The Brand Kings and EMP Museum Present: Through the Eyes of Art Black History Month kick-off event featuring The Value of Black Life artist showcase with appearances by Talib Kweli and Draze | EMP Museum Sky Church | Saturday, February 7, 2015
Words by Emery Desper. Photography by Rafael Ochoa.
Black History Month is upon us, and even though we have been granted the shortest month of year and have to share it with the CDC’s Heart Month, I think there is a wonderful correlation there. It is, in fact, heartbreaking to be a Black person much of the time. You are forced to see your people denigrated, demoralized and dismissed over and over in the media and through real-life micro aggressions encountered on a daily basis.
Seattle is one of the whitest major cities in the country and, as a born and raised Seattleite who is also Black, it often feels that way. I still walk around thrilled to see brown people of any hue because the sightings are often rare. To my delight the crowd at the EMP Museum’s Black History Month kick-off event was a sea of lovely brown people, all there to celebrate Blackness. It felt great to see that many Black people in one room who were all there to acknowledge local Black heroes in the community and celebrate Black progress in Seattle.
2014 was a wild year to be Black. The white supremacy shade brigade was out in full force and the unbelievable reality show of Black lives not seeming to matter played out on every television screen across America. I felt exhausted by the slew of non-indictments, the justifications for blatant racism, journalistic “think pieces,” and white co-opting of our cultural movements, including our music. Just when I thought things had chilled in the new year, I was reminded that in my Emerald City police will spray paint your face with mace on MLK day and openly harass you for walking in your own hood if you are a Black man with the audacity to get your Tiger Woods on.
At the event last Saturday night held in the EMP Museum’s Sky Church, Seattle City Council Member Bruce Harrell — a well-known advocate of civil rights — was the MC, Mayor Ed Murray was there to show his support, and the best speech of the night was from Derrick Wheeler-Smith, a Rainer Valley native and community advocate. He gave what can only be described as a sermon on the laundry list of injustices that still plague all of us. As the crowd responded with collective “Amens” to every bullet point he made, the real weight of how much work is left to be done settled in.
Wheeler-Smith’s speech, while riveting, proved to put the crowd in a collectively somber mood. And this was the crowd Seattle MC Draze, as the opening musical performer, was responsible for enlivening. He worked his magic though. Spitting uplifting rhymes with an epic band in tow, his set exemplified the importance of what hip-hop can mean in times like these. Draze was one of the main participants responsible for curating the evening, and his raps are all about the people he serves. That was easy to see as he worked the stage and gave explanations about the nature of his art between songs.
He was the perfect choice for a celebration of this nature, proud of his native Seattle home, but also deeply connected to his Zimbabwean roots. His music is a love letter to the various ways he experiences Blackness. The highlight of his performance was when he stopped rapping completely and performed a marvelous xylophone solo that mesmerized the crowd and reminded everyone that rappers are often also skilled musicians.
The headlining performer for the showcase was Brooklyn’s Talib Kweli. The thing that impressed me the most about his performance was his acknowledgement of misogyny in hip-hop. At one point during his performance, he stopped to give a shout-out to his favorite rapper, Rhapsody, who was in attendance. He passed her the mic to bless us with some much needed diversity. I’ve seen Kweli before; there is no doubt he is a seasoned performer with many great things to say about the world and Black issues in particular.
Kweli ran through a good deal of hits, all lively and fun, and many considered bonafide classics of the genre. His quick rhymes and signature style got the crowd excited, his asides about race were extremely poignant. He called out people trying to co-opt the #BlackLivesMatter movement and told the crowd compassion is the best form of support. Ending his show with a long ode to the Nina Simone sample of his most popular hit, “Get By,” he stood reflectively as her voice bellowed from the speakers, and in that moment he seemed like the most honorable rapper I’ve seen in a while. Despite the influence and far reach of his rhymes, Kweli still makes it a point to honor those around him, a way of showing that Black lives do indeed matter. That deserves some reverence.
Emery Desper is a Seattle-based writer and regular contributor to 206UP. She Eats Books For Breakfast.
Rafael Ochoa is a Seattle-based photographer and videographer. Visit his online portfolio here.