They say to never look a gift horse in the mouth, but we all know what happened in Troy.
For the better part of 3 weeks, I’ve been contemplating, discussing, writing and re-writing my thoughts about this Thurday’s upcoming first annual Hip Hop Day in Portland. A really simple concept, Hip Hop Day was announced by the mayor as a day to recognize rap culture in the City of Portland.
“I am so excited to have Portland hip-hop artists in City Hall. One of the things I love about this city is the creative energy we bring to everything we do,” said Mayor Charlie Hales. “When The Decemberists launched their album in City Hall, we saw how there could be creativity in civic engagement. With the help of our wonderful partners StarChile and DJ O.G.ONE, we’re going to have some of Portland’s top hip-hop artists perform in City Hall, honoring hip-hop as an important piece of our identity as a city—and hopefully bringing people to City Hall who’ve never been here before.”
Bringing out artists like Vinnie Dewayne, Mic Capes, Jon Belz, DJ Wels, Juggernaut and Lady X to rock a free show at City Hall is a great look for all involved. And that’s about where the simplicity ends.
Immediately after word slipped out – on Facebook, of all places – justified criticisms of the event emerged. Feelings were hurt, and people were divided. Activists – a notoriously strong collective in Portland who have traditionally supported hip-hop – accused the rappers involved of “selling out”, even though they’re not being paid. Long time hip-hop artists found themselves out of the loop and questioned the authenticity of the event. The politically conscious accused Hales of political pandering just before an election period. Moderates asked questions: What are we celebrating? Why October 15th? What’s the city committing to with this holiday? How does this help the economy of local artists?
“I believe, first and foremost, it’s a huge opportunity to put Portland Hip Hop on a bigger platform in the city. This isn’t only about us as individuals but we are representing every artist, journalist, DJ, producer, videographer, etcetera who have worked their asses off to get Portland Hip Hop to the level it is now,” says Mic Capes on his decision to participate in the festivities. “People should support this because if you are really about the scene of hip hop here, you know this is bigger than any one individual and we need to show up in droves to show that the unity is real. This isn’t about Hales, this is about OUR culture WE have built. What side of history do you want to be on?”
Mic has a point. On one hand, things have been relatively peaceful for rappers in town. After Vice and Buzzfeed penned articles – in 2013 and 2014, respectively – spotlighting the city’s beleaguered relationship with hip-hop, 2015 has been relatively quiet. High profile closures a la Beauty Bar and Blue Monk are well in the past, and police commissioner Hales’ general tactic of “DO NOT ENGAGE” has kept the political hostility relatively low. At the same time of course, gentrification – which is now being recognized as a “housing crisis” – continues to move a significant portion of the minority and lower-middle class population out of the city limits. Once a city where suburban youth had to venture into the city to find rap music, it’s become increasingly common for urbanites to venture to the ‘burbs for their rap fix. To many, celebrating hip hop in the midst of a minority exodus has the same appeal as the Malcolm X mural that so ironically graces prototypically-gentrified Alberta Street.
In some ways this parallels the criticisms of Monday’s Indigenous People’s Day. Too little too late, some say. But it is something.
In the opinion of this editor, this Hip Hop Day is definitely a political move by the Mayor’s Office, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t attend it. It’s genius PR really; in the midst of relative peace, declare a holiday for a minority population and claim victory. Justice be damned. People will show up whether the rap community supports it or not and the mayor gets his press photos. But think about it, if someone is going to pander to you, the least you can do is make some requests.
Hip Hop in Portland is far from safe, and if the Mayor is going to invite us to City Hall, why not take that opportunity to show up and address concerns? We all want to support the artists involved, so let’s do that in a way that’s productive. Bring signs. Talk to city officials. Provide personal examples and individual experiences. My hope is that the artists take this same opportunity to speak to the issues that we all experience, and put some pressure on the powers that be to commit to further change… because things are getting better, but we’re a long way from the goal. Let’s flip this thing in our favor.
As Jon Belz put it, “Anytime a group – whether a musical genre or a group of people – can be recognized is huge. Hip-Hop has always fought for a place in music. For the city of Portland to recognize that struggle, and give a day to those who are active in it, says a lot about the people who live here and the support we hope is true. The Hip Hop pioneers of Portland are due all the credit for the groundwork. As an artist I’m just glad I get to enjoy it with fellow creatives. Stand up one time. Create & connect! This day is to be built upon. Don’t waste it.”
The truth is not always pretty – in fact, it’s often downright frustrating – but like Belz, I’d hate to see an opportunity like this go to waste. Here we have an open-ended invitation to descend on City Hall and do what hip-hop was originally intended for, to uplift and speak the truths of our undervalued community. Let’s cash in on it and make it about what matters to us.