Totem Star Lights the Way for Seattle’s Next Generation of Music
"Who scored? Messi?”
The query echoes off concrete walls and exposed support beams, as Daniel Pak, Paul Laughlin, and Amr Awwad huddle excitedly around Laughlin’s phone, watching the final minutes of a World Cup match. It’s early December, and it’s chilly in the King Street Station construction zone that will eventually become the home base for youth music mentorship nonprofit Totem Star. It’s what brought the three men together today.
As the match wraps up, Pak, Laughlin, and Awwad sit down with Totem Star mentor Amy Piñon, assistant program coordinator Christina Nguyen, and alt-pop artist Aleyanna Allgood for lunch. Cofounder and executive director Pak fusses a little over everyone, making sure that they have enough to eat and drink, that it’s not too cold amid all this concrete. His grandmother would never forgive him, he says, if he were ever a less than exemplary host, even in a construction zone.
Totem Star’s new digs in the heart of the Chinatown–International District are more than eight times the size of its current cramped quarters in the Youngstown Cultural Arts Center in Delridge. The Station Space project, which broke ground in October of last year, is part of a larger project facilitated by the city’s Cultural Space Agency and will transform the long-vacant second floor of the historic building into a hub of arts organizations dedicated to serving BIPOC youth.
Pak’s ability to put people at ease is perhaps what has helped him grow Totem Star, alongside cofounder Thaddeus Turner, from a work-training program in 2010 for the Juvenile Rehabilitation Administration, into a thriving nonprofit devoted to youth arts. It’s certainly what helped him win over Allgood, who goes by the stage name Aleyanna Grae.
Allgood came to Totem Star for the first time in 2019, when they were 17 and teetering on the brink of quitting music altogether. “It was a really important time in my life, when it could have gone either way,” they say. “My parents just wanted me to be OK.”
In their years of being shuffled through various youth-centric organizations, they had witnessed the phrase “one big family” co-opted as a weapon to silence dissent and criticism from participants. Totem Star’s slightly “kumbaya” messaging landed with suspicion. Allgood was proven wrong their first day in the studio. “As soon as I walked in, I felt like, I’m safe here. I’m good.”
Awwad, who goes by ZAG, had the same experience. Now an intern for the organization, he started coming to Totem Star in October 2016, six months after moving to the U.S. from Egypt. “It was the place where I looked forward to being the most,” he says.
There are many reasons why. Totem Star provides young artists with studio time, mentorship from other artists of color, and the opportunity to perform live. Both Awwad and Allgood say their skills and confidence have blossomed under the light of what Pak, Turner, and the rest of the nonprofit’s staff have built.
Awwad shares that the pandemic left him feeling rudderless. It dispelled all his momentum, he says, and he’s frustrated that he’s not producing new material. He feels stagnant.
“Can I respond to that real quick?” Pak says.
Awwad smiles knowingly, and assents. Pak shares a revelation he recently had: He’s spent his whole life relentlessly driven by the need to wake up every day and prove to the world that he’s an artist, to justify his creative existence. And it’s only recently that he’s been able to unyoke himself from that, to challenge the capitalist mandate to produce. Awwad will always be an artist, Pak says, whether he’s producing or not.
Awwad pushes back a little. Sure, he plays around with beats every day, he writes little snippets of things, but he’s not actually doing anything real. “That’s the work,” Pak insists. “And all we have control over is doing the work.”
The work is happening right now, in this drafty concrete space above King Street Station. And when Totem Star opens its doors at the end of summer, it will continue.