Zora Neale Hurston wrote, “Folklore is the arts of the people before they find out there is any such thing as art.” She was a pioneer of African American ethnography and dedicated her craft to excavating the stories of her people. Seattle's own Ben Hunter is a modern-day Hurston of sorts – a scholar, a community advocate, a musician, and a proud carrier of human stories.
If you don’t know Ben Hunter, chances are you have had some glimpse of his impact and didn’t know it. For instance, in 2021, Ben was named Artistic Director of one of the oldest running Folk festivals in the country, Northwest Folklife, where he and Managing Director Reese Tanimura reimagined the first return to an in-person festival, entitled Metamorphosis, this past spring.
Not one to allow moss to grow under his feet, Ben is also the founder and director of Community Arts Create, the co-founder of the Hillman City Collaboratory, a Black and Tan Hall co-founder, was the composer for the critically acclaimed production Black Bois, lent his incredible intellect to the Seattle Music Commission for several years, and helped to launch, and remains a member of, the steering committee for the Columbia Hillman City Arts and Cultural District. Oh yes, he’s also a teaching artist and performer.
Folk music in North America is a 19th Century invention. In African culture, the Griot, or storyteller, dates back to the 13th-century Mande Empire of Mali. Ben Hunter is the embodiment of both these centuries-long traditions, with the added bonus of his presence as he moves through our community as a force for good.
We can learn a lot about our evolving musical and cultural histories from Ben Hunter and his chosen art form. He challenges each of us to understand the ways our contemporary ideas and experiences are historically linked to our inherited shared history.
Learn more about musical folk history from Ben’s TEDX presentation below entitled, "When Folk Music Speaks."
You can also listen to Ben and Reese as they discuss Northwest Folklife in this past episode of doubleXposure podcast.