Seattle Foundation Blog

Hip-Hop: Young Artists Take the Mic

Creative Advantage funding helps young people access the arts

November 01, 2016

By Afrose Fatima Ahmed. Read this story and more in Volume 2 (pdf) of Seattle Foundation's Heart & Science magazine.

“You gotta stay true to yourself
Even if the moon turns blue
Even if the stars disappear
Even if it’s only you left.”

-Lyrics to "Blue Moon," Ezrail Donnie, Jah, Travis & K'jahn


The chorus of “Blue Moon” dives deeply into the immense challenges facing its teen artists: mainly the difficulty of being a young black man in America, justifiably indignant about the growing disparities facing many of their communities, aware that if they lead with emotion the world will quickly dismiss their words and the messengers.

The song ultimately offers a positive message: stay focused on one’s goals no matter what obstacles may present themselves. “Blue Moon” is the first track on the mixtape produced by the Hip-Hop Artist Residency, launched during the summer of 2015. TheArtist Residency is a partnership between two renowned, Seattle-based nonprofits: Arts Corps and Experience Music Project (EMP), and the local Grammy Award-winning duo, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis. In 2016, the program offered a three-week intensive camp for teenage hip-hop artists that focused on creative songwriting, performance techniques and beat production.

The Hip-Hop Artist Residency was born out of a conversation between Ben Secord, director for philanthropy and community engagement for Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, and Jonathan Cunningham, manager of youth programs and community outreach at the EMP Museum.

“[Ben] said, if you were to shoot for the sky, budget excluded, what would you do? I thought about my time here, my bucket list as a youth manager [and said] I would really like to see a program that is exclusively for youth that are low income,” Cunningham says.

EMP offers a number of creative summer camps for youth including Rain City RockCamp, a musical program for female-identified youth; Scribes Creative Writing Workshops, in partnership with Hugo House; and Sound Design for Games, in partnership with Digipen, where students compose music and sound effects for games and animation.

While every summer camp program at EMP offers scholarships for students with financial need, they don’t always draw the diversity that program managers desire, Cunningham says. In visualizing a program targeted towards youth that are low income, he emphasized that it should not only be free, but eliminate all barriers to access that might prevent a young person from attending: transportation, food and even a stipend to compensate students who might otherwise need to work during summers.

Artist Residency Showcase participants pose for the crowd  Arts at the Residency Showcase

Also very important is the creation of a safe space for youth who have never attended a summer camp or even entered a venue like EMP. What are the requirements for creating such a safe space? “Predominantly youth of color. Predominantly teaching artists of color. And a medium that speaks to them, which is hip-hop or poetry,” Cunningham says.

Cunningham approached Arts Corps to ask for their partnership for the Artist Residency. “Arts Corps is the perfect partner for this. They are already working with this population on a more consistent basis than we are. Arts Corps’ programming is always free."

“I wish there had been a program like this when I was in high school,” said Ben Haggerty (Macklemore). "There are so many talented young artists in this city, and it was amazing to see them come together and create a community. We need programs like this. If we want this generation to be healthy, happy, fulfilled, and to make progress, we all need a way to express ourselves.”

Arts Corps offers a host of creative programs for students K-12 that include dance, music, spoken word, theatre and visual arts. The programs are often offered as in-school residencies or as after-school programs, hosted in schools, community centers and sometimes even within neighborhoods.

Arts Corps serves approximately 2,500 students annually throughout King County. The organization emphasizes justice, collaboration and inspiration as values that imbue every program they offer. Arts Corps was a 2015 grantee of Seattle Foundation’s Equitable Access to Arts GiveTogether program.

Khabirah Weddington, 2016 Residency participant, performs  Khabirah Weddington, 2016 Residency participant, performing

Towards the end of the 2014-15 school year, Arts Corps and EMP sent out a call for youth to apply to the pilot summer of the Hip-Hop Artist Residency. More than 70 students applied for 20 spots. The selection criteria for spots in the program included financial considerations, previous experience as hip-hop artists or experience recording original music, and an interview with the program managers and teaching artists.

“We are ultimately looking for people with the least access to these kinds of opportunities around community work or social justice," says Omani Imani, Arts Corps' program director. “Young people who identify as artists. Young people who have some interest or analysis around community work or social justice.”

Lashaunycee O’Cain is one such young person. At 14, she was the youngest participant in the 2015 Hip-Hop Artist Residency. She has been singing and writing for several years. “I started writing when I was nine, after my grandma died… as a way to take on the grief.”

O’Cain developed a love of singing from her mother and sister, and began to write rhymes and lyrics independently. Living in South Park and attending Denny Middle School, she had opportunities for more traditional arts education such as band and orchestra, but lacked the access and resources to develop her passion for hiphop. “I did clarinet and I was bad at it,” O’Cain laughs. “I think I’m just going to stick to singing and rapping ‘cause that’s what I’m good at.”

After going through an interview process that she compares to The X-Factor, a television singing competition that requires auditions and a panel of judges, O’Cain was thrilled to be accepted to the Residency program. She spent two weeks receiving vocal coaching, collaboratively writing songs with other youth, recording in a professional studio for the first time and preparing for a performance in EMP’s state of the art venue, Sky Church.

The quality and depth of work accomplished by a group of teens, who had not known each other or even worked collaboratively prior to the camp, was impressive. Imani describes a visit to the camp at the beginning of the second week, “I walked in on one group’s session and they were offering really thoughtful feedback to each other. They were very neutral, but very specific and concrete, and their delivery was amazing… if adults could give feedback in this way, we’d be in a much better place.”

EMP hip hop participants 2  Artists Katu Lindsay-Garvey, Angel Cielos, Ivanna Garza, Esai Contreras and Bryce Villatoro-Thomas

When the camp concluded, the youth participants expressed a desire to continue on with the program. Cunningham compared not offering an ongoing creative outlet to youth as “taking them halfway across the river and leaving them there. And the kids are looking at the other shore…”

In response, Arts Corps and EMP set up ongoing professional development opportunities for young artists called Monthly Ciphers, lasting through December 2016. They have also doubled the number of residency participants for 2016 and lengthened the camp to three weeks. The number of teaching artists have increased to accommodate the larger group, and two interns were hired from last year’s cohort to serve as student mentors, granting continued participation, leadership and professional development experience.

The focus on building capacity among youth and creating pathways for previous participants to take on leadership positions is highlighted across Arts Corps’ teen programs. After the Artist Residency, O’Cain entered Arts Corps’ nine-month Teen Leadership Program. Participants in the program are involved in organizing a series of Poetry Slams that culminate in a Grand Slam competition. More than 650 people attended the Grand Slam in 2016. The teen leaders, with support from Arts Corps’ staff, are expected to produce the events from conceptualization to implementation – developing programs and marketing, conducting outreach and hosting events. “It’s really led by the young people and throughout the year they learn how to do those different aspects of production and management,” Omani says.

The programs are geared toward supporting young people to see themselves as change makers who use their art in service of social justice, as well as providing the tangible professional experience they could use to develop a career in the creative industries.

O’Cain’s maturity and thoughtfulness comes through clearly in her art and in her presence. In her group’s song, “Be Mine," the feeling of longing is palpable. This intensity of emotion is present throughout the music produced in the Artist Residency; deeply held, complex emotions find an outlet in creative expression.

O’Cain is committed now to pursuing music professionally and demonstrates the ethos of giving back to community in her work. She is hoping to return to the Artist Residency in 2016 as a mentor and is continuing on in her work with Arts Corps’ leadership program. Reflecting on an end-of-year event she helped organize at Youngstown, O’Cain recalls wanting to thank supporters for their work and demonstrate that when one gives to Arts Corps, one receives priceless value in return in the form of music, dance and poetry.

The Creative Advantage

A basic education that includes the arts is mandatory in Washington state, but many schools are not able to provide the necessary class time. The result is that while there are award-winning programs in some Seattle public schools, many students do not have consistent access to the arts as they move through their school careers. The Creative Advantage is a city-wide initiative to establish equitable access to arts education for each and every student in Seattle Public Schools. Already launched in all schools in the Washington Middle School area, The Creative Advantage program will broaden its reach into the city in the next several years. Seattle Foundation is a founding partner of The Creative Advantage, along with the City of Seattle’s Office of Arts & Culture and Seattle Public Schools. The effort embodies the Foundation’s belief that the arts are a crucial component of a strong and vibrant community.

To learn more visit: or contact Fidelma McGinn.

Heart & Science Magazine

Read Heat & Science magazine Vol. 2 for more on how philanthropists, community organizations and Seattle Foundation are working to create a healthy community through supporting the environment and arts & culture.

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