Honest Lament

Draze and Nikkita Oliver
Dumi Maraire, aka Draze (left), and Nikkita Oliver.

Poet, lawyer, teaching artist and organizer NIKKITA OLIVER jumped into the race for Seattle mayor last March as the Peoples Party candidate—and if she wins, she’ll be the city’s first woman mayor in 90 years. Originally from Indianapolis, she’s a slam champion whose incisive performances render crowds breathless and rapt. Rapper, songwriter and designer DRAZE grew up in the Central District and South Seattle and now splits his time between Seattle and LA. He struck a nerve with his powerful music videos for “The Hood Ain’t the Same,” about gentrification in the CD, and “Irony on 23rd,” which confronts the pain of seeing a white-owned retail weed empire thrive on the same corner where Black people used to be arrested for selling dime bags.

DRAZE So how are you adjusting to your new busy schedule?

NIKKITA OLIVER It’s intense right now because I’m still working full-time on multiple jobs. I don’t even know if you call that full-time, it’s just the hustle of the artist and a lawyer, piecing together the contracts and whatnot. Every day, up at 6:00, 6:30. Get some kind of workout in because I’m still training for boxing. And then the work and the phone calls and the meetings and my actual job. I love my young people so I try to show up for that as much as possible. And then it goes all day until late. And then I do it all over again the next day.

DRAZE Wow. So what was today like?

NIKKITA I got up around 6:30, did a three-mile run, did emails, made some phone calls. Figured out what I was going to wear. I definitely ran and got a haircut.

DRAZE I am fresh from the barbershop, too.

NIKKITA Later I’ll go to Creative Justice, do some work there, have a campaign volunteer fair and then stop by a show to talk about the campaign with [hip-hop artist, writer and activist] Gabriel Teodros. It’ll be a busy day, not as busy as some of the other days we’ve had. It’s a grind but I feel very disciplined and I think that’s really dope to feel so motivated, showing how much I’m capable of.

DRAZE What does that mean when you say disciplined? Because when you said it, there was like a—it felt like a moment of pride, like excitement.

NIKKITA I think the lifestyle I’m living right now requires me to really be on point with everything: food, exercise, as much sleep as possible, details, to-do lists. I’ve always been able to manage my life but I think I just see how much more I’m capable of in terms of just getting shit done. That matters to see how much more disciplined I could be. I trained as a fighter. Discipline matters.

DRAZE Are you having fun?

NIKKITA Sometimes. I really enjoy being in community and enjoy seeing community feel energized and galvanized, and seeing us motivated. So those parts are a lot of fun, sitting and hearing people’s stories—as an artist, as an attorney and now in this mayoral race. When people view you as having a voice and you take the time to just sit down and hear what they’re saying, it’s incredibly powerful. People feel seen, and once someone feels seen, they’ll tend to move on their own behalf. You don’t have to do a lot. You just listen. I really enjoy that. I think that part is fun. My young people at the schools are very excited about something I didn’t think they would ever be excited about.

DRAZE They like, Yo, you about to be mayor. [laughs]

NIKKITA They call me mayor already as I walk through the school. [laughs] But I think what’s exciting is they ask questions like, “What’s your progress on the campaign, Miss Nikkita?” And these are young folks who I don’t think would be thinking about the mayor’s race but for the campaign and me being in their classroom. And I think that’s powerful. I had a young woman come up to me and say, “I never thought I could run for office but watching you do it lets me know I can do it.” And she’s an 11th grader. She actually yelled it across the field. So that’s very encouraging. In light of the last election we just suffered through, I think people have felt a sense of political apathy.

The two most moving things have happened thus far: A little girl gave her allowance to the campaign.


NIKKITA Thirteen cents. It had to go through her mom, but she wanted to give her 13 cents. I thought that was incredible. And then so many people have approached me in tears, like literally stopped me on the street and started crying. They’ll say things like, “I didn’t know you could run for office saying the sorts of things that you’re saying.” So I don’t know if that’s fun as much as it’s motivating. But my campaign committee’s a lot of fun. We’re a bunch of artists and organizers, so we make music.

DRAZE That I do know.

NIKKITA We talk shit. We get work done.

DRAZE I’ve talked to a couple cats that I know. They were like, Yeah, I’m rocking with Nikkita. I was like, Damn. What’s that meeting like, man?

NIKKITA Oh, the meetings are—

DRAZE Turnt. [laughs]

NIKKITA —are turnt in the artistic organizer way. We eat a lot of food.

DRAZE When I first heard you were running, I was like, Damn. How’s she going to navigate that? Being an artist. We don’t sugarcoat.


DRAZE It’s not even so much you navigating it, it’s just how are they going to embrace the raw when it’s in their face? It’s absolutely what’s needed. I’ve had people be like, Yo, you should run. I think, Hell no. Never in my—never.

NIKKITA I feel like that’s been my answer for a lot of years: “Hell no.” Because you look at the system and that’s exactly what you see: people who sugarcoat the truth. That’s part of why I’ve always gravitated toward art. I think of folks like James Baldwin who said, The poet and the revolutionary, they’ll tell the people what’s up. And the people might not get it right now, but eventually they’ll get it and it’s usually after the poet and revolutionary are gone. But it doesn’t matter now that people finally got it. Or Nina Simone who says, The role of the artist is to speak to what it is right now. Or then Octavia Butler who says, The artist can talk about the world we see now. But the artist can also manifest the world we want to see. And then a lot of the elders started reaching out and saying, “You have theses skills. We really need you to step up.” I feel like we have to be responsive to that.

DRAZE So let’s assume you win, right? Let’s just take that. I was thinking the other day—I’m like, yo, are you going to be in the poetry slam? Is the mayor going to be down at the poetry slam?

NIKKITA Why not? [laughs] I mean we’re storytellers. What’s so beautiful about this is we get to—and I say “we” because this is really about the Peoples Party as a whole—we get to transform what a public servant looks like, how an elected moves in the world. Even last night at the Princess Nokia concert, someone said to me, “Yo, you’re out here among the common people.” And it just made me laugh because it’s like, why have electeds moved into this realm where they’re so separate?

So absolutely, I will continue. I mean, poetry keeps me alive. It’s been an important tool for me and it speaks to people. You could say something in a poem that you cannot say in a lecture or just say to a person and it might actually stick with them. I call it heart work because art is in the heart. [laughs]

DRAZE Often times in a song, I’m not even speaking from my own perspective. Sometimes I am speaking for me. Sometimes I’m just channeling the emotion of a little kid. You know what I mean? It’s like you never know what, especially in a song, there’s melody and you transfer it in and out of beings and emotions and energies so rapidly. And you put it in to create what is known as art.

NIKKITA Right. I also think that’s what I enjoy about being an artist, I do get to take a step back and use different voices and tell multiple stories. I get to engage material in a complex and nuanced way. My hope is that every time I write something or I make something or put something in the world, it invites the audience to do the same thing.

People are always like, Why should an artist be mayor? Artists naturally are taught to engage nuanced, complex things. And Seattle is in a very nuanced, complex position right now that requires envisioning. That’s what we do as artists: We take something and we envision, and then we create something out of it.

DRAZE To me, the common person is being asked, “Are you going to sit on your ass or are you going to get involved? Because if you’re not, you’re going to get rolled over.” The greedy person is being asked, “Are you going to care about someone else besides yourself or are you going to care about making money?”

NIKKITA And who has the right to stay here in this city? I think that’s one of the big overarching existential questions that I’ve seen you challenging in the Central District. Who has the right to stay in this place? We’re all being asked that.

DRAZE It’s kind of funny to me because when I wrote “The Hood Ain’t the Same” [in 2014] gentrification wasn’t a sexy topic. When I wrote the joint it was just like, What the fuck is this? Like literally, I’m in the hood and I can’t find no fried chicken. And I’m not just talking about Ezell’s, I want greens and yams and macaroni and cheese, right? When I wrote “The Hood Ain’t the Same,” real talk, I was in the middle of the CD and I needed to go to Kirkland but it was traffic time. So I was like, I’m going to go sit down and eat, burn some time and then I’ll go across the bridge. Literally every place I tried to think of going was closed. So then I was like, Well, I’ll just go chill at a homie’s house and just post up there. Everybody I tried to call, nobody was there. And that’s when it was like, Damn. The hood ain’t the same. But it wasn’t a sexy topic. It wasn’t—

NIKKITA Wasn’t a buzz word yet?

DRAZE No. [laughs] It really wasn’t even to push in anybody’s face. It was really just like a cry out from my heart like, I really felt like, does anybody even see this?

NIKKITA Right. It’s like a lament.

DRAZE It’s a lament, yeah. And then we live in a city that really capitalizes upon our lamentation. As an artist, that’s hard to grapple with, right? I’m doing the art thing. It’s a part of my life as a human but it’s also a part of how I fund my life. And so when your lamenting becomes capitalized upon in that way, it’s hard to—it’s a very fine line to walk. So there’s “The Hood Ain’t the Same” then there’s [2016’s] “The Irony On 23rd.” And “The Irony On 23rd” is like times 10 of the lament. I’m weeping on that.

NIKKITA You’re wailing.

DRAZE Right. And at the same time, as you’re talking as an artist, I’m not trying to capitalize on this. That’s not where my mindset is. I went to the CD. I drove to the hood. I was going to Mount Calvary to sit with one of my mentors. And when I went, the entire block was lit up. It just was this bizarre, What the hell is this? So I grabbed my pad and my pen. I’m old school, right? I don’t write on my phone.

NIKKITA That’s real. Got a notebook in my bag right now. [laughs]

DRAZE I got to feel the words come out of my fingers. I sat out on the corner and I wrote “The Irony On 23rd.”

NIKKITA Right on 23rd?

DRAZE Right there. I’m sitting there and the melody came right into my soul. I just hummed the melody and I sat there with my pen and I’m just penning it. But it was really painful.

You made me think of Seattle’s response to our lamenting. To me, the progressive is really being asked, How progressive are you? I view the progressive as being amused by our lamentation. There’s this sigh where it’s almost like you turned into a show or something because I almost have to keep finding new ways to say the same thing. Because you’re never going to change, you need me to give you a new performance that makes you go, Huh.

NIKKITA I feel like sometimes people say, “I watched that story. Now, I can feel good that I watched that story.” And that’s where I feel like there’s a capitalizing upon us to say, “I’m a progressive Seattleite because I went to the Black Show and I watched the Black Pain. And I maybe cried a little bit, and then I’m going to go back home to my house in the CD.”

My question for me right now—as a candidate and as an artist—is: How do we lament honestly? We have to do that. We need to do that. And how is it transformative? I don’t want progress anymore. I want transformation. How can my art, my lamentation become something that pushes people to actually make a move? This campaign has done that already, just by jumping into the race when we did, before the allegations came out against [Mayor Ed] Murray. We jumped in when nobody else wanted to challenge him as an incumbent.

Our goal was, Even if we can’t win this, we’re going to transform the substantive conversation by putting our honest pain out there. It honestly pains us that we’re displaced from our neighborhoods. It honestly pains us that the city is unaffordable. It honestly pains us that the city will capitalize upon our art and our culture and yet we can’t live in the space 3D. We can come visit it like a museum. You can’t sit here and watch our pain and not do anything and call yourself progressive. We’re not going to allow that. We’re going to call that out.

DRAZE Now we hit the nail on the head. I was literally asking, how do you move people past the heavy sigh? How do I move you past feeling me to actually doing something even if it demands that you get rid of your privilege or you move the meter for someone else? Put someone else’s needs above your own.

For a couple of years, I haven’t really put my hat in the ring. It’s such a dense, complex issue that it was really hard to see where we can be effective. But now I’ve pulled together some heavy hitters in our community and I’m getting ready to roll out an initiative around starting 100 Black businesses within the next year. A hundred Black businesses, Northwest. It’s going to be ill. We are creating a center to be able to help you not only get your business license but get the training to help you get funding, all of the above. So it’ll be an incubator. We’re going to roll out a power summit in the summer.

NIKKITA You know what I most love about that is, I feel like post the election, especially Black and brown folks, poor folks, immigrant, refugee people, could’ve just given in to the political apathy of feeling targeted, which could be very justified. There’s a very real threat. But what I feel like I’ve seen is everybody has been organizing on this idea of redistributing knowledge.

That’s the same principle of how this campaign started. We looked at electoral politics, realized how much power an executive has and realized that we needed to start organizing in a way that taught people about to become an elected to act as a transparent accountable public servant. There are so many steps to that: the paperwork that you file, how you actually can raise funds, all the laws and legalities. And I’m doing it while working full time. Most electeds are independently wealthy so they can campaign without working.

We really want to make sure that we build a process that makes it successful for everyday people. So that in the next 10 years, we see that we’ve been able to develop a party that can get people elected on school board, City Council, mayor, King County Council. Because we need to redistribute that knowledge, we need to develop businesses, we need to have sustainable models that we don’t end up back in my situation where we are being displaced. When we got pushed out the Central District, we lost our land capital. And having land and access to property matters. We have to rebuild that sustainability.

DRAZE You can’t continue to say, “I’m progressive,” but your progress is pushing people out. That’s not progressive. You are no different. You just have a different way of doing it. It’s really about you, and your privilege, and what you want, and what you desire.

NIKKITA I announced before almost all of the other [mayoral] candidates and a number of them who call themselves progressive have called me or wanted to sit down with me in advance of them announcing. And all of those folks have said in one way or another, “I think you’re on the right side of the issues. I really admire you. But I think I could do some good and could be a conduit for the communities that you embody to get justice.” And every time, I’ve flipped it and I’ve said, “Do you not view me as the person who can actually bring about the change that you’re talking about? Why don’t you get behind a campaign that’s being transformative and do something different, instead of us getting the same sorts of folks in office over and over again?”

DRAZE Love it.

NIKKITA That’s not just progressive. That’s not just progress. That’s transformation. It’s the idea that not only do I believe you have a right to justice but I believe you’re actually going to be the best one—

DRAZE To do it.

NIKKITA To perpetuate that justice, to make it happen.

On May 24, City Arts premiered Draze’s latest single and video, “Ain’t Nobody Talking About No Real Shit.” Check it out.