This article was originally published March 11, 2014.
If you had walked past the Blue Monk around 11 pm on Saturday, March 1, it'd be reasonable to assume a crime had taken place. Six police cars were parked in the middle of Southeast Belmont Street, blocking traffic, as another circled the block. Officers stood at the club's door, barring entry, while in the basement performance space, another three or four cops stood by, taking in a rare hip-hop bill featuring three of Portland's finest MCs.
No one had thrown a punch. No one had been shot or stabbed. Nothing was vandalized or stolen.
The Portland Police Bureau has framed the incident as merely a capacity issue. But overcrowding is not why officers were at the show. The bureau's gang enforcement team had alerted the entertainment unit earlier in the evening that "gang members" might be in attendance. Arriving 20 minutes into an opening set by Mikey Vegaz, an artist with alleged gang connections, officers, along with the fire marshal, found the venue had exceeded its legal occupancy.
That's when the counters came out. Nervous about the audience reaction if they shut down the bar, officers called for backup. It was never their intent to stop the show, they claim, "merely [to] get the basement crowd down to a safe number," according to the police report.
It wasn't the first time police had intervened at a rap concert in Portland over alleged public safety concerns. But for headliner Gregory Poe, aka Illmaculate, it was the last straw.
With members of his entourage stuck outside, including fellow rappers he'd planned to feature during his set, Poe took the stage just long enough to announce he would not be performing. Ten minutes later, the champion battle rapper went on Twitter and declared, "I will not perform in this city as long as the blatant targeting of black culture and minorities congregating is an acceptable common practice."
That tweet has reignited a conversation that's been dormant the past few years, at least in popular media: Is the city of Portland trying to snuff out its hip-hop culture?
It's a question that has been asked repeatedly, on blogs and social media, on Oregon Public Broadcasting and in The Oregonian. It's been asked enough that the City Auditor's Office is conducting an independent review of how Portland police treat hip-hop concerts, to determine if rappers are subjected to unfair scrutiny more than other artists.
Ask the artists, though, and they'll say there's no question about it.
"This isn't an isolated event," Poe says. "This isn't just something that happened at Blue Monk. This is a recurring thing. Every few months, there'll be a big enough incident where it'll get some traction, but it's almost expected. That was something I didn't want to continue. By performing, it would've placated enough people that it would just continue to happen."
Even if what happened March 1 wasn't part of a targeted assault, it speaks to an atmosphere of fear and misunderstanding that many think has festered in Portland for years. It hasn't gone unspoken, either: In 2006, after four people were shot outside the Roseland Theater following a show by Oakland rapper Keak da Sneak, a precinct lieutenant told the media, "It's not a coincidence that all these shootings happen after a rap concert."
"Rap concerts lead to fights," he added.
"There certainly is extra scrutiny on hip-hop," says promoter Mike Thrasher, who owns the Hawthorne Theatre. Two years ago, around the time he bought the venue, Thrasher says he was contacted by Amber Kinney, then a deputy district attorney for Multnomah County, and advised not to book any hip-hop shows. (Kinney, now an attorney for the U.S. District Court of Oregon, did not respond to a request for comment.)
Thrasher refused to implement a hip-hop ban, but he did volunteer to vet potentially problematic acts, which he does for artists of all genres. But the only artists he's been encouraged to run checks on, he says, are hip-hop-related.
Other promoters have similar stories. Heather du Lac, a former booking agent at Ash Street Saloon, says police were a constant presence at rap gigs but nonexistent at the punk and metal shows the club is primarily known for, to the point of being forced to break ties with its main hip-hop promoter. Chase Freeman, a talent buyer at the now-defunct Beauty Bar, claims cops harassed his events until he was let go by his employers and subsequently "blacklisted from Portland nightlife."
Idris "StarChile" Oferrall is still unclear why police visited Rotture owner Mike Wolfson an hour before Offerrall's show with North Carolina-based rapper Big Pooh was scheduled to begin, spooking Wolfson enough to cancel the concert. Other musicians on the bill say it was because of a citywide crackdown that followed a fatal shooting outside Fontaine Bleau, a Northeast Portland nightclub with a primarily African-American clientele—despite there being no clear connection between the shooting and the concert.
"They were there to make sure the show wasn't happening," says Adam Arola, who was slated to DJ the Rotture event in November. "They made it clear that if the show had gone on, the city would have made it a nightmare for the club. There was a panic: Hip-hop show. Black promoter. Cannot happen."
When talking about the police response to rap shows, music is only one part of a much larger discussion. It's an issue that touches on the gentrification of Portland's historically African-American neighborhoods, on the way the city sells itself, and the country's racial history in general. It is, as the song goes, bigger than hip-hop.
But even when viewed purely from an artistic perspective, the effects are troubling. Last year, the online magazine Vice published an article titled "Portland Has a Hip-Hop Problem," in which several artists, including Illmaculate, commented on how authoritarian roadblocks have contributed to keeping hip-hop on the margins of the Portland music scene. Vursatyl of hip-hop group Lifesavas said there is a "crabs-in-the-bucket effect" happening, in which rappers, forced to compete for scraps—or, as writer Thor Benson put it, "a gig in a bar's basement"—stop supporting one another.
Portland is still home to an emerging class of sharp-tongued MCs releasing a steady stream of albums, mixtapes and videos. But this is a live-music city. How can any artist here expect to develop when promoters and club owners are afraid to book them?
Asked if the Portland Police Bureau believes hip-hop concerts are more prone to violence than other large cultural gatherings, Sgt. Pete Simpson, a bureau spokesman with experience in gang enforcement and the entertainment unit, let out a long sigh.
"No," he says. "I think the bureau's opinion is that with events which are poorly planned and poorly managed, there is a higher risk of violence occurring. I don't think that's unusual in any city…. Certainly, we see more shootings and things outside events that attract gang members, but I wouldn't want to lump that in with hip-hop events, because I think there's a distinct difference."
But then, where is that distinction? Because the Blue Monk police report reads like it's from an Ice-T show circa 1992. There are references to "multiple derogatory lyrics towards the police," including "fuck the coppers, all they want to do is hold us down and beat us on the ground." That line is probably a misquote of "Sounds of My City II," a song by the night's second performer, Hanif "Luck-One" Collins, which goes, "where the coppers only judge us/to show us they never loved us/they beat us up and they cuff us on the ground." He repeated it multiple times that night, in direct response to the police eyeing him from the back of the room. In translation, though, the commentary embedded in the lyric is reduced to a middle finger waved in the face of authority.
Is a hip-hop show in the basement of a jazz club an event that would attract gang members because of the background of one performer? Illmaculate has called for an open dialogue to work out a system "that allows [police] to do their job, which is get everyone home safe, and allow us to our job effectively as well, which is to create a positive atmosphere and put on a show," he says. Maybe establishing that line is a good starting point.
Then again, maybe the time for talking has passed. That's certainly how Luck-One feels. To him, expecting to forge an understanding with those in power is a losing battle. The only way to get attention, he says, is to use the language of capitalism: He says he's considering filing a complaint with the state Bureau of Labor and Industries to get back the money he lost on the Blue Monk show.
"I'm not going to bargain with somebody," says Collins, who moved to New York last year, in part because of the attitude of Portland authorities toward hip-hop. "I don't work for the cops, the cops work for me. So I'm not ever going to allow them to tell me how I need to do something that isn't illegal."