Turn up the Music
Totem Star's new home expands its footprint by tenfold
By Rachel Gallaher February 2, 2024
How many music-hungry kids can you fit into a 250-square-foot studio? For years at Totem Star — a nonprofit arts organization that empowers young people through music — the answer often clocked in at up to 20, with a handful more spilling out into the hallway. Even though space in its former headquarters in Delridge’s Youngstown Cultural Arts Center was tight, there was always a positive, collaborative energy.
“The studio was usually full,” says Totem cofounder, star singer, songwriter, and producer Daniel Pak. “And then we’d have a duo playing guitar out on the stairs, folks rapping in the hallway or practicing in the dance studios. It was a beautiful thing, but we needed more room.”
By 2018, five years after settling into the Youngstown space, Pak — who founded Totem Star in 2010 with Thaddeus Turner, the music director for the Grammy Award-winning hip hop trio Digable Planets — decided to put out the call for more room. At the time, Pak was co-chair of the Seattle Music Commission, and after sending an email to then-director of Seattle’s Office of Arts & Culture Randy Engstrom, the two met with Matthew Richter, who, as the cultural space liaison for the city, was looking to revitalize the long-vacant second floor of King Street Station.
The ensuing STATION SPACE project, which broke ground in 2022, is part of a larger project facilitated by the city’s Cultural Space Agency to transform the historic building into a hub of arts organizations dedicated to serving BIPOC youth. In addition to Totem Star, tenants — all of which have received a 60-year, rent-free lease from the city — include the Red Eagle Soaring theater group, the arts-focused trade agency Wh!psmart, and the Rhapsody Project, an organization dedicated to celebrating music and heritage through an anti-racist lens, and Jackson Street Music Program.
Thanks to the STATION SPACE project, Totem Star expanded its footprint by tenfold, opening a brand-new headquarters last November. Designed by Sundberg Kennedy Ly-Au Young Architects (SKL), the 2,000-square-foot space has state-of-the-art recording studios with everything participants need to pursue their musical interests, from singing and songwriting to producing, video production, and playing instruments. A flexible layout also allows for coworking and pop-up studio situations as well. Equipment was donated by big names including Sony Electronics, Vulcan Studios, and Seattle-born rapper Sir Mix-a-Lot.
“Everyone comes to Totem Star with a different level of experience,” says Pak, who cares deeply about creating an open, nurturing environment that serves young people outside of home and school. Sometimes it’s a book of lyrics, and sometimes they have guitar chords or a song or two on Sound- Cloud. Wherever they are on their path, we meet them there and ask what they want from their experience. From the jump, we let them lead.”
“Totem Star opened a door for me during a time when things in my life were changing a lot,” says Kidd Cobb, the organization’s program manager. Cobb was first introduced to Totem Star at Cleveland High School while participating in the Youth Speaks poetry program. “They opened the door for me and created a family-like environment that helped take me to the next level, both musically and personally.”
It’s this type of growth that Pak hopes to foster in each young person who passes through Totem Star’s doors. The organization — which started in 2010 as a one-off recording project working with youth just released from juvenile detention — has worked with more than 5,000 young artists, some as young as 14, providing music mentorship and teaching them interpersonal and leadership skills to help them navigate other areas of their lives, from school to the workplace.
“Music is the hook,” Pak says. “It’s what you see. It’s what we do. But Totem Stars is also a place for our artists to find who they are. We’re creating a safe space for people to be loved, build community, and find each other. We want to help these young people grow into the best versions of themselves.”