Next stop: King Street Station Next stop: King Street Station Next stop: King Street Station

Daniel Pak, who calls himself the "executive homie" for Totem Star, builds a legacy at their new home.

By Shin Yu Pai | Photos by Jim Bennett/Photo Bakery | November 29, 2023

Daniel Pak, '02, of Totem Star recently moved the nonprofit youth recording studio and label into new digs on the second floor of the historic King Street Station. The newly renovated headquarters feature a 2,000-square-foot office space with a world-class recording studio.

Pak’s organization, which supports a diverse community of young music artists, joins a handful of youth-serving, performing arts-focused institutions that have been granted a 60-year lease at the old train station by the City of Seattle. The other tenants include The Rhapsody Project, Red Eagle Soaring, Jackson Street Music Program and Wh!psmart.

Totem Star was founded by Pak and his friend, musician Thaddeus Turner in 2010. The artists, who had been leading music camps for youth, got a call from the King County Juvenile Rehabilitation Administration inviting them to lead a summer program for ten young men released from detention. Working out of Rainier Community Center, the musicians spent 250 hours building trust with these young men. “After three weeks, we had a breakthrough moment. One of the leaders in this group committed and got on the mic,” Pak says. “Then everyone wanted to participate.” Pak and Turner made a mix tape of the group and when Mayor McGinn found out about the project, he invited them to City Hall for a listening party.

“That’s when the Seattle Music Commission found out about us,” says Pak. Then Turner and Pak met Jon Stone, the executive director of the Bumbershoot music and arts festival, who became Totem Star’s board chair, and the youth outreach effort began to evolve into something more permanent. After the summer ended, they learned that many of the youth they had worked with had been booked back into detention. When one of the young men they had worked with was killed by gun violence, they realized their larger calling. They wanted to build a safe space for young people to take creative risks, where they could be received with love. They wanted to make a musical family centered on young people. So they moved into Youngtown Cultural Arts Center to offer year-round programs.

By the end of 2018, Totem Star had outgrown its space at the Youngstown Cultural Arts Center in South Seattle. Though they served 100 artists a year, the organization still had a long waiting list. Pak learned of plans to develop King Street Station to house anchor arts tenants. Working with SKL Architects and Sellen Construction, Totem Star designed its space with guidance from record producer Steve Fisk, Eric Lilavois from London Bridge Studio, and Gary Adante and Masa Fukudome from Vulcan Studios. Seattle hip hop legend Sir Mix-a-Lot also helped with design and donated extensive gear to the studio.

They wanted to build a safe space for young people to take creative risks, where they could be received with love. They wanted to make a musical family centered on young people.

While Pak is grateful for the state-of-the-art technology and the inviting space that Totem Star has been able to build, he also notes the rich history of the land around King Street Station. The building was erected on Duwamish tidal lands where Indigenous people once fished. The adjacent Jackson Street was once a mecca for jazz artistry, with nightclubs attracting the likes of Duke Ellington and John Coltrane. Pak feels a deep responsibility to this history and ensuring that young people know these legacies and hold them close to their hearts.

Pak traces his own musical awakening and history to his time as a UW student.  His freshman year, he showed up with his `ukulele, which immediately connected him to all of the other student musicians from Hawai`i. In his junior year, he was invited to sing in the opening band booked to play the Hawai`i Club’s annual luau. Pak performed in front of 1,200 people and met his heroes, Natural Vibrations. This experience led to local gigs at `Ohana in Belltown and more. Eventually, Pak opened for The Wailers, Toots and the Maytals, and other reggae legends. Pak’s former band Kore Ionz even evolved out of his college band, Mystic Rising. As he has gained notoriety for his songwriting prowess, he continued to receive recognition and attention for his music. Last year, Pak was inducted into the Asian Hall of Fame, a national organization, alongside Hiro Yamamoto of Soundgarden.

As Totem Star has expanded, Pak has gone from part-time teaching artist to executive director of one of the city’s most recognized youth-serving organizations. Many of the staff came to Totem Star as 16-year-old artists. Now, they’re in their early 20s and embarking on professional careers as culture workers. With Turner, Pak focused the nonprofit on community and mentorship.

“I’m just an executive homie—a caretaker of this family,” says Pak. He credits the classic “Tao Te Ching” with his philosophy of leadership: “The best form of leadership is when you enter a room and you don’t know who’s leading. Because everyone’s just doing the work. With collective leadership, leaders come from every age and identity. We all have to do our part.”