In a city that's becoming whiter every year—nearly 70 percent as of 2014—Luis Rodriguez understands the necessity of creating spaces for Seattle's communities of color. "When you open a safe place for people, people come," said Rodriguez, owner of the Station coffeehouse on Beacon Hill and founder of the neighborhood's Block Party music festival, now celebrating its sixth year.
The Station, a pocket-size place on 16th Avenue South, employs exclusively Beacon Hill residents, many of whom are local musicians. Currently, Rodriguez's staff includes rapper Matt "Spekulation" Watson, DJ WD4D, and R&B singer JusMoni. Starting up a music festival in the neighborhood felt like an obvious choice, he said.
Watson has performed at the festival and helped organize it for the last four years. "Right now, we have more artists than we've ever had," he said. "Me and Gabriel Teodros have been impressed with how cohesive of a show we've been able to put on in the last three years, even though it's been so jam-packed."
The festival intentionally focuses on promoting local hiphop and rap artists, said Rodriguez—even ones you may not be familiar with yet.
A venue for smaller artists is absolutely critical, he said. "There are a lot of talented musicians in Seattle. But a lot of these venues play the same people. It's favoritism."
To combat that, Rodriguez hopes Block Party at the Station can become a launchpad for unrecognized artists. He said that the prospect of artists moving up in the music industry as a result of being seen at the festival would be his "greatest joy."
Over the last five years, several artists who have played at the festival—including Blue Scholars, Brothers from Another, and Hollis Wong-Wear—have gone on to local and national acclaim.
Rodriguez isn't taking credit for their music blowing up. Instead, he said he's thrilled and "so, so proud and blessed" that they have been able to grow since performing at the Station.
His mission has always been the same: Big or small, support and celebrate Seattle's diverse population of artists. And in a bigger sense, he said, the Block Party is about changing Seattle's perspectives on black and brown people. Part of the strategy for that is providing a forum for conscious hiphop.
Take Draze for example, he told me. People should take time to listen to tracks like "Irony on 23rd," in which Draze highlights racial double standards and how the city's famous expansion has left whole communities of people of color feeling voiceless. Block Party at the Station, he said, is intended to help the city's residents move past what they think they know about black and brown culture.
"I have a responsibility to look out for my brown people. [It's important] to have a different perspective for what is brown... A lot of people don't know what brown or POC or hiphop is," he said.
OTHER PARTIES, OTHER BLOCKS
Although similar in name, Capitol Hill Block Party and Block Party at the Station have different missions while their concepts are actually pretty similar. The former began as a fairly small gathering to celebrate local rock music and the neighborhood it grew from. But as CHBP grew in popularity and scale, the focus shifted from local bands (though there have always been lots of them in the lineup) to national headliners that reflected the tastes of the larger community.
Rodriguez's frustrations with CHBP's evolution are clear.
"We're definitely the opposite of Capitol Hill [Block Party]. It's the Capitalist Block Party," he said. "The difference between our block parties is based on community. [Beacon Hill's is] community-based and it's hiphop, which not many festivals in Seattle have."
(To be fair, CHBP's 2016 lineup does feature hiphop artists, including Astro King Phoenix, Goldlink, SassyBlack, and DoNormaal, who is also performing at the Station.)
Another perk of the Beacon Hill festival: It's free.
According to Rodriguez, a free music event is essential to the communities in South Seattle, especially for underprivileged youth. After all, he said, not everyone can afford to drop $70 on going to a day of concerts.
By making his festival free, Rodriguez said Beacon Hill's residents—new and old, hiphop fans and non-fans alike—will have an opportunity to better connect with one another over music and barbecue. In other words, the coffee-shop owner wants the festival to feel like an actual block party—a place for neighbors to kick back in their neighborhood.
According to Rodriguez, his festival is widely supported by the community. The concerts are held along 16th Avenue South, which isn't a busy commercial corridor on the weekends. His neighbors, including El Centro de la Raza, a Kumon tutoring center, and several apartment buildings, are involved in the planning process, he said.
"The Station is based on community, and I make sure I know my neighbors and the people around my neighborhood, to go and introduce myself," he said. "A lot of the old folks living on Beacon Hill know who we are. Through gentrification, there are a lot of newcomers."
Rodriguez is acutely aware of how his neighborhood is changing. In the 21 years he has lived and worked there, he's seen neighbors and local businesses come and go. Today, Rodriguez said he is seeing people flood into Beacon Hill as they are gentrified out of their own neighborhoods.
"In the past 5 or maybe 10 years, a lot of the gay community who were pushed away from Capitol Hill came to Beacon Hill. I love that," he said.
But other newcomers have arrived, too, drawn to the allure of "discovering" what they see as an up-and-coming neighborhood.
"I've noticed a lot of young hipsters in the past three years, moving into Beacon Hill, that's for sure," he said.
Because of this, he's thrilled that social-justice-minded artists are performing at Block Party at the Station.
"Draze, for one, has a lot of messages about gentrification. Things like that mean a lot to me because we're experiencing that on Beacon Hill," he said.
Not all change in the neighborhood is bad, Rodriguez said. In August, the Station will temporarily close to move—not too far, though. Its new home is just a half block down on the ground floor of the Plaza Roberto Maestas, which is operated by El Centro de la Raza.
Although the move is small, Rodriguez said it will give Block Party at the Station room to grow, and provide a bigger stage for the artists making waves in his neighborhood.