In celebration of Black History Month, KEXP’s Alina Santillan interviewed numerous local and national African American artists about what Black History Month and Black Future mean to them. Yirim Seck describes himself as “a wordsmith MC whose music both reflects the golden era of hip-hop and holds a roadmap to the future.” He is not only held firm by his roots -- bridging the illustrious musical legacy of Seattle’s Central District and his family’s rich Senegalese heritage -- but propels his insight and drive into a sound and a message all-too-relevant for today.
KEXP: What does Black History Month mean to you?
Yirim Seck: I don't know exactly how to answer that question, only because it was something that was given to us and it was like, hey, we have a single allotted amount of time in a year that we will openly celebrate the history of African-Americans and their accomplishments. And it's almost like they gave us the green light to do this thing. So for me, I feel like black history is celebrated every day, at least with me as far as where I see myself moving forward and the legacy I plan to do or leave behind in terms of family, art, work, whatever, knowing that my kids are ultimately going to pick up where I left off.
So, I'm constantly building on black history. As far as Afrofuturism, just to look at that word -- literally "Afro" meaning African-American or African descent and "futurism" meaning where we're headed. Moving forward, I think that kind of differs. There's a lot of beautiful things that are happening on a community, local policy level. A lot of things that are happening in mainstream media. A lot of advancement going on. So as far as futurism on a local level, we're having several conversations of what the future of African-Americans or people of color looks like here in Seattle. And one of the biggest topics is gentrification, gentrification displacement, inclusivity, access, and equity is kind of the path we're on now. Africatown, which kind of took the lead on a lot of things as far as working with several other community organizations to ensure that we have a space that is wholly ours in a neighborhood that was ours but is no longer ours. So we're fighting to maintain a presence, I guess is what it is. Creation of community art spaces that are to the benefit of people of low income, people of color, people from disfortunate communities. It seems like we don't have the same access that people with money have or privilege have. It's like we're just kind of looked over.
Personally for me, my personal goal right now is, we're having this conversation of what black economics is looking like. There's a lot of people out here who are having this conversation and this discussion and I feel like, just like white supremacy, they have successfully compartmentalized this so you can't tear down the whole system. You can hit on pieces of it, but obviously that's just the sum of the whole. So, the machine keeps moving. I feel like ripping a page from that book as people of color -- let me not say "people of color," because it seems like the Asian community has their thing together, the Jewish community has their thing together. Parts of the African community have their thing together. It's mainly the East African Community who seems to have come to an agreement that they are going to collectively work with each other to make sure that they preserve whatever it is they're trying to preserve. In the way of African-Americans, I feel like right now it's important to go beyond having this conversation of what black economics looks like and start actually creating that. And in my ventures, I tend to tie everything into my story.
So right now I've been working for myself for the past two years. It was a deliberate thing, but it wasn't a deliberate thing. In the process of me working through several ups and downs, working with corporate institutions in the trades, I had never had witnessed any growth in five to seven years and had been laid off in 2015 and literally went through four or five different employers. I was honest with myself and decided that this wasn't working, I was going to pull out and try something different. Utilizing the skills that I had taught myself skills and training that I had acquired in the trades, I then went out and began working for myself. And by chance I just -- you know I share a lot of stuff on social media. I put it out there and my phone started ringing. So then I realized that there was actual market for the services that would directly benefit the community that I represent. And initially my thoughts were, I have to open up the revenue streams because here I am working these 9 to 5s, and I'm not able to finance my passion. But more importantly, I'm taking from that pot that I'm trying to feed my family with. And it just wasn't working so I decided it's time to open up the revenue stream and this story just started writing itself. The contract started getting bigger, the demand went up. I've seen the opportunity when I needed help to actually pull in individuals from my community and actually allow that to trickle down and benefit them in essence. And most of the people that I work with are actually artists themselves. People don't realize the connection between arts and sustainability a lot of the times, that people look at it as if we just are manufacturing something and there's not a direct benefit to the community, like how are you giving back outside of providing an entertainment source of some sort. Whereas most of the people that I work with are artists themselves and I'm actually taking my money that I'm earning in other arenas and spinning with them and keeping circle continues that money continues to flow. So within the artist community, I think, alone that we have created our own kind of economics that we haven't really realized at this point. We have created job creation in essence and I think we need to recognize that and we need to start looking at more ways we can create opportunities for each other and just build on that at this point. And I think Afrofuturism, that same concept, is there. Black economics, that same content is there. So that's kind of my thoughts on it.
Were there any artists when you were growing up that really influenced your art in any aspect of your identity?
It's funny, I didn't really have a passion for music growing up. I didn't know what my calling was when I was growing up. I didn't pay too much attention either. People don't realize that a large part of my childhood -- I am dead serious when I say I don't remember it. Because I was just kind of everywhere. I dealt with a certain level of trauma on an emotional level. I think one person who recognized it was my mother and a lot of it stemmed from me being just African, having an African name, being big-lipped, nappy hair, living in a community that at the time wasn't really embracing the culture of Africans. So growing up, I grew up around a lot of music, but it was mainly a lot of African percussion. My mother was heavy into jazz. She was an artist herself. She was a jeweler. She created a lot of her creations while listening to this music. And that's kind of what piqued my interest. What really got me into hip hop was, my mother used to crush my brother's hip hop tapes because they were so vulgar -- literally, she would just take them and crush them. Where it all started, where I really got interested is when Wordsayer -- RIP Rest in Peace. Everybody knows Wordsayer the Town Mayor, is what they called him. He used to be mentors to my little brothers at Miller Community Center and he used to bring a lot of hip hop acts out. And at the time, by chance I happened to walk into the community center and The Roots were paying a visit to the kids. And again, I got another sampler of some music. When I started writing music, I actually didn't tell anybody they were my creations while reciting these. So just seeing the reaction of individuals that's kind of what piqued my interest. Another thing is I realized that people tend to listen more when you put things in a musical form versus when you're just talking to them and a lot of people don't know this -- I'm so brutally honest now, but I wasn't always like that. I was a huge crybaby pathological liar. Nobody ever believed anything I said. But as I got older, some things happened to where I had to pay the consequences for that which I eat my beef up front now. So I was able to express a certain honesty in the music and people would hear it versus me talking to them. That's kind of how it all started with me.
Why do you think music matters?
I think it's an educational tool. I think music is more powerful than people think. A lot of stuff resonates in the subconscious and we tend to listen or emulate the things that we watch or listen to the most. That's kind of who we become as individuals. A lot of things that we react to are probably things that we can relate to or affect us in one way or another whether we know it or not. And I just think that if you taught mathematics in a musical form, every kid would probably pass mathematics.
I just feel like music in itself has played a role in pretty much every social movement across the board. As simple as war drums to get people amped up to go into battle. You have Woodstock, you had the Civil Rights Movement which had its music, and even more recently with the election of Barack Obama where they realize how important the youth vote was and so they actually recruited influential hip hop artists and entertainers to get the youth to come out and vote. And we can even take it even more recently with Referendum 74 and Macklemore with "Same Love." I think that was a huge part of the success that he received, was packaging this in a way that was very non-offensive and relatable to people all across the board. So, music is very powerful to which I think is the reason it's so dangerous.
I believe there is a deliberate attack on certain artists because they just don't have the ability to dumb it down and they'll just say some things that could be damaging. I've been having this conversation online about this Black Panther soundtrack and I received some laughs back on social media. I mean, literally, my last 24 hours have been about this only because I'm of African descent. I've been to the continent, I've lived there, and knowing how the institution operates, there's never been a time in history where people of color were allowed to be so black. And I often tell people, they figured out how to monetize off of it. There's nothing wrong with that. But to whose benefit? I feel like that goes back to somebody coming outside of the community and setting up a shop of some sorts. We're spending all the money with this shop and they're taking it back to their community and not giving anything back. So, I think people thought I was dissing the artists on the soundtrack. But I was like, No, this is more of a missed opportunity because here we are, in a time and space where we can actually be unapologetic with who we are as individuals. And unfortunately the content that you chose to give us didn't elevate, it didn't inspire. I don't see it having a lasting impact. And it's not a shot against the artists. I just feel like when it comes to expression, we gotta be honest in this. Like, I understand some things are for entertainment value, which I'm all for, but when it comes to a movie like this, which is shrouded in fantasy, I feel like there are no boundaries at this point. There's no excuses. There really isn't. You can do whatever you want with this. Take it and run with it. The movie, I'm excited to see. I was just as excited for the soundtrack but it just didn't resonate. It just seemed so artificial.
I think as artists we can't totally piss everybody off. We can't cater to everybody's feelings at the same time. But I think that we can't be afraid to speak what everybody else is thinking. At the end of the day people don't have the courage, they don't have the voice, they don't have the platform, and they're looking up to certain people -- this is why we call them "representatives" -- to relay the messages, feelings, and thoughts of the masses or the communities they represent. But I do agree, I think that there is a fine line between truth being graceful, humility, being humble, cocky. You got to know the boundaries. At the end of the day I feel like these are conversations we should be able to comfortably have and still maintain a level of understanding and respect. I think most wars are started because of simple misunderstanding.
For more and a litany of amazing interviews featuring the incredible African-American musical artists that have shaped our lives, click here for all our Black History Month coverage.
Astro King Phoenix shares the reminders this time of year gives to never give up, dreaming about what the youth will do next, and how Tupac Shakur and Kanye West's poetry inspired him.
Seattle hip-hop artist Draze has been influenced by both the Seattle music scene and his Zimbabwean roots. He was kind enough to share his thoughts on Afrofuturism and some of his musical influences, and the power music has to change communities and each other.
Nikkita Oliver is an educator, attorney, poet, and musician, who also ran for mayor of Seattle in the 2017 election. She was kind enough to come into our studios and talk about what Black History Month means to her.
Seattle songwriter Olivia Thomas, who performs under the name LIV†, shares the importance of taking pride in the accomplishments of black people, encouraging black female artists, and feeling represented by artists like Alicia Keys and Lauryn Hill.
Sistas Rock the Arts is a collective that presents weekly open mic and jam sessions at Rumba Notes in Columbia City. Co-founder La Tanya Horace, aka SistahLuv, talks to KEXP about creating community and black future.
Om Johari is a Seattle based Afro-Punk Musician and Feminist Activist who has sung in Bad Brains and AC/DC cover bands. She has a unique and interesting perspective on Black History Month and why artist Nina Simone matters.