MusicWatch Monthly: Black music and a bloc party for Bandcamp Friday

Portland rapper Kayela J. Photo by Renée Lopez.
Portland rapper Kayela J. Photo by Renée Lopez.

Listen: You may remember the days when hip-hop shows in Portland were so besieged by cops that some artists refused to even perform there. No doubt some readers still picture Portland—and especially downtown just west of the Willamette River—as a devastated ghost town with boarded-up storefronts and roving gangs of black-clad agitators.

Those times are long, long gone. In a way, it never existed — although it’s true that the police there have had a history of shutting down hip-hop shows for a while. The Schnitz still hosts the Oregon Symphony and various other high-profile acts several nights a week. You can still worship music in the Old Church. Jimmy Mak’s remains closed, but the other jazz clubs are still going.

And for almost a decade (not counting the mezzanine) Mac Smiff and DJ Verbz have been producing a hip-hop show at Kelly’s Olympian in the heart of downtown Portland. It’s called The Thesis and they do it every day. Damn it. Month.

You can read Bruce Poinsette’s profile of Smiff (from his article in Oregon Humanities “Just Go Do It”: Portraits of the Leadership of Oregon’s Black Muslim Community) exactly here. Today we’d like to bring you the February edition of the long-running showcase, which sees The Thesis team up with Jack London Revue (literally just around the corner from Kelly’s) for a three-day block party. The shindig begins on Thursday evening February 2nd (tonight if you’re reading this on Thursday February 2nd) and runs through Saturday. Get your tickets here.

You can catch a preview of headliner, Portland rapper Chain Taylor, on his YouTube channel. Kmar Woods, same thing. Also performing: former Texan Julian Outlaw, who runs Lame Ways Artistry – a “label and artist house that hosts events, hands out merch, and encourages everyone to go wild on their dreams and push their own limits every day!” We love it Acronym that gives the Outlaw wheelhouse its name: “Living Above Most Expectations”. Check out his 2020 album couch mode exactly here.

With Bandcamp returning to its Free First Fridays this month, we thought we’d feature two of this weekend’s thesis artists who have released albums on this most eminent of music platforms: DDwili and Shar’Dai.

DDwili, Dreams about disco

Shar’Dai, declining

For the record

Continuing the Thesis/Bandcamp theme, consider Portland rapper KayelaJ (read Mac Smiff’s profile for Vortex Magazine here). We’re often pleased to share this video of their 2021 Thesis performance, and we’ve already raved about their excellent, smartly titled LP DYKE, (Don’t give in, keep on holding on). This is what we had to say at the time:

“I did this shit for you, I hope you like it.” Those lines intersect repeatedly in the opening track of Portland-based rapper KayelaJ’s debut album and set the perfect tone for what the artist describes as “autobiographical and emotional roller coaster ride” that begins in KayelaJ’s deep depression, descends into her anger, and ends in love (including her love of self and love for others).” The deceptively simple production – elegant, head-shaking beats, bubbly, body-shattering bass, hauntingly spirited synths – supports KayelaJ’s tale of queer perseverance and triumph, an hour-plus journey of words and sound that will leave you exhausted, outraged, entertained and ultimately inspired. “This is the end of something great, this is the end – thanks for listening.”

KayelaJ, DYKE, (Don’t give in, keep on holding on)

Also remember Donte Thomas who had the audacity to release his album in 2019 COLOURS on real physical vinyl (yes, there is a copy on the current author’s record shelf). It’s glorious stuff, perfect for the warm, hi-fi sonic pleasure that vinyl offers. You can stream it too, of course – but why not just unplug, stop cyborging, and invest in The Real World for a change?

Don’t Thomas, COLOURS

PDX Jazz

You’ll read more about the annual PDX Jazz Festival in Brett Campbell’s upcoming preview, so we won’t delve further into the matter here. However, let’s look at just a few of the black artists who will be joining us this year, from inside and outside of Oregon.

Mel Brown B3 Organ Group, been rocking the Portland jazz scene since – yes, pretty much since its inception. Go hear Mel Brown play the drums.


Chamber Music Northwest First Baptist Church Portland Oregon

Hubert Laws, surely the greatest jazz flutist of all time. If you know his name, you opened a window to buy tickets as soon as you saw it.

Machado Mijiga Trio. Mijiga is one of those multi-instrumentalist-composers who can sing and rock a saxophone and make Dillaesque beats but is mostly known as a drummer. You can hear his latest on Bandcamp, Lossexactly here:

I Am consists of Isaiah Collier on woodwinds and Michael Shekwoaga Ode on drums. That’s a classic setup, by the way, the drums and horns duo: one of Coltrane’s best albums was nothing but sax and drums (interstellar spacewith Rashied Ali – one of the last recordings of the legend).

Angelique Kidjos Stay in the light is exactly what you’re thinking: the Beninese-American singer-songwriter making her own version of the ridiculously African-influenced Talking Heads album. Better let the woman describe it herself:

When Stay in the light been influenced by the music of my continent, I want to return the homage and create my own African version of the Talking Heads songs.

We all know that rock music originated from the blues and therefore from Africa. Now it’s time to bring rock back to Africa, connecting our minds and taking all our sounds to a new level of sharing and understanding.

When it comes to music, I’m not scared much. If you are inspired to do something, then there is truth in it. My music was a weapon to build bridges. We have so much in common, but we are so divided that we may not pause to consider what we might have in common. We think there are things that separate us, but not much separates us.

Of course

We could rave about Darrell Grant all day. If you’ve only heard one Black Oregon musician, it probably is. Certainly we’ve written a lot about Grant here at ArtsWatch and you can read it here, here, here, here and here. So we’d like to wrap up this Black History Month-themed Bandcamp column by simply sharing three important albums featuring Grant and his compositions.

Darrell Grant with Marquis Hill, Clark Sommers and Kendrick Scott, The New Black: Darrell Grant Live at Birdland

Marilyn Keller with Darrell Grant, My dreams, my journey

Darrell Grant, the territory

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