Javoen Byrd Drums The Beat of His African Heritage

by George Collins

It’s hard to miss Javoen Byrd as he enters Empire Espresso on Edmunds Street in Columbia City. He sports a cream colored outfit with soft gold balls dangling from the collar, an Aso Yoruba. It’s an outfit I’ve seen him wear several times when tapping his hands on a set of drums in celebration of his African heritage.

Drumming began as a stress reliever in Byrd’s teenage years but has become his life’s work as he seeks to empower African-Americans of all ages with the same pride he experiences when those beats rattle off his hands. The smile never leaves his face as he describes the work he’s been doing this year.

The drums found Byrd at an early age. Originally from the Hilltop neighborhood of Tacoma, his family moved to NewHolly when he was 13. Financial issues and the ever-present anti-blackness of American society plagued the family, and Byrd sought ways to escape from the action. His mother owned some drums, and it began to serve as an outlet for him to relieve stress and stay out of trouble when adversity and the usual challenges of growing up hit hard. He could be found tapping away at home while some of his peers risked turning to drugs or violence to cope with their problems.

This therapeutic tool became a regular hobby, and soon the drumming sparked a curiosity about the culture of African drumming traditions. Discovering the rich history of the instrument as well as the societies behind its various forms empowered Byrd with a sense of pride in his heritage.

“We’re all taught that African history began with slavery,” he said, “Discovering these traditions helped me build a healthy identity. I would think, ‘I can do good in school because I come from a rich history of societies.’”

This passion stuck with Byrd throughout the years. He received his bachelor’s degree from The Evergreen State College in Olympia and later moved to the east coast to further his studies and gain more hands-on experience. He returned to Seattle to enroll in the University of Washington’s graduate program in ethnomusicology, the study of music of cultures around the world. Byrd’s research spanned the entire African continent, but it was Nigeria and the Yoruba culture that captured his heart. His first travels to the country began when he was 19 and he still visits the African continent every year.

In 2018, Byrd established the Hawk Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to West African cultural research and education. The organization holds workshops, lectures, dance classes, and music classes with the goal of offering both youth and adults the opportunity to experience alternative pathways and positive forms of expression. Byrd also hopes to restructure educational programs to better serve communities of color who have experienced years of negative portrayals of blackness. Breaking down racial stereotypes and barriers is a core part of the Foundation’s mission.

“Education’s goals should be to develop critical thinkers,” he said, “we need to be culturally responsible to the populations we work with by promoting that desire to learn, so education has a profound responsibility to offer deep African theory and history. Diversity and equity come from showing a group of people that their culture and identity is valued. Trauma can’t be rectified just by teaching history; it also involves looking critically at the relationships between the various cultures.”

Byrd’s activities have received overwhelmingly positive responses. Many of the group’s activities so far have taken place down in Olympia with community workshops through the Timberland Library System and partnerships with Together In Olympia, a supplementary education program that has brought the Hawk Foundation’s drumming and music into several Thurston County schools. Byrd has also worked closely with Media Island International (MII), a nonprofit media organization in Olympia dedicated to elevating women of color in leadership.

MII helped Byrd achieve nonprofit status for the Hawk Foundation, a rare occurrence for their fiscal sponsored groups.

“Javoen was brought to MII as a community member who had an amazing idea to create an organization that focuses on African studies and culture,” said Shawna Hawk, Media Island’s main organizer. “He offered to give classes on African culture and spirituality, something the organization and the community crave to learn about. The workshops were well received and there have been requests for him to return and do more. Javoen and his organization are an example of the kind of opportunities that we want to offer. This is all about building a healthy and educated community, especially on issues of race, power and privilege.”

The project has brought challenges, however. In addition to clearing the usual hurdles of starting a nonprofit, there remains a stigma in African-American circles about embracing the “old ways,” especially in more conservative parts of the country. Byrd attributes this to black and brown communities internalizing years of negative portrayals of their cultures and backgrounds, but he expresses confidence that this can rectified through education and critical thought, especially in younger communities.

Mailings sent out by the Foundation earlier this year cite engagements with young African-American men who expressed skepticism about the program at first but later gained a heightened interest in their academics after completing the materials and learning elements of the Yoruba language and culture.

“After the final presentation of the transformative education they received, parents and children alike were in tears of joy, beaming with pride,” read one letter. “We know culture heals the wounds of colonialism and oppression and creates resilience and strength.”

Looking towards the future, Byrd’s plans run big. His short-term goals are to expand the Hawk Foundation’s work into King County by increasing the organization’s size and capabilities to serve African-American communities in the greater Seattle area. As for the long-term? His eyes light up as he details his vision.

“I dream of every child in every part of the county having access to this education,” he said. “When people see these things in a positive light, their pride in that identity will rise as well.”

Some who know Byrd also know him under the name Tunji Awodi, a name adopted during his travels to Nigeria. He explained that it means “somebody comes back” or “an elder rises again” in the Yoruba language with connotations of wisdom and experience. There couldn’t be a more fitting name for this man. Byrd’s passion knows no bounds as he dedicates his life to restorative justice, rethinking education, and empowering the communities he came from. That contagious energy sticks with me long after I exit Empire Espresso.

People and organizations interested in the Hawk Foundation’s work can reach out through the group’s website, to schedule workshops, become involved, or just inquire about opportunities to access this education. At this point, Byrd said, no amount of support is too small.

Featured Image courtesy Javoen Byrd.