One of the most important things for us all to understand is that social impact is not relegated to one particular sector or job. If you’re interested in bettering the world, you can absolutely find a way to do it.
Seattle-based musician Shyan Selah is an inspiring example. Rather than use his passion for music to pursue fame, he chose a different path: Through his Café Noir project, he is leveraging music to bring communities together and offer hope and healing to those who are struggling.
Café Noir is a series of live performances held at different Starbucks locations, in which members of the local community come together to enjoy Shyan’s music, and talk about the issues they’re facing, and how they can work together to solve them.
We recently had a chance to connect with Shyan to learn more about him, his music, and his community empowerment work – here’s what he had to say:
You started Cafe Noir as a live street performance in Seattle, with the intention of connecting with people by reaching them right where they stand. Where did the idea come from?
It’s actually rather complex. My musical journey put me in a lot of different places. I’ve worked in every genre – from hip hop to soul to rock and roll to blues. All of them have their own identity as far as where people gather and how they connect.
Because I’m into outreach and activism, there’s nothing more impactful than real interaction with people. I wanted to do a music project that highlighted the importance of the human interaction, that stepped away from being overproduced or really sensational, and was all about humanity and connecting. It was born from a simple notion of connecting with people.
It’s called Café Noir, meaning “black coffee”, because I grew up around my Grandmother and other adults in my life having important conversations while drinking black coffee. It was born from that spirit.
The purpose of the Cafe Noir tour is to shed light on issues that affect our world and the communities we live in, offering hope and healing through music. Can you tell us how this is making an impact in the communities you connect with?
I had been doing outreach, and using music as a platform within schools and community centers, and Starbucks was kind of a next step because of their presence in so many neighborhoods – it offered us an opportunity to extend the message beyond kids.
While it’s so crucial to work with kids, the biggest problem is they still have to go home with the information we’ve shared, and we have to hope they reinforce it at the home level, which doesn’t always happen. We wanted a place where we could reach adults at the same time.
We’ve been able to impact the entire community through Starbucks, and it’s really all about empowerment. It’s about inspiration, education and igniting purpose in the people we’re connecting with. How often do we really run across people that ignite that flame, and help you find what you really care about?
Have you been able to measure or quantify this impact in any way?
From the baristas to the attendees, we’ve seen such a positive response to the message we’re putting out there. We also us a simple sign-up sheet to ask people to leave their emails, their comments about what we’re doing, and a note about what they’d like to see change in their communities. There are different things going on in every city, every community.
One of the things that’s really cool about Starbucks is they have a community affinity – there’s a community bulletin board at each location. In partnering with them, we’ve been able to really get into that and give everyone involved a shared voice. And we’ve seen the dialogue change in front of us, from people just talking about everyday life, to asking questions and talking about their futures. It’s really cool to see.
Tell us more about the youth education outreach component of your work. What does that look like, and why are you passionate about it?
This is really the core of everything I do in outreach. We’re trying to be the antithesis of standard education right now. To do that, we partner with different schools, usually starting with some type of a lecture and performance. From there, we work with the school to determine their specific needs. We’re working to customize the relationship, because we want it to be long-term. The need never stops – there are new eighth graders who need support every year.
The goal of these partnerships is to find a way to merge curriculum with passion and purpose. What’s been effective for me is going into a school, looking at the full spectrum of students, and helping them find out what they’re passionate about. Everyone has a purpose or a passion, something they’re excited about – whether it’s sports, Oreo cookies, or the next Eminem record. So what we try to do is put them in the driver’s seat of their passion.
For the kid who’s excited about Eminem, for example, we try to take them away from the celebrity concept and take a look behind the scenes. Who helped make the album, and why does it matter? There are so many people involved, and we want that kid to know about those jobs, of all of the opportunities available.
There’s a machine behind occupation that kids celebrate, and we really encourage the youth to look behind the curtain and recognize that we wouldn’t have these things without a small or large army of people making it happen. We really highlight that teamwork aspect.
This success model isn’t anything new, but we’re in a world where we only see the stars, even though there are a lot of little dust particles that make that happen. And you see the lights come on in these kids when they realize that they don’t have to be the star, but their role will still be so important.
Why did you decide to connect with Starbucks for your Cafe Noir Tour? What about their company made you want to work with them in particular?
I always thought there was something unique about Starbucks, well before I ever had any opportunity to work with them. I had taken countless meetings there, and always noticed the diversity, the music, the relaxed yet focused vibe. And it was on every corner – available to so many people. I really believe that you can have a big impact by focusing locally, and I thought that partnering with Starbucks would be a great way to do that.
For those who are interested in connecting with a company like Starbucks to support a social impact project, we would love to learn more about how you made that happen. How did you connect with Starbucks, and what did the process for developing this partnership look like?
First, we presented our idea to a local Starbucks, told them what we wanted to do, and sat down and met with the management. They decided to let me come in and start performing. So before anything else, we developed a local relationship and established trust there. They loved the community empowerment aspect of what we were doing, because Starbucks is really focused on that, which not everyone knows about. And after the first 10 or 12 shows, we knew we really had something.
I also have to say that in this case, in particular, I was lucky to have been connected with someone who really made a big difference in getting this idea off the ground – Paula Boggs, the Executive Vice President and Lead Council at Starbucks. I mention her by name because she is just a phenomenal, game-changing, progressive African American woman who’s off the hook – a sister of mine at this point. I just so happened to meet her about this project a couple of weeks before she was going to retire.
The night I met with one of the heads of marketing, I was told to go meet with Paula, who was actually performing down the street. I introduced myself to her, and we connected immediately. We ended up talking for a few hours, and she wanted to come see it. So she came down to see a show in the central district of Seattle, and she fell in love with it. She sat through the whole show, and basically endorsed it that following day to the corporate body.
I have to say that they let us know pretty quickly that they have no interest in becoming a record label or a touring company, but that they believed in the spirit of what we’re doing and wanted to support it. That was almost four years ago.
During the course of the Cafe Noir tour, was there a moment that was particularly meaningful or moving?
There have been so many! But one that really sticks out was a conversation with this young man who was at one of the Café Noir shows. He was a teenager, and was living in a nearby shelter that was just a few buildings down from this particular Starbucks.
He was feeling frustrated because he was interested in performing, but couldn’t figure out how to get started. I chatted with him, and he ended up showing me the alley where he and his friends sleep when the shelters are too full. He told me that he and his friends contemplate crime, they contemplate suicide, because life is so hard. I gave him some resources and phone numbers of people to call about his music. I heard him out, provided some support. Though I don’t know exactly what happened, it’s crazy to think that I may have stopped him from doing something bad to himself or to someone around him, at least in that moment.
We love what Shyan is all about, and look forward to continuing to see his work grow and evolve. If you want to stay updated, which we highly suggest you do, check out his website. His Cafe Noir album is out and available on iTunes here. He also loves to connect on social media – you can find him on Twitter, Facebook, or most recently on Instagram.
Do you know someone who is working on impact in a unique way? We’d love to share their story – tell us about them! Here’s how: