Seattle hip-hop is blowing up right now with local, once underground acts like the Blue Scholars gaining national attention. But listening to the panelists on last Thursday's forum, The Black Face of Hip-Hop, in the Central District, it seems that the city's music scene has serious problems.
The history of Black music in Seattle is extensive, with local jazz unions at the beginning of the 20th century, an active club scene in the '70s, and world-famous alums such as Quincy Jones and Jimi Hendrix. Tony Brenton, radio personality and community affairs director for Clear Channel, saw these early musicians and those from his youth as "heroes in the community that brought social consciousness."
Instead, the popularization of Hip-Hop in the 1980s led, as poet Laura "Piece" Kelly believes, to an "evil corporate machine that supports labeling [Black artists] as ignorant."
Though the panelists ranged from industry insiders to independent artists, all agreed that racism was the root cause of the negativity surrounding images of Blacks in music, as well as the lack of representation of Blacks in the Seattle music scene specifically.
"White, straight, upper middle class," said artist manager and founder of the Capitol Hill Bloc Party Dave Meinert, taking aim at the Seattle media infrastructure. "The scene is uniquely white. There hasn't been a non-white person in power, ever, in the weeklies or as a major record store owner."
Seattle's personality was also a target.
"We have to be so out-of-the-box: anti-Black, anti-white, anti-corporation. We've got like eight arms and no chassis to hold it together," observed Kelly.
Beyond the idiosyncrasies of a liberal city, local artist Silas Black vented that while most schools have no music programs, those that do "are elitist" and focus on music composed almost exclusively by whites, using concert instruments used chiefly by whites.
After all the troubles facing Seattle's black music scene, Meinert sounded an encouraging note: "This is no longer a record business. This is a music business."
Brenton echoed that while the internet gives artists a greater degree of exposure, African Americans need to also work towards being in positions of control in artist and radio management.
"I know everyone wants to be on the mic, but..." he said, shrugging.
The issue of "conscious" hip-hop, as contrasting with "street" hip-hop was particularly derided.
"If you're making music, that's a conscious effort even if it is about the streets," said Kelly. Black emphasized that lyrical content that ignores the issue of race and class is particularly problematic.
"This isn't R&B. You have to pick a side," he said to loud yells of support from the crowd.
Brenton endorsed the process of better artist "branding" in order to give African Americans better control over their image in the music industry. Kelly flatly rejected the idea, arguing, "Who wants to be on a shelf?"
Black turned the problem over to the audience, saying, "Some of us are not going to make it to your radio. Don't ask who's at the show, go there yourself and then you'll be there. If you want good hip-hop, you'll have to seek it out yourself."