3. Karma Rivera (56.5 points)
SOUNDS LIKE: A cooler, alt-pop Megan Thee Stallion.
NOTABLE VOTES: PDX Pop Now artistic director Yume Delegato, Frankie Simone, DJ Anjali, the Thesis co-founder DJ Verbz.
Rivera had performed with the local rapper just days before, and didn't think it was right to exclude one of Portland's most visible queer entertainers from the festival and City Hall-sanctioned celebration of Portland rap. In a lengthy profile of Portland's hip-hop's scene published a few weeks ago, Pacific Standard framed the moment as a statement, a stand against hyper-masculinity. But Rivera says it just felt right.
"They're dope, they're killing it right now, they're producing good music and a great performer, and I wanted to do a set with them," Rivera says of Maarquii. "As far as our hip-hop scene goes, I feel like it's the queer artists making the most noise. Like, that's my opinion, I feel that way, and I'm busting my ass to make sure that's what it is, you know what I mean? I'm going to go just as hard, and of course I'm going to put my friends on."
Rivera is nonbinary; along with "entertainer," it's one of the few labels she accepts. Rivera accepts "rapper," too, but not the limitations imposed by people outside and inside the music industry who can't get past preconceived notions of what rappers can look and sound like. From the beginning of her career, she's done what she wants to, lived a label-free life and connected with collaborators who get her vision. Rivera made her introduction to the Portland music scene four years ago. In 2016, she released her first single, "Tacos y Tequila," which matches Latin folk samples with a trap beat and Rivera's chill, craft-poured flow.
But this has been a particularly big year in her career. Last summer, Rivera released her debut EP, Don't Sleep on This, and in the past year, she's opened for nationally touring artists, including CupcakKe, Princess Nokia, Chief Keef and Snow tha Product.
"I remember like 2015 to 2016 I was struggling to get on a bill, you know? Really trying to get on a platform where my voice was heard, and now it's like, 'Wow, I'm finally at that point locally,'" Rivera says. "But my goal is to expand the fuck out of here, you know what I mean? I do have that obsession where I want to sell out the home market, you know what I mean? I want to be that artist that's the next to take Portland at a mainstream level."
You can't not have fun at a Karma Rivera show. Rivera delivers lyrics with a refreshingly positive, no-fucks-given energy. Her sound is like the Last Artful Dodgr meets Tommy Genesis, with hints of Drake and Rivera's biggest inspiration, Missy Elliott. Her shows are film-worthy parties where you're safe to give yourself to the moment and to the music. Last summer, during her set at Dig A Pony's Fourth of July party, Rivera performed on top of the bar in an attempt to get the packed, stationary crowd to start dancing. It worked—the crowd went wild.
"My live show is me releasing my anxiety, and it just comes out in the performance. It's intense from the beginning to the end, but that's what it is. I'm there to have a good time, not just rap my lyrics," says Rivera. "I feel like I'm at the point where I've gotten way better at that, my shows are way more fun, and that's just the crowd I bring out, it's people there to have a good time and not be too cool."
Along with live shows, Rivera's kept busy making music videos: the self-love, girls' night anthem "Everybody Watchin," the gothic mood board "T.O.G." and the simple, pansexual lighting of "Feel Good." Her visuals are low-key fashion movies with soundtracks that get stuck in your head, and are proof of concept for bigger things to come. In her newest music video, "A Game," Rivera appears in Adidas track gear, gold chains and flowing hair against digital glitch, film grain and hype animation effects, smashing fruit with a baseball bat and posing around Portland.
Her next EP, Don't Sleep on This, Vol. 2, due this summer, will have more of a reggaeton and Latin trap sound than volume one. The new EP will include the studio version of her Red Bull-sponsored collaboration with Fabi Reyna, founder of She Shreds magazine and guitarist for Sávila. Rivera and Reyna created and recorded it in only a few hours, and filmed the video the next day.
In life and art, Rivera gets directly to the point. She's as quick to note problems as she is to reward listeners for their devotion—a greatly appreciated trait in a city that leans on passive aggression. Rivera knows who she is, and is determined to stay rooted in that knowledge, especially if larger music markets ask her to change.
"That's the goal, that's why I'm trying to go hard on the content, to create something that's going to expose me to a bigger audience, or outside of Portland," Rivera says. "Portland's great, but there are definitely limitations here. We don't exactly have a music industry here, you know? You can only get so far. So that's definitely my goal this year: Go hard all summer, see what the results are by the end of summer, and if that works, that works. Keep going."
NEXT SHOW: July 3 at Dig A Pony.