It’s maybe inevitable that when the words “block party” get thrown out these days, people usually think of Capitol Hill Block Party. It makes sense–these days the event draws international, big-name bands and spans three days and multiple venues. It’s a fun event (if you can deal with the crowds and drunken hipster bros) but it’s a block party in the same way that the Pride parade is an intimate dinner party with close friends–which is to say not at all.
Unlike Capitol Hill Block Party, Block Party at the Station, which had its latest iteration on Saturday in Beacon Hill, aims to stay true to the community-oriented, neighborly idea of an actual block party. All of the artists are local hip-hop musicians from throughout the region, the festival has no corporate sponsorships, and it’s free.
In an interview with The Stranger, Luis Rodriguez, the founder of Block Party at the Station (and owner of the eponymous Station coffeehouse in Beacon Hill), mentioned his hope that the festival helps to change Seattle perspectives on black and brown people. At the risk of indicting my own lily-white ass, Block Party did more than change perspectives–it obliterated them. I don’t recall ever leaving a musical event so energized and uplifted as both a music fan and an activist.
When I arrived at one o’clock, about an hour after Block Party at the Station started, the crowd was a little thin. By the end of the day it had swollen considerably, despite the bizarre weather which oscillated between downpours and sweltering heat.
Trying to pick performers to mention in this article was nearly impossible since almost every act on the bill seemed like a highlight. Nevertheless, I’ll soldier on and report my personal highlights.
Sendai Era may have been among the younger performers of the day, but there were also some of the most polished. An MC/producer duo whose Soundcloud is worth a listen, Sendai Era put on one of the cleanest performances of the day. Conscious rap doesn’t always make great chill-out music, but the duo has found a way to combine socially acute verses and spacey, atmospheric production into something vital.
The most accurate appraisal of Shontina and the Sugar Shack came from a passerby who, I suspect, was blazed out of his gourd. As her set dwindled to a close, this man walked past the front of the stage, made eye contact with Shontina herself and loudly proclaimed “Girl! You can sing really good!” It was true. She sang really really good.
Tacoma’s Sleep Steady are an absolute force to be reckoned with. Up to that point, most of the performers seemed content to keep everything fairly laid-back. There may have been some pointedly political talk between sets, but overall the energy level had remained fairly low. So when Sleep Steady, with their hyped-up brand of hip-hop bombast suddenly materialized, it took the crowd a bit to get on their level. But when they did, people were dancing and flailing around hard. Somehow the duo made raging in broad daylight on a residential street seem entirely appropriate.
I don’t know how old Travis Thompson is. I’m fairly sure I overheard him mention not being twenty-one yet. Onstage he looks even younger–maybe seventeen–so imagine my surprise when he proceeded to put on one of the most energetic, impressive performances of the afternoon. In the parlance of hip-hop: kid can spit. On top of being technically impressive, he’s also a manically hilarious, engaging performer. For somebody that can’t buy booze or weed legally, he turned out the performance like a professional.
A number of young folks from Youth Speaks Seattle read or slammed in between musical sets. Donte “Da Queen” Johnson was particularly impressive, putting on a set that included poetry and a party track that managed to sashay through sound issues pretty triumphantly.
I’ve seen Donormaal perform multiple times, and I’ve even written about her for this publication. Regardless of how many of her shows I go to though, I always come away with the conviction that she is one of the most singular and important figures in the Seattle music scene right now. By the time she took the stage, the crowd had swollen considerably and I don’t think I saw a single person who looked uninterested in her performance. She’s also one of the most hardworking artists around- the Block Party performance was one of three different gigs she had that day. At this point, there’s really no excuse for you to be missing out on what she’s doing. Go see her already!
Full disclosure: I missed headliners JusMoni and Draze because I left a bit early (after about six hours), but both are on my list of artists to check out this summer. Go see them to make up for my negligence!
More impressive than any specific performance though, was the way that Block Party at the Station managed to infuse a local music festival with a sense of political immediacy. I doubt that anyone in attendance walked away from the day without at least thinking about gentrification, police brutality and the current political and economic marginalization of Seattle’s black and brown communities.
The politic was everywhere. Performers talked about these kinds of issues between songs, and often directly addressed them in the music itself. The MCs, who rotated throughout the day and included comedian Brett Hamil and poet and community organizer Nikita Oliver, talked about things like gentrification, supporting local businesses and outreach both within Beacon Hill and in the city at large. Far outnumbering the food trucks and merch tents were booths featuring local artists and grassroots community organizations focused on social justice and sustainability. Local artists painted murals behind the stage and community members started jumping double dutch. It really did feel like a neighborhood block party–albeit with a giant stage and a lot of hipsters.
I saw black, brown, and white bodies mingling and dancing together in the alternating sun and rain. Parents with young children laughed and clapped while a group of queer kids vogued near the stage during a DJ set. Rogue Pinay, a female MC who performed earlier in the day opened her set by invoking the violence in Orlando and giving shout outs to the queer community at large. Block Party managed to distill so much of the culture and vibrancy of Seattle’s minority communities into an afternoon of music and art
If utopia is possible, surely it would look something like Block Party at the Station.