To avoid embarrassing Seattle when showcasing its arts community on the world stage, please observe Rule #1: Don’t lead with a flash in the pan.
Unfortunately, the fine folks at the BBC didn’t get the memo, so when you tune in to the latest episode of the UK broadcaster’s flagship culture program The Arts Hour: On Tour in Seattle, which airs on March 26, you will likely hear a good deal of the Marshall Law Band.
While I still hold the funk-hop group in esteem for courageously playing in the streets during the heady days of Black Lives Matter protests in June 2020—I cut and run when the teargas came; they dialed up the volume—nearly two years later the overearnest jam band has overstayed its welcome as an ambassador for Seattle music.
Fortunately, music is not Seattle’s only cultural calling card. The Arts Hour’s host, Nikki Bedi, found plenty of interest during her 48-hour whirlwind visit earlier this month, wedged between stops in New York and Los Angeles. Her cultural tour of the Emerald City included stops at Kubota Garden, the Duwamish Longhouse, and El Centro de la Raza. It culminated in a March 12 panel discussion recorded in front of a live audience at the Rainier Arts Center featuring filmmaker and Stranger Genius Tracy Rector, poet Claudia Castro Luna, comedian Chris Mejia, singer/songwriter/activist Hollis, and video game developer Bonnie Ross.
“Seattle has this little bit of grit that creates the pearl in the oyster,” Bedi told me after the taping. “You have huge tech here, we’re on unceded land so we have First Nations’ people to consider. Then the sheer amount of talent in this city in terms of music. We just felt there were so many different things going on in Seattle, it was really rich and different.” (I know you can’t have ’em all, but drag is one of Seattle’s artistic strong suits and the lack of a queen or king on stage was, well, a drag.)
I tried not to blush on our behalf from Bedi’s flattery, which was a welcome vote of confidence during a period when it seems like civic self-esteem is near an all-time low. While previous Arts Hour tours have stopped in Austin, Miami, and Nashville, it’s still an honor to play in the big leagues alongside the Big Apple and La La Land.
Unfortunately, Seattle punched below its weight.
Marshall Law Band provided the intro and outro soundtrack, which unquestionably should have gone to more capable hands. The Black Tones could have illustrated Seattle rock evolve beyond, rather than mimic, ’90s grunge nostalgia. Shabazz Palaces would have shined a light on our city’s unsung hip-hop scene just in time for the launch of KEXP’s new podcast about the Black Constellation music collective. Instead, we were subjected to corny rhymes rehashing a made-for-TV version of CHOP.
Another miss came from Hollis, who cut her teeth in the local spoken word scene, commandeered stages across town while fronting The Flavr Blue, and netted a Grammy nomination for her work on Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ “The Heist.” But since her Seattle heyday, the SoCal native has largely returned to SoCal. (Her bio describes her as “a songwriter, musician, speaker, creative generator and community advocate who lives between Los Angeles and Seattle, WA.”) Putting aside the fact that the panel should have been reserved for full-time Seattleites, Hollis’ song “Grace Lee,” which she performed on stage, typified the worst trends of contemporary social activism with its vague and hollow refrain of “reimagine everything.”
Taking up the BBC’s airtime with that kind of empty sloganeering is all the more frustrating because there is a wealth of concrete, specific work happening in Seattle to sustain a viable arts and culture scene against the tide. Panelists were right to talk up the challenges of overpriced housing and the grind of “begging for scraps” through grants, as Hollis called it. They correctly fingered our tech-driven economy for making arts and culture into a peripheral career at best – New York and Los Angeles are expensive places to live, but the performing arts and the silver screen are also major chunks of the job market – though I felt bad for Ross, head honcho at Halo developer 343 Industries, who became the unwitting avatar for all of the tech industry’s ills.
But with the exception of Castro Luna, whose Seattle Poetic Grid cagily cajoled verse out of our city’s streets, no one seemed to have any answers (other than “reimagine everything”).
You know who does have answers? Vivian Philips, who founded Black arts magazine and soon-to-be physical storefront Arté Noir. Matthew Richter, who conceived of and midwifed the Cultural Space Agency, a quasi-public entity whose sole mission is to purchase and develop real estate for the arts like Arté Noir. S Surface, who shepherded the renovation of King Street Station’s upper floor into a publicly-owned art gallery. Greg Lundgren, who bootstrapped the Museum of Museums with the explicit goal of preserving and growing the number of artists in the region and is part of a consortium reimagining Bumbershoot to make it a vital part of Seattle’s cultural life. Ahamefule J. Oluo, who is turning the new Crocodile into a landmark destination with a monthly residency inspired by the likes of Fela Kuti. Julia Bruk, who is bringing new media and light art to our city’s sullen walls. Wesley Frugé, whose BeautyBoiz collective didn’t put their sequined tails between their legs when Fred’s Wildlife Refuge closed and now enliven the weekend scene at Supernova.
“Wherever we go in the world, this issue of gentrification pushing out artists who don’t have the earning power to live within that city is massively widespread,” Bedi told me. “It’s like a rippling echo that we hear throughout the arts – and it’s sad.”
What do I want the global audience tuning in to the BBC Arts Hour to glean about Seattle? We are far from perfect on the gentrification-pushing-out-artists score, but in the absence of major cultural industries—and in the shadow of a major high-tech industry—our grit, our pearl in the oyster, is creative ingenuity in the face of that adversity to roll up our sleeves and reimagine something.