The city’s scene may not have a coherent sound, but from hip-hop to alternative, and jazz to reggae, Portland music packs a protest-fueled punch
In front of a Black Lives Matter stencil at a small Portland venue in March, a trombone player began a concert by sharing a personal and political truth.
“My name is Denzel Mendoza,” he said. “I am an illegal immigrant and a trombonist.”
Mendoza then read British-Somali poet Warsan Shire’s poem “Home,” which reckons with the desperation of forced migration, before picking up his instrument. Above bassist Sebastian Owens’ fluid arpeggios, Mendoza vocalized breathy, plaintive complaints and elephantine blasts of rage, at times seeming to yell into the horn.
Mendoza won three GRAMMY awards in 2019 as one of John Daversa’s “Dreamers” — undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children and accepted to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. His legal status hasn’t changed, nor have the political implications of the music. Clad in a cholo-style button down and orange knit cap, Mendoza huffed, puffed, scoffed and mourned. At one point, he briefly fainted.
“When I’m on the bandstand, all of that chaos, that unknowing, and hope comes out,” he says. “I’m a wreck, and that’s how it should be.”
Trombones are uncommon instruments of protest, but in Portland, musicians use any and every tool to bring people together and push for social justice. These days, there may not be a “Portland sound,” but the scene coheres around progressive politics. That may reflect the city’s continuing turmoil, including a mass shooting at a protest in February and another dumpster fire near a police station just this week.
“Portland’s a really complicated place,” says John Gourley, lead singer and rhythm guitarist in Portland-based indie rockers Portugal. The Man. Similarly, the infectious first single off PTM’s upcoming album, What Me Worry, has “a lot of layers.” Its video begins with hip-hop artist-activist Mic Crenshaw shaving Gourley’s head, followed by imagery of protests and fires.
Other hypnotic, provocative examples abound in hip-hop, rock, electronic and reggae. Portland rapper Wynne lights herself afire in the video for her head-noddy “CARROT CAKE,” with Christo, spitting, “PPB can’t be reformed! / Used to slide by now I’m yelling back ‘free the boys,’” a clear reference to the Portland Police Bureau. In the video for electronic artist Logan Lynn’s retro club banger, “Is There Anyone Else Like This in the World,” Lynn dresses in a black hoodie and skull facemask, then swings a baseball bat at the camera.
“The imagery is pulled directly from what’s happening here in town and across the nation,” Lynn says. “What’s cool about Portland is that so many people have come together visibly. That’s felt like a movement.”
Portland-based, Tuff Gong-distributed reggae artist and children’s educator Aaron Nigel Smith co-produced the GRAMMY-nominated children’s album All One Tribe. The upbeat, stylistically-diverse project came out of the Black Lives Matter movement, he says. Nominees in the children’s and family music category have been “very unbalanced” in recent years, Smith says, so he and a dozen artists created the Family Music Forward coalition to “amplify and uplift” artists of color in that category.
Smith tries to “expose, encourage and engage” kids — especially Black and brown children, he says. He’s also “done protests specifically for children.” Youth are naturally at the forefront of social movements, he adds, and often “baffled by the adults that are leading this world into chaos and destruction.”
Sometimes life puts a choice in front of us, Oregon’s music scene seems to be saying.
“This is going to be a moment in history that we’ll all look back on and think, ‘What did I do for other people during this time?’” Michelle Zauner of Japanese Breakfast recently said. Zauner grew up in Eugene, south of Portland; her band was nominated for two GRAMMYs in 2022. “There’s a real sense of shame if you look back and think, ‘I hid and did nothing.’”
It Must Be ‘Something In The Rain’
It’s not always clear why the region’s politics — and music — gets so fierce. “There’s definitely something in the rain, or water,” half-jokes Mac Smiff, also known as Fahiym Acuay, an activist and Editor-In-Chief of the city’s We Out Here magazine.
While it’s only the nation’s 24th-largest city, Portland is an anchor on the powerful West Coast circuit. It punches outside its weight class — and rarely shies from a fight. Local musicians whose music has challenged include riot-starters like Sleater-Kinney, the Thermals and Team Dresch; consciousness-raising emcees like Mic Capes, Wynne, and Cool Nutz; marching bands like March Fourth and Frontline Drumline; and folkies Derroll Adams and David Rovics — who just released an album with Crenshaw.
There are many reasons why; as Gourley quips, “Portland goes harder.” Portland is one of the “whitest” major U.S. cities, and Oregon’s racism predates its constitution. “Yes, there are Black people in Portland,” a billboard put up by Aminé proclaimed in 2018. Local musicians are outwardly sensitive to the city’s white guilt, multiple displacements of its Black community, its gentrification or much-debated homeless crisis.
“I feel torn every single day I wake up,” Gourley says. “Just having space. I mean, a house, with a yard.”
Then there’s continuing controversy around police violence. In 2020, as protests crested, federal agents went to Portland and reportedly used unmarked vans to snatch protesters. Global attention and phenomena like the “Wall of Moms” resulted.
Portland Trail Blazers pro and rapper (as Dame D.O.L.L.A.) Damian Lillard marched. Crenshaw helped organize the Black Existence March. DJ Ronin Roc pumped a Swiggle Mandela song, “Dear Portland Police,” from the back of a pickup truck, Smiff says. One guy walked up and made a $1,000 donation, Smiff recalls. “We bought a generator and a couple more speakers.”
“There’s a lot of political music here,” Crenshaw explains. “It’s no longer fringe. Because everybody’s seeing with their own eyes what protest music addresses.”
Inherently Politicized Identities
Just as Lynn’s grooves are informed by of decades of house, disco and synth-pop created within the LGBTQ+ community, Smith’s and Crenshaw’s work reflects the African diaspora. “The lineage of hip-hop comes from a colonized people who were struggling for liberation,” Crenshaw says.
Making this music is not “political” so much as intrinsically connected to who these artists are.
“My music has always been political in that my identity has been really politicized,” says Lynn, a voting member of the Recording Academy since 2015. “I’m an openly queer person with a mental health condition who has been in long-term recovery. Each of those things has always had society coming at me negatively in some way.”
Portugal. The Man’s members are white, but have had friends and family who are Indigenous since their childhoods in Wasilla, Alaska. Today, hey work with and advocate for tribes across the world. In 2018, they dedicated their Best Pop Duo/Group Performance GRAMMY for the hit “Feel It Still” to “all the Indigenous people in Alaska and around the world.” They’ve won awards from Native American groups. At concerts, they invite Indigenous people to perform, and — in a modern update of an ancient tradition — call out the connection between the land and these First Nations.
Such struggles can be intersectional. Led by guitarist Eric Howk, who “shreds” from a wheelchair, PTM push for accessibility for people with disabilities — offering “Accessible VIP Treatment” at shows, for example, or insisting on inclusivity while on tour with Alt-J.
“We get asked when we show up at venues [even] now,” Gourley notes, “‘Do you need a ramp? Do you need these things?’ Like — yeah,” Gourley says, exasperation creeping into his mellifluous voice. “We need a ramp.”
Creating During ‘A Really Dark Time’
As this year’s emotional GRAMMY Awards ceremony reminded us, these last couple years have been hard on many artists and fans. Polemics and pandemic also took their toll in Portland. “At a point, the music scene was dark,” Mendoza, the trombonist, recalls. “A lot of folks weren’t creating. But it also gave way to a lot of other folks who were underrepresented, or who felt like, ‘I need to make a way to make this better.’”
Gourley spent part of the pandemic healing from a broken jaw he’d had since childhood. “I could barely talk,” he says. “I couldn’t exercise, I couldn’t do anything.”
Gourley says the band’s upcoming album — reportedly due in June, though PTM management says it’s not yet scheduled — is the first concept album he’s written, and centers “around what we were seeing in Portland, the way these movements take off.” It’s about fights that matter, Gourley says — not PR stunts like the one he sings of, when the KLF, in 1994, burned a million pounds. While many in the pop music industry have long seen political content as “ill-advised,” you don’t have to literally burn money for sales to slide.
Crenshaw says he’s sold fewer units for decades by “intentionally making music that’s not as commercially viable.” But his combative, collaborative projects can be riveting. Among them: “Cao Xango” by Rebel Wise (Crenshaw, Xamada, Pharaoh The 47 & Quincy Davis), which begins with video of local protest marches.
Aaron Nigel Smith, too, says he “definitely took a hit” after releasing 2019’s In Our America, which included “Ring The Alarm.” Singing over a tight roots reggae riddim, Smith decries rising hate, declaring, “We don’t want no racist Nazi hateful wannabe pussy-grabbing, cheating, lying thief leading our country.”
It debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard reggae charts, Smith says, but “split my fan base in half,” Smith says. Still, he’d “do it again the same way.”
Portland vs. The World
Like many cities, Portland can be a left-leaning island in an ocean of more conservative areas. Outside the city, its progressive politics can be misinterpreted. “Everywhere we traveled, especially during the lockdown, during the feds being in Portland,” Gourley recalls, people would say, “‘Oh, my God! Are you OK? You live in Portland? Is it still there!?’”
It’s still here, and still home to politicized violence. In February of this year, when protesters gathered in a local park to decry police brutality, a man named Benjamin Smith pulled out a firearm and started shooting, hitting five people, paralyzing one and killing a 60-year-old woman named June Knightly.
Such tragedies perpetuate entrenched stereotypes, including that the city is full of violent, black-clad “antifa” brawlers — and apathetic, privileged “Portlandia” liberals. Each is unfair, the city’s musicians say, but contains a grain of truth: Portlanders do “either stand behind windows and watch — or break windows,” Mendoza says.
Unlike purely political operatives, though, the city’s musicians crave socially diverse spaces, chafing at the echo chambers and “mosh pits” of social media. “I never want to be surrounded by people who all think the same thing I do,” Gourley says.
Great music, they say, isn’t made from political talking points — or monochrome emotions. “The sense of despair and hopelessness has always fed [my project] Illegal Son,” Mendoza says. “It sounds chaotic and cacophonous, and what the hell is going on? But at the end, there is this sense of coming together, [like] hey, we’re all here together.”
At the February protest, an armed demonstrator returned fire, hospitalizing Smith — who after transfer from hospital to jail was charged with nine counts, including the murder of Knightly, nicknamed “T-Rex.”
“T-Rex will roar in our hearts forever,” tweeted Portland rapper Jahdi.
Building And Healing, Amidst A Possible Backlash
It’s unclear what’s next. Some are seeing projects that satisfy listeners who want music with more combative sonics. Others envision the scene evolving in less-polemical ways. Some see both happening simultaneously.
“I think it’s definitely evolving into a coherent larger movement,” Smiff says. “There’s still a lot of fracturing as well, a lot of anti-gay sentiment in a lot of communities, a lot of anti-Black sentiment in a lot of communities, a lot of ‘men first,’ but there really is a growing appetite for more meshing.”
Smiff helps organize a recurring hip-hop event called The Thesis, which he says has become more inclusive. “We made a conscious effort to not have any more shows that were all a bunch of white dudes, all a bunch of Black dudes — that’s not going to fly.”
Lynn notes that “human rights violations are a throughline” for how local artists respond to the region’s sometimes divisive struggles, both in and outside of music. Lynn’s song “Here’s To Us” draws a parallel between the gay rights and civil rights movements, though he wages the same fight IRL as a co-founder of .gay, a domain name company based in Portland that is “rooted in safety and support for LGBTQ+ people.”
The fledgling Portugal. The Man Foundation, which Lynn directs, bought protective equipment for First Nations, sponsored Native get-out-the-vote campaigns in 2020 and even called in to school board meetings to protest the banning of books — while buying “thousands” of those titles for teachers and kids, Lynn says.
“We’re all kind of punks, you know?” Lynn says. “So I think we were able to do some dangerous stuff … just because we really didn’t care what the traditional philanthropic world thought about us.” It’s donated $367,751 to date.
Still, Portland artists are aware of a possible backlash, ranging from politics to markets. “Has the appetite for political music grown?” Mac Smiff asks. “I think in pockets, definitely. But there’s also the impact of people just being tired.” Gourley says the back-and-forth between political parties isn’t helping society’s neediest.
Crenshaw believes social movements drive artists’ output, forcing them to respond, or risk irrelevancy. But artists can also be the “canary in the coal mine,” he notes: vulnerable due to race, sexual orientation, gender, poverty, youth or other factors.
Mendoza’s music, with his trio Illegal Son and with fellow Filipino-American artist Haley Heynderickx, incorporates both his precarious legal status and his resilience. “Not only is there despair and chaos, but there is also hope,” he says. “Whether you hear it or not, that’s what I’m trying to say.”
Mendoza, Aaron Nigel Smith and Crenshaw all teach kids from diverse backgrounds. Smith says that playing a djembe, singing or clapping can empower a community, or heal an individual. “The sonics of a melody impact our bodies, our heart rate,” he says. “There’s something healing, and there’s something that is a connector.”
In a similar vein, Portland born and bred Esperanza Spalding’s Songwrights Apothecary Lab album, which just won a GRAMMY for Best Jazz Album, centralizes healing. It guides listeners through, then out of, a “tunnel” of “everything that doesn’t serve us anymore.”
In “Formwela 3,” co-written by Michael Neil and Raphael Saadiq, Spalding sings “everybody’s heavy with the zombie consciousness,” her aeriform mezzo-soprano hovering over a bass-piano heartbeat, lyrics tracing “unspoken and thundering” stress.
Like Mendoza’s multiphonics, or Gourley’s layered lyrics, Spalding’s album seems to be processing the fractured politics and the trauma. Call it sensitivity-as-strength, or just what musicians have always done.
“This is a legacy, and it’s evergreen,” Aaron Nigel Smith says. “If we can capture the moment, and articulate the moment through art and music, that’s how we can thrive, and how art can live on forever.”
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