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

Featuring KayelaJ, Donte Thomas, PDXJazz, Darrell Grant, and the latest edition of long-running hip-hop showcase The Thesis.

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Portland rapper KayelaJ. Photo by Renée Lopez.
Portland rapper KayelaJ. Photo by Renée Lopez.

Listen: You might remember the days when hip-hop shows in Portland were so cop-ridden that some artists refused to even perform there. No doubt some readers still imagine Portland–and especially its downtown area just west of the Willamette River–as a ravaged ghost town with boarded-up storefront windows and roving gangs of black-clad agitators.

Those days are long, long over. In some sense, they never existed–although it’s true that for awhile there the police were known to shut down hip-hop shows. The Schnitz still hosts the Oregon Symphony and various other high profile acts several nights a week. You can still worship music at The Old Church. Jimmy Mak’s remains closed, but the other jazz clubs are still going.

And for nearly a decade now (not counting the mezzanine), Mac Smiff and DJ Verbz have been producing a hip-hop showcase at Kelly’s Olympian right in the middle of Downtown Portland. It’s called The Thesis, and they do it Every. Damn. Month.

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

You can preview the headliner, Portland rapper Chain Taylor, on his YouTube channel. Kmar Woods, same deal. Also performing: former Texan Julian Outlaw, who runs Lame Ways Artistry–a “label and artist wheelhouse that hosts events, distributes merch, encouraging everyone to vehemently pursue their dreams, and exceed their own limitations every day!” We love the acronym that gives Outlaw’s wheelhouse its name: “Living Above Most Expectations.” Check out his 2020 album Couch Mode right here.

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Since Bandcamp is getting back to its Fee Free First Fridays this month, we thought we’d share two of this weekend’s Thesis performers who have albums out on that most excellent of music platforms: DDwili and Shar’Dai.

DDwili, Dreams of Disco

Shar’Dai, Retrograde

For the record

Continuing the Thesis/Bandcamp theme, consider Portland rapper KayelaJ (read Mac Smiff’s profile for Vortex Magazine here). We often enjoy sharing this video of her 2021 Thesis performance, and we’ve previously raved about her excellent, snazzily-titled LP D.Y.K.E., (Don’t Yield, Keep Enduring). Here’s what we had to say at the time:

“I made this shit for you, I hope that you like it.” These lines overlap repeatedly over the opening track of Portland-based rapper KayelaJ’s 2019 debut album, setting the tone perfectly for what the artist describes as an “autobiography and an emotional roller-coaster which starts in KayelaJ’s deep depression, transitions into her rage, and ends in love (including her self-love and love for others).” Deceptively simple production–elegant head-bobbing beats, bubbling body-shaking bass, spookily spirited synths–supports KayelaJ’s story of queer endurance and triumph, a hour-plus journey in word and sound that will leave you drained, outraged, entertained, and ultimately inspired. “This is the ending of something great, this is the ending–thanks for listening.”

KayelaJ, D.Y.K.E., (Don’t Yield, Keep Enduring)

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Consider also Donte Thomas, who had the audacity to release his 2019 album COLORS on actual physical vinyl (yes, there’s a copy on the present author’s record shelf). It’s glorious stuff, perfect for the warm hi-fidelity sonic pleasure that vinyl affords. You can also stream it, of course–but why not just unplug, quit cyborging, and invest in The Real World for a change?

Donte Thomas, COLORS

PDX Jazz

You’ll read more about the annual PDX Jazz Festival in Brett Campbell’s upcoming preview, so we won’t belabor the matter here. However, let’s consider just a few of the Black artists who will be joining us this year, from within Oregon and from without.

Mel Brown B3 Organ Group, who’ve been rocking Portland’s jazz scene since–yeah, pretty much since its beginning. Go hear Mel Brown play drums.

Hubert Laws, certainly 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.

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

I Am is composed of Isaiah Collier on woodwinds and Michael Shekwoaga Ode on drums. That’s a classic setup, by the way, the drums-and-winds duo: one of Coltrane’s finest albums was nothing but sax and drums (Interstellar Space, with Rashied Ali–one of the legend’s last recordings).

Angélique Kidjo‘s Remain In Light is exactly what you think it is: the Beninese-American singer-songwriter doing her own take on the ridiculously African-influenced Talking Heads album. Better to let the woman herself describe this:

As Remain In Light was influenced by the music of my continent, I want to pay back the homage and create my own African take on Talking Heads’ songs.

We all know that rock music came from the blues and thus from Africa. Now is the time to bring rock back to Africa, connect our minds, and bring all our sounds to a new level of sharing and understanding.

When it comes to music, I don’t have much fear. If you are inspired to do something, then there is truth in that. My music has been a weapon for constructing bridges. We have so much in common, yet we are so divided that we may not take a pause to think about what we may have in common. We think there is things to divide us, but not much divides us.

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Taken for Granted

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

Darrell Grant with Marquis Hill, Clark Sommers, & 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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Photo Joe Cantrell

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Music editor Matthew Neil Andrews is a composer, writer, and alchemist specializing in the intersection of The Weird and The Beautiful. An incorrigible wanderer who spent his teens climbing mountains and his twenties driving 18-wheelers around the country, Matthew can often be found taking his nightly dérive walks all over whichever Oregon city he happens to be in. He and his music can be reached at monogeite.bandcamp.com.

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