🎹 Locals to Know: The Rhapsody Project

American music holds something for everyone — jazz, rock ‘n roll, funk, ragtime, hip hop, and the list goes on. But The Rhapsody Project wants us to ask ourselves if we really know where that music comes from? 

The project teaches young (and some older) students about the roots of America’s music through jam sessions, performances, workshops and much more, all in effort to build community, let loose and explore all the things an intentional music education can offer.

Read all about the roots of American music, the Rhapsody Project’s upcoming program space in King Street Station and why digging into our roots matters, in our Q&A with co-founder, musician and educator, Joe Seamons.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What is The Rhapsody Project and why did it start?

The Rhapsody Project is a community that celebrates music and heritage through an anti-racist lens. Ben Hunter and I co-founded the organization in 2013 with the goal of providing youth and adults with the music education we wished we had been given. 

Part of your mission is “building community through our roots.” What’s the meaning behind that and how do you make that happen?

We build community by helping people connect more deeply and consciously with the layers of their heritage. Our roots are the things that help give us life, connect to others, and allow us to draw on the strength of our origins. 

The Rhapsody Project serves primarily Americans, and so this work starts with educating everyone we reach about the crucial influence of Black Americans on the development of our culture and identity as Americans. While we serve people of every ethnicity in our programs, we highlight the fact that everything from the spirituals to ragtime, blues, stringband music, jazz, R&B, rock ‘n roll, funk, and hip hop originated in Black culture.

Without knowing this, our understanding of ourselves as “American” is incomplete, and we lack the tools needed to show up for our community which is an integrated one that centers and celebrates the contributions of Black people. 

Since (at least) the era of blackface minstrelsy began, Americans of many cultures have interpreted and performed the music created by Black America. Thus, the power of this music has been the backbone of our popular culture for at least 180 years. A shared understanding of both this essential history — and its ongoing significance — is foundational to forming the community that the Rhapsody Project works to build. 

Why do you focus on teaching American music and its evolution?

American music and its history is just flat-out fun and enriching to study, first of all. So we always start with a focus on enjoyment and self-expression without self-criticism, highlighting the capacity of our music to express any and every emotion one can feel. Music — studied within the context of its creation — contains untapped power to address the injustice that bedevils our society. 

To tap into that power, you cannot ignore the painful and tragic history of erasure and exploitation, but you also can use the act of playing and singing to work through the feelings that come up as you contemplate everything from your own personal struggles to the enormity of injustice that continues to this day. While the sadness and anger is real, the powers of resilience, resistance, truth-telling, and transformation are all embedded in the music. Through celebration of these powers, we embody them, and we are empowered as culture bearers to pass them on to others. 

You and Ben both have a background in music education. How did your experiences in that field shape the way you teach now?

Learning and teaching music makes your mind more nimble, and there are numerous scientific studies that demonstrate the many benefits of both playing and singing. In the American musical traditions which Ben and I embody — each in different ways — passing the music on to others is simply part of what it means to be an authentic member of the tradition.

So, we are still engaged in music education, but we’ve taken the many lessons, the community connections, and the flexibility of thought that music bestows to impart deeper lessons to our students. We talk about how to embrace where you come from, gain skills that allow you to serve your community in multiple ways, and always, always keep things goofy and not fall into the trap of taking yourself too seriously. Community music making provides one important ingredient in the antidote to an unhealthy ego. 

What’s the project you’re working on at King Street Station and what’s so special about it?

It is hard to put into words how thrilled we are to be a part of the King Street Station project. 

In 2019, the Cultural Space Agency selected The Rhapsody Project alongside other amazing anchor partners such as Totem Star and Red Eagle Soaring, to design and inhabit our own program spaces within the 2nd floor of King Street Station. 

Our workshop will contain our instrument library, benches for stringed instrument maintenance and repair, an amazing little collection of 78 rpm records (donated by the incomparable Vivian Williams), as well as a turntable to play them on. The workshop spaces’ design is based on input from our young interns as well as our community of excellent musicians.

Somehow, the whole floor had lain dormant for decades, so it’s this incredible blank slate where we will collaborate to center BIPOC youth and serve them with space to feel at home, make art in all its forms, and experience programs that prepare them for the cultural workforce in the economy that’s emerging. 

How do you support students in finding sustainable success in the music world?

The music business is fickle and rapidly evolving, so our focus is on helping people access a sustainable community of other aspiring musicians who align with our values. However, we were just awarded $40,000 from Historic South Downtown which will fund the development of new curriculum that gives people tools to succeed in music, such as PR, teaching and luthiery. 

Any other projects or programs you’re working on right now that you want to highlight?

Sure, here are two currently offered by The Rhapsody Project.

  1. Culture Bearer Pathways is a new online program that allows people of all ages to study their heritage in a structured-but-independent fashion. You sign up on Patreon for $10 / month, and get access to a monthly, 4-page curriculum packet, as well as opportunities to interview a different master culture bearer every month. This year, we’re studying Black American music from 1619 – 1940.
  2. Face the Music: Using Music to Confront Racism, is an eight-week class that meets on Zoom and is co-facilitated by myself and one of the three brilliant, Black women who lead tRp. In those classes we establish a brave space where all kinds of people can discover and discuss lessons drawn from our hidden musical history. We apply these lessons to our spheres of influence, holding one another accountable to living our values while gaining experience both just talking about and taking action against racism as it exists in our lives. 

What are five organizations/people in Seattle everyone should know about?

Northwest Folklife — it’s a treasure and this year’s in-person festival will mark their 50th anniversary! They’ve been big supporters of tRp and my co-founder and friend Ben Hunter was just hired there as Artistic Director

Northwest Tap Connection gets more young people dancing while imbuing them with the values of social justice

Feest is an amazing organization that is teaching youth to organize around food justice. Food, dance, and music form a three-legged stool that support a thriving culture

Multicultural Community Coalition is an outstanding organization that is working to make cultural space and entrepreneurship opportunities more accessible to the many immigrant populations in South Seattle

Black & Tan Hall is a values-driven business that has been working for over five years to renovate and open the historic building at 5608 Rainier Avenue South as a cultural center, performing arts venue, and restaurant