Seattle musician Yirim Seck straddles two cultures. It’s been a tricky balancing act.
Seck’s father is Senegalese; his mother is from Arkansas. They met and fell in love in New York, then moved to Seattle.
“I tell people all the time I’m just as American as anybody,” Seck says. The difference comes in how he was raised.
“My family was hard core, instilling a sense of identity and knowing our history and where we came from.”
That history revolved around Africa. “I was surrounded by African food, African music, everything was African,” Seck says.
Seck’s father, a musician, filled the house with African instruments. His mother was a jewelry maker who specialized in traditional African designs.
It was a little confusing for a boy growing up in America.
“I was always denying the Senegalese part of me,” says Seck. “I was always doing dumb stuff to try to impress my peers.”
By the time he was a teenager, he was getting into fights and acting out in school. Fed up with traditional discipline, his mother decided Seck needed a change. She sent her 16-year-old son to stay with his paternal grandparents in Senegal.
Despite his Africa-conscious upbringing, Seck confesses that going to Senegal was a culture shock.
“Most people send their children back (to Africa) at an earlier age in order for them to learn the language and dive deeper into who they are,” he says.
But Seck didn’t speak a word of his father’s native language, Wolof. His African relatives were appalled.
Seck was supposed to be in Senegal for two weeks.
He stayed for two years.
By that time, Seck had not only learned to communicate; he also experienced what life could be like in a black-majority society and he wanted more.
“You know the phrase, it’s a white man’s world?” Seck explains. “People think it’s a pity party when we say this, but you know, systematic oppression here is real.”
In Africa, he felt free to move around as he wished, felt less conscious of his skin color and societal expectations for his behavior.
"Here," he muses, "the general consensus is that you're trapped."
At 18, Seck returned to Seattle with a new sense of confidence. He wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a musician.
He wasn’t exactly sure how he was going to do that; he didn’t even know how he was going to support himself.
Seck made some bad choices, notably misusing his mother’s beloved record collection. Ultimately, she kicked him out of her house. Seck was 22 and on the streets with no means of support and too proud to ask friends for help.
He met a girl, and, slowly, moved some of his things into her house. One day, she told Seck she was pregnant with his child and he told her the truth: He was homeless, jobless and unsure how to move forward. He’d reached a low point.
Impending fatherhood was the push he needed. Seck found a job in the building trades and slowly started the process of mending his relationship with his mother.
He forged ahead with his music. For Seck, it was an avenue for both self expression and self acceptance.
“When I had my daughter, after being homeless and all these scenarios, it’s like, wow!” Seck marvels. “I can’t help but incorporate these experiences (into my songs). I always say it’s important to tell your story because you never know, it might not be exclusively yours.”
Seck is steeped in hip hop tradition, but these days if you ask him to describe what he creates he doesn’t hesitate: world music.
Earlier this year, Seck began working with his father to incorporate more traditional Senegalese rhythms into his hip hop songs.
Seck and his producer, Jay Battle (aka Qreepz) create this fusion in Battle’s tiny Beacon Hill studio. Seck records his vocal track to a temporary musical beat. Eventually, Qreepz will replace that beat with African-tinged rhythms.
Seck hopes the final product will appeal to both American club-goers and contemporary Africans.
Commercial success is important to him, but he’s after something more profound. This music is Seck’s means to balance the two halves of himself: Senegal and America. He says he wants his art to tell his personal truth: the history, the pain and his discovery of who he really is.
“I don’t want people to be confused,” he says, “but I don’t want to be put into a box.”
Seck has a complex story, but he believes it reflects the lives of bicultural kids who grew up just like him.
Yirim Seck will perform with other musicians of African descent on Saturday, Oct. 15, at the Rainier Cultural Center, as part of SEED’s Arts Gumbo event.