“YES, THERE ARE BLACK PEOPLE IN PORTLAND” warrants a laugh. Not at the concept of blackness existing this far north and west in the country, but at the obviousness of it. Whenever thinking about how global blackness is, I always remember that line from Moonlight when Juan tells Chiron, “No place you can go in the world that ain’t got no black people. We were the first on this planet.” That holds true even in the land of white dreads and guilt.
Maybe that’s what Aminé was trying to remind everyone with this bright yellow billboard he debuted about a month ago in Portland. The 24-year-old rapper, who will be performing two hometown shows at the Roseland on Thursday and Friday, grew up as the son of Ethiopian and Eritrean immigrants and attended high school right around where this billboard is posted up. Now he’s easily the biggest rapper out of the Pacific Northwest since Macklemore brought back the Hitler youth haircut, bursting onto the scene with his viral hit “Caroline” in 2016, joining the 2017 XXL Freshman Class, and crafting his own visual aesthetic through his music videos.
With his beanie-capped dread-headed face and the words “Paid for by Aminé” plastered right up beside the text, Portland passerby are meant to know exactly who the fuck this sentiment is coming from. From a rapper who, at times, has seemed a bit hesitant to strongly associate himself with his PNW hometown (I only learned recently that he grew up in the same rainy and cloudy environment as I did—I thought he was from LA!). This billboard seemed like such a bold and intentional move. He’s literally inserting himself, and by extension his community, into the city. On an unmissable background to boot.
When I first saw the post on Aminé’s Instagram, I immediately clicked with the message. Growing up black in the Pacific Northwest is a unique experience and the sentiment felt relatable. But once I took a step back from the ostentatiousness of the billboard, I thought—well, wait, what does he mean? Why this statement? Why now? Is he trying to say that black people are very much a part of the culture of Portland or that black communities are major targets of gentrification and police violence? Or both? Is this lowkey an ad for his already sold-out performance in the area??? Is he just flossing his newfound wealth for everyone to see??? Has he ever watched Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri and did he think Sam Rockwell really deserved an Oscar for that particular performance?????
This billboard raised more questions than answers, and Aminé wasn't trying to speak to me either way.
From what I can tell, Aminé doesn't like to talk to the local press. He hasn’t talked to a local paper since he moved from Portland to Los Angeles and blew up. Declining to talk to the Portland Monthly for an extensive profile they ran on him last year (and also this piece I’m writing right now) and blocking the Mercury on Twitter for no apparent reason, it seemed a bit weird to me that Aminé would make this bold-ass statement and not follow up on it in any form. Like, yes, there are black people in Portland, but where you at though?
Artists certainly don’t owe anyone explanation for their art, but this billboard felt pretty targeted and specific in nature. When he 'grammed it, the caption on the photo read “Black teens are killed, arrested, and moved out of our city every week. I grew up in Portland, not Portlandia.” Given the rapid gentrification of the traditionally Black areas of North and Northeast Portland, where Aminé grew up, the recent Proud Boy violence in the city, and how “whiteness” and Portland are practically synonymous with one another, it seems as good a time as any to step up and talk about the black experience in the PNW. I guess it just feels like a missed opportunity.
And it’s not like the Seattle area is far behind Portland. In the last census, Seattle was ranked as one of the whitest big cities in the country. Demographics have certainly shifted due to more East and South Asian families moving to the region, but the black and Latino population more or less remain pretty low.
Growing up in Redmond, one of Seattle’s whitest suburbs, there was a constant painstaking awareness of difference. I was one of few black students at my high school, most of whom were also mixed race, and the casual displays of racism carried out by both students and adults really grated down my own self-esteem. It was only once I got out of Redmond that I felt comfortable in my own identity—I stopped straightening my hair and being friends with people who didn’t care to understand the multiplicity of blackness. It took stepping outside of where I came from to be able to identify where I belonged at all, which is how I ended up back here in Seattle. Maybe Aminé, after all his successes, is reckoning with how to make his home his own, too.
Because of its bluntness and ambiguity, the art critic in me thinks Aminé’s billboard is taking a cue from Jenny Holzer’s Truisms, a series of public works that have been thrust back into the popular eye in the past few years. Though he just recently revealed yet another billboard in LA with “YES, AMINÉ HAS A SHOW IN LOS ANGELES. SORRY, IT’S SOLD OUT.” It reads more of an overt flex rather than anything worth a second thought.
Like Holzer’s “ABUSE OF POWER COMES AS NO SURPRISE,” encountering Aminé’s “YES, THERE ARE BLACK PEOPLE IN PORTLAND” on your walk to get a coffee or your commute home provokes something else. A question, maybe: As opposed to what?
I'll update this post if I ever hear back from Aminé.