Words with Hilltop’s Josh Rizeberg

Hilltop Tacoma’s hip-hop artist Josh Rizeberg is a storyteller. He studies ancient societies, writes with a conscious voice, and has a fondness for Hilltop. His spoken word touches truths others leave buried. A long-time Hilltop resident, Rizeberg has seen many people and places come and go. His memories of the area are as vibrant as the rhymes he writes.
Rizeberg has lived on Hilltop for twelve years and doesn’t see himself leaving anytime soon. In addition to creating music, he works at a bookstore full-time and writes for the Weekly Volcano. In his twenties he rented a Hilltop house and wrote for “The Facts,” a Northwest newspaper that is still in print today. Hilltop was Rizeberg’s beat and through his reporting, he got to know many residents. Listening to him tell their stories is like talking to them face-to-face.With all the empty lots, abandoned buildings, and sketchy characters, it’s easy to forget how rich this part of Tacoma really is. Rizeberg is a refreshing reminder of all that Hilltop has to offer.

“I don’t think this neighborhood will ever be boring or will be totally sterilized or will ever be lost. . . I think it will always be special and there will always be things that will make it a better place to live than a normal street,” Rizeberg says. But Hilltop isn’t the same as he remembers it.
“Now it is devastated,” he says. “There’s no way there will ever again be, like, twenty different African-American niche businesses here on Hilltop.” This is what Rizeberg remembers–a sprawling Martin Luther King Jr. Way–unmarred by Hilltop’s violent reputation and subsequent city control.

Rizeberg recalls a much more dynamic Hilltop. He remembers many businesses on MLK between 9th and 19th Streets. “There were incredibly unique and special places,” he says. There used to be a black-owned martial arts dojo, the Martin Luther King Housing Development Association in a building that is not even there anymore, an African marketplace and bookstore, two mosques, a DVD/record store, a woman’s spa, a record label with a recording studio, an architect’s office, health clinics, the Big Homie Program office, and Friday’s Cookies.

Rizeberg says, “Most people think [Hilltop] was famous for violence, but that’s what it’s famous to outsiders for. People who grew up here or who were part of the community in any fashion back then remember the culture. That’s what it’s famous for, the culture that was here.”

Over time Rizeberg has seen Hilltop businesses disappear one by one. At first he saw rent increases drive out business owners. He thought the city was pushing out local businesses to replace them with corporations like Starbucks, but now, with all of Tacoma’s failed growth, he thinks it was just plain evil. “In terms of what used to be here versus what is here now, there’s nothing,” he says. “[Hilltop’s] just an empty shell. . . It’s just a sterilized vacant business center.” He knows this, because the people who lost their businesses were his friends, his teachers, his mentors. They were part of what, at one time, made Hilltop great.

Rizeberg doesn’t see all this change on Hilltop as bad, though. He says, “All I’m about is preserving the integrity of this area and if you do that, then you’re cool with me. And if you come here and don’t try to change what this place is about, then I’m cool with that, too.”

Hilltop is who Josh Rizeberg is. His artistic roots are in spoken word or slam poetry, an art form he began performing at a young age. That practice. . . and life on Hilltop. . . influences what he writes today. Rizeberg is now an extremely successful hip-hop artist who has performed at venues in other states, as well as in Washington. Many of the places he travels to are places he originally visited as a slam poet in his younger years. “It’s just a natural progression,” he says. “It’s very easy to book shows once you have the connections.”

Rizeberg believes any artist that is active in the community is a good role model for today’s children. He has an immense amount of respect for Hilltop area artists and the work put into teaching youth at places like Hilltop’s Dash Center for the Arts. He builds connections with “damn near all” of the hip-hop artists and rappers in this area.

Rizeberg has released two albums, most recently “A Word to the Wize” in 2010, and “Spoken Worlds” in 2008. His newest album, “Josh Rizeberg vs. BoomBox Massacre,” is coming soon. It is a project he is doing in collaboration with Seattle producer BoomBox Massacre.

Right now Rizeberg awaits the birth of his first child, a son. He and girlfriend Chandra Marquez are expecting any day. We are sure Rizeberg’s son will grow up with a thirst for truth, knowledge of self, and passion for creative expression–just like his father. He will be a storyteller in his own right. 

In his Hilltop home, Rizeberg connects with Andy Hyppa, manager of EvergreenOne.

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