By Lisa Loving
Draze, also known as Dumisani Maraire Jr., has an unequalled lineage in the Pacific Northwest: Born in Seattle, he is the son of Dumisani Maraire (1944-1999), the marimba superstar from Zimbabwe who became a University of Washington ethnomusicologist while igniting a musical movement throughout Oregon, Washington and beyond.
His mother, Lora Lue Chiorah, is a multi-talented educator, musician and dancer. His sister Chiwoniso Maraire (1976-2013) was the celebrated mbira artist and singer-songwriter behind the celebrated “Rebel Woman” and “Ancient Voices” recordings — she was called the “Zimbabwe Mbira Queen.” His brother, Tendai “Baba” Maraire, currently tours the globe as half of the Sub Pop experimental hip hop group Shabazz Palaces. Draze’s 12-year-old daughter Nya-J is already making a name for herself with original hip hop music performances and music videos.
This year Draze’s single describing how gentrification hit Seattle’s South Side grew into a video picked up for Seattle Center’s 50 Next project, inspired a major art show at the Experience Music Project Museum and has now touched off a local movement launching a series of community dialogues on community displacement and gentrification that will soon bring local people together in coffee shops across the city.
The Skanner News spoke with Draze – an emerging modern griot — about displacement, race, art, and what it will take to bring all our communities together.
The Skanner News: How did this project come about?
Draze: I’m a rapper, I’m an artist and musician. I was in the central area of Seattle, and I was getting ready to go to the East Side but it was traffic time, and I said you know what? I don’t want to go to the East Side right now. I’m just going to stay right here in the Central Area for a couple hours until traffic dies down, and then I’ll travel across the bridge.
And then I thought maybe I’ll go get something to eat. And I was in the mood for some soul food. I started looking around and the two or three places that I used to go weren’t there.
I can’t even find any soul food in the heart of the Central Area? And then the next was, I’ll go hang out at my friends’ houses. And I was going through my phone, only look to look up and say wow – nobody’s here.
As an artist, there is a moment when the light goes on and this thought came – man the hood ain’t the same.
And that sparked this song, “It Ain’t The Same.” And that was just the song — the actual movement took longer to get to.
So I ended up with 50 Next, which is an organization in combination with SeattleCenter; they were doing a compilation. The concept behind 50 Next is in the spirit of celebrating the space needle turning 50 years old.
So the idea was, let’s create a hip-hop project looking at 50 or 100 years from now, something people can look back on and say this is what was going on in Seattle. I felt this was a great opportunity, to send in this track, I did that. Steve fell in love with it and everyone at SeattleCenter fell love with it.
As that happened, we created a video for it. And in the music video, my idea was I wanted to capture my community as it’s changing, as it’s transitioning. There’s a restaurant in there called the Silver Fork. We actually sat in front of the Silver Fork the day they were closing, and it was amazing to see this place that was once frequented by African Americans but now it’s going to be gone because I think Safeway is going to be building a gas station or something.
My director said, let’s not just shoot the building, let’s shoot people in front of the building. The idea is, when you change these buildings you don’t just change the buildings – you change the people who frequent the buildings, and thus you end up changing a community. So the video was shot and I had this idea, rather just doing a normal video, let’s create something where we can look at gentrification through the eyes of artists. Music, that’s one form of art. You have painters, you have photographers, and then you have spoken word. We pitched it to the EMP, Jonathan over at the EMP fell in love with the idea, and I think the rest was history.
TSN: As you’re looking at what’s going on around you, what do you think it is about it that really resonated with people? Because what we see is that even the people who are doing the gentrification are interested in the gentrification.
Draze: I don’t know if there’s ever been a topic that I’ve ever seen in my lifetime that is so multilayered. All ages, all races are now becoming engaged in it. I think it’s because were in the middle of change, we’re seeing so much change right around us. We want answers. Some people are afraid of it.
We were shooting the video for instance, there was a police officer who was giving us a little hassle, what are you guys doing, what’s going on here? And so we said we’re shooting a video about gentrification. And she said, don’t use that word. I asked why? What’s wrong with the word? I’m a black man, my director’s a white guy; we went to high school together. What’s wrong with the word? And she said, it means to black people that white people are coming to take your community away.
Well, that’s not what it means to me. You know what I’m saying? There’s so much more. There are racial implications – but it’s not just about race. There’s class, there’s economics.
I have a friend, he does real estate. He just saw the video, and said, I want to show you something. And so I went out to his office today and he wanted to show me the zoning in Seattle. I’m seeing gentrification come down to a ton of different things, right? So for this guy in real estate, he’s saying, look: Gentrification is all about zoning. The minute they changed the zoning right here in Central Area, he said it was over, because in layman’s terms, real estate guys are going to look at that and see money. On this one 15,000- foot plot I can build so many houses. You know what I mean? Whereas I go out of that zone, as I leave the Central Area, it’s not the same amount of money because I can’t build that much on the property.
This is through his lens. It’s almost like if you put on red glasses, and I put on glasses, we can look at the same thing but we’re going to see it through different lenses.
Where as in this process my event at the EMP was about looking at gentrification through the eyes of art. So we sat down with 10 painters and photographers from the Northwest and we started with a conversation with them about gentrification. And everyone saw it different. So we are all African-Americans from the central area or the south end of Seattle, but we all saw it very differently.
Some thought it was good, some thought it was bad. Some felt like if you cooked art that represents the people that live there in the community, people are more than likely to stay there, because it’s like home. In artists’ eyes it was a completely different issue.
And so I started to see that with gentrification, there was no one person who really had a tie on it, or a handle on it, but collectively we all were able to see different shades of the same picture. And so the event started where people would show up, and for the first hour they would just look at artwork. And it was amazing. I’m standing in the EMP before the event started, they opened the door and there was a fine wrapped around the building. I couldn’t believe it. And as they open the doors, the place just fills up with people. And we got to capacity and had to turn a couple hundred people away. So that’s how much the community wanted to come out and experiences, and I think people just want to place to talk about it.
They’re talking about it in the coffee shops, they’re talking about it at home, but there’s no place to have this conversation about gentrification. So that’s what we were able to create, we were able to start that conversation.
TSN: How do you personally define gentrification?
Draze: For me it’s the shifting of a — what’s the word? I would say it’s the shifting of the community, like a ripple effect. Does that make sense? Behind the scenes, a shift in the class and the status and the values of the community, via financing – it’s done economically — that inevitably drives people out. So I could no longer afford to live here.
And there are other factors that go with it. That, in the simplest form is how I view it personally.
TSN: What I’ve heard people talking about lately is that it’s more than just a force of displacement, it’s something that drives out the best and brightest people from the entire region. So it amounts to a significant brain drain. The Associated Press wrote a story earlier this month that said part of the reason economic inequality dropped in Seattle is essentially because of ethnic cleansing, pushing people of color to the suburbs outside the city. Did you see that?
Draze: In some ways it sounds good, right? If you’re looking at the numbers I hear you. But like you said the lens is important.
For instance in my community, my daughter cannot go to the bakery that I once went to. That matters, because when you’re talking about leaving a legacy, and passing things one generation to the next, it’s important. That’s what community is.
You have a people displaced from Africa, if you will, here they are in America and they still cannot plant roots. That’s huge. How do you leave a legacy?
Wealth in America is passed down from one generation to the next to the next. We can’t pass wealth down from one generation to another, so in Seattle the numbers might reflect one thing, but realistically, we don’t have our own radio station. We have no way to get our information out. There’s no way to get our story out. There’s no way to connect as a community.
And gentrification divides people. Yeah we’re spread out in all the areas in Seattle. The numbers might look good, now we’re out in Kent, some of us, and we might have a home that might be worth a little bit more, but our community is suffering. And if the community continues to suffer and our people continue to suffer, it’s a problem.
And then in Seattle there were a lot of programs that say, “we took kids off the streets.” Well it’s the way you take kids off the street. You pass a law, you’re coming into our community, you’re taking our kids off the streets and putting them in jail. There’s no care in that. Those are our uncles, our brothers, our sisters, sitting in jail.
So the difference is, if you can take that same amount of resources and financial institutions and give us the money and the resources to aid us, we can rehabilitate a lot of those young people. But that’s not what happens. And that’s the difference. What we are saying is these are still human beings that we love and care for, the problem’s not solved because we put them in jail.
The problem is solved when that young boy gets an opportunity to seek his real potential and goes on to become that.
In the 1990s they had a program called Weed and Seed, and I just remember being a young man from Seattle — and so many people were going to jail. Just out of nowhere, it was like, jail, jail, Joe got locked up, we got a lock this person up. And then you learn about it on the street level, you start hearing about Weed and Seed, what is it?
You have no idea that somebody signed a piece of paper, you know what I’m saying? They passed a law, and they found a way to lock you up so that now, young men are gone. You look at it as a systematic change, right?
If I’m in the army, I might send in the air troops first, and after that I’ll send in the ground troops, right? It’s the same exact thing. We’re going to rezone the area, and then we need to clean it up so that we can actually go in and take it. So when we rezone the area, we’ll pass a law like Weed and Seed, get these kids off of the streets that we don’t think are valuable, get them out of there and slowly change the community.
And then you have things like what’s going on right now in real time. You have these organizations that once served African Americans, and were birthed by African Americans, and were made to serve this community, but we’re not there anymore, so they have this dilemma of how do we serve this community, but we’re not there anymore.
TSN: Do you think are some other hotspots of gentrification right now in Seattle?
Draze: You know to be honest with you I focus so much on the south and the central area. It was mind-blowing for me to sit down with the guy who directed the video, he’s white, we went to high school together at Franklin High School. And we were talking about gentrification, for me I was seeing it through my own lens. And then he just started talking about Green Lake, and Capitol Hill, and I was going hunh? What do you mean?
And he said, gentrification is happening in all our communities. And I said, okay, let me start to look at this through your lens, and if you look at it through mine — I think the journey he and I went on in creating this video was amazing, because I was able to see that, yes, Green Lake and in Capitol Hill, it’s actually being gentrified but maybe not at the same rate, maybe not with the same intensity. But it’s still happening.
TSN: What do you think is the most important thing to get into a story about this amazing project you just did that shook up the whole town of Seattle?
Draze: What I would really like people to take away from this is: Care for one another. I think some people in this country – we tend to be so consumed with what we want that we don’t care who it affects. And so at the end of the day to solve gentrification, were all going to have to sacrifice a little bit.
For example with my music, I have watched people of other cultures – I’m talking about Zimbabwe – I’ve watched people of other cultures want to take it and do whatever they want to do with the music. But it’s hurtful to me, as a person who is from Zimbabwe, to go, hey man, you’re playing “The Little Mermaid” on a marimba. That’s not okay with me. You know what I’m saying?
I love that you love the music, there’s an appreciation there, but there has to be something on this side of the fence where you go, hey man, how do I do this a respectful way?
And I think it’s the same thing with us living together, in community. How do I live in community with you and still be respectful to you? And that comes from conversation. But I’m determined my music is going to make a difference. I’m determined and I’m not going to stop until changes made.
Listen to Draze’s music and find out more about his work at www.Draze206.com.