BEING BLACK AND BROWN, especially in this town, can be exhausting. Instead of feeling defeated, six artists came together to create an intentional, unapologetic space for people of color in Portland to connect, dance, and heal. At the intersection of art, entertainment, and social justice was born Y.G.B.—a collective that turns one year old this week and has made a wonderful habit of reveling in the beauty of melanin. I sat down with Natalie Figueroa, a Boricua from Chicago and one-sixth of the team behind Y.G.B., to talk vibes, community, and intersectionality.
After Figueroa and Vaughn Kimmons (who performs as Brown Alice) began the search for Portland clubs that played the sounds of their ’90s youth—house, hip-hop, and R&B—they quickly realized that something was missing. Though venues promised hip-hop nights on ads spattered with the faces (and bodies) of black women, the crowds and DJs were largely white.
“We’d go to these places and people would stare at us or mimic our dance moves. It was like being watched, but then ignored at the exact same time,” Figueroa says. “We wanted to create a space where all of the artists were black and brown and was explicit in who [the space] was for.” Now before y’all cry out reverse racism—which is not real—she continues, “While everyone is welcome, we needed to create a space where we could share our art, music, culture, and stories rather than letting somebody else talk for us.”
Y.G.B, which stands for Young, Gifted, and Brown or Black (depending on who’s speaking), pairs live performances from the likes of Brown Alice and Akela Jaffi—a dancer, singer, and Portland native—with rotating acts. DJ Lamar LeRoy is the resident DJ, hailing from the Detroit area with 10 years in this city where he’s shared bills with acts like Jazzy Jeff. Renée Lopez organizes a photo booth and documents the events, while Young Matthew provides visuals.
With a $5-7 cover, accessibility is key. “We would love to make the party free,” Figueroa explains, “but we have to pay artists who participate because that’s also really important. When you set a tone of $10-20 for an event, you are silently telling poor people that they are not welcome.”
The sweat-soaked monthly nights at Killingsworth Dynasty have quickly become a staple for brown folks in search of safe, welcoming spaces. When asked about the importance of carving out spaces for people of color and the decision to prioritize them on the guest list, Figueroa elaborates on the healing nature and sense of community rooted in music.
“This is more than just a party,” she says. “Music is how we connect. Though we’ve let [music] become commodified, it has been given to us by our ancestors and has to be honored as such. I need to be in rooms with other people who also feel these connections.”
The guest list isn’t about elitism, but rather what Figueroa constantly refers to as “vibes maintenance.” “The party ain’t shit without the people. We need people of color inside to maintain that vibe of freedom—the idea that black and brown people come first.” Given the current political climate and spotlight on the Black Lives Matter movement, she stresses, “Our communities are healing right now and so much of what we’re doing is created out of love, not exclusivity. We’ve chosen to give extra love to a community that gets very little love.”
Figueroa cites her Chicago upbringing as the force behind her drive to create Y.G.B. in the first place. “I grew up in a really diverse neighborhood in terms of race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status with so many people living out their creativity. I got used to and spoiled by that. I got to Portland, an ‘artsy city,’ but there was only one type of art.”
With a mix of Portland natives and transplants behind Y.G.B., I ask how this affects their approach when trying to connect with the already-established black community and lifelong residents here. Rather than creating a space solely for transplants, Y.G.B. can be looked at as a bridge between the two.
“I came feeling very lonely and didn’t know where my community was,” Figueroa says, remembering her 2009 arrival in Portland. “I didn’t know that I needed to go to Gresham to buy the ingredients for the food that I ate growing up. Our greatest mission is always to connect new black and brown folks together, and creating this party was a way that we could connect to the community that has been here.” To maintain this connection, Y.G.B. pushes for word-of-mouth awareness and specifically invites Portland natives to perform and be featured artists. She explains, “We didn’t want to create something that felt like it didn’t belong to Portland.”
After a year of working with Killingsworth Dynasty, Y.G.B. is looking to expand their reach—specifically with artists of all ages and gender expressions. “We started Y.G.B. as a party because that’s what I have experience in operating, but our goal is to always do the next thing and transform alongside the community.” The collective has recently held a string of daytime parties and will be collaborating alongside the women of DUG for a showcase at PICA’s Time-Based Art Festival this year. They’re also rolling out an event for youth in October.
With growth come struggles, from selling the idea of a POC-centric space to having to field questions about gang affiliation (for real). However, Figueroa explains that the biggest challenge has been “trying to hold steady and resist the push to be absorbed by the dominant culture,” but trusts that with explicit language for the intention of the events and the booking the right artists that the atmosphere of love and connectivity at the heart of Y.G.B. will remain.