As Upstream Music Fest Approaches, Local Artists Turn Into Activists

A new coalition is petitioning Vulcan to commit to equitable development in the Central District.

Geneiva Arunga has nothing against Paul Allen.

“Paul Allen is buying up so much property. I’m not mad at that. If I had the money, I’d buy it all up too,” says the third-generation Central District resident who raps and recites poetry as Dadabassed. “Nobody’s mad at that. What we want is affordable living for the people who make this city’s heartbeat.”

Arunga is one of many local artists and community groups who have begun to collectively assert something Arunga says they’ve all been thinking individually: The current economy makes living in Seattle as an artist incredibly difficult. “We need to be respected as artists, and once we’re all on the same page, and we know our worth, it’s going to be hard to write us off,” she says.

The growing movement saw an opportunity to make that statement in a very concrete way with the Upstream Music Fest + Summit, created and funded by Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen’s private management firm Vulcan. The brand-new three-day festival, set to run May 11–13 in Pioneer Square, is one of the most locally focused major festivals in recent memory. With a series of artist workshops, a lineup that overwhelmingly features local and regional music, and a slew of stages curated by local music labels, organizations, and collectives, Upstream bills itself as a way to “give emerging local artists the resources they need to navigate and thrive in the new music economy.”

It is undoubtedly a benefit to the local music industry and community. But for many artists, it doesn’t speak to the more fundamental realities of the city’s economy. “If the singers, DJs, writers, rappers, and artists cannot live in this city, this city will no longer have anything to do,” Arunga says. “You can’t just push us out of Seattle and then call us up when you need Upstream and need us to participate in this local showcase. It’s like, hold up—a lot of these artists don’t live here anymore.”

That idea is echoed by Wyking Garrett, the director of Africatown in the Central District and an inaugural member of the Seattle Music Commission. “I saw that music generates billions of dollars and 30,000-plus jobs,” he says of the latter role, “but the communities that much of the music legacy originated in do not see any significant economic benefit.”

“Art should be able to be used as a tool of economic empowerment,” says Julie Chang Schulman, aka Julie-C, a rapper in sWordsCool and a part of the CD’s hip-hop-focused community nonprofit 206 Zulu. “We should have a healthy music economy. But that’s not a separate conversation from having space to create art, and that’s being pulled out from under us. It’s really important to look at this conversation as a whole.”

Schulman, who is performing at Upstream, was a key figure behind the “Create Equitable & Inclusive Development in Seattle” petition and letter, released on Friday after two months of community input. Co-signed by a large swath of scheduled Upstream performers and others from the local hip-hop community—figures like Gifted Gab, DoNormaal, and Spekulation; groups like Africatown, the Seattle Fair Trade Music Union, artist and mayoral candidate Nikkita Oliver’s Peoples Party; and many others—the petition lists four specific suggestions for Vulcan regarding two major redevelopment projects planned in the historically black Central District: the Promenade at 23rd and Jackson, and Yesler Terrace. Vulcan paid $53 million for the 10 acres of land that will host these massive multiuse projects, which “are going to be more transformative than South Lake Union was as far as this city goes,” Julie-C says—including 1,220 new apartment units and new ground-floor retail. In light of this, the letter calls on Vulcan to:

“1. Work with Africatown and a community-nominated stakeholders’ committee to integrate collective community ownership into Promenade, Yesler Terrace, and future real-estate projects via models such as the Liberty Bank MOU and/or the development of community land trusts.

2. Commit to mitigating displacement from all past and current Vulcan development projects by offering permanently affordable housing based on neighborhood median income above and beyond [Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda] and/or [Seattle Housing Authority] agreements.

3. Commit to offering affordable spaces for music rehearsal, art studios, or culture collaboratives within Vulcan real-estate developments with priority access for entities representing vulnerable populations.

4. Build on the work of Musicians Unions and Seattle Music Commission to fund an analysis of music impact data with [a] race and social impact tool/lens to identify clearly who benefits and who is left out of the music economy and strategies for equitable participation.”

After the petition was made public and available to sign on, a Vulcan spokesperson told Seattle Weekly, “We have reached out and are hoping to meet with the artists behind the letter. This conversation requires many stakeholders, including developers. We’re proud of the work we’ve done in starting Upstream and pleased with the positive response from so many musicians and fans.”

For Arunga, jumping on board was a no-brainer—the language in the letter echoed what she had already been doing in her “displacement rallies” at 23rd and Union’s Midtown Center, the next of which will take place this Saturday from 2 to 6 p.m. A storied intersection in the historically black neighborhood, the area has seen a number of black-owned businesses pushed out due to development. Arunga teamed with organizers to turn the rallies into “mini-block parties,” and for five weeks, every Saturday, she has been bringing in seven musicians at a time to perform—including Gifted Gab, JusMoni, and Yirim Seck—to help make the conversation more accessible to outsiders and bring them on board with anti-displacement work in the area. “I think a lot of the artists that are on [the petition] have been activists in this community for years,” Arunga says, “but now this is an opportunity for all of us as our own separate entities to work together on something that is affecting all of us. A lot of us have these cliques—but the displacement of the artist community and the black community is really mobilizing all of us to come together.”

Garrett is optimistic about the prospect of Vulcan working with the artists and his organization. A driving force behind efforts to bend development in the neighborhood toward equitable community benefit, Africatown has already had conversations with Vulcan. “We have been told that Vulcan shares our values, and are still in discussions on how it will be realized in the redevelopment,” Garrett says. “This can and should be a shining example and replicable win/win model of inclusive, heritage-rich, equitable development that mitigates displacement, allowing community to grow and thrive in place by providing ownership and leveraging the rich cultural legacy of innovation in the African-American community. Paul Allen himself was inspired and greatly impacted by the creative genius and innovation from the black community in the Central District via Jimi Hendrix. This is an opportunity to honor and bring that legacy into the future.”

The letter emphasizes that historical component. “There’s a heritage to our artistic practices that we have to be accountable to,” Julie-C says. Yesler Terrace was designed as a low-income housing project in the 1940s, and the Promenade, first assembled to be a minority-owned shopping center, still bears neon signs of jazz artists and music notes, nodding to the area’s history as a musical hub in the city. For the artists behind the petition, this is just the beginning of a potentially years-long process to ensure that the neighborhood’s history is also a foundation for a future.