Black people are not monolithic. Black music is not monolithic. And neither is Black Portland.
Case in point? The Numberz, the Rose City's only station airing "Black music by Black people from Black Portland." Streaming online and terrestrially on 96.7 FM, the Numberz brings the sounds of Portland's Black community to the radio.
The station's name is a play on the colloquial term for the city's outer reaches, where Black Portlanders have been displaced by gentrification. Around the clock, listeners can vibe with playlists curated by members direct from the local community and mixes from a crew of established local DJs like official Portland Trail Blazers' DJ O.G. One, OSO Fresh, DJ Klyph, Kenneth Berry and PrettiUgly. Its all-Black staff curates a Black music experience that's much broader than the exclusively rap and hip-hop station it was initially envisioned to be. Thanks to the expanded vision of station co-founder Anthony Deloney, the Numberz throws down a heavy mix of old-school funk and soul, jazz, gospel, Motown hits and other expressions of Black musical excellence spanning more than 80 years.
"For a lot of folks, the only way you can be connected to the music scene is by being in music [as] a DJ, a rapper, [or] a writer," explains Deloney. "We said no, this is about community, you don't have to be able to play an instrument, you just have to like music. We find influential people in our community and target them [to create our community playlists]…because ultimately it's about that individual sharing with us who they are."
Station co-founder, programmer and local MC KayelaJ credits the musical content, which features at least one song by a Portland artist every hour, as well as the station's responsive programming as reasons why the Numberz resonates with its Black listenership in ways no other Portland radio station has. Deloney credits the Numberz's wide-ranging programming. "Just because you have two of us, doesn't mean you have us," says Deloney, referring to the need for increased racial diversity at other local radio stations. "We're such a deep, rich people. If we had 200 community playlists on there, it's not enough, because that's how dope and rich we are."
Corporate, commercial radio stations often lack a direct connection to their community of listeners, and the music and messaging are limited. But the Numberz, an offshoot of independent community radio station XRAY.FM, has complete creative control over its domain. The outpouring of listener gratitude following recent tributes to the untimely passings of Black legends—director John Singleton and rapper and community advocate Nipsey Hussle—are prime examples of the pulse the Numberz has on the needs of the community behind the mic and the folks who are listening.
Numberz co-founder DJ Ambush, a new Portlander with roots in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., initially became involved with the Numberz as a music programmer, DJ and audio editor. "The more and more I sat in on the meetings and got an understanding of what the station was capable of, on top of what was lacking in the city," he says, "that's when it became so much bigger than music, and my involvement spread."
Creating connection in spite of displacement is a fitting purpose for the Numberz, considering both Deloney and KayelaJ share deep connections to another organization that does similar work, and has been a pillar of Portland's Black community for decades: Self Enhancement Inc., or SEI. The North Portland organization is dedicated to uplifting and empowering Black and other youth of color, and has been Deloney's place of work for over 20 years. He says the Numberz story is really the story of SEI, which was built first and foremost for students in the program, but by extension, for the kids in the neighborhood surrounding it, which was once predominately Black. KayelaJ is one of those youths. She recorded some of the earliest work in her musical career at SEI. Learning how to guide the Numberz through its day-to-day operations was "the perfect opportunity to stand for something [I] believed in," she says.
While the music is what gets listeners hooked and keeps them coming back, the essence of the Numberz is its larger vision to build and empower community. It's that message that motivates the entirely volunteer-run radio station.
Between the jams, the Numberz is a community bullhorn that sounds the alarm on ought-to-know information from job openings to housing assistance programs, shout-outs about fundraisers and advertisements for businesses that align with the station's values. And, as with the local music, the homemade touch shines through when recognizable voices from the Black community deliver those messages.
Dialed in as it is, the Numberz has room to grow, says Deloney. Over the next few months, the station is planning to fundraise to help stimulate expansion. Expect diversification of its regular programming through new mixes in the lineup of community playlists, and Soulful Sunday, an end-of-the-week talk radio series featuring conversations relevant to the social, cultural and economic issues facing Portland's Black community.
"I always envisioned this bigger, richer, deeper, and doper version of Black Portland…and I think this station is a celebration of that, " says Deloney. "From the north to the numbers and everywhere in between, this is who we are."