“Kiddus is here!”
Tate, who goes by the stage name Russ.Le, threw his arms in the air, his face beaming. Kiddus joined the group Zoom call, having just moved his kid brother out of the room so he could talk with his friends and fellow artists in peace.
“Kiddus, I missed you, bro!” Russ.Le said, rocking back and forth with enthusiasm.
“Same, bro, it’s been a minute,” Kiddus responded, smiling.
“I’m going to go cry, bro!” Russ.Le stood up and walked out of the range of his computer’s webcam, for effect.
It had been months since the half dozen young artists on the call had seen one another, months since Totem Star, a recording studio and music workshop for youth, shut its 250-square-foot space to protect against the deadly coronavirus.
But closed doors are no match for the internet, or for the family-of-choice that Totem Star helped create.
The orgnaization, its founders and its artist-mentors have continued to provide lessons, musical advice and community to the young people who call it home, overcoming distance and circumstance to provide artistic development and community in a time when people need them most.
Totem Star is a decade-old organization co-founded by Daniel Pak that was created to give youth a place to come together to learn music, hone their music-business skills and build community.
Grae Violett currently lives in Olympia, more than an hour away from South Seattle where Totem Star is currently based. She found Totem Star three times, once at a music career day, then again at the Seattle Art Museum and finally at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, where she saw Mirabai Kukathas perform.
“Oh my gosh, she can sing!” Grae Violett remembers thinking.
The third time was the charm.
Before joining with Totem Star, Grae Violett would write songs in her room, playing them on the keyboard and hoping that eventually, someday, she would find a space where she could record her songs. In Totem Star, she found her “someday” much sooner.
Because she lives farther away, Grae Violett often comes to the studio with music that she already wants to record. Artist-mentors help her arrange her music and work on her singing-songwriting, the base of her work.
Now that the official recording space isn’t open, she is exploring new avenues of artistic expression.
“I’m a big guitar person. I love guitar in my music,” Grae Violett said. The statewide lockdown is giving her a chance to learn to play the instrument.
Pak and his team saw that lockdown coming. First China, then South Korea and then Italy became virus hot zones and, with the exception of South Korea, places of mass casualties. Travel restrictions were declared in January. It wasn’t until later that the United States would discover that the virus was already within its borders, circulating undetected.
“I remember the two things that sealed it for us were when all of our events started getting canceled, and then the University of Washington canceled all its classes for the rest of the semester,” Pak said. “Then Microsoft sent all of their employees home.”
Pak’s drummer was one of those employees. He called to tell Pak he was on his way home to California.
“That’s when we’re like — OK. Things are all going to shut down, so we better get on top of it,” Pak said.
The staff got together to discuss options. How would the organization continue to connect with its mentees? How would it keep the community together?
“We ended up closing our studio on March 9. The very next day, we launched what we call ‘remote sessions,’” Pak said.
Students sign into an online portal and book space. They can work on songwriting, vocal technique, performance, beat making, mixing, music business and other pieces of the craft through one-on-one sessions with artist mentors.
The online space has opened up new opportunities, Pak said.
“In fact, we’ve had sessions as far away as Holland. Some of our artists who have gone away to study abroad have reconnected with us via these remote sessions,” he said.
That’s been great for Amina, a poet and self-described “social butterfly.”
“I need human beings,” Amina said. “I’m okay if you’re right next to me.”
Opening the online platform has helped with the isolation of the lockdown, giving structure to a week when days blur together in a miasma of monotony.
“It’s a consistent thing we look forward to in our days,” Amina said. “It’s been hard, but they’ve been making it easier, for sure.”
Even in a tech city like Seattle, strong, consistent internet connections are a privilege. While 95 percent of households had internet in their homes in 2018 compared to 85 percent in 2013, the ability to stream live video is about more than access. That’s compounded in some neighborhoods in Seattle, which sparked the Upgrade Seattle movement for municipal broadband.
Arete, a rapper, is new to Totem Star and likes it and the people that compose it, but he’s only been able to go to a few of the online sessions.
“Everybody here is real helpful,” Arete said. “These virtual sessions are really great, too. I haven’t been able to go to a lot of them because of the bad connection at my house.”
That doesn’t stop him, however.
“When I do have good connection, I complete everything I can as quickly as I can. It’s not too much of a struggle, but I’ve got to be quick about everything,” Arete said. “I can still manage it, but in a hurry, like Sonic.”
When Real Change first met Pak, it was after a weekend conference at Orca K-8 School. He was presenting the music video for “Superhero,” which he created with his band Kore Ionz. It dealt with weighty subjects that are just as urgent in 2020 as they were in 2017 — police brutality against children of color, rape and violence.
At the time, Totem Star had been around for seven years, and had worked with more than 1,000 young people.
“We’re just planting seeds,” Pak told Real Change in 2017.
Despite personal and universal adversity, those seeds are flourishing.
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC.
Read more of the May 13-19, 2020 issue.