Essays — January 7, 2019 17:41 — 0 Comments

Artists In Residence: Macklemore Helps Seattle-Area Youths Gain Experience In The Music Industry

Below is a story that appeared in Alaska Beyond magazine in January 2019

WHEN BEN HAGGERTY WAS 7 YEARS OLD, he already knew what he wanted to do for the rest of his life. The Seattle-based emcee/rapper, now better known as Macklemore, was aware even at this young age that he wanted to be onstage with a microphone, hearing his voice boom through speakers as he shared his music with an audience. Now, 28 years later, in the midst of his Grammy-winning career, Macklemore is helping to make similar dreams come true for young musicians through The Residency, a music-education program born in the city where he made a name for himself. Macklemore’s work with this program, which is supported by Alaska Airlines and other local organizations, reflects his broader interests in giving back to his community and providing opportunities for aspiring musical artists.

“Even before I got the platform that I have now, I always wanted to do something for young people,” Macklemore says. He explains that learning from performers who came before him was a big part of his upbringing in the Seattle music scene. “The community back then, particularly the older mentors, helped shape my career— shape me as an artist—and gave me opportunities when I couldn’t get one myself,” he says. “The minute I had any pull to help the next generation, I decided to do it.”

The Residency launched in 2015 when Macklemore co-founded the initiative with his musical collaborator Ryan Lewis and his director of philanthropy and community engagement, Ben Secord, in conjunction with Seattle’s Museum of Pop Culture (MoPOP) and local youth-education organization Arts Corps. The four-week intensive summer program works with underserved youths, ages 16–19, to help give them experience in the music industry. Each session’s curriculum begins by separating the young artists into two groups—vocalists and music producers—and later brings them back together to produce original music for a performance onstage at the Sky Church concert venue within MoPOP. During the program, students also create and record original music at a professional studio.

In the summer of 2018, The Residency hosted 45 Seattle-area students, offering them studio space, full days of workshops, mentorship from local musicians and a community of like-minded aspiring artists to collaborate with. After the program ended, Alaska Airlines contributed flights for the students, their teachers and their chaperones to travel with Macklemore’s team to Los Angeles for an immersive experience that culminated in attending a concert by the Grammy-winning rapper Drake, performing with the hip-hop trio Migos. NBA MVP LeBron James and musician Travis Scott made appearances at this concert, as well. While in LA, the students also toured an industry-leading music museum, as well as the Underground Museum, which showcases works by African-American artists, among others.

The Residency program is billed as a summer course, but the benefits, Macklemore says, last beyond the initial intensive session. “I think it has created a sense of community that extends well beyond the program,” he says. “The Residency has created shows, created collaborations, created crews. When you do that, you watch the ripple effects, and you see it having a lasting impact.”

Also, because The Residency is rooted in face-to-face collaborative opportunities, Macklemore says, it cultivates personal bonds at a time when more and more interactions are happening online. “We are lacking in community in our era,” Macklemore says. “We live on the internet, live on social media, and we watch shows on our phones. We’re lacking that get-out- of-the-house mentality to go and meet with other people to make art. That’s where the magic happens. It’s not about being on Instagram; it’s about being in real life with other people, creating.”

Eliyas Abdulkadir, a 20-year-old Seattle-based musician who attended The Residency in 2017, agrees. Abdulkadir, an electronic R&B artist who goes by the stage name Nësträ, says The Residency offered him something no other program could, at a time when he needed it most.

“Before I attended the program,” Abdulkadir says, “I felt like, as an artist and someone in a low-income family, I didn’t have the resources to be creative. What I got out of The Residency was not just resources, but a chance to build connections.”

For Abdulkadir, seeing someone as successful as Macklemore take the time to teach students and offer his perspective was a priceless experience. Through the program, Abdulkadir says, he learned about the history of hip-hop—“I didn’t even know it started in the ’70s,” he says—as well as ways to record his music and get it out into the world through shows and music videos. As a result, he is inspired to help others in his community.

“As an artist, The Residency also taught me to give back,” he says. “Now, I want to give back to younger artists when I get my chance. The fact that Macklemore is doing that now … it’s going to be a chain reaction. I’m 100 percent positive I will give back in the future.”

Macklemore, whose list of career achievements is long, is an inspiration to many young artists. He has accrued billions of video streams and millions in album sales; won four Grammy Awards, including the Best Rap Album prize for the Macklemore & Ryan Lewis album “The Heist”; earned platinum-level sales for releases such as the 2017 single Glorious (recorded with singer Skylar Grey); and toured the globe several times over.

Before all that, though, Macklemore was an unknown Seattle musician trying to book shows and get his music into record shops— just like some of the students he helps today. And, in many ways, this makes him even more of an inspiration.

The Residency offers anyone the opportunity to apply, but it’s no easy task to be accepted. To be admitted to the program, applicants go through a rigorous evaluation, which includes submitting original work (such as a sample recording or video) and participating in both individual and group interviews to prove each artist is truly dedicated to his or her craft. Upon completion of the program, students receive stipends, promotional materials (such as headshots), regular check-ins with teachers at The Residency, and other resources and opportunities to help them stay on track with their career aspirations.

“The process has been really rewarding,” says Secord, who is now The Residency’s program director. “The coolest thing for me is to see the bonds and relationships the students build. A lot of the artists continue to connect and stay together long after the program is finished.”

Secord describes being at a recent show in Seattle featuring Parisalexa, an up-and-coming artist popular in the local community and of great interest to the program’s participants: “The whole front row at the venue was taken up by The Residency students kicking it and listening to the music.”

Historically, young artists interested in pursuing a career in hip-hop have often been relegated to developing their craft in basement rap battles, parking-lot shows or, if they were lucky, performances at small clubs. Indeed, Macklemore’s own career included each of these waypoints. But as the genre has grown over the decades, so have the opportunities and resources available to study and perform this music—from YouTube video shares to local hip-hop open mics.

While The Residency has done much already, Macklemore says he hopes the program continues to grow: “We’re going to be looking at ways to expand,” he explains. “We have a model now, and it’s getting fine-tuned as we learn more. For me, what we’re lacking right now is a consistent studio space that everyone can use and record in year-round. That’s my next goal.”

As an artist, Macklemore knows the music business is constantly evolving. There are always new techniques and technologies to investigate to enhance and grow one’s craft. Yet some foundational aspects of the art form remain the same, he says. These are the primary lessons he learned from mentors as a young artist in the Emerald City.

“My mentors taught me we’re conduits for the music,” Macklemore explains. “Music is bigger than any individual. Hip-hop is an oral tradition, and we’re passing along our stories just like those who came before us. The best advice I got was that hip-hop is about the community you’re in. So, who would I be to not think about those coming up now, and to not listen to their songs and give them advice?”

This collaborative spirit permeates The Residency and gets picked up by its graduates, which now number more than 100. Since completing his session, Abdulkadir says, he has talked about the program with fellow artists regularly, encouraging them to apply.

“Almost every other day, I tell at least one person about The Residency,” Abdulkadir says. “There are lots of artists out here in Seattle, and they don’t always know what direction to go. When I tell them about The Residency, I say it’s not a program where you can just go and make music and leave. It’s more than that. It’s a transition for your artistry. The mentors give you knowledge.”

For an aspiring artist, working with Macklemore is, of course, appealing. And there are other artists and industry professionals associated with The Residency who offer a great deal of information and expertise, too, such as acclaimed Seattle-based singer Otieno Terry, who was featured on Macklemore’s latest solo record; rapper J. Pinder, who has worked with Dr. Dre; and Hollis Wong-Wear, who is the frontwoman for the Emerald City electronic R&B trio The Flavr Blue and a featured vocalist on the Billboard-charting Macklemore & Ryan Lewis song White Walls.

“Otieno Terry is the one who first told me about Sound Off!,” says Abdulkadir, referencing the Seattle-based music competition for artists 21 and under that Abdulkadir participated in last year. “He’s the one who motivated me to do it.”

If you’re a young artist, motivation can be difficult, especially if you don’t know how to achieve your creative goals, which is one of the reasons Alaska Airlines chose to partner with The Residency and fly graduates to cities outside Washington state to see Macklemore and others perform.

In addition to the Los Angeles trip, the airline flew program participants to Phoenix for a Macklemore concert in 2017. That experience, which was a complete surprise for the students, marked the first year of the partnership between The Residency and Alaska Airlines, and also included an invitation by Macklemore for the joyful young artists to join him onstage. Stage time aside, the trip itself was a thrill.

“A lot of these kids haven’t ever been on a plane before,” Macklemore says. “A lot of them have never left the city or the state. And to offer them that opportunity has been such an incredible experience. To meet them in another state—whether Arizona or California—it’s been so dope just to watch the light in their eyes and see how excited they are. It reminds me not to take all of this for granted, too. And, for the kids, it’s an experience they’ll never forget. It’s one that will shape who they are and who they become. That’s powerful.”

In addition to the plane tickets, Alaska Airlines also provided accommodations for the participants on their 2018 trip to Los Angeles. “It’s been amazing to work with Alaska on all of this,” Secord says. “It just shows that Alaska Airlines is willing to think creatively and be open to a unique partnership. I can’t say enough about how great the airline has been.”

Adventures in new cities create excitement and inspiration among the students, but real creative work also has to continue inside the mind of each artist. No one knows this better than Macklemore, who worked for many years in the studio and onstage before getting his big break.

“You have to pour everything you have into your craft if you want to succeed,” says Macklemore. “You have to sacrifice. I still sacrifice for my art every day. That willingness to do so builds character. It’s real. In my twenties, I knew I needed to work seven days a week. I knew I didn’t get to clock out. You have to eat, sleep and breathe this. That’s what turns good artists into great artists.”

Given Macklemore’s philosophy, it’s no surprise that the intensive workshops are helping to produce skilled, studied and dedicated musicians. The idea of a music school is not new, but The Residency is special as a program dedicated to hip-hop. With Macklemore’s help, it may become a growing model for a genre that continues to gain importance in musical cultures worldwide—and continues as a mode of expression for a diversity of artists.

“Hip-hop gives people a voice,” says Macklemore. “It gives people a life worth living. It has given me a means by which to reach other humans and connect on a heart level. That’s art. I don’t know if it’s specific to hip-hop or not, but for me that’s been my means with which to connect to others.”


Jake Uitti is a founding editor of The Monarch Review.

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