In July, 2017, the Seattle Foundation awarded the IE and the Asian Pacific Islander Community Leadership Foundation (ACLF) a three-year grant for the Advocacy Journalism Fellowship Program. Currently in its inaugural year, this program engages four aspiring community organizers and media leaders per year from API communities and backgrounds who spend a year doing a deep dive into specific immigrant communities in the Seattle area. The IE looks forward to sharing their work with our readers.
John Leapai is a lifelong Seattle native. His parents come from the island of Upolu in Independent Samoa, also known as Western Samoa. Though he was born and raised here in the city, he usually goes by his middle name, Phoenix, or “Phee,” as neighbors call him. As the sixth child of 12 siblings, Phoenix has a strong rapport with both the youth and the elderly. Because of this, paired with his deep love of music, Phoenix has been teaching music in schools for five years. He currently works at Summit Sierra, a free public charter high school founded in 2015. He will begin working Franklin High School in addition to that.
With a heart full of music and a voice for storytelling, Phoenix will serve as a correspondent for Seattle’s Samoan community in the International Examiner’s Advocacy Journalism Fellowship Program.
Nick Turner: What is your absolute least favorite song?
Phoenix Leapai: “I’m too sexy for my shirt.” It just sounds so cheesy. It’s like an old school 90s song. It was kind of techno, back in the day. Nowadays they call it “EDM.” I wasn’t really into techno. I thought the guys voice was kinda creepy and the lyrics just didn’t make any damn sense to me. As a musician, musically, it just wasn’t attractive. It was almost repulsive. Turn that off. It doesn’t sound good.
NT: What’s your favorite?
PL: All-time favorite is Maxwell, This Woman’s Work…[Maxwell] just really did a great job with his falsetto. It’s clean. When I first heard it…there were other vocalists who were doing falsetto with their voices but he just nailed it and the way that the song was written…The story line of how he dedicated the song is part of what captured me. And the emotional expression of how he felt towards his partner was really dope. Everything was done, from the writing to the vocal expression, and even the melody itself was pretty unique at the time. I think it’s still unique. I don’t think I’ve heard another song that was comparable to that specific song. I’m a singer in R&B slash hip hop. That’s my background. Love songs are naturally a part of my upbringing for the love of music…That song captured a lot of different things for me.
NT: What role does music play in your life?
PL: Growing up I was very introverted. I was still able to make friends and stuff. My older brothers and my older siblings, everyone was into music, they were like three years older than I am, three or four years…they would always set the precedent for popularity at the school. I kinda had an in to socialize with groups. But I wasn’t as outgoing as they were and so music was my go-to. Headphones on all the time, every single day. And I was always into my thoughts. Journaling was a big part of what I did. Eventually I started songwriting. The emotional part of music along with lyrical content was a great blend of dynamics for self-expression. It played a big role. It was just my go-to, all the time, even until today. A very, very important part of who I am, and even how I survive the daily obstacles of life. Music and writing. Professionally, I’ve been able to take that passion. I got into grant writing and curriculum writing. I just took my love for writing and put it into learning how to write curriculum and write grants. And eventually I was able to build a program out of it and now I get paid to teach and still keep that musical aspect a part of my life. To this day, from a personal to a professional standpoint…A personal passion evolved into a professional business.
NT: Where do you teach?
PL: Summit Sierra, right up the street. I’m going to be working with Franklin High School as well. I started in middle school. That was kind of my niche. Then my middle school students became high school students and I just kinda followed them along their path. (Been teaching for five years.)
NT: What did you do before that?
PL: Youth work…A lot of it was like case management with youth. Touching base with parents, keeping in touch with the kids their educational process, keeping in touch with their counselors and teachers, checking in on them, finding out if they need any sort of financial support. Anything like a backpack or something, making sure they have the essential stuff. Jobs, bus tokens, providing resources for the kids and supporting them…The teaching part came along as part of the process.
NT: Why did you apply to the fellowship program?
PL: What I think attracted me most was the opportunity to be a journalist for the community, to be an advocate for the Samoan community. Innately I’ve always felt that we just needed more exposure for the basis of understanding so that people can understand us better. I was always like that. Growing up, just kind of feeling misunderstood, as a Samoan. People just don’t know who we are. That can go for any people or group. Obviously the four communities that are involved in the fellowship so any group could feel that way. I love writing. And this is another skill set that I can build.
NT: What part do you think your musical background will play in what you accomplish in this program?
PL: I think it’s a driver. For me, writing music is always part of wanting to tell truthful and authentic stories. Even though much of the stuff that I write was very pop music type of stuff, I was always attracted to the authentic storytelling. That right there motivates me to write authentic stories.
NT: What role does music play in the Samoan community?
PL: Storytelling. To be able to touch the emotions of people. That’s what pulls people in. Storytelling, especially in a lot of the music I listen to, it’s almost a lost art. I don’t know what they’re saying anymore. Not many lyrics, not too much substance. Journalism is all about creating substance, creating content and being able to relay stories. Journalism is almost a natural evolution of what I’ve already been learning.
NT: Do you think journalism will then inform your music?
PL: The research process, the interview process, naturally I love to do this with people. Being introverted, I don’t do big groups very well but I love the one-on-ones. I can be myself a little bit more and hopefully be able to create an environment where the other person can be themselves as well, and then just trade stories and share back and forth.
NT: If you could send a message to the Samoan community in Seattle, what would it be?
PL: It would be…to be bold, in how we express ourselves to the world as a people. But, at the same time, I say bold and without fear. Because. In the Samoan community, there are so many things that are taboo that we don’t want to talk about. We’re very private people. We’re very quiet people. In a crowded room, we will be the ones to stay quiet. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. It’s just that we open more opportunities to be misinterpreted. Part of my desire for truth and knowledge and research sparks a desire to say, hey, let’s be diligent in sharing who we are with the world. On the basis of understanding, and also on the basis of just being a proud people, being proud of who we are. To do it in a way that people can understand, to do it in a way where it’s easier to digest and do it in a way where we can actually connect, human to human. That’s the message I want to send out to our people, and for them to know that that’s the approach I hope to come from.