Something weird happens when you walk through the doors at House of Grooves, entering the event known as Luv Jonz. You almost get to feeling like you're Dorothy. Not Judy Garland-skipping-down-yellow-bricks-to-Oz Dorothy. Hell no, I'm talking about the "ease on down the road" Stephanie Mills Dorothy--or if you prefer, Diana Ross--who found herself in the funkafied Oz of The Wiz.
In the second-whitest city in the country (sorry folks, Omaha is now the whitest), it can be difficult to find large numbers of black folks in social gatherings outside of church. There are times when life as a black person in Portland feels like you're drowning in a cultural and socio-economic ocean of whiteness. Some of us go to church with other African Americans, and many of us shop at Lloyd Center. But unless you're a Blazer or you hang out at Popeye's Fried Chicken, you can go days without seeing another face of color. And that's part of what makes Luv Jonz unique: The room is crowded, but you can count the number of white people on your fingers.
Luv Jonz, a funky tapestry that fuses poetry, spoken word and music--and which will move to The Ohm starting June 7--explodes with a hip-hop inspired energy, as if a small faction of Portland's underground hip-hop-movement has stepped out of the shadows. The band that performs on the stage with the poets, Reparations, is made up of some of the city's best funk, jazz and hip-hop musicians. Reparations throws down some serious improv get-up-on-the-down-stroke grooves. In front of the band, poets such as Rochell D. Hart work the mike. "I am not the daughter of Isis and Osiris," flows Hart, "I am Isis--now try this."
The audience shouts its approval, and if it wasn't apparent before, it is now: This is not the typical Portland poetry crowd.
"It's a shift in the literary community," says Hart, describing the change that Luv Jonz has brought to the city. Hart, a native Oregonian and member of the 2000 Portland Slam Team, is no stranger to performing before local crowds. But she is the first to point out that Luv Jonz is different from the poetry nights at places like Berbati's and Cafe Lena--where most of the poets and audience members are white. "Luv Jonz has created a venue where my poetry can be appreciated on a cultural level," she says.
"Portland screamed for something like this to occur--a need for intellectual entertainment," says radio personality Sonie the One and Only, of Jammin' 95.5's morning Playhouse. Sonie and her on-air partner in crime EBro--who spearheaded a Luv Jonz-like event in Sacramento--are among the key people who have made the Thursday night cultural gathering a reality.
EBro and Sonie are both quick to point out that Luv Jonz is all about promoting the intellectual aspects of black culture. The mono-monikered poet Wone agrees. "The emphasis is on positive thinking--respecting ourselves as black people and building the community," says Wone, who, along with Hart, has become a favorite of the regular crowd. "This isn't the place for people looking to shake their asses--that's not what this is about. If that's what you want, then don't bother with Luv Jonz, because you'll be wasting your time."
Although it has become a gathering place for many in the African-American community, Sonie, EBro and the poets all stress the fact that Luv Jonz is for anyone who wants to have a good time. "I don't want white people reading this thinking they're not welcome to come by," says Wone. "As long as everyone respects the fact that this is who we are--this is black people in all our beauty--then everyone is welcome. We want to share our art with everybody."
David Parks echoes Wone's sentiments. Parks, a driving force in the music scene for more than a decade, is, for lack of a better term, the band leader of Reparations--the ensemble that exists solely to provide the improv grooves that back up the poets. As a key figure in the hip-hop scene, and in particular an organizer of PoH-Hop, Parks has witnessed the way gatherings of black people can be frowned upon. He sees Luv Jonz as a chance to redefine the city of Portland's touted diversity. "Black people have contributed a lot to the arts," says Parks, "and to suppress black art is to deny a major part of what's out there."
I don't think we're in Portland anymore.
House of Grooves, 13 SW 13th Ave., 471-1671. 10 pm Thursday, May 31. $5.
Luv Jonz will relocate to Ohm, 31 NW 1st Ave., 223-9919, beginning Thursday, June 7.
Rochell D. Hart's book, A Black Girl's Song, is published by Highbridge at $8.95.