Once a Georgia Cosmetologist, iLoveMakonnen Now Reigns as One of Portland’s Most Iconic Rappers

“Where could I be somewhere that’s so far away from where everybody knows me?”

It’s 2:30 pm on a Tuesday, and iLoveMakonnen is sitting on the patio of Friendship Kitchen sipping on a long, tall cocktail as his friend, beatmaker and collaborator Rich Daytona sits across the table. He’s not the only one getting the party started early, but few of the chatty diners suspect that the man who wrote the greatest turning-up-on-a-weekday anthem of all time is sitting in their midst.

2014′s “Tuesday” epitomizes the eccentric, creative, maddeningly catchy music that was coming out of Atlanta in the mid-2010s. Over a woozy synth lead, Makonnen belted affirmations to everyone partying outside of the normal 9-to-5 schedule, and his wobbly but heartfelt vocals thrillingly blurred the lines between singing and rapping.

A remix featuring Drake shot Makonnen’s career into the stratosphere. Yet in 2016, the rapper and singer born Makonnen Sheran left the city that was then rap’s epicenter and moved to Portland, which had always had a strong pull on his imagination.

“I always wondered about that part of Oregon,” says the 34-year-old. “It’s so far away from Georgia, you know. Where could I be somewhere that’s so far away from where everybody knows me?”

Since arriving, Makonnen’s been less interested in playing the part of a local celebrity than in building a community of local musicians and producers. Along with producer-singer-rapper Snugsworth, Makonnen is the co-founder of the Oregon Trail Sessions, a collaborative nature retreat for artists and musicians.

“We go out to a nice little Airbnb with some nature to where we can have outside time, and we just create music and flow free and collaborate and have a supportive creative session for the community,” he says. “This is over three or four days, so you kind of get to work whenever you feel comfortable. You have some people up at 7 am making stuff, and you have people up at like 2 am.”

Many of the recordings and much of local talent from the Oregon Trail Sessions feature on Makonnen’s new album, Pink Nails, which celebrates his tight-knit Oregon community. Clocking in at 24 minutes of percussive, hard-hitting party rap infused with Makonnen’s flamboyant, funny, sincere personality, Pink Nails is one of the leanest and strongest releases he’s put out.

The title track revolves around the rallying cry of “pink nails on all my girls,” which Makonnen explains can be interpreted gender-neutrally in this context (I observe as he discusses the song that Daytona is wearing pink nails at that very moment). Makonnen studied as a cosmetologist before breaking through in his rap career—he’s licensed in Georgia, not yet in Oregon—and he speaks of his experience in beauty school in rapturous terms.

“I was around all these women and this nurturing love,” Makonnen says. “Seeing how they took care of each other and how the experience was to turn somebody’s day around and to lift them up no matter what they were going through. And so it started to help me, and then I started to be the guy who helped others [do] that.”

This caring environment contrasts with his less-than-comfortable experiences at the epicenter of rap. Makonnen fell out with Drake in 2016 after some old tweets clowning on Drake surfaced; fearing for his career and his safety, he left Drake’s OVO Sound label and is now self-releasing his music.

Not long after, Makonnen became one of the first mainstream rappers to come out as gay. The Atlanta rap community—often feted in the press for its purported progressivism due to the androgynous fashions and eccentric styles of its biggest artists—was far from supportive.

Popular Atlanta trio Migos (best known for “Bad and Boujee”) responded to Makonnen’s announcement in a Rolling Stone interview with baffling and clueless homophobia, and Makonnen was frequently threatened with physical violence.

“You see that all those people couldn’t stand around me anymore,” Makonnen says. “The only thing that’s different is that I came out as gay, but everybody else is wearing dresses and stuff. Hip-hop likes to have a lot of secrets, you know, and so I guess a lot of people felt like their secret wasn’t safe around me.”

Makonnen lists a few rappers who were supportive of him after his coming out, namely NBA YoungBoy, Juice WRLD, and the late Lil Peep. Makonnen was good friends with the latter, and he’s planning to release a trove of unreleased collaborations between the two artists Sept. 8. Titled Diamonds, the album contains 21 songs Makonnen cut with the emo-rap pioneer in 2017, just months before his death from an overdose.

“That’s been one of the most exciting projects,” Makonnen says. “I feel like I put a lot into that project over the year, and I’ve been just waiting six years or so now for that one to come out. So that’s going to be a good release for me personally and emotionally, to finally get that music out.”

He’s also planning a 10th anniversary tour for his biggest hit, which he still feels good about despite his falling out with Drake.

“It’s good day,” he says. “I get free drinks. And then the lottery tonight for $1.5 billion. So I’m feeling lucky. Hopefully, my Tuesday powers work.”

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