By Mat Lee
Steve Phun has been working with the Seattle Hempfest for over 20 years now. Not only has he worked at the majority of these annual protestivals, but he’s attended all 25 of them.
When asked about his passion for Seattle Hempfest, Steve says, ”It somehow it just clicked with me as something I want to do. I live my entire life all year long just to come and do this. This one week of setup and teardown and three days of festival—it’s what I do. I love it. I have met more cool people, more people that I feel are closer friends and family, and we’ve lost a lot of people. We renamed this stage the Kevin Black Memorial Stage for a man who was my roommate for six months while he had cancer. I felt like he was a brother to me; he was a brother to a lot of us. It was very tragic when he passed away.”
For a little background, this interview took place in the lounge area behind the Kevin Black Memorial Stage during the 2016 Seattle Hempfest. Steve Phun was nice enough to sit down with CBJ’s Mat Lee for a quick chat in between bands. Huge thanks to Ryan Augusta for getting us backstage for the chat.
Steve first got into Hempfest back in 1991 at Volunteer Park. This was the height of the grunge era and Steve was a drummer in several bands coming up in the music game. One band he really liked, Bone Cellar, was playing at this thing called Hempfest. It was free, and an outdoor concert, which in Steve’s eyes was totally awesome. This was before the smoking bans, so bars would tend to get quite smoky. Any chance for an outdoor festival was highly regarded. The atmosphere of an indoor venue can never compare to the airy glory of an outdoor festival.
At this first Hempfest all those years ago Steve Phun saw Gary Cook, the founder of Hempfest, talking on stage about how marijuana needs to be legalized. Steve wasn’t smoking at the time, but he knew that all the negative stigma associated with cannabis was, and still is, complete nonsense. Steve had a lot of friends who smoked cannabis; he knew cannabis isn’t addictive and it won’t kill you—not like a lot of other drugs have the potential to do.
Steve thought back then that cannabis would never be re-legalized. Maybe for medical use, but certainly not for recreational use. He’s always been a champion of lost causes, though. The thing that sold Steve on the movement in the end was a board that Gary Cook held up on stage, which was made of hemp. That’s where Steve first learned you could make paper and a lot of other things out of cannabis.
Steve was working at a print shop back then, and dealing with a bit of a moral dilemma when it came to his job. The sheer number of trees that had to die so he could have a job made him feel guilt-ridden, and this seemed like the answer.
Steve says, “Glaucoma was the only medical use back then. It was really a kind of an aha moment when I found out there were that many industrial uses.”
Fast forward a few years to the 1994 Seattle Hempfest in Gasworks Park. Steve says, “It was so huge, it was one of the biggest groups of people I had ever seen in one place for one reason, and I realized, it was more than just the music; it’s because of the cannabis.”
Being in a band, Steve started volunteering at Hempfest hoping to get his band on stage for the large crowd gathering year after year for good music and cannabis activism. In 2000, Life Without Sun played a stage that no longer exists. It was the RC Pizza Stage. RC Pizza was a reformed Shakey's and, oddly enough, hosted the only beer garden Hempfest has ever had.
The beer garden caused a large debate in 2003 over whether or not to allow alcohol at the event and, in turn, to allow alcohol sponsors. The board decided against it, and have stuck to it ever since. Steve says this sets Seattle Hempfest apart from the other large events in the area. He says this is also part of why Hempfest is so popular with the police department. If you’ve ever dealt with a drunk friend and a friend high on cannabis, you’ll know which is more agreeable.
Steve has volunteered his time ever since. In 1996 when the core group was developed, he was a part of it. Back then there was just one stage, called The Stage. Now there are six stages, and each one needs a crew to make sure things run smoothly.
Seeley stage, the second stage put up, was named after the late Ralph Seeley, an attorney and medical use advocate who passed away before Washington’s medical cannabis law was passed in 1998. Steve saw Seeley speak at the main stage, where he held up his crutches and said, “You wouldn’t take these away from me; why would you take away my medicine?” The moment was pivotal in fostering Steve’s passion for the movement.
The Kevin Black stage began as the Eco Stage, which was the third stage Hempfest put up. Steve volunteered there until it became the Peter McWilliam's Memorial Stage, which is when Steve became the stage emcee. Peter McWilliams was a poet and author who passed away in 2000 from AIDS complications. He was working on completing A Question of Compassion, which was intended enlighten people on cannabis medicine.
Steve has worked a lot of positions at Hempfest. He’s done everything from security to information booths to radio operations. When people ask Steve what he wants to do, he always responds with a chuckle, “I want Vivian’s job.” Now he almost has it. Running a stage takes a lot of teamwork, organization and communication—all things you need to make a protestival of this magnitude a safe and fun success.
Looking toward the future, he hopes to get the metal bands back on his stage. Steve says, “We were the metal stage when Caviar Gold was our sponsor, but now they have their own stage and they took all the metal bands up there.”
This morning Steve is missing the loud, screaming music. According to Steve, Peter McWilliams liked show tunes and old blues. Kevin Black, the current namesake of the stage, was more of a metal guy. He hopes to get the Kevin Black stage back to more metal in the years to come.
Recently, there were rumblings around the Hempfest grounds that there might not be another Seattle Hempfest. Last year they had to shut down for an entire day because of a rainstorm, which severely cut into their finances.
Steven says, “I like to be a little bit more optimistic. We will not be able to continue at a high level. We won’t be able to have all the porta-potties and fences that we have. We might not be able to have a lot of the convenient things. We could lose a lot of volunteers because it’s just not comfortable anymore. I’ve already complained bitterly about the fact [that food portions are] just not what we were getting.”
The silver lining? This could bring the protestival back to what made it special in the first place. It might be a more slimmed down version unless people donate more money. Money makes the world go around, and that holds true for the Seattle Hempfest. The more people you have at your event, the more resources you need to make sure those people stay healthy and safe. If people don’t donate, the money isn’t there, and the gathering slims down because only so many people can be accommodated with limited resources. If more resources aren’t available, then an occupancy cap is necessary. Getting large is a good problem to have, but it can also be the worst problem to have.
Steve says, “It’s hard to say what could happen. But the end of Hempfest because of money? You know, we’ve all done this as volunteers; I’ve never made a penny off of this; it costs me money to do this. It’s cost me jobs to do this. I got fired from a job right after Hempfest; I’m not sure why. When I go back to my job next Thursday, I’m really wondering. They might say ‘Hey, we did without you for a week, we could do without you for good; goodbye.’ I’m really not sure what’s going to happen. But like I said, this is what I live for. I don’t live for the job in the print shop.”