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Black Arts Legacies

Black Arts Legacies celebrates local musicians, dancers, visual artists, poets, performers, curators and architects whose creative expressions reflect the complexity of being a Black artist in Seattle. Theirs are stories of being the first, of contending with discrimination and breaking down barriers, of long careers and careers cut short, and of building community through the arts.

Meet the artists

A woman sits in front of a bookshelf

Cultivating creativity

“I like to do portraits because I like faces,” Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence said in 1988. “When I do a portrait, I want to get the feeling of the person.”

Like her husband, legendary painter Jacob Lawrence, Knight’s long, storied career began in New York City during the Harlem Renaissance. The couple later made Seattle their home for nearly three decades, becoming fixtures in the city’s intellectual and cultural firmament, and shaping generations of artists through their teaching and support. (Photo courtesy of Spike Mafford)

DJs who defined Seattle airwaves

A man in a radio booth holding a record

Robert L. Scott got his start on the radio when he was just 14. For decades, Seattle could tune into one station or another and hear his smooth, dulcet voice resonating over the airwaves. Scott broke barriers as the first Black DJ at a top-40 Seattle radio station, KJR, in 1972, and he’s best remembered for his stint at KYAC, Seattle’s first Black-owned radio station. (Photo courtesy of MOHAI, 2002.68.1386.16)

Riz Rollins in the broadcast booth at KEXP

For 35 years, DJ Riz Rollins has been both a venerated fixture at Seattle's gay, hip-hop and electronic dance music parties, as well as a radio host on KEXP. But before he started spinning records professionally, he thought his life would turn out a lot different. “I’m supposed to be a preacher,” says Rollins. “That’s what everybody expected in my grandmother’s church." (Photo by Jim Bennett)

A dance with deep heritage

Cipher Goings discovered tap at a young age and has since become a teacher and part of tap’s growing renaissance.

Women influencing the Seattle sound

A woman sings into a mic and has her hand up expressively

Singer/songwriter Tiffany Wilson started her career in a gospel group called SOUL, signed with Hendrix Records. After a brief period in Los Angeles where she worked as a songwriter for other artists, she returned to the Pacific Northwest and has remained ever since. She's independently released two records, with a third underway, and lights up live stages across town. (Photo by Meron Menghistab)

Gretchen Yanover plays her cello

Cellist Gretchen Yanover balances her classical career with her own contemplative compositions. In 2001, she experimented with a looping pedal for the first time and has been creating rich, meditative music ever since. Her latest album, Holding/Movement, features songs inspired by the poetry of Quenton Baker and Jourdan Imani Keith, with album artwork by Barbara Earl Thomas. (Photo courtesy of Mason Elliott)

A black and white photo of a woman singing into a microphone with her eyes closed

Ernestine Anderson had a voice that Quincy Jones described as "the sound of honey at dusk." She recorded over 30 albums and was a four-time nominee at the Grammy's. A Seattle local through and through, she won the Golden Umbrella at Bumbershoot in 2002. (Photo courtesy of Museum of History and Industry)

A woman with bleached white-blonde hair leans down with a microphone stand, singing into the microphone

Singer Tina Bell was the frontwoman of the proto-grunge band Bam Bam in the 1980s and '90s. Bell was born and raised in Seattle, and formed Bam Bam with her then-husband Tommy Martin. Known for her fierce stage presence and wide vocal range, Bell continues to inspire local musicians today, including sibling rock duo The Black Tones. (Photo by Cyndia Lavik)

Expression through movement

A woman sits in a dance position on a block with one arm on her waist and the other above her head, one knee down and the other up
Person in tight dance leotards with hands up in the air in ballet pose
Person with arms outstretched in front of black screen
Person in black suit in front of black screen, as dancers dance besides him

Uplifting the history of Black theater

Seattle actor/playwright Reginald André Jackson pays tribute to the Black theater-makers who paved the way.

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Foundational influencers

A man sits with a child, appearing to read a book with her
Person in black and white photo on orange and yellow
Bird carved out of stone
Three story building with square windows

Bringing Black history to the present

A woman in period costume holds a sign that reads "To hope is to vote" in one hand and a lantern in the other

Seattle playwright Cheryl L. West is known for bringing complicated historical figures to life, including Fannie Lou Hamer, the American civil rights activist from Mississippi. Here, actress E. Faye Butler plays the lead in Fannie: The Music and Life of Fannie Lou Hamer at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. (Liz Lauren)

A person gestures as they read out loud from a book they hold in their hand

Seattle poet Quenton Baker's latest collection, ballast, is based on a U.S. Senate document detailing the only successful shipboard revolt of enslaved people in American history. Baker redacts the official text to tell a new, untold story about the people who made the remarkable choice to fight back. (Meron Menghistab for Crosscut)

A sepia still of Black cowboys talking

The late Northwest television titan Nate Long was devoted to diversifying the airwaves with Black stories and voices. As part of these efforts, he created the TV series South by Northwest, detailing the early history of Black people in the Pacific Northwest. Here, a still from an episode about Black cowboys. (Courtesy of Washington State University)

Art of many layers

artwork showing black papercut paper overlaid on colorful paper, like a stained glass window
detail of metal-cut artwork featuring heads and a cowrie pattern
multimedia artwork
An open book with a sculpture of a hand coming out from the left page, and a black and white photo of a person on the right page
A black and white photo of a man drawing

Making art amid discrimination

"Although my work was praised, particularly in illustration, fashion design, figure painting and other commercial lines, I was flatly refused any position, again because of color," Milt Simons wrote.

"Many times I have broken up brushes, thrown away my paints and work in deep remorse and bewilderment. But I am an artist. To function is to create.”

Podcast: Exploring decades of arts and culture in the Central District

Aerial view of a neighborhood, students exiting a bus, man in front of a school, four children dancing

Conversations about Black arts venues in the neighborhood led to stories of creation, loss and preservation.

The power of words

Person with blackout poetry behind them reads from a book, looking at the camera and gesturing with hand
A woman smiles with her eyes looking off camera, and a projection of a woman holding a voting rights sign is behind her
Person in pink jacket holding their sunglasses
A woman stands in front of a projection of the ocean with her hands clasped

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