By CHRISTEN McCURDY
It takes some effort to find Shop La Familia.
It’s on a stretch of North Lombard Avenue between the Interstate Fred Meyer and the much-loved King Burrito taqueria. It’s also a few blocks away from the kind of natural grocery store that’s often a harbinger of gentrification.
From the street, the spot looks like a row of quiet office buildings occupied mostly by union locals. But if you walk to the back of the building to the nondescript gravel parking lot, through propped-open industrial doors and and head down the stairs, you’ll find what local rapper Swiggle Mandela has planted underground.
The Art of Space
An occasional series on places and prices in the arts world. In an escalating real estate market, how and where do artists and arts groups find suitable and affordable places to make and show their work?
Shop La Familia is a retail space, an erstwhile music venue and a community space for a loose collective of artists connected with Portland’s hip-hop scene. In a city where rapidly escalating real estate prices have put a squeeze on cultural spaces in Portland, La Familia is creating a space of its own, in a historically black, but rapidly gentrifying part of town.
“Every show, every gathering that we’ve done there, it’s like, I get to say, ‘This is literally underground hip-hop,’” says Michael Gaines, who raps as Figure 8 and usually just goes by Fig. He moved to Portland from Detroit about five years ago.
“We’re doing hip-hop underground in Portland right now and no matter how good or bad this goes, this is what it’s about,” Figure 8 explains. “All those interviews where you see people talking about, ‘I went to every open mic, everything, we had to start our own thing, we had to start our own clubs, we had to give back,’ it just feels very reminiscent of what the good parts of hip-hop are and I think that’s why we keep doing it.”
It wasn’t until he met Swiggle Mandela a year ago, Figure 8 says, that he found the scene and the community he was looking for. Where the Detroit scene was competitive and he was already something of a celebrity—if also something of a novelty act—in Portland he found a scene more focused on collaboration and mentoring.
“When I came here, Swiggle was really the one that told me, ‘Are you even making music you want to listen to?’ I was like, ‘No.’ ‘Well, maybe you should try that.’”
Born Mandela Cordeta, Swiggle Mandela grew up mostly in Portland, with stints in California and Estacada. He turned 29 at the end of October, and celebrated by releasing a 29-song album called Portlandsterdam and hosting a 17-act showcase at the Bit House Saloon, one of the venues he says has been consistently open to booking him and like-minded acts.
Like Figure 8, Mandela started rapping as a kid. He formed the collective known as La Familia Gang Music when he was 16. It’s a loose-knit, rotating group of rappers, producers, videographers, photographers and graphic designers dedicated to creating together and supporting and promoting each other’s work. About 20 people currently belong, with 10 being heavy participants.
Shop La Familia came out of a conversation with Jeffrey Ta, who has run Umbrella Screenprinting out of the basement space on Lombard for five years.
“I had just wanted to meet somebody who could do my shirts,” Mandela says. When he saw the space—which is expansive enough that Ta occasionally rented it out for baby showers, birthday parties or as a workout space—Mandela asked if he wanted to do more with it.
Shop La Familia opened this January. It acts as both a retail and gallery space for artists selling CDs, shirts, paintings or prints, but there are no set hours: individual collective members help run the shop as their schedules permit.
Initially, the space functioned as a venue, but was almost immediately a victim of its own success, Mandela says, with the space filling up quickly as word spread. “When 75 people came at once [to a show this spring], we were like, ‘This is great, but we need an actual venue for these type of things,” he says.
Since then Mandela and other members of the collective have booked shows elsewhere, but have cultivated the shop as a retail space and gallery, and also as a place for small collaborations. Every Sunday, a small group of artists gathers to record content, to rap, to do interviews or take photos. They’ve even done comedy skits and shot joke commercials for the store. “We pretty much just create. There’s not even any boundaries with what we do,” Mandela says.
At any given time a few of Booker W. Taylor III’s portraits and prints are on display and available for sale at Shop La Familia. He paints local artists and entrepreneurs, including Mandela and Brian Walden, the owner of the local clothing line Black Mannequin as well as the recently departed rapper and entrepreneur Nipsey Hussle. Taylor mostly paints in acrylic, but has begun to dabble in oil, and also offers prints of his work to make it available at a lower price point. Taylor is 38 and has three children. He’s made visual art his whole life and started thinking of himself as an artist in eighth grade, but joined the Army after finishing high school in Virginia because “I didn’t want to be that starving artist.” He “hibernated” his artistic inclinations for nearly 20 years, but started painting in his dining room about a year ago and immediately went to work showing and selling his art.
“I wanted to live my life as an artist, but there were things I needed to prove to myself first, before I came into the public,” he says. Taylor, who paused his interview to give his two-year-old son a bottle in the Shop La Familia space, says he began pursuing art in earnest to show his children that they can pursue their dreams at any age.
“Right now I’m focusing on Portland — you know, like the movers and shakers in Portland and just the revolutionary pioneers that we have in the city. And I really want to display their contributions to our culture through art,” Taylor says.
“Everyone’s so independent in themselves, and they work so hard on themselves and that’s what makes it such a good team,” says Avery, a 21-year-old rapper who grew up in Portland, moved to Missouri and, in his words, “got into trouble there” and did time in prison before returning to Portland. He started making music while he was locked up, and he says Figure 8 saw a fire in him and encouraged him to start working toward his goals. “Now we’re best friends and we work on almost everything together,” Avery says.
Figure 8, in turn, counts Mandela as a mentor, and Mandela says he was mentored by veteran Portland rapper Mic Crenshaw. Mandela has in turn served as a mentor to Figure 8, Sam Cyph and Micah Fletcher, who released an album, Brink of Distinction, with Crenshaw earlier this year. “I’m the older brother playing the role,” Mandela says. “They all take lessons.”
Fletcher rapped with Mandela onstage at the Portlandsterdam release party, after being called to the stage and introduced by Mandela as a hero: “He’ll never say that shit. That’s why I be sayin’ it for him.”
As Fletcher balked, Mandela told the story that made Fletcher the subject of national media attention two years ago. In May 2017, he intervened when a man who’d frequented Patriot Prayer-led protests began shouting at two young Black girls on a MAX train. Along with two other men, he was stabbed attempting to help; unlike them, he survived.
“See, the thing that we gotta understand that’s so historic about what Swiggle, what Shrista [a Portland comic and rapper who served as the party’s emcee]…what so many people have been able to establish in this town is this—hold up y’all, listen to this for a minute. This, these are your friends. This is it,” Mandela said, gesturing around the room. “Them motherfuckers don’t care about you. They don’t care about me. So it’s up to us to help keep this shit held down and together, to protect each other when it comes to the bullshit. Because the bullshit is coming. And I can fuckin’ promise you that.”
Figure 8 grew up in Detroit. He started rapping when he was a kid living on the streets of Detroit, entering rap battles when he was eight years old.
“That’s how I got my name. They would be like, ‘I brought an eight-year-old kid here to rap battle. He’s gonna beat your dude.’ And that’s how I got my name. They would just be like, ‘He’s eight. Come on, like, he’s eight years old, like, he’s gonna win and he’s eight?’” Figure 8 says.
Figure 8 struggled to find a hip-hop community when he first arrived in Portland. Part of that was his age: he’s 22 now, but before he turned 21, finding spaces that would host all-ages shows was a perennial problem.
Compounding that is Portland’s reputation as a city unfriendly to hip-hop, Black forms of music and Black club patrons. In 2015 a nightclub owner named Rodney DeWalt sued the city and the Oregon Liquor Control Commission. alleging a pattern of discrimintation against Black club owners and against clubs featuring hip-hop in particular. DeWalt’s liquor license was pulled immediately after a 2013 shooting on the premises. In September Judge John V. Acosta threw out the case, but DeWalt has appealed and is due to file a brief in the new year.
This summer Portland nightclub owner Chris Lenehan settled a lawsuit alleging he sought to limit the number of Black patrons in his clubs for an undisclosed amount of money. That suit was brought by show promoter Sam Thompson, who was there to host a birthday party, but was turned away at the door for wearing red sneakers and a sweatshirt in violation of the dress code. That code prohibits “overly matching” clothing in certain colors at Dirty, one of five clubs Lenehan owned or co-owned at the time. Before the settlement club staff were expected to testify that Lenehan directed staff to enforce quotas on the number of Black people who were permitted through the door.
Thompson, like DeWalt, is Black and is a former nightclub owner—his club, Seeznin’s on 82nd Avenue, lost its liquor license following a shooting in the parking lot and ultimately closed. According to court filings the city has pulled liquor licenses as a reaction to violence just five times in 10 years, and twice against Black business owners: Thompson and DeWalt. African Americans make up slightly less than 6 percent of Portland’s population. Acosta’s September ruling said that isn’t a sufficient sample size to show evidence of discrimination and the attorney representing the city and OLCC have said the public safety concern justified the emergency suspension.
Lenehan was also part owner of Splash Ultra Lounge, which still books hip-hop acts, and the Paris Theatre, which frequently booked hip-hop acts but abruptly shuttered at the beginning of October “due to a variety of structural, safety and liability issues,” according to a post on the club’s Facebook page picked up by the Portland Mercury.
“It’s not that Portland doesn’t like rap. People used to tell me that: ‘Well, they don’t book big rap shows here because they don’t like it.’ It’s just literally not the case,” Figure 8 says. “It’s just, the people who own this city, the buildings, they don’t—they don’t care.”
His hope is to help turn the store into a space that will put Portland on the map. Mandela has worked as a full-time artist—paying the rent with music, extra work and acting gigs—since 2018, and Figure 8, who says he previously held management roles at Federal Express and at a sex-toy factory, has supported himself through music since March 2018. Avery works part-time at a bar and grill in Clackamas; Taylor works full-time in quality assurance, but is developing a small business called Bloodline Revolution with his brother.
“Until more and more people like us just get their own space entirely—because we can all pool money together and rent out a space every month no matter what—but like, we’re not really doing anything for our community until we can give that space, like have it yourself,” Figure 8 says. “Because we’re still just funneling the money back into the people who were screwing us anyway.”