Vice Magazine caused quite a stir last week by publishing an article on the Portland hip-hop scene and its struggle with racism, the Portland Police Department and the Oregon Liquor Control Commission.
The article opened a number of eyes—it was shared close to 300 times on Facebook—to what local rappers have been enduring since the early 1990s, when hip-hop shows were essentially illegal downtown because of the stigma attached to them. In the past five years alone, the city has seen many of its hip-hop clubs get shut down, including the Someday Lounge and Beauty Bar, which was recently closed by Portland police over a controversial capacity violation.
What’s behind the hostility toward our hip-hop scene? A variety of explanations have been given, but, as the Vice article alludes to, the only one that really sticks is a lack of tolerance. It wasn’t too long ago that one of the city’s highest ranking police officials was quoted as saying, “It's not a coincidence that all these shootings happen after a rap concert.” Yikes. While I get that certain shows draw certain crowds, automatically correlating hip-hop shows with shootings is a dangerous proposition that ties the art of a culture and people, including Portland’s minorities, to violence.
So, it’s a good thing that a national media outlet like Vice was able to shed some light on the issue (WW has briefly touched on it before). And it’s good they were able to talk to scene veterans like Cool Nutz and Vursatyl of Lifesavas, who have dealt with this sort of discrimination for years.
“I feel like they aired out our city's dirty laundry without offering a helping hand to clean it up,” he said.
Others, like Ryan Feigh, who has covered Portland hip-hop for years for Portland Mercury, thought it was stating the obvious.
“[Suppression is] so fundamentally ingrained within our culture that a lot of people take it for granted, even to the extent where some people celebrate it as a badge of honor,” he said.
Local promoter Chase Freeman, who also promotes R&B, soul and ambient shows, believes the issue is more about urban music in general. Freeman, who’s African-American and originally from the south, says Portland police labeled him a “gang sympathizer” because a number of felons showed up to his most recent event at Beauty Bar. As a result, he’s been blacklisted from every venue in the city.
“Hip-hop is the scapegoat,” he says. “The powers that be don't care for hip-hop events or parties too much because of the fact that it will attract an urban crowd…It’s about the urban component.”
Perhaps the article’s biggest flaw was it failed to mention anything about the talent or success the scene has experienced. It birthed the world’s best battle rapper in Illmaculate, an A-list producer in Bosko or a number of young and exciting MCs, in guys like Vinnie Dewayne, Cassow and Myke Bogan. The whole concept of Portland hip-hop being suppressed is much more tragic when you realize the talent that’s involved with it.
Regardless, Vice helped start a conversation worth having. Maybe it will finally lead to some change on the matter. We’ll have to wait and see.
UPDATE: Here is a response from Thor Benson, author of the VICE article, regarding the reaction to his piece.
To whom this may concern,
Certain people believe I should tell the hip-hop community some nifty ways to help improve their scene in Portland. I think this is a chickenshit idea. I have a head full of intoxicants and can't figure out what I would tell them. As for telling the city how to improve, I'm not qualified to make such broad assertions there either. The only way it would be possible is if the community starts giving a damn. However, I did appreciate Willamette Week responding to the hip-hop article I wrote for Vice Magazine, and I'm sure it was because they have finally realized how terrific I am.
The job of a writer, or at least my job as a writer, is not to tell specific scenes or communities how they should improve themselves. I think it would be an arrogant move for me to try and educate a scene I'm not a part of or to behave like a politician. I also don't think the hip-hop scene itself needs to be “improved,” but the city needs to create an environment that is inviting to it. As I said in my article, any scene that is bullied by the OLCC and the police is going to struggle to keep up.
In regards to those who wished I had talked to the OLCC, I did. What the OLCC responded with when I asked them if hip-hop clubs are paid attention to more than others was, essentially, bureaucratic nonsense. I think it would take some hot coals and a thin piece of iron to get them to admit that they pay special attention to such things―and no―I'm not recommending that.
I am proud to say that I did air out Portland's dirty laundry, as it was said. It was starting to smell like a hot trashcan and needed to be aired out. If anything my Vice article helped start the conversation, as the response pointed out, and now it's time for the community and the scene itself to decide what the next move is. I am certainly not the first person to point out these flaws but hopefully I will be the last who has to. I kind of doubt it.