The Thesis, a monthly hip-hop concert series showcasing rising Portland rappers every first Thursday, canceled its February show at downtown bar Kelly’s Olympian hours before venue doors opened Feb. 1.
Mac Smiff and Grant “Verbz” Stolle, The Thesis’ producers, cited bar owner Ben Stutz’s support of City Commissioner Rene Gonzalez among their reasons for leaving downtown Portland after nearly a decade.
“[I]t has become clear that our community is no longer welcomed,” reads Smiff and Verbz’s statement in part, shared across social media platforms on Feb. 1.
The Thesis’ statement cited Gonzalez’s mayoral campaign launch party at Kelly’s Olympian on Dec. 7, 2023—the same day as The Thesis’ ninth anniversary show—along with the banning of Thesis-endorsed artists from Kelly’s Olympian; the dismissal of longtime venue manager Nalin Silva; and changes to the terms of the business deal between The Thesis and Kelly’s Olympian.
Smiff, a longtime progressive activist and journalist, tells WW that Gonzalez’s founding of a political action committee that endorsed 17 anti-LGBTQ+ school board candidates, and his ban on Portland Street Response distributing tents to homeless people are among the reasons The Thesis objects to any association between Kelly’s and the city commissioner, a registered Democrat who is running for mayor on a law-and-order platform.
“It’s interesting to see a right-wing alliance occurring at a place that’s been very well known for not that kind of life over the past ten years,” says Smiff, who worked at Kelly’s Olympian when a street brawl between members of the Proud Boys and anti-fascist counterprotesters erupted outside of the bar in 2018. “Kelly’s has always been known as a safe space, so just going in and endorsing right-wing candidates who want to hurt the houseless and things like that is not really in our range.”
Smiff says Gonzalez’s noon party ended early enough in December that his guests didn’t stick around for The Thesis, but that he and Verbz still fielded uncomfortable questions from their community about the show’s possible connection to Gonzalez’s mayoral campaign.
“We had people essentially saying they wouldn’t come to Kelly’s anymore because our crowd tends to be politically minded in that way, so we had people questioning the event,” Verbz says. “Instead of us celebrating and being excited about things, we had political questions on our anniversary, which rubbed us both the wrong way.”
Reached by phone, Stutz says his views are separate from those of Kelly’s Olympian and its staff. Stutz, whose bar has been a witness to blighted conditions downtown, says no other mayoral candidates have reached out to Kelly’s Olympian to offer assistance like Gonzalez did.
“To be clear, Kelly’s didn’t endorse anybody,” Stutz says. “[Gonzalez] had done a lot for us regarding focusing the issues relating to crime that were pervasive around that corner of our venue.…He’s always been supportive of small business and trying to address the issues that are important to us, specifically crime issues that were pervasive. I know him personally to be a guy who’s promoted causes that were related to people not being discriminated against.”
Stutz says Kelly’s Olympian did not offer Gonzalez a discount on his venue rental, directly referencing his previous campaign’s scandal over an undisclosed deal on rented campaign space in a building owned by Jordan Schnitzer.
“Rene rented our facility for his campaign kickoff. He did that for what your paper’s been reporting on, the fentanyl market in Washington Center,” Stutz says. “He viewed Washington Center as ground zero for what needs to be addressed in Portland. [The Thesis] took that as an endorsement, but it’s not like we sponsored the event. They paid market rate, we didn’t give them a discount; I know that was an issue before.” (Public records show Stutz and his wife donated $500 each to Gonzalez’s mayoral campaign in December 2022.)
Gonzalez’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
The Thesis was founded in December 2014, capping a year marked by scores of painful bar closures. Rap shows were still being policed for suspected gang activity. Longtime fixtures, including homes for hip-hop like The Blue Monk, shuttered with little warning. Though there have been off-site events, such as a semi-regular Portland Spirit summer cruise down the Willamette River, The Thesis began and was most often hosted in Kelly’s black-box theater.
The Thesis guaranteed stage time for rappers before they were celebrated as artists of the same caliber as Portland’s biggest rock stars. The Thesis introduced the city to some of its favorite rappers—Mic Capes, Donte Thomas, Bocha, Karma Rivera, Rasheed Jamal, Keeks (fka Maarquii), and The Last Artful, Dodgr left their marks on The Thesis’ audiences early in their careers, before Willamette Week voted them among the city’s Best New Bands throughout the 2010s. Lake Oswego rapper Wynne and a cast of local all-stars, including “Dame D.O.L.L.A.” Lillard, immortalized The Thesis in song.
Stutz seemed surprised by The Thesis’ statement. Stutz says he “heard rumblings” that Smiff and Verbz were unhappy with him, but that he wasn’t aware of the statement until it was posted. “The Thesis has been here for a long time, and they’re welcome back,” Stutz says. “We didn’t kick them out.”
Smiff says he asked staff at Kelly’s to speak with Stutz ahead of his announcement, but that he wasn’t given Stutz’s phone number. “I asked for a meeting, and I was rebuffed,” he says. “Could this have been fixed? Perhaps.”
Stutz acknowledged that Kelly’s Olympian wanted to charge Smiff and Verbz to keep hosting The Thesis, but says he would have held off the increase if they had asked him to.
“It’s no secret that bars and venues have had struggles over the years. We didn’t charge for sound, lighting, equipment, etc., which is different from what’s done around town. We’re not charging a lot, we’re just doing what’s now the industry standard,” Stutz says. “To be candid, we are trying to cover our costs for the show.”
Verbz says The Thesis will return in March, and while they haven’t decided where the show will be held, multiple venues have offered to host them. Smiff says. The Thesis’ new home likely will be the next location for PoHop, the 15-year-running Portland Hip-Hop Festival.
“I drove down there for the eighth time for our anniversary showcase, and I was questioning what it means, what people need and that kind of thing,” Verbz says. “I saw that we still need this kind of thing in the city and that it still means something to people. I still want to keep providing something beautiful for the city. There’s no stopping what we’re doing.”