police officer shot Jacob Blake seven times in the back in front of his kids. “We have to sit here and look at videos of people dying and getting shot every day, but it’s not something we can turn off. And I still have to walk outside, on top of that, and be a Black man.”
The rest of “Worthy” came when the veteran emcee “just started ranting” on Father’s Day, thinking about Black dads lost to a “fragile, racist system.” The tenderness in his softly mellifluous voice doesn’t dilute the anger and exasperation rolled into some of the most emotionally powerful lines Dave’s ever written, each one sinking deeper and deeper into your chest. For all its sobering moments, the soulfully bouncing track — from which the proceeds benefit several Black-led organizations in Seattle — is a celebration of Black joy in the face of systemic racism.
“I’m still worthy of this love and respect that my people are not getting,” Dave said. “You should walk around with your head up, even on days you feel like your head should be down, like when I woke up today, looking at more headlines. It’s not like there’s any end to this, so I could at least love on myself.”
Jason McCue — “Apocalypse” EP
Singer-songwriter Jason McCue was about halfway through a March tour “the day it all got real.” He had made it to Denver when his social media feed was flooded with artists canceling tours as COVID-19 spread in the U.S. Viral rumors suggested the National Guard might lock down Washington state or the entire Pacific Northwest. “It was just scary,” McCue recalled. “I was already crashing on folks’ couches and living out of a Toyota Corolla, which is not the best place to be at the onset of a pandemic.”
Spiking the remainder of his tour, McCue headed back to Seattle. Exhausted and scared, he decided to write a project documenting his mental state during what he expects will be “the seminal historic event of my lifetime.” Over the two-day return drive, McCue wrote lyrics at roadside gas stations and recorded iPhone voice memos, songs that became July’s “Apocalypse” EP. It’s a darkly comedic exploration of all the irrational places a mind could wander during the pandemic’s onset, from mistaking altitude sickness for catching “the big one” (“Going Outside”) or satirizing the ensuing mass hysteria in surfy ripper “Panic (The Store’s Out of Sanitizer).”
On delicate opener “When This Passes,” a future-gazing McCue posits that the “light of human nature” will eventually prevail. Six months later as the tragically politicized pandemic rages on, does he still feel that way?
“I think so,” McCue said cautiously. “It’s also me forcing myself to have any sort of optimism about this thing.”
Left at London — “Do You See Us?”
Nat Puff didn’t personally know Summer Taylor. But when the 24-year-old Taylor, who was participating in a demonstration in support of Black lives, was killed by a man who drove through protesters on Interstate 5, it affected her deeply. “They were a friend of a friend, several friends,” said Puff, better known as indie-pop songsmith Left at London. “I’ve never had that close of a connection to somebody my age who has died. … It was a smack in the face amongst so many other smacks in the face and I was fed up.”
The next day, the clever genre-blender wrote “Do You See Us?” — a scathing denouncement of the mayor’s handling of the recent protests, which first appeared on Puff’s two-track release “Jenny Durkan, Resign in Disgrace.” Subtle, ain’t it?
“[Expletive] you and the slavers that you work for,” Puff cries over an ominous beat and wailing synthesizers. As a white person writing about the protests, Puff knew she wanted to collaborate with someone who could speak to the experience of being Black in Seattle, tapping rising local rapper Nobi, who delivers a searing performance, with Charleena Lyles and Seattle police’s tear gas on his mind.
“The people that were supposed to protect and serve us did the opposite,” said Nobi, who released a poignant album of his own this summer. “Cops aren’t supposed to tear gas you when you’re exercising your right to protest. The song was a form for me to channel all of that anger and rage, hurt and pain.”
Kateel — “IDGAF”
Twenty-one-year-old rapper/singer Kateel had never considered himself an activist before immersing himself in the Seattle protests. Initially watching from afar as his friends took to the streets of his hometown, Kateel booked a one-way flight back to Seattle from his current home in Los Angeles (though a permanent move is in the works).
He still wouldn’t describe himself as an activist, but a few educational weeks at the demonstrations empowered the rising artist to use his voice. “I had seen so many people at these protests that looked like they were trying to co-opt the movement — or not that they were trying, but they made the focus about them,” said Kateel, who recently dropped “Mind Over Matters,” his first official project with Atlantic Records since quietly signing with the label in early 2019.
The next morning he was due for a studio session with Seattle R&B queen Parisalexa, and they granted Kateel 10 minutes at the end to cut his freshly written song “IDGAF.” He only needed eight.
There’s an in-the-moment urgency to his visceral rhymes, dismissing obtrusive opinions from non-Black people and affirming his resolution to keep his foot on the gas. It felt rushed, he admitted, but one wonders if Kateel — one of the city’s most technically proficient young rappers — could have so potently captured his intensity any other way. “It was all pretty spontaneous.”
Shaina Shepherd — “The Virus”
Shaina Shepherd, powerhouse frontwoman of hard-rockin’ quartet BEARAXE, was a wreck. The COVID shutdown ended the nearly nightly jam sessions the extroverted singer participated in, cutting her off from musical peers whose creative energy helped fuel hers. Adding to the feelings of isolation, a breakup had Shepherd living alone for the first time in her adult life. “This has been the test of my lifetime, honestly,” Shepherd said. “I felt like my entire world was changing so drastically and so quickly, and it was all connected to this virus.”
The typically collaborative artist stayed tethered to her piano, forcing herself to be productive without her bandmates. The disconnectedness weighing on her, Shepherd came up with a devilish, tension-building piano lick to signify the passage of time. The melody became the foundation for debut solo single “The Virus,” which opens with a Bond-ballad elegance before a stomp-and-clap eruption, Shepherd’s looped-and-layered vocals swirling upward.
While she’s always felt “like a brown person in a white space,” Shepherd hadn’t felt comfortable speaking out about racial justice in the past, recent events coinciding with a reflective period in her late 20s. “I’m realizing I’ve been making the same compromises that my mother has made, that my grandmother has made,” the singer-songwriter said.
Wanting to hold herself accountable for the next generation, Shepherd has been compelled “to speak my story in an authentic way.” A new, unreleased song titled “Back of the Bus” was spurred after Shepherd left a job she loved because it normalized accepting microaggressions from rich white men. Realizing and writing about her life experiences that intersect with broader social justice issues has had a profound effect on the versatile artist. “It transformed my life,” she said.