May 09--Seventeen-year-old Seattle rapper Akeda Jones, better known by her stage name K$neak, usually delivers her lyrics over computer-made backing tracks.
But last Sunday, K$neak performed a live arrangement of "I'm On" with Union Street Orchestra for 10-time Grammy nominee Meshell Ndegeocello. They had only rehearsed it once, but the rapper hid her nervousness well. Clad in a faded denim jacket, with large earrings peeking out beneath a black beanie, she kept one hand on the mike, the other waving confidently back and forth.
"I was extremely overwhelmed," she said. "But the more I got into it, the more I got used to it."
Jones is one of the 10 acts participating in Seattle Theatre Group's More Music @ The Moore. Ndegeocello, this year's music director, was given a week to get these young artists ready for a concert Friday at the Moore Theatre.
K$neak will perform her new collaboration with Union Street. That's a tight turnaround, but More Music @ The Moore is designed that way: as a high-intensity musical pressure cooker. It stuffs the young artists into a room and pushes them to pool their talents.
STG education director Vicky Lee, who founded the program in 2001, called it an investment in the future of the performing arts.
"They all auditioned with something they do really well," she said. "What we do together is get them out of their comfort zones to collaborate."
Ndegeocello's own work runs the gamut from rap to jazz to funk (she covered Van Morrison's "Wild Night" with John Mellencamp.) She feels the art of genre-jumping is essential for professional success.
"To be a working musician," she said, "you have to incorporate all styles within yourself."
The acts working with Ndegeocello this week represent wildly different colors of the musical spectrum. In addition to K$neak and Union Street Orchestra, there are folk fiddlers, a funk group, rhythm and blues vocalists, Japanese taiko drummers, a beatboxer and more.
The show will begin with 10 original pieces -- one by each act -- though many will also be collaborations.
As each act ran through its piece Sunday, Ndegeocello started teaching the moment each song began. If drummers lost the beat, she would guide them back into the groove with her hands. If singers hit a wrong note, she would stop the performance and coach them.
When the larger groups finished, she would bring them in for a huddle to debrief.
About halfway through K$neak's collaboration with Union Street Orchestra, Ndegeocello gestured for the rapper to get off the stage and confront the crowd.
"With hip-hop, part of the swagger is to confront the audience," Ndegeocello explained later. "I wanted her to know she had the space to do that."
In addition to the original pieces, hand-picked ensembles will perform two of Ndegeocello's songs, "Oysters" and "Chance." For the finale, every artist -- more than 30 people -- will play "On Top of the World" by indie rockers Imagine Dragons.
It's not easy getting a crowd of strangers the size of a chamber orchestra to play in harmony, especially when they hail from distinct musical traditions. But the group began to mesh even in the early rehearsals.
Ndegeocello, covered in tattoos and wearing a billowy black and white tunic, paced among them. She patiently tuned instruments, adjusted sound equipment and assigned verses to different singers. The melody gradually took shape.
Ndegeocello seemed confident that by Friday the artists would play "On Top of the World" as a unified whole. All musicians are kindred spirits, she said, and can play well together with a little coaxing.
"When the taiko drums play in the finale, it sounds right," she said. "It doesn't matter what instrument you're playing on."
Joseph Sutton-Holcomb: email@example.com. On Twitter @analogmelon
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