Portland’s War on Hip Hop

Dear Portland,

In the last month, your police department and fire marshal’s office have united to target and preemptively silence artists—primarily minority artists—in your city. This isn’t conspiracy theory or second-hand gossip: this is repeated and overt action, paid for by your tax dollars, on behalf of the city of Portland. Shows at small, struggling venues like Blue Monk and Kelly’s Olympian have had their capacities drastically reduced in the days or even hours before local hip-hop shows, and officers have stood watch both inside and outside the venues to intimidate artists and show-goers.

These actions have not come in response to violent incidents or code violations at shows—there have been no accusations, that we’re aware of, leveled at these venues or artists—and they are not part of a larger campaign to police Portland nightlife. They are part of a systematic attempt to silence local hip-hop artists.

Hip-hop is easy to target, in Portland, because hip-hop is isolated. The extent to which this can be blamed on ignorant or racist institutions is a debate that has raged within the local hip-hop community for years—it’s a debate that’s just now being taken seriously by many of us outside that bubble. But it’s clear that there are other factors at play here, as well: reluctance from local venues to host hip-hop shows, the steady dispersal of Portland’s black community to the fringes of the city, and perhaps most damningly, disinterest from local music enthusiasts who may question the authenticity of hip-hop made in their own back yard.

But Portland, the truth is that your hip-hop has never been as vital, as urgent, and indeed as authentic as it is in this moment. Against a backdrop of rampant gentrification and an increasingly myopic, whitewashed civic self-image, a new generation of young artists are challenging notions of what this city looks like, sounds like, and what it believes in. This is art. And the city is beginning to listen. We suspect that this is precisely why these crackdowns are happening now.

So we’re asking a few favors of you, Portland.

Venues and bookers: We ask you to diversify your bills. Recognize that the local music scene extends beyond the pale confines of genre, and that when you refuse entire modes of expression, you refuse diversity—and we will refuse to support you for those oversights. Mix genres. Mix communities. Be brave. We are ready, and we are watching.

Members of the press: What’s happening to local musicians—largely musicians of color who often speak on topics this city’s police force would rather not confront—is real, and it is the most significant culture story in Portland today. We ask you to be vigilant, and to stay on this story. We need you to ask hard questions. This isn’t just about music. We ask you to reject the convenient narrative that being the whitest city in America excuses Portland’s media outlets from talking about race.

Portland music fans: We know your tastes are bigger than marketing campaigns full of ukuleles and beards would make them out to be. We know you are adventurous. We know you have some Kanye in your playlists. We only ask you to approach your local scene with the same open-mindedness and excitement that you approach the national scene. You’ll be amazed by you find here.

Everyone: Censorship and bullying of local artists should not be tolerated. Below you will find non-emergency contact information and links to contact local police, the police review board, fire and rescue, and city representatives. We strongly encourage you to let them know that you stand with Portland hip-hop, and that targeting of specific local music venues and artists is unacceptable in a city that prides itself on its community of artists.

When a segment of this city’s music world is unfairly targeted and censored, the larger community needs to rally. We believe that this is a time for serious and immediate coalition-building, and we’re taking small steps to facilitate a new unity among local musicians from diverse backgrounds. On Wednesday, April 23, at Holocene, Party Damage will host an experimental evening of genre-agnostic music. The pop world—represented by Seattle’s Cataldo and Portland’s St. Even—will be properly introduced to Portland hip-hop—via The Resistance and Serge Severe. It won’t be Portland’s first experiment in intentionally jarring sound-mashing, but given the context, we very much hope it will facilitate new conversations between music fans of all stripes. The ACLU of Oregon will be on hand to answer questions and distribute literature. Blank, postage-paid stationery will be provided to members of the audience who wish to contact city officials and media outlets. Concert-goers are encouraged to arrive early for unmediated, free-form conversation and community building. And, you know, drinks.

Don’t worry, there won’t be any lectures. This is a party, first and foremost. You can trust us. We are Party Damage.


Casey Jarman and Party Damage Records.

Casey Jarman is Willamette Week‘s former music editor and co-founder of Party Damage Records. He currently lives in San Francisco, where he is the managing editor of The Believer.