Fighting the System: Seattle Youth Rap the Truth

Interview with Creative Justice artists at Northwest Folklife Festival.

Written by TeenTix Press Corps Writer Annika Prom.

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“I’m reclaiming the hell out of this space!” Rell Be Free’s shout echoed throughout the theater of the Vera Project, accented with dim blue and purple lights. A teenager with homegrown Seattle beginnings as a musician, Rell Be Free was one of the night’s featured musicians. These artists, youth who speak truth to power, prepared to make themselves heard through rap and spoken word performances at the Northwest Folklife Festival.

Through Creative Justice, youth are encouraged to share their stories using art as an alternative to completing traditional probation. Co-director Nikkita Oliver describes the program as offering opportunities to “liberate ourselves in a creative space.”

As opening MC, Oliver set the vibe by asking about the meaning of “nia.” Audience members popcorned out their response—”Unity”—and learned that the word translated to “purpose,” the theme for the night’s lineup of performances.

Kid Roman, a rapper based from Creative Justice who appeared in multiple Folklife events this year, eased into the night with a setlist composed of dance tracks and deeper, lyrical music so the audience could “all get lost” during the concert. Each piece converged to spread Kid Roman’s message for the night.

“Be who you are. Be the positive message. Don't follow suit with what everybody else is doing. Enjoy yourself. Give up your life. Give up your energy. Communicate with people. Learn from other people. Experience things with other people,” he said.

Kid Roman developed an interest in drumming at six years old, then discovered audio mixing on GarageBand at 12 years old. The Creative Justice program secured his musical passion by providing the first professional studio in which he recorded. Now, Kid Roman uses rap to express his thoughts on the social issues he learned about through Creative Justice.

Since joining in 2016, Kid Roman’s role has changed from pupil to leader who inspires youth and does outreach in the community. The biggest lesson he takes away is the understanding that everybody’s reason for being in Creative Justice is due to misdirection from the greater society.

“A lot of these youth have been led astray by the system, and display repercussions of the system, so we kind of have to redirect that. Our main focus in Creative Justice is not only redirecting the youth that have had all these types of experiences… but to redirect that system,” Kid Roman said. “It kind of opened my eyes to what social justice really is and how I can be of service.”

Being in Creative Justice opened doors for Kid Roman to pursue his passion for music, and he’s experienced others going through the same process. As a result of the resources and support he received, Kid Roman said he’s grateful to be “getting paid to do what I love.” In fact, he plans to release a new album this summer.

“I've seen community build between youth on a positive note that otherwise they probably wouldn't have had an opportunity to do outside of the program,” he said. “It is a great thing to see what [skills] you just keep progressing and progressing. I was telling my boss the other day that if I could have watched a video of myself now when I was 16, I probably would have cried.”

A prime example of a Creative Justice alum who is taking on the world as a new, empowered adult is Jazmine Speed. She endured the hero’s journey, shocked at her ability to advance from her involvement in illegal activity to flying out to perform her music in Chicago.

Speed, only 20 years old, took the stage to highlight her growth in overcoming obstacles in her life. With a tarnish on her record and a tough history with substance abuse, the mentors at Creative Justice made Speed feel welcome and valued.

“Even though I was literally obligated to go there for court, they told me they needed me, I'm the star. They told me that, basically, I have the power. And no matter what they always wanted my words, it didn't matter if we were cussing, didn't matter if we were high, they didn't care,” she said. “They just wanted us to participate and they were happy we were there.”

Two years ago, Speed rose out of Creative Justice when attendance was no longer court-mandated. Now, she’s soon to receive her AA in criminal justice. Though she showcased only one song that night, Speed communicated the importance of finding answers within yourself.

“Anything traumatic that's happened to you, don't let that interfere with your present life. Take those lessons that were given to you, but know that being yourself is always the right thing,” Speed said. “Never let anything stop you from being yourself.”

Being the night’s closing act, Speed requested to perform acapella to be “as raw as possible” with the authenticity of her message. She ran into a mistake with her rap lyrics, but the audience cheered to encourage Speed to keep the show going. In the heat of the overwhelming support, Speed gathered herself and started back up again, a sentiment similar to her journey in overcoming her rough past.

Lead photo credit: TeenTix Newsroom writers Annika Prom and Triona Suiter interviewing Creative Justice artists at the Vera Project during Northwest Folklife Festival.

The TeenTix Press Corps promotes critical thinking, communication, and information literacy through criticism and journalism practice for teens. For more information about other Press Corps programs including Press Corps Intensives, the Teen Editorial Staff, or the TeenTix Newsroom, see HERE.

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