“Most people don’t realize how truly talented he was,” Shyan Selah says as he listens to a YouTube video of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. giving a speech to students at Barratt Junior High School in Philadelphia in 1967. The title of the speech is “What is Your Life’s Blueprint?”
“Everyone knows he was an amazing orator, preacher, and writer. But he also had a natural gift for theatrics and being on stage. Not as an actor, but you can tell that sense was in him. He was very talented. I believe he could’ve done anything.”
Selah listens to the video play as he drives, getting on Interstate 5 heading south towards Tacoma Wash., the landscape of his hometown of Federal Way receding in the background. The city marks a significant geographical boundary which takes on a poignant meaning this day. Once you’ve passed Federal Way you’ve entered Pierce County and left Martin Luther King Jr. County – renamed for the prolific and legendary civil rights leader in 1986. Prior to that time the county was a namesake to William Rufus Vane King, a slave owner.
A beam of sunlight hits the car illuminating Selah’s eyes behind the sunglasses he’s wearing. They shine bright with interest and passion as he listens to the speech. Of all the speeches that have been recorded from that time period, the significance of this singular speech particularly moving.
Two days earlier Selah addressed 756 students at Illahee Middle School for their annual MLK assembly and gave a speech on Dr. King and what it meant to go for a dream back in the mid 60’s. Today he was on his way to rehearse his performance for the City of Tacoma’s Annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Birthday Celebration at the Greater Tacoma Convention and Trade Center. The next morning he would take the stage and perform for Governor Jay Inslee, Mayor Marilyn Strickland, state senators, members of the City Council, and over 2,000 attendees who would come to pay their respects to the legacy of Dr. King.
It’s a busy weekend for the music artist and founder and CEO of Brave New World. It usually is at this time of year as he’s often requested to speak and perform, typically for youth whose teachers and community leaders are looking for a unique and engaging way to present an individual and ideal that has been presented many times before and is usually relegated to the widely known “I Have a Dream” speech.
Selah, who’s been touring his Café Noir Project for the past five years (a multi-media musical experience at select Starbucks locations, schools, colleges, and music venues nationwide), performs a mix of soul, hip-hop, and rock music. That combined with the fact that he’s made it a mission to use his talent as a means of outreach to give back to communities around the globe makes him an attractive alternative for events and groups ranging from corporations such as Starbucks to colleges and schools all over the country, but especially in South King County and Tacoma where he grew up.
“It’s an honor to take part in recognizing the legacy of Dr. King on any level, especially in my hometown communities,” says Selah. “Every year I look forward to sharing that message of peace and encouraging others to remindful of their potential despite any obstacles.”
Having made multiple visits over the years to Illahee, his former junior high school, now a middle school, Selah caught the attention of Pat Perkins who is a coordinator there for the Communities in Schools of Federal Way organization.
Once introduced to Selah by Principal Jerry Warren, and having participated in a selection of meetings and events Selah and Brave New World had coordinated with the school, she requested he make a return appearance for their annual MLK assembly to speak and perform for the students. He accepted, speaking to the students about the effects Dr. King’s legacy have had on his life and career as well as performing two songs from the Café Noir Project: “All Around the World,” a hip hop track that touches on individual responsibility while recognizing our ability to affect countless others, and “For So Long,” originally dedicated to Selah’s grandmother the song is a poetic recognition of those who’ve passed on and left a mark on the world.
“Mr. Selah spoke to the assembly about the legacy of Dr. King and his impact on the non-violent protest movement. Most impactful was hearing about the journey Shyan took from the athletic fields of Illahee to the boardrooms and performance stages of Hollywood. With the rich baritone of his voice, he invited the students to look for peaceful ways to resolve conflict. Every time he began singing, the assembly hushed with anticipation,” sates Perkins.
“After dismissal, there were a number of student that rushed to greet Shyan to ask questions. The requests for autographs using whatever was available (including hands and arms) extended long past the bell for the next class. ‘I want to do what he does’, is a comment I heard several times during that day. The second question I heard often was ‘When is he coming back?’
Shyan Selah is a gift that the students grasped and held onto long after he left.”
“Shyan uses a music and business focused view that places students in activities that engage them,” adds Warren. “As a graduate of Illahee Middle School, Federal Way resident and business owner, he is committed to making a difference in transforming our schools and curriculum. Together we have designed relevant and engaging learning experiences for our students and I am excited to continue our partnership with Brave New World and the Café Noir Project.”
It’s Selah’s commitment to making a positive impact on not just schools, but community as a whole – wherever that is on his journeys in life, that has led to a long-term partnership with Illahee, his former middle school, as well as his inclusion in the city-wide televised performance of Tacoma’s MLK Celebration.
“Not only is [Shyan Selah] incredibly talented, but he also brings a positivity and a commitment to strengthen his community that is unparalleled,” says Erin Lee, Chairwoman of Tacoma’s Events and Recognitions Committee.
Ashley Jackson, who was tapped as the stage manager for Tacoma’s 2017 MLK Celebration, concurs.
“When the committee asked me who I think should perform, Shyan Selah was the first person to come to mind,” states Jackson. “A couple of summers ago, I was meeting my friend at the Starbucks in Lakewood, WA. Moments later, I saw this man walk in and he started to perform. His voice captivated every coffee drinker in Starbucks. I did not want to leave. From that day, I was a fan. With that said, I knew Shyan would be able to bless the audience the way he blessed me that day. I am grateful he agreed to join and to celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life.”
It’s the day of Tacoma’s MLK Celebration and the event is winding down. Selah is the last performer to take the stage before the city gives out its annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Service Award, to a deserving individual in the community. His performance placement is a surprise gift for this year’s recipient, Dr. Maxine Mimms, founder of Evergreen State College in Tacoma and a long-time friend and mentor of Shyan’s who he’s joined forces with in community and education outreach over the years. She gasps as he takes the stage launching into “Should I Pray,” from the Café Noir Project before dedicating “For So Long” to her and her life’s work.
Afterwards, as the event comes to close Selah walks through the crowd, getting stopped every few feet by audience members who were moved by his performance and the messages conveyed in his lyrics before he’s able to greet Dr. Mimms with a long hug.
“Our youth need to know that love is intelligent and Dr. King gave us a great example of how to take a dream and put it to work,” says Selah. “The world was blessed by his efforts and we all benefit when we move to lean on and live by those virtues.”