Folklife Eternal

Illustration by Shannon Perry

When you think of Folklife, programs director Kelli Faryar wants you to think bigger.

Among the Northwest’s crowded music festival circuit, Folklife has unique history. The free celebration debuted on Memorial Day in 1971—the same year as Bumbershoot—as Seattle’s unofficial start of the summer. In recent years it’s expanded its focus on roots music to align with national trends, absorbing various strains of pop under the umbrella of folk. Through its Cultural Focus program, the festival spotlights a specific region or tradition every year. We spoke with Kelli Faryar about this year’s Cultural Focus and Folklife’s longstanding, undemanding appeal.

You guys have broadened the scope of folk music in recent years and made it more of a cultural catchall.
We have. People hear the word “folk” and figure that means the genre of music. We do have folk music at the festival, but the definition of “folk” that Folklife has taken on is “of the people;” it’s what people do—in their homes, their communities, their customs. That’s what we showcase. You get anything from traditional Hungarian music and dance to this year’s Cultural Focus, which is hip-hop.

Which might seem like a zag for the festival but isn’t.
Hip-hop has been at Folklife since ’94. And looking at the thriving hip-hop community we have going on right now [in Seattle], it seemed like a perfect time for Folklife to showcase who’s here in the Northwest and those traditional roots that make up the culture of hip-hop.

What do you mean by that?
You have hip-hop but you also have the five elements of hip-hop and where they stem from, going back to early jazz, scatting, African dance and music, Brazilian capoeira, the power of spoken word. Hip-hop almost serves as the tip of the iceberg for this year’s Cultural Focus.

Have you looked outside the usual Folklife community to get some input?
I would definitely not be able to put together a program about Northwest hip-hop myself. We’re working with 206 Zulu and Arts Corps to bring in youth b-boys and b-girls. We’re working with SIFF to bring in some amazing films, including Louder Than a Bomb and The Hip-Hop Fellow. We’re working with the Coolout Network, which is the work of Georgio Brown who’s been documenting Northwest hip-hop since the early ’90s. He started out on public access TV and has evolved into today’s digital world. We’re working with them to showcase the 23 years of footage he has. He has some great footage of the Emerald Street Boys, Seattle’s first hip-hop group.

We’ll also be having some great discussions about race and social justice. A few panels will be intersections in hip-hop talking about misogyny and homophobia—conversations that need to happen. Larry Mizell, Jr. is speaking as well as Dr. Daudi Abe, who’s been writing a history of Seattle hip-hop. He has an amazing timeline that we have on our website.

We’ll be in the Cornish Playhouse this year, too. We have an amazing lineup of spoken word, starting with starting with Pongo Teen Writing reading poems from incarcerated youth. The first Seattle poet youth laureate will be announced there at a showcase of eight finalists. We’re partnering with Seattle Arts & Lectures to present that.

Have you heard any grumbling from Folklife lifers about focusing so heavily on hip-hop?
We have a constituency who’ve asked questions about it. And I think that’s what’s gonna make this a powerful program: It’s gonna showcase this community to folks who have no idea what it’s about, which is the power of building and strengthening community.

I do hope that it opens the door for people to come and be a part of Folklife, people who thought Folklife isn’t their thing, like, “I’m not into string band music.” It’s a lot bigger than that and it includes all of us in the Northwest.

Folklife hangs on as this unappreciated alternative to big-budget, big-ticket events like Sasquatch! and Bumbershoot.
It’s true. Folklife is right here in people’s backyards and there’s no admission fee, it’s run on donations and volunteers. You don’t have to have big expectations—you just show up and choose your own adventure. There’s so much! We have 23 stages over the course of four days. The best story of Folklife is you plan to show up for something in particular and then you get lost in another world, seeing something you’ve never seen before.

Northwest Folklife Festival runs May 22–25 at Seattle Center.