This year’s Seattle University Africa Day Celebration is a free, two-day event. Day one features the Seattle premiere of the photo exhibition ‘Masquerade,’ by French-Caribbean photographer Jacky Gotin (www.jackygotin.com), music by the Garfield High School Jazz Trio, and an awards ceremony for middle- school, high school, and college students who took part in an essay competition about the global African world. Day two is hosted by Hollis Wong-Ware and includes a panel of local educators discussing the status of global African studies in the local k-12 school system. The event will conclude with a special performance by MADlines. MADlines crafts witty rhymes and couples them with off the wall wordplay.
Always in search for musical muses…but what shall I do? Should I bust out the Oldies, or search the vast expanse of interwebs for something off the wall?
This brings me to an issue I’ve noticed; a problematic disconnect in Hip Hop between contemporary cats and old school heads. This disconnect almost always stems from what’s deemed good music. Young folks claim ownership over what they feel in their gut is cutting edge; some adopt a ‘rebel without a cause’ attitude. James Dean was on that a long time ago—trust me, nothing is new under the sun.
But on the flip side, old school heads make sweeping judgments about the current state of Hip Hop music—making it seem as though the future is bleak, or that it is entirely young folks’ fault that their music is mass marketed in demoralizing ways. This mindset is hella out of touch.
Perhaps the answer is somewhere in the middle. Maybe we’ve gotten tied up in notions of time as a linear thread. For centuries, the West has tried make us believe that there’s a beginning, middle and end to everything only to scientifically disprove themselves what with Quantum Physics.
So then there’s power in how relate to time. Black people have always grappled with this notion, often expressing conceptions of time through the medium of culture-creation. Imagine for a moment being constantly told that your experience is over, done, and you’re not supposed to feel it anymore even as you’re re-traumatized in ‘new’ ways. Yet, we remain resilent. Just do a little research about the conception of Hip Hop. Hmmmm that brings me to my interview. Story time!
Once upon a time, Lewis and Clarke “discovered” a majestic temperate rainforest (we all know that Sacagawea was already living there along with all her peoples, but that’s another story for a different blog post)…and them guys named it the Northwest. A bunch of European folks settled there and a city was built called Seattle. If they could get through Oregon…(the only state accepted into the Union, which outlawed black people from its borders) Black people could settle, create businesses and make art. Fast-forward (I know I’m skipping something, right?) to the nineties and a thriving Seattle Hip Hop scene, and we get one Pioneer (in a whole different sense) named Jace. Jace was born in Richmond, California as the son of Black Panthers who moved to Seacity. He started rapping at a young age, made a name for himself as part of the underground group, Silent Lambs Project and is currently one third of the soulful collaboration (which includes songstress Felicia Loud) called Black Stax.
Although I’ve relocated to Oakland from Seattle, I talk to Jace on the phone from time to time. He always has words of wisdom for me, reaffirming the past and imagining better for our people. Jace is a muse not only to me but also to his family, community and the students he reaches, so I asked him to answer a few questions about back in the day AND the essence of the Seattle sound.
1. What groups or artists were your musical muses growing up?
Well, that’s an interesting question. I grew up in a house where Sunday mornings at seven or eight when you smell cooking…you hear some of everything blasting in the morning. From Big Mamma Thorton to Stevie Wonder to Ohio Players to Etta James to Sam Cooke….Staples Singers—you know too it’s hard for me (to pinpoint one muse) because I was brought up on good music. We would hear Miles Davis, Muddy Waters, and Al Green.
I wanted to be Ottis Redding as a youngster. I loved his persona. What he stood for. The rawness of it. You could tell his passion was unquestioned. I always look to passion. Those artists with a passion are the ones that eventually do what Marvin Gaye did and Bob Marley—speak well of themselves and their people, and do it in a way that creates legacy. When you’re passionate about it then the trueness comes out. It was a wide range (of muses) but, to me, it was always about passion and it was always about creativity.
2. You were one half of the duo, Silent Lambs Project. When did you and Silas Blak first meet? Describe how you met and also the story behind your guys’ name?
Well, I met him at Langston Hughes (Performing Arts Center) in 1992, but we weren’t a group then. I just met him then. I had been to the East Coast and when I got back, Hip Hop was alive and well in Seattle. The city was bubbling. The energy was good! The support for one another was good…and I mean really good. The community was engaged and it was bigger than Hip Hop, it was more like a community movement but Hip Hop was the soundtrack. All revolutions have a soundtrack. Hip Hop just happened to be ours.
So I met him (Silas Blak) in 92, but we were kinda battling if you will because it was a talent show. We were more like “who is that?” He was with a group called Blind Council and I was with a group called The Fourth Party. We stayed competitors for about three or four years and then we started to do things like play basketball together.
We started hanging out a little more, ciphering and spending time with one another’s families and our babies. Getting to know one another as brothers and building a relationship based on more than just music…so around late 95, you know, I think we were doing a freestyle session and him and I talked about what it might be like if we combined forces as opposed to separating. What if we pulled our resources together?
For me, I wanted something that was authentic to the neighborhood…the South End cats that were getting no love—when I say love I mean from the Seattle music industry—like the Silver Shadow Ds and DMS, LSR…like Jasiri and True Believers Crew.
Black and I said “well, let’s join our forces” and we created a combination of Blind Council and Fourth Party. Late 95…we started to secretly use the word Silent Lambs. We did it through our music. We didn’t have a press conference. We just went about the work!
I did some research about the word lamb in particular. Just the word, and you know I talked to my mom and some historians and my dad as well and just tried to figure out who were the lambs…when you talk about the Book of Revelations and the Blood of The Lambs…but who are the lambs? The lambs were the messengers! They were the messengers that people chose to kill. Like, if the message doesn’t fit what it is…what they are trying to promote or program in you then you get killed!
And, you know, it wasn’t about being seen it was about being heard. For us, it was about following the message…being accountable. Using the God-given and blessed talent of a voice to do more than just pat ourselves on the back. It was more about the next generation. So we took on Silent Lambs. To us it represents the silent messengers at work…that’s what it really means.
3. What are the challenges and rewards of working with one other MC?
I think some of the challenges for us are that we always try to outdo each other you got to keep healthy competition going in a duo. When we write songs I hear his verse and I’m like: “I wanna top that!” We do it to make each other stronger, to make each other better. Not to demoralize, but to up your game so we can be the best. We strive to be the best in this game. Any competition between us is healthy. That’s one of the challenges is to stay competitively artful.
A lot of times the vision might be the same but how to go about the vision might be different. The most rewarding part is when the babies are singing the music or singing the songs and they know it verbatim, and they need to break down the words. When your own words and your passion has giving them some type of love of themselves…and understanding of what’s going on—a belief that they can overcome—that getting stronger is a blessing. Using strengths not to intimidate but create.
(Another reward is) the fact that after we create whatever it is that we create we’re able to go and share that with an audience…as a group sharing joys and challenges and accomplishments with someone else makes the journey so much more fulfilling!
4. You, Silas Blak and Felicia Loud are now Black Stax. What prompted the group? What do ya’ll got in the works?
What made that happen? For us it was about timing. For years, Silent Lambs Project was fans of Felicia Loud and Felicia was a fan of Silent Lambs, and then we thought about what can we do make ourselves a little stronger. We need Loud, the songbird, to clear up the messages by the unorthodox emcees that speak in parables and riddles (Silas Black) and I.
It wasn’t a scripted thing that we wanted to create just for what it looked like…it was more about, you know, we respected each other, we love each other, we have an admiration for each other, and also it helped us expand our unorthodox message. Felicia Loud is an accomplished actress, and a songbird that sings with passion! There was only one other person that we could have joined forces with. She made the same statement…I think it was a natural union. Now we can build with someone who is accomplished in the R& B, Blues, Jazz world and she can get a little dirty with the raw Raps, Underground…getting together was about challenging one another.
The instrumentation of Owuor Arunga, getting with him and creating our own style was dope. I’d also like to say that we respect all of those that have gone before us from Etta James to Lady Day and I can go on and on…
We get compared a lot to The Fugees or Digable or the Roots or the Black Star meets Jill Scott. All of these soulful people—we respect them but we don’t’ want to the 2nd any of that…as much as we respect and honor the greats and are humbled by the comparisons we want to be known as the first Black Stax.
So anyway…we got a couple videos that we’re working on that will be out this summer and the start of fall we have a single “Ugly” that we will be releasing. But we will always release some unreleased (b sides) we’re also going to be working on dropping a Black Stax Collection.
Also, we look to collaborate with some global producers (Africa, UK, Toronto and Australia). Planning a tour this year and continuing to create quality product. We’ll drop a couple producer CDS. Expect a lot of material from us. Solid connections with solid artists…thoughtful people that understand that art has a place and its place should be properly represented in the picture…
5. “Has anybody seen our babies in the Northern streets? They’re suffocated by the way they look…”
Many of your lyrics are introspective and tackle issues that impact Black folks. What’s unique about the Black experience in Seattle?
What’s unique is that we’re in an area that’s 90% white, so anytime that we can get together and build on anything weather a community festival block party or gathering at a venue because we’re such a minority we have to understand our power in a place where the word Black can sometimes cause fear.
It’s a…how can I say this?…it’s a challenge to maintain pride, love, value when you’re not…when there’s no reflective image coming back to you. All the positions of success, power and control—you don’t get to see yourself.
That causes a pause in the culture or a co-opting of the culture by other cultures and so you know…its deep. On the surface everything is ok and Seattle is a beautiful place. Its clean, the air is fresh, everything looks pretty in the city, but the system and all the policies are not set up for the advancement of Black folks.
The fights for equality, for equal opportunity, recognition…are still ongoing and Seattle is a place with a lot of intelligent Black folks that aren’t afraid to show their intelligent, but also there’s some cultural disconnect…
The word Black and the image Black…there are many valuable, useful and precious minerals that are black. We don’t talk about the process of getting those things (coal and diamonds)…what I want people to think about is that term, “Black is beautiful” that’s the usual. Understand your greatness. Understand your value.
6. Seattle is currently getting a lot of national attention with the rise of Indie sensation, Macklemore. What distinguishes the Seattle Hip Hop sound?
It originates from the atmosphere of the city. Out of town Black folks talk about how much Asian food we (Black ppl in the NW) eat…Teriyaki and Pho… There are not too many barriers from culture to culture so you get the collective sounds of different cultures and genres. You aren’t just getting a bunch of party raps or a bunch of hood raps or a bunch of conscious raps and that’s reflective of our sound. Our sound is vast. It not one particular vibe. It has different realities for people that live in the same city these realities are able to be expressed in the music on thing I love about this city is that people are smart you got to be smart you got to be slick wit it if you will with whatever you’re talking about
You have to have a little something about it. You can’t just be so plain. It has to have a creative aspect to it an artistic touch to it. I love that about this region. You got to decipher our music like you gotta do with Hieroglyphs
The Northwest being noticed now is tha natural process because we are the final frontier the Land of Oz you know we’re hidden by the trees and when you get through all of that to get to this region you find a lot of gems, jewels and the world is waiting to hear and see…
And I hope that because we are getting exposed that people aren’t looking for one particular artist I hope that people you’re gonna see different styles, looks focuses. We pride ourselves in the fact that we can fill your plate with every type of food that you need to stay healthy!