Silas Blak isn't impressed by Seattle's top-tier rap figures of the moment. Since he's a rapper himself, one whose heyday was several years ago, it's easy to initially dismiss his grumblings as jealousy--or in rap terms, simple "player hatin'."
The Black Face of Hip-Hop Langston Hughes Performing Arts Theatre, 104 17th Ave. S., 800-838-3006, cdforum.org. $5, free for students. 7 p.m. Thurs., Feb. 19.
But Blak (born Mark Washington) doesn't have issues with the most visible figures in Seattle's rap scene because of their music, which he describes as "really good." According to him, his beef is more complicated, wrapped in layers of race and local politics.
Just like electric blues—another historically black art form which morphed into rock and roll—hip-hop reaches a vastly broader, and whiter, audience than ever before. The difference in Seattle is that some of the most recognizable figures are by and large non-black: Blue Scholars, Common Market, Jake One, Mad Rad, and the Saturday Knights.
It's a fact that makes rappers like Blak concerned.
"I really do believe the Northwest is not going to push strong black men in hip-hop," Blak says. "I just don't believe the message is welcome, or that the image is welcome. In Washington, the darker the face gets, the taller the boundaries are [within music]. My question is: Why is so much black talent in hip-hop getting passed over right now?"
It's an important question, especially since it's not often asked in public forums. That's part of the reason Denee McCloud of the Central District Forum for Arts and Ideas, a community think tank for issues concerning Seattle's African American population, recently organized a panel discussion to open up dialogue on the subject.
In a two-hour symposium Thursday night entitled "The Black Face of Hip-Hop," McCloud is bringing together key figures in the urban arts community to talk about the subject. In her eyes, it's something that needs to happen.
"I think dialogue and open communication is always good," McCloud says. "We're not saying that people should automatically have issues with race and hip-hop. But it's about having transparency and bringing the issue out into the open, and also celebrating the role of black artists."
Because Seattle's hip-hop community is multiracial, there are various artists of color who gain acclaim, but at the moment the majority of them (with the exception of Dyme Def) are not black.
Dave Meinert, who manages Blue Scholars and Common Market, is one of the evening's panelists. "I've worked in a lot of world-music circles, and hip-hop worldwide is more about being a voice for the oppressed people than it is simply about race," says Meinert, who's white. "That's whether it's in the Philippines or North Africa...or Cuba...or Europe. So if we're going to be talking about just a black-and-white thing, that's definitely a dated conversation. But as a voice for folks who are marginalized, then discussing it in those terms is worth it."
"Race is a funny thing in Seattle," Meinert adds. "People don't know how to talk about it."
Blak, who is also one of the panelists, agrees with that. "It's hard to put a finger on the problem," Blak says. "We never had a conversation when the brothers and the white guys actually sat down in one room and told the truth...about venues charging different prices for hip-hop artists to play versus rock artists...and everything. That's what I hope can come out of it: the truth. I know Dave Meinert, and I think he's a good guy. My question for Dave is: Why did you stop at Blue Scholars and say, 'Here's my money?'"
Meinert says that assumption isn't true.
"I didn't go out and try to manage any hip-hop group," Meinert says. "I didn't approach Blue Scholars or Common Market, they approached me. I'd work with anybody, but I also can only do so much. The reason I've stopped taking on other artists is to be focused."
George "Geo" Quibuyen, the lead vocalist of Blue Scholars, is conscious that his ethnicity, Filipino, sets him apart from black rappers in Seattle, and doesn't hesitate to admit that's benefited his group's career.
"For the record, I do acknowledge that fact," he says openly. "I'm not going to say that's the determining factor on why we've had a lot of success, but it is a factor."
Quibuyen's musical partner, Sabzi, is of Iranian descent. Blue Scholars have toured nationally, released music videos on MTVU, and regularly get booked to play festivals like Sasquatch and Bumbershoot while local black hip-hop acts such as Spaceman, Orbitron, and D. Black are left off the bill.
But at the same time, within the national hip-hop sphere there is a downside to the group's Filipino/Iranian heritage that local artists may not recognize.
"In one way, it really misses the point to lay blame on individuals like us when it's a systemic problem," Geo adds. "The mainstream expectations for hip-hop outside of Seattle are this archaic notion of an urban black face. And we don't fit that. So we're locked out too."
Terry Radjaw, of the all-white party-rap group Mad Rad, also has mixed feelings on the subject. After a blitzkrieg of local press—both good and bad, based on the group's controversial antics—Mad Rad has emerged as yet another non-black group snagging the limelight at the moment. And Radjaw knows his group has its detractors based on race alone.
"I just look at the people who are supporting [hip-hop] now versus in the past," Radjaw says. "More so now, it seems that the white community is showing the most support, going to shows, buying records, etc. But I feel like age has more of an effect on certain shows that people go to than race does now. When I go out, I find young white kids and older black folks at hip-hop shows. Most black folks I see are the 35-year-olds...and why that is, I don't know."
DeVon Manier, head of the Seattle-based hip-hop label Sportn' Life Records, has all-black artists in his stable, but says that outside of his own camp he doesn't sweat the race issue too much. "It's not peculiar that there's more white MCs in the Northwest, cause there's more white people," Manier says matter-of-factly. "We just gotta deal with it and move on."
Interestingly enough, both Radjaw and Geo say the most resistance they've felt as rappers has been from within their own ethnic communities, not from blacks. But that's why McCloud thinks a discussion on the subject is necessary. "What we like to do is engage our panels on things that people don't like to talk about," McCloud says. "And right now, there's a political narrowness around hip-hop and race. So let's discuss it."