By Anya Shukla
“I love music,” Grae Violett said a few minutes into our interview. “You can have two people who hate each other and disagree on everything, but they might still have the same favorite song.” A mix of thoughtfulness and introspection, that sentence embodies Violett herself: a talented singer/songwriter/poet whose work deals with topics of identity and belonging.
“I’ve been doing art for forever—music was always around me,” Violett noted. Her earliest memory is of singing along to Neyo and Maroon Five in the car, and her parents, who are “not musically inclined, but really like music,” often took her to concerts and shows. Nevertheless, she only seriously saw herself as a musician after she toured Seattle’s Cornish College of the Arts at fourteen: “I realized that I really want to go to this school,” she said. “That gave me a fire to really hone in on my talent and figure out what I want to do.” To learn more, she dove into musical theater and youth arts boards such as Seattle Art Museum’s Teen Arts Group. It was through the latter that she discovered Totem Star, an organization providing music mentorship and accessible studio space for young artists.
Along with the above perks comes the organization’s supportive community: “Everyone respects each other as artists and as people,” Violett said. “Everyone involved truly wants everyone to succeed.” Regardless of how many EPs or singles a Totem Star artist has produced, they continue to collaborate and share industry knowledge with newcomers. In fact, Totem Star and its musicians mean so much to Violett that she drives an hour—in good traffic—to get to the studio.
As an example of Totem Star’s tight-knit culture, Violett cited the organization’s COVID-19 response: Totem Star’s co-founders, Daniel Pak and Thaddeus Turner, immediately checked in on her after the stay-at-home order passed. “They’re calling you—your phone—personally and asking ‘How are you doing? How are you doing, not just as an artist, but as a person? And what can we do to help?’” she said. When she’s older, she noted, “I want to be like that. I never want to be so successful in my career that I forget to give back—and not in a facetious way, but genuinely give back to people.”
While Violett misses in-person interaction—“People are my lifeblood; I stan them,” she admitted, laughing—quarantine has enhanced her musical productivity. She set up a small studio in her room, complete with a mike and mike stand, and has been teaching herself to play the guitar. During this period, Violett wishes to build on the success of her first single, “Real,” by producing and performing more songs.
Although she defines her music as genreless, Violett’s work pays homage to ‘80s synth and ‘90s R&B. “Real,” which debuted on SoundCloud in February, highlights this juxtaposition, with dreamy vocals that play off of an upbeat instrumental backing. However, she feels people often prejudge her songs because of her race: “Whenever I tell people that I do music, they ask, ‘Oh, do you rap? Do you sing R&B?’ I grew up listening to R&B… but at the same time, I want to do so much more,” she said. “I don’t want to be put in a box.”
Throughout her artistic career, Violett has battled racism and microaggressions. When her parents took her to shows or she attended musical theater rehearsals, she was often the only black person in the room. In those situations, Violett felt the need to represent her race: “I couldn’t share my opinions, because people who haven’t been around black people before saw my opinion as every black person’s opinion.”
However, when Violett joined Totem Star, she didn’t feel that pressure; realizing that the Totem Star artists embraced her in her entirety, she slowly began opening up, sharing her stories and experiences. It helps that her fellow musicians listen and learn from each other: “We can attack beliefs, but we don’t have to attack the people.” This, in turn, allows her to focus solely on her music.
To that end, in Violett’s eyes, artists of color need a Totem-Star-like atmosphere. The support and strength derived from close-knit communities uplift artists of color, allowing them to surmount obstacles: “Even when things get hard—even when people may be racist or homophobic—having that community will help you, and give you armor, and make you feel that you can speak for yourself.”