Amid a pandemic in flux, live music has returned. Standing shoulder to shoulder with others who missed the jostle, the sweat, and the beer-stained floors, it’s easy to dismiss the uncertainty of the future, and even easier to forget the delicate patchwork currently holding our live music economy together. Over the last year and a half, tectonic shifts with venues, artists, and other key players in our ecosystem have left our industry fragile in many ways. But in others, the pandemic has provided those looking for changes with opportunity, which artists like Seattle hip-hop staple Sol and industry figures like Ricky Graboski, Executive Director of The Vera Project are taking advantage of.
KEXP listeners will remember Refill 2020, a local music showcase featuring Sango, Perry Porter, Parisalexa, and more that we had the opportunity to share on our YouTube Channel last summer. This year, Refill is back with an in-person Block Party on Sunday, August 15 featuring a stacked lineup that flexes Seattle’s diverse music scene. This Block Party Benefit, which will again be live streamed on KEXP’s YouTube Channel, is free and open to the public — but as with last year’s event, which was able to donate over $25,000 to the Seattle Artist Relief Fund, Refill is asking attendees and viewers to donate in support of Vera Project’s new Equip the Kids Program.
Leading up to what will surely be the can’t-miss local music event of this historic Seattle summer, I connected with Sol and Graboski to talk about the importance of centering youth as we build back a more inclusive industry dynamic post-pandemic. The two discuss the opportunities and challenges that artists face in an inequitable creative economy, what attendees are in store for at the Block Party, and how Equip the Kids is helping ensure Seattle stays artistic for generations to come.
Read the conversation below, donate to Equip the Kids via Refill’s website, and join us on 9th and Thomas this Sunday at 4 PM PT.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
KEXP: It’s been a year since Refill 2020 was live streamed on KEXP’s YouTube channel and since then, things have started to reopen and we’re navigating what is slowly blossoming into a creative economy that resembles what we’re used to. But artists are still in need of support. How do you feel conditions have changed from this time a year ago to now?
Sol: I'll say as an artist and as one of the organizers of Refill, the climate has changed in a few different ways. When we did Refill last year, it was in a moment when everything was shut down. I think the public became hyper-aware of how that was affecting artists because concerts that they bought tickets to were canceled and artists who they love were talking about how it was affecting them. It was a very transparent moment for the arts community, for patrons and artists alike. As things start to open up, the narrative is changing and people are starting to go to concerts again. The idea that things are getting better has people excited, myself included, but the reality that this last year and a half has shaken us in a way that is going to permeate for years to come hasn't fully sunk in. We're still trying to process the full scope of that impact.
[The Refill Team] came to the conclusion that the need is still there and we wanted to do a Refill 2.0. Thinking about all the young artists that are trying to enter a career in music or art during a time where the economy is down and our city is as expensive as it's ever been, imagining trying to start out your career without a break or two... That's what Equip the Kids really is –– a program from Vera where they're trying to help empower young artists. And Refill is raising money for that.
Over the last year and a half, inequities that existed before have just been exacerbated — we don't see the ripple effects of that yet, and that's why support is more critical now than it's ever been. But one thing that has been positive about the pandemic is the movement around mutual aid. Artists have demonstrated that they don't need to rely on traditional funding models to generate support for themselves or for a cause. Refill 2020, for example, was an amazing and effective grassroots effort that reclaimed fundraising from an artist’s perspective. Do you feel like the presence of mutual aid has affected the way artists see funding and their ownership over that process?
Ricky Graboski: Yeah, I really hope so. Mutual aid, community organizing, DIY… taking ownership over these issues, especially when it’s youth driven, has always been Vera’s thing. Mutual aid is what we've always relied on. Vera is a community of artists that support each other even when the industry won't, even when the creative economy leaves them out and further marginalizes folks that need and have earned the most support. I'm hoping that this turns into a permanent change, and that this incredible Seattle focus on mutual aid and all of the people that have shown for protests and efforts like Refill that have gotten folks funded when they needed it most, that have taken the time to learn what artists need, where they're at, and how to support each other better — I hope that's permanent and I'm feeling optimistic about it.
I'm worried about a lot of the long term inequities in the music industry and not seeing them resolved when we have this incredible opportunity with the realization that the pandemic's brought about. But I think things like Refill are what can really demonstrate to the community that we need to support our artists. We need to make space for young people wherever we can, and we need to lift up the folks that have lifted us up throughout one of the biggest crises in history.
Sol: Well said. I mean, there's so much we could talk about, but I think the main thing from an artist's perspective is social media –– as a democratic platform where people can reach their peers and they can reach their supporters directly and vice versa. There's a certain level of presentation that goes into art where, as artists, you make your art and put it out into the world and hope people support it. But COVID-19 broke the fourth wall. It created a moment where artists could be candid about their conditions and what they were navigating. We saw a lot of mutual aid come out of that, a lot of direct support on different platforms, whether it be live streaming or Patreon or GoFundMe or OnlyFans. There's a whole world of people taking ownership and getting direct support that I'm inspired by right now.
KEXP: Mutual aid has been emblematic of the ways we can eliminate bureaucracy within our creative economy. Refill 2020 and the Seattle Artist Relief Fund, which Refill’s proceeds benefited, were ways to support the community and invest in it outside of the processes that have been set up for us, processes that don't always benefit marginalized communities. With Refill 2.0, you’re again highlighting an opportunity for music lovers, music listeners, music makers in Seattle to invest in their creative community. This year 100% of the proceeds are going to Vera’s Equip the Kids program. Ricky, can you give us a rundown of Equip the Kids?
RG: So we started Equip the Kids seeing this massive gap during the pandemic. Young artists had barriers to entry before the pandemic — but everything was exacerbated, like you mentioned, to such an extreme. There was no accessible way to be a part of or create the culture; so much disappeared for young people who wanted to be part of the conversation. We kicked off a small gear drive to bring in as much equipment as we could to get young people live streaming so they could perform shows, take classes, whatever they needed to get by. Once we saw the demand, we reached out to our friends in the city and a bunch of community groups to see how we could turn this into something with some real longevity that could provide training, the gear, the mentorship, the support, and even paid opportunities. Somehow we were able to pull that all together.
The program basically brings in young people, primarily BIPOC youth, from marginalized communities outside of Seattle's center and in outlying King County, to take classes from experts in town from big musicians on anything they're interested in, whether that's video production, photography, live streaming, arts, performance editing, anything related to our creative economy. They took that training and created their dream projects with us. We paid them to do it. And then they got long-term paid gigs in the creative economy that we helped connect them with afterward. We have this huge opportunity moving into the fall where we get to take this virtual program and make it a hybrid in-person thing. Not only will young people get access to the music industry and the tools that they need to lead it, but they also get back to community building in-person — being onstage, seeing their friends and the folks they got to collaborate with in the room, and work with people like Sol to learn how to how to make beats. We're hoping to keep this program going forever.
That's incredible. Sol, in a previous conversation, you mentioned Refill has an ethos and a mission. I'm wondering how that mission is contextualized within the cause for this year’s event, Vera’s Equip the Kids.
Sol: Last year we worked with Seattle Artists Relief Fund to directly support our peers. This year, when we looked at our message and our mission, it came down to not just supporting but also creating a platform for artists. As a concert, Refill is a space and a microphone on a stage — that’s empowering people. And empowering youth is an important part of supporting artists in our city. One of our main goals is to help empower artists to continue to make their art; part of that is being able to make it in the first place.
Thinking back to when I was 18 graduating from school, if it wasn't for a couple [of] big breaks from people like at Vera, I wouldn't have been able to kickstart my career and make a living making music. As a young artist, it’s so important to even just have people tell you, hey, this is possible and have people you can learn from and be mentored by. That's why we decided to make youth a focus this year because with this period of COVID, it's so important that we don't lose a generation of artists in our city. It's so hard to afford to live here. And if we don't move correctly, the future of this city could be a lot less creative and a lot less artistic.
Refill is such an exciting event that’s taking on a really critical mission. And this year's event is a block party! An in-person showcase that's free and open to the public. What led to that decision and what precautions are you taking to make attendees feel safe considering the ongoing pandemic?
Sol: Thank you for that question. It being in-person is what people have been working towards, getting vaccinated and getting to the summer where we can step out outside. When we were considering how to approach Refill this year, we wanted to be as cautious as possible by doing this outside and also by continuing to run it as a livestream. We have a whole side of our production that’s for the livestream space. It'll be streaming on KEXP’s YouTube and you can donate through that and watch the entire program if you're not comfortable coming out in person. While in person, we also encourage people to mask up, obviously be vaccinated and we'll have sanitation stations. This is an opportunity for people to get together but stay responsible while doing so.
Sol, last year you performed a set for Refill — this year, you’ve taken a step back to curate the lineup. What are you excited about? What are music lovers going to see at the Block Party?
Sol: Putting together lineups is one of my favorite things to do when I'm organizing my tours! To be able to pass the mic, so to speak, and create this lineup was a real pleasure for me. We were able to put together a beautiful lineup of artists that show the eclectic future of Seattle music. Blimes and Gab are headlining, they’re a dope femme hip hop duo that rap like crazy. Naked Giants are performing and so is this wonderful new band Enumclaw from Tacoma who are getting great buzz that’s rightfully earned right now. Stas THEE Boss will be performing a lot of her solo music. Archie, who’s got a wonderful diva energy — I could imagine her on the biggest stage so for her to play the Refill stage is awesome and I wouldn't be surprised if she brought backup dancers that I’ve seen. And then Brujita XO is another young Chicana artist performing who’s also a Vera alum. It's an eclectic lineup, you can't pin it down to one genre. I feel like it really represents the beautiful side of Seattle culture that sometimes people don't see.
We’ve worked with a lot of these artists in some capacity over the last year and a half so, in some ways, this lineup is symbolic — they’ve held it down and continued to nourish us throughout this difficult time. Ricky, why is it important to support events like Refill, events that are put on for artists by artists?
RG: It's the most important thing we can do in our creative industries. It's an event by the community, for the community that exists for the sole purpose of bringing the community together and making sure that young people have opportunities like we've been fortunate enough to give them throughout the last year. Seeing artists come together to take care of each other, to take care of the next generation of artists and kickstarting the next generation that I hope will lead this city in our creative economy is incredible. So being able to have an incredible time with this lineup — it rules, Sol, you killed it — while also being able to build what our community needs to look like in the music industry... Having such an exciting opportunity to do that this summer as we're recovering is going to be transformative for young folks that haven't come out to these kinds of shows before, and for the young people we’ll be able to put through this program as a result. I'm just psyched to be able to be there and to be a part of it.
Hearing how both of you talk about what's to come and what Equip the Kids is going to do for our community is so exciting as we look towards the future. What changes do both of you hope to see within our industry as we build back a more inclusive industry dynamic?
Sol: So many changes. Man, I personally would like to see a continued effort of leveling the playing field and artists being the center of the art. It feels like it's a given, but between the way artists get paid through streaming and the archaic record deals that many artists still find themselves signing, or even the deals we make with venues… Obviously, venues are trying to make it through this time as well, but I would like to look to a post-COVID future that’s much more fair for artists.
During lockdown, I thought a lot about the role of artists in a struggling community, or even during the uprisings last summer, where does art fit in? Art is so crucial. Music has helped a lot of folks. I hope to see a new level of appreciation for that, both from a financial level and also just on a spiritual level, like concerts are just going to hit different! These things that so many people took for granted, I hope to see a higher level of appreciation.
RG: I echo everything Sol said. I think we have maybe the biggest opportunity we've ever had in the history of our creative economy, in the music industry as a whole, to make some changes. We shut down for 18 months. I have empathy for the venues, but a lot more empathy for the artists that are at the center of everything we're doing. Now is our chance. We’ve got to make these changes. We’ve got to support artists. We've got to make everything a whole lot more equitable, build opportunities for young people and folks of color a lot more effectively. Hopefully we can focus a little bit more on the community building and the art portion rather than the profit portion. But in order to get there, we need to make sure artists are getting paid and that we're making sure these opportunities exist for everybody, that a stage exists for everyone that needs one. And that's why we're bringing young people to the forefront of the conversation.
Scroll to explore the artists taking the Refill stage this Sunday, August 15, on 9th and Thomas in the heart of Seattle’s South Lake Union. We’ll see you there.
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