Musician Reese Tanimura on How the Creative Industries Need New Voices

Musician Reese Tanimura on How the Creative Industries Need New Voices
Guest Curator Reese Tanimura. Photo Credit: Sherry Loeser

Reese Tanimura's path to music began with a ukulele. A fourth generation Japanese American who was born on the island of O’ahu, Tanimura  (she/her) was raised between Hawai’i and Illinois.

Since making her way to Seattle years ago, she’s played in more bands and ensembles than you can count, been a DJ for KBCS, served as a mentor at Rain City Rock camp, and continues to be the rock star Managing Director of Northwest Folklife. 

We asked Reese about her path to becoming a musician and cultural worker, how musicians can become better advocates for the creative industries, and what post-pandemic changes she’d like to see in the music world.

How did you get your dream job at Folklife? And what specific skill sets that you learned as a musician helped you land the job and do it well?  

 At Northwest Folklife, I found a hugely diverse community of creative and caring people, and day-by-day, I make the job fit the dream—particularly I envision that artists and culture-bearers be recognized and valued as essential in our society. 

Years of playing in ensembles and bands have helped me to develop relationship-building skills that are as much based in non-verbal and empathetic interaction as they are from “talking story” and getting to know people. 

It’s more than just “who you know”—mutually beneficial opportunities have emerged from respect, trust, and a willingness to continue to learn. Learning, expanding my point of view, and staying focused on people have helped me cultivate a vision and kept me open to the different paths to manifesting.

One of the most important things I’ve learned as a musician and cultural worker is to embrace both success and fallibility. It keeps me grounded and reminds me to have grace, for others as well as myself. 

2020 just underscored how much we need the compassion and empathy that grace embodies. Romanticizing the arts has so often diminished the hard work it takes to create and stay relevant, so this past year was a moment to lay bare some of the ugly truths about the industry, its reliance on exploitative business models and the impact of rampant corporate capitalism on the people in our sector. 

All the while, we continue to try to strive for a balance between the magical, awe-inspiring qualities of creativity and establishing connections to the realness, and sometimes rawness, of our fellow humans.

In your role as the Chair of the Music Commission you work with the City of Seattle to help shape policies that support the music industry.   Why is it important for creatives to participate in politics and advocacy? How would you suggest people get involved?  

There are MANY creatives that use their various skills in community organizing, advocacy, and systems change work. Both locally and nationally (and globally) musicians have used their art and deftness at connections to drive social movements. 

Black, brown and Indigenous artists; womxn and non-binary; queer and trans; artists with disabilities—their art amplifies core beliefs and often, a vision for their communities. If we aren’t from those communities, we need to listen and learn about the best way to get involved. 

Generally, there are so many ways to show up that it’s mostly being aware of how we are showing up. On a very basic level, all of us have a civic responsibility, not just to elect our representatives, but to make sure that they understand the unique assets and concerns from workers within the creative industry and ecosystem. 

Within that there is also the need for those most impacted by the deeply-rooted racism, sexism, and systemic perpetration of economic disparity and injustice to have much more presence in how policy and governance gets re-written. 

Policy and change work should be holistic and acknowledge that whatever we do as our livelihood is inextricably connected to how we navigate through our lives—championing deeper investment in arts, culture, and creativity must be connected to addressing housing affordability. Activating paid artistic opportunities in public spaces and generally ensuring that artists can earn fair wages for their creative work are facets of supporting community-driven alternatives to policing. 

From my perspective, we need to replace the old narratives of music and art being a nice thing to have / listen to / look at with the essential truth that cultural identity, creativity, and artistic expression are necessary to sustainability and evolution—as individuals, as communities, and as a society.

Creatives need to participate in politics and advocacy because we need their bold imagination and tenacity, especially at this moment. The kind of systemic transformation that we have the opportunity to participate in is going to come from the cosmic intersection of ancient wisdom and futuristic vision. 

Collectively, thousands of years of history—both the triumphs and the f*ck ups (and everything in between)—as well as human aspirations, are encapsulated in the expressions of songs, stories, paintings, and more recently, photography and film. We shouldn’t settle for getting back to whatever passed for normal in 2019—we need to have creatives manifesting new possibilities.

Reese Tanimura at Seattle Center. Photo Credit: April Jingco

The pandemic gave the music industry the opportunity to reset. What changes would you like to see happen as the music industry emerges from lockdown?

I would love for Seattle to look outside of the U.S. for models of investment in arts, culture, and creativity. Part of this goes back to valuing creatives and participation in creativity as integral to a thriving, holistic ecosystem versus as a means to artistic products. 

I think that we have already seen a shift towards an interest in experiential services, so I think there is some opportunity to spearhead a wider discussion about how we can properly support musicians, artists, and cultural workers as a part of that shift.

Within experiencing art and nightlife, we must address what safety looks like in all environments. 

This is everything from naming and confronting the racism and exploitation of Black culture that the music industry has built white wealth upon, to preparing front-line staff to handle a highly polarized populus, some of whom have regressed in their socialization skills after a year of multiple levels of distancing.

Somewhat related to that last thought, but from a general health and wellness standpoint, I think it is really important that we develop business models that are not predicated on the sale and consumption of alcohol as the means to a thriving music and nightlife scene. 

That isn’t a judgement about people’s recreational choices or vices. This is a dual reality that wants to center musicians and their work as the driver of the economics and that “post-pandemic” still requires us to be more conscientious of the health and safety impacts of our behavior, something that is harder to shepherd when inhibitions are lowered due to drinking. 

Recently, I have been to some outdoor, community-led DIY events where the focus was on the artists and the gathering AND where decent money was raised to pay the artists. Let’s find a way to make this model sustainable.

Northwest Folklife offers a paid internship program that places creatives in small business and sets up mentorships. What 2 or 3 things do business owners get from participating in the program?  And what feedback are you getting from the interns about what they learned?

My hope is that they get to share their love for and experience in creative and cultural entrepreneurship with young people, and within that are developing capacity for their business. They definitely get to make their work more visible as possible careers paths. 

The value of the creative industries are as much in the process of inspiration, ideation, and engagement as they are about the product or end result. We hear from sites that they are energized by their interns; we heard from multiple interns how good it felt to have their creativity valued and be offered career pathways they hadn’t thought of exploring.

What advice do you have for musicians who want to make a career/living out of music? How can musicians better advocate for themselves, both on and off the stage?

Build and steward relationships. Develop your support network that will be your sounding boards, cheerleaders, fans, inspirations, continuous learning, doors to opportunities, collaborators, conspirators, and any number of other things to help you through this thing we call life. 

Don’t be afraid to ask for help and advice from your peeps - you don’t have to take it, but at least consider other points of view.

To better advocate for yourself, do some self-assessment around your strengths and growth areas. This can help you understand your own value and what you are contributing to the environments you are in. It can also help you figure out what kind of support to seek out or ask for, and it sets goals and boundaries. 

you may also enjoy