Swiggle Mandela Leaves No Stone Unturned

The hip-hop artist has spent two decades building a fan base and community through unrelenting hard work.

Swiggle Mandela (Samantha Klopp)

1. Swiggle Mandela

Sounds Like: Decades of relentless drive in uncompromising verses

Pursuing music is no small feat. To go for it, really go for it, you have to give the kind of effort you didn’t think you had in you. If you’re not sure what that means, ask Swiggle Mandela.

For more than two decades, Mandela, 33, has been actively working as a hip-hop artist, writing verses delivered like spoken word, often laid over sizzling beats and ‘90s-tinged synths. And when we say he’s been actively working, we mean working—producing his own shows, building a collective, canvassing for YouTube plays, whatever it takes.

Mandela, born Bo-Mandela Cordeta, grew up in Portland and Estacada, spending a brief part of his childhood down in Oakland, then Compton. It was there, in Compton, that rap clicked as his future.

“Dr. Dre’s from there, you hear Ice Cube rapping about [Compton],” Mandela says. “We were Muslim at the time, and I’d be at the mosque and Snoop Dogg would just come there. It just felt like it was so possible there.”

By age 9, Mandela was back in Portland living off Killingsworth. “I didn’t see too much gang stuff in Compton, but I knew it was there—but when I moved back to Portland, I really saw it on the corners, like a movie,” Mandela says. He turned to hip-hop, writing songs and going to a computer clubhouse run by volunteers, in the summer going out to Caldera Arts. After a few years, Mandela was recording songs, bringing burned CDs to school to hand out.

“By the time I got to high school, I already had kind of a small support system,” Mandela says.

Momentum kept up. Mandela formed a collective, USA La Familia, and, with the help of mentor Mic Crenshaw, began performing all over town, opening for bigger artists like Dead Prez and D12, running over to Wieden + Kennedy to borrow cameras to shoot music videos. Mandela and La Familia even started throwing their own events, renting venues and sound systems, hiring security and staff. This was all before Mandela was even 18 years old.

Through his 20s, Mandela was churning out music and looking for new ways to connect with listeners—doing features on other artists’ songs, playing donation-based shows, working with punk bands, performing at elementary schools and protests, or whatever he could think to do to reach a new fan.

“I would have flyers that would have my name, [and] go downtown and just meet 500 new people,” Mandela says. “It was like an elevator speech: ‘If I gave you my flyer, would you watch my music video?’ Ten times outta 10, it was yes. I probably handed out 10,000 flyers.”

Are you tired yet? Swiggle’s not.

“The things that I’ve done, no one has done,” Mandela says. “Like literally, no one even wants to.”

Mandela was building a solid local following and mentoring other young artists. He started drafting press releases and submitting to local papers, like this one, but wasn’t landing coverage. “I have always wanted to be in Willamette Week since I was young,” he says. “I would just grab the free newspapers. I wasn’t gonna be in XXL or something, so I was like, I need to figure out what I can do.”

In 2018, he picked up Willamette Week’s Best New Bands issue and saw Wynne, a white rapper from Lake Oswego.

“Nothing against Lake Oswego, I have memories out there, but at the same time, just the history—we call it Lake No-Negro. Oregon was an exclusion state. Hip-hop in Portland is a thing because of North and Northeast Portland. The biggest guys come from there. Portland hip-hop is really tight, and the reason why it’s tight is because [Black people] were displaced. So, it was like, this is the top Portland artist to look out for, and they’re from Lake Oswego? I really was like, I don’t even care anymore.”

Mandela wrote “Dear Willamette Week,” which landed on his trio of 2019 Portlandsterdam albums. Over a breathlike beat and saxophone hook, Mandela spends a minute airing his frustrations, dissing the paper and Wynne with lines like “Dear Willamette Week/You don’t know shit about streets/You should shut the fuck up when you speak” and “It’s young Swiggle/Voice of the young people/Here to tell you hip-hop doesn’t live in Lake Oswego.” (Hatchets have been buried between Mandela and Wynne, who has invited Mandela to shoots and introduced him to Damian Lillard.)

“A lot of people in my community or radio [said], ‘This isn’t the right way to go about this,’” Mandela says. “People thought me and Willamette Week were adversaries. Everyone was either for it or not for it. People were kinda ripping me. I had to remind myself I started it.”

Six years later, Mandela is still grinding. Since 2019, he’s released seven albums, and most recently the singles “Gatekeeper” and “Kyle Rittenhouse & Tay K,” which both dropped in December. The tracks show Mandela’s songs at their fullest, with deep, heavy bass beats and Mandela’s rap particularly buoyant and quick, with lines like “Put me on that stand I’ma commit perjury/I’ma lie like when Michael Jackson said he only had one surgery/Just for sayin’ this they might murder me.”

Then, there’s his feature work, like on Talilo’s 2022 “BIG Flip” that Mandela calls a Filipino anthem, and his work with the collective that’s now La Familia Gang, which puts on local events and sells branded merch with the tagline “La Familia Everything.”

“I’ve known Swiggle since he was in high school,” local hip-hop legend Mic Crenshaw says. “I watched him go from being a kid to confidently representing Portland’s hip-hop better than I’ve ever seen.”

He’s still taking the extra steps to reach listeners and aid the community—before this interview, Mandela says, he’d just bought a classroom of kids lunches and sent two families to Blazers games.

“You have to be relentless,” Mandela says. “You have to be restless. When you think it’s enough, it’s not. I do all the small podcasts, I don’t care if they have 20 subscribers, I’ll do podcasts in Africa over Skype. Every single thing—you have to kill an ant with a sledgehammer.”

Mandela’s got more music on the way this year, and events with La Familia Gang.

“All the artists with me, anyone who follows me, all the fans in the city, worldwide—it’s like an army,” Mandela says. “We’re doing it. If anybody can do it, we’re doing it.”

See Swiggle Mandela play live at our Best New Bands Showcase on 4/10 at Mississippi Studios. Buy your tickets here.

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