Power & Music To The People

Portland Musicians Embrace the Challenge of Making Important Political Music

Cover illustration by Showdeer
Cover illustration by Showdeer

Pop music is the meat at the BBQ joint, says rapper Mic Crenshaw—it’ll fill you up with empty calories “and weigh you down, and slow you down.”

Political music, the sounds of the Struggle, Crenshaw says, “is like one of the sides—it’s something extra that you get.”

This story is about the sides: the greens, cheesy macaroni, cornbread, spicy sauce.

On the heels of a national election that threw down a gauntlet, Portland’s musical artists are responding with music more ecstatically political than anything we’ve ever heard. Long at the forefront of local protests, PDX musicians say they’re increasingly putting adrenaline on paper, taking the bullhorn to the studio.

The trend reverberates across scenes and cultures.

“You stand for something or fall for anything,” says rapper Cool Nutz, Terrance Scott, who has a new, hyperconscious album, “Pig Ears & Chitlins.” Scott says the new release “relates to a number of things from gentrification, race issues, and just overall issues that affect people of the minority and color.”

“I need something to do right now, I feel so helpless,” says Leona, bassist/vocalist in punk trio Mr. Wrong, who called the election a “punch to the face.” “Making music about what’s going on is all I want to do. It helps me and then I can hope that it will effect some kind of greater change.”

“It would be hard not to write political music in this climate,” says singer-songwriter Sean Flinn of FLINN, who just released a gorgeously spare political tune called “Shadow Boxing.” “I think that we’re going to see a lot more of it. Activism is on the rise, civic engagement is on the rise, social commentary is on the rise, and political music is on the rise.”

Local hip-hop emcees will be near the fore of this movement. On Cool Nutz’ Pig Ears & Chitlins, Crenshaw goes full warrior in a political-poetic interlude:

“Your ideas of reality have you confused / Let’s be clear / You fear my aggression because you attack my complexion / But what you call riot is insurrection / What you call violence, self-defense and protection / Since prior to this society’s inception / I haven’t existed an instant, a second / Without being against persistent, and consistent oppression.”

“Black Music,” a breakout track on the record, features emotional turns by Crenshaw, Mic Capes and a searing, shimmering chorus by April Cason-Etuk: “We gonna keep on making black music / like black oil they just wanna use it / But we can’t stop doing what we doing / We are the beginning, it’s proven.”

Portland rapper Aminé gave the nation his own moment of electrifying political music on Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show in November. His single “Caroline,” with more than 250 million streams on various platforms, included a new verse: “9-11, a day that we’re never forgetting / 11-9, a day that we all regretting / If my president is Trump, then it’s relevant enough / To talk, put it on TV and not give a [****].”

Then in the first month of 2017, another PDX hip-hop emcee, Foday, released a blistering anti-Trump anthem. The video for “Never” includes footage of local post-election rallies and is followed by the spoken-word poem “Thoughts on our President.”

Emcees Mic Capes, Glenn Waco, a leader at Don’t Shoot Portland rallies, and Rasheed Jamal formed the Resistance in 2011—long before the post-Trump Portland’s Resistance protest movement hit local headlines.

Emcees Mic Capes, Glenn Waco (a leader at Don’t Shoot Portland rallies) and Rasheed Jamal formed The Resistance in 2011—long before the post-Trump Portland’s Resistance protest movement hit local headlines.

“Everybody feels equally offended right now, or at least we think we do,” Jamal says. “But black people are sitting back like, ‘Word?’ It’s like duh, muthafucka, I been feeling like this.”

Read the whole story in Issue #11 of Vortex Magazine, at select locations in Portland. Or get Vortex delivered to your door with a pay-what-you-want subscription.