LEAVE IT TO rapper/activist Glenn Waco to work toward lifting up the women of Portland hip-hop, even after relocating to Long Beach, California. The third installment of his We Take Holocene summer jam series will showcase four artists from the "Portland Female Cypher," a continuous freestyle video featuring Blossom, Karma Rivera, Alia Zin, and the cypher's organizer, Vytell.And no, Waco won't be performing a set.
"It's all them," he says. "I'm not getting paid or anything. I'm trying to put people in a position to make moves."
Waco says he will, however, make a cameo performance during his girlfriend Zin's set.
While dudes tend to be critiqued on their lyrics, rap skills, and stage presence, female artists are pressured to pay attention to other aspects of their performance. Zin nails it in these lines from the "Portland Female Cypher":
"I don't give a fuck about blood diamonds on your wristwatch. I'm pissed off, double standards have me sitting fucking crisscrossed. Gotta keep an hourglass while you niggas look like Rick Ross."
Being part of Portland's tight-knit hip-hop scene presents unique challenges for women—unwanted attention from their male counterparts (under the guise of professionalism), drama brought on by too-obvious sub-tweets, the pressure to be sexy but not a ho. Still, these four ladies are the antithesis of how popular culture often portrays female friendships—they vary in experience, style, and personality, but they're united by their mutual support. Rather than waste time competing, they celebrate each other's differences.
While conceptualizing the "Portland Female Cypher" music video last year, rapper/singer Vytell attended the Thesis' all-women show at Kelly's Olympian, where she watched an impressive rookie set by then-underaged Zin.
"I met her and I was like, 'Yo, there's not enough lane for women in Portland. The only name I hear is Blossom... I don't think it's fair,'" Vytell says.
Born Vanessa Tello, Vytell is originally from Los Angeles but grew up in McMinnville. While she's the least experienced of the four performance-wise, she's rich in life experience, leadership skills, and DIY prowess. As a fresh new face to the scene, Vytell wanted to create a platform to elevate herself and others into the conversation.
"I literally just kind of was like, 'Well, I'm not going to get people to cosign me by riding someone else's coattails. So what I'm gonna do is I'm actually just going to make my entire own lane. And I'm going to put everyone else that's already doing stuff in my thing,'" she says, "so that way people are like, 'Well wait, who is she?'"
After unsuccessfully attempting to get the Last Artful, Dodgr involved, Vytell looked to Karma Rivera, a Chicago-born rapper who at the time was living in Vancouver, Washington.
"I listened and I thought, 'How diverse of a group could I put in a cypher?'" Vytell remembers.
The resulting black-and-white video—produced by Stewart Villain and shot by V1Creative—features each woman sitting on a stool, fiercely performing her verse before spinning the camera to the next performer. The video was a success: It highlighted Portland's small but deep pool of talent, and provided some much-needed visibility.
Vytell moved to Southern California just seven days after "Cypher" was shot, but she's still "vytell" to Portland's scene. Since moving to LA, she's been grinding—getting her feet wet in live performances and working in the studio with big names like the Game. In anticipation of the Holocene show, she recently released the laidback track "We Can Make It" on SoundCloud. She's currently working on a mixtape created exclusively from YouTube beats, and is passionate about making music that's for and from the people. We Take Holocene will mark her first-ever Portland show, and her longest set (30 minutes) to date.
Zin has also been making moves down in Long Beach where she now lives, and has even linked up with Vytell at events. Her forthcoming debut album, Wiccan, will appropriately debut in October. Meanwhile she's working on a visual project for her upcoming single, "Bruja" (Spanish for "witch"). Zin has long had an interest in the widely misunderstood religion since her mom had several books about Wicca around the house.
"I am comfortable saying that I'm a witch," says Zin. "Wicca is something where I feel like I can really be myself but also connect with a higher being and higher spirits, so that's what I like about it."
Growing up, Zin moved around a lot—she's lived in Salem, Portland, Hawaii, Las Vegas, and several cities in California—so she considers the entire West Coast her home. Like her interest in Wicca, her passion for music was fostered by her home environment, which filled her ears with rock 'n' roll legends like Stevie Nicks. Her spellbinding, raspy voice packs her rhymes with raw material and meaning—and she doesn't hold back.
"All the tracks that I'm bringing up with me for the Holocene show... Portland hasn't heard them yet," she says.
But maybe—hopefully—we'll still get to hear "Sorrows of Sandra," a powerful storytelling track featuring Blossom that details too-common instances of police brutality, particularly toward women of color.
"I think the most exciting part is gonna be reconnecting with all the girls and hearing what they've been working on in the meantime since we've all been doing our own thing," Zin says. "Showcasing again that there are women in Portland that are talented. 'Cause I feel like there are a lot of men in Portland in the rap scene, so to showcase that there are women as well, I think that's exciting."
While Vytell and Zin now support Portland from a distance, the other two ladies from the Cypher are content to stay in Portland for the foreseeable future.
Now with a sweet spot in Southwest Portland, Rivera's loving the vibe and the Oregon air. "I'm so grateful to live here," says the 26-year-old emcee. "I'm going to stay here."
That's right, y'all—she's Dame Lillard-ing us. Rivera grew up in Chicago before moving to Vancouver when she was 13. While her onstage persona might create the illusion of intimidation, she's actually an introverted computer nerd who loves the stage. She studied digital technology and creative media at Washington State, and started making music in 2013 after repeated visits to the studio to help with a friend's project. With a timbre that's slightly reminiscent of Left Eye, Rivera attacks the mic with a dynamic, conversational flow.
"I love performing. I make music just to perform," says Rivera. "I really go in."
After rocking a set at the Thesis, Rivera took a year off from music and performing. Right now she's still getting back in rotation, creating and playing with beats that people send her and planning her next visual project. Last month she released "Tacos & Tequila," produced by T.K. Dorian and mixed by Jordan Cruz.
"If you listen to my past shit, that's just what I was on at the time. I feel like I've progressed," she says.
When it comes to the local scene, no woman is more established in Portland than neo-soul singer Blossom. The (almost) 27-year-old Trinidadian artist first moved to the Pacific Northwest when she was six, and at this point doesn't see any reason to leave. After auditioning, signing a contract, and spending a year making music as part of the girl group Elem Seven in LA, Blossom was over it—she decided she could do much better on her own.
For the past three years, Blossom has been building her brand in Portland, racking up an expansive résumé of jazz, reggae, and soul-inspired performances all over town. She's also known to hop on stage to perform alongside a slew of rappers and is signed to the Portland-based label EYRST. At the Holocene show, we can look forward to hearing her smooth, soothing voice perform the '90s-sounding "Love's Comin Atcha," and her newest single, "Black Magic Woman," which is produced by Mikey Fountaine.
"I think this is going to be a big first for girls coming together, and not competing," Blossom says. "It's literally like: 'We're some girls and we want to put on a show for you guys.' And we want to put our unity out there. This is not... we're not into playing your game of like, 'the best' of anything. We just want to be."