In my new series, I will be talking with local artists and creators about their projects and experience being an artist in Portland and how that impacts their interactions with the community. Last week I had the privilege to speak with Randal Wyatt, a Portland rapper and activist working against the rampant gentrification of Portland’s black communities. Here is our conversation:
Ellie: Thank you for sitting down with me, I’m really excited to talk with you. First we can just start with a quick introduction of yourself and what your position is in the Portland community.
Randal: My name is Randal Wyatt, I am a Portland native, born and raised. I grew up in southeast Portland, which was more of a white area growing up in the 90s, but still more diverse than it is today. I also spent about half of my childhood in northeast Portland which was definitely a lot more diverse, actually more of a black area when I was growing up there. I’m a father of twin teenage boys, I play in a six-piece funk-soul-hip hop band called Speaker Minds I started back in 2010, I have a solo career under my name Randal Wyatt, and as of June I started an organization (soon to be nonprofit) called Taking Ownership PDX.”
E: I know when my dad started rapping, and just even growing his vocabulary to rhyme and rap was a whole new world. He’s really into the poetry aspect of rap and being able to spread knowledge in a way that young people can connect with. Do you think that outside of school, rap was the next step for you to really be like, “holy shit, there are all of these levels and within a single bar I can unpack a huge set of ideas”? I guess, what did hip-hop do for you in realizing you can connect and speak to all these different communities?
R: Aw man, hip-hop is the complete foundation for all my success as an adult. Literally, it has been how I have been able to communicate with my community, my nitch into community activism and outreach. I’ve used hip hop as a tool to throw benefit concerts, clothing drives for the homeless, I’ve taught rhythm and poetry workshops which have gotten me jobs as a school counselor and mentor for black and brown youth in the judicial system. Hip hop has led me down so many paths, it’s the reason I had the platform to start Taking Ownership PDX. Because I’ve done all the activism I’ve done through hip hop, people were able to trust me, they knew me. The community trusted me to send me $10,000 in a week on my Venmo. They knew I wouldn’t just pocket that, I could’ve easily pocketed that. I didn’t have any obligation but the community trusted me because of the message that’s in my music. Because I acted on those messages in my music. For me, I’m not great with speaking, I have done a couple of speeches in my day but I have severe anxiety, but something about having a beat behind me. It feels like a premeditated poem that I wrote, it helps me to voice myself a lot better as opposed to just sitting somewhere and speaking. Plus it’s fun!
E: What music do you remember listening to when you were younger that made you want to make your own?
R: I’ll never forget, I remember the exact album that made me think like, “oh I can rap, I can actually do this.” I grew up listening to gangster rap because I have two older brothers, one that was much older than me who listened to the early 90s shit I love today. The Native Tongues, De La Soul, Tribe Called Quest, Wu Tang Clan, all that shit and he was always trying to put me on to that but then my other brother, who was just a couple years older than me, was listening to bay area, gangster rap and I was trying to be like him. So I really only listened to that or at least claimed to only listen to that, but that really didn’t speak to me because that’s not who I am. When I listened to Talib Kweli and Dj Hi-Tek’s group Reflection Eternal “Train of Thought” album, and I heard his rhymes in that, that’s when I was like “oh shit, you can actually rap about this stuff.” Then Common and Black Star and so many other albums that made me go down a rabbit hole and I got with a crew in high school that was listening to the same stuff I was, and that’s what really turned me onto the style of rap that I do today.
E: With those artists, that’s what my dad was playing in the morning on the way to school and when I would hear it as a little kid it was like “what is going on this is so boring,” but I didn’t realize he was planting these seeds that I’m now old enough to understand. Like now revisiting it and going down my own rabbit hole, looking into Talib Kweli and realizing I know so many songs and diving into the material and meaning is a whole different experience. Like I take pride in loving Common, Kanye West, Talib Kweli, but it’s really my parents that got me into all that stuff. A lot of this underground rap is super underrated now with all the new stuff coming out, in this subgenre you have layers upon layers in each verse and really deep ideas. I know my dad loves J Cole, he loves Kendrick, what kind of, if any, new music are you listening to?
R: Yeah, lately I’ve really been diving into some new stuff, and it’s not all positive. I’ve learned to take everything I can from music, I really just want to support black music or BI-POC music I should say, ’cause it’s not all black people, but I would say I like to listen to definitely Kendrick, he’s one of my favorites. I like J. Cole a lot too, I’ve been diving into his stuff too, I also listen to Saba from Chicago. Growing up though, it’s funny, one of my favorite groups was Three 6 Mafia, which is the horrorcore of rap, it’s not really any expansive lyrics or anything but beats and the style was unique, so I listen to a lot of stuff for that too. I understand it can be influential on people in a negative way, but that’s not what’s causing the issues in our society. So I listen to a lot of new stuff like that but it’s pretty random. It’s the old stuff that feeds my soul, but the new stuff is like a snack. I really can’t do the autotune though.
E: Yeah one of the things I don’t think people understand about the hip hop and rap community is that it’s a universe of sounds and messages. I know a lot of parents tell their kids to just not listen to rap music because of the stuff that’s on the radio or groups like Three 6 Mafia, but there is so much more than that. What do you think when you’re talking with your sons or other kids about these messages that can be harmful and where that influence can take them?
R: I always tell young people getting into music that you gotta stay true to yourself. Don’t try to do what everyone else is doing, especially if it doesn’t feel natural. You want to pioneer a sound, that’s what’s going to set you apart. When it comes to like, some of that negative stuff, historically I’ve been against it. I mean I’ve listened to it but I think my only issue with that is I just wish those types of artists would put a release out to the young people saying “hey there are consequences for the shit that I’m talking about.” Like the glorification of it is negative, when talking about dealing drugs or talking about shooting other people who are in the same struggle and all that, it can be fun to listen to but we gotta talk about how it’s just for entertainment. There are consequences and it’s not just something that they want everybody else to be doing, this is just their story. So that’s the big thing when I’m working with students or doing my workshops, like yeah they’re talking about that and it sounds good it’s good music but now that a lot of them aren’t actually living that lifestyle anymore and that lifestyle has huge consequences. I wish artists would be a little more vulnerable and just be like, “look, this is my style this is what I’m doing, but real talk in real life, y’all gotta know this is not the route.” I do get concerned for our youth, especially our black and brown youth because these are the people they’re looking up to. Where are our positive black and brown role models? We need more of those. We know the music industry is producing these types of artists, especially the really young ones but I just wish these rappers would show their roles as husbands and fathers. We need to humanize these rappers
“Hip hop is the complete foundation for all my success as an adult.”- Randal Wyatt on the impact hip hop had on his career as an activist. Image: Willamette Week article
E: Yeah I think that the rap industry profits so heavily on these two-dimensional artists who only rap about women and drugs and money when in reality there is so much more there. I want to pivot back to your introduction and another big part of your life right now which is the organization Taking Ownership PDX. What is it all about?
R: We raise money and we have volunteers that do anything from cleanup jobs and landscaping to some that are actually licensed, bonded, and insured in the trades. What we do is we go around to repair and renovate black-owned homes and businesses free of charge to them. It’s actually been very successful.
E: How much Taking Ownership has grown since June…is insane. Like you said it’s been very successful. My question for you would be what inspired you to take this project on in the middle of Corona–and the middle of the Black Lives Matter movement, which seems like such a daunting time to do anything?
R: Honestly I don’t think this would’ve happened at any other time, I think the timing was impeccable. I’ve been preparing for this for my entire adult life. I was very outspoken and radical as a teenager too, I just didn’t really have the guidance yet, you know? What inspired me was I have been talking about this stuff, like I said, my entire adult life and in my music. Being outspoken and having the platform that I created with my music and currently finishing my Bachelor’s degree in black studies and social science made me have a lot of people reach out to me after the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmud Arbery asking how they could be stronger allies to the black community, and I told them, “well, give us your money, real talk”
E: Yeah, definitely.
R: That’s what it comes down to, you know? You can say sorry all you want for your ancestor’s part in oppression and economic exclusion, but really it doesn’t mean shit because the damage is done. Even though people think all that shit happened a long time ago, it really didn’t. When certain people, because of the color of their skin, have a two to three hundred year head start, on property ownership, on economic opportunities, then obviously there is some equity that needs to happen in order for us to level the playing field.
R: So for those of you who have that privilege of getting handed down property or being born into a family with disposable income, share some of that with some of us who didn’t because of the color of our skin, or whatever it may be–sexual orientation, all kinds of things. I learned from my studies that the fastest way to building generational wealth is through property ownership and keeping your property, which has been the most difficult part for the black community in Portland, especially in Portland because we are the whitest city in America. I figured, “let’s put our money together and figure out how we can help the black home and business owner community keep their property and keep it maintained so that the city will stay off their ass, and so that these now white communities that were once black communities stay off their ass” because that’s how this all happens really. White people move in, they see black homes that may not be kept to their standards and then they complain about them, and then the city comes out and puts liens on their homes and fines, and then that leads to displacement over time.
E: It’s really scary to watch how many places, especially in north Portland are flipped in a matter of ten years. You can literally see white families move into homes that used to belong to black families, simultaneously putting up a “Black Lives Matter” yard sign while saying sorry to the family they pretty much just displaced. It’s hard to watch and not say “wait but you’re literally feeding the cycle.”
R: Yeah, the disinvestment in actually helping the black community–they’re not putting money into the black communities when they’re still black. They’re buying the homes from them and then tearing them down to build these huge condominiums and then raising the property taxes. That then goes into the unemployment and underemployment rates for black people and the role that plays as well. There’s redlining and predatory lending, there are so many aspects to this. That’s another thing we tackle, we advocate and make sure the families we serve aren’t falling victim to some of these things.
E: Yeah, and you just mentioned you’re getting your degree right now, working on educating yourself which is also another layer of disparity for much of the black community. I’ve had the privilege to go to a private school my whole life and learn about where I live and the opportunities around me, then my dad teaches at Ockley Green middle school where there aren’t nearly as many people who care about them and their ability to understand what’s going on in their own communities. Nobody is giving those kids the knowledge they need to then build their community and combat the gentrification around them. Most of my classmates don’t even know that the state of Oregon made it so black people could not live here for decades, and then they wonder “hmm where are all the black people.” That’s a huge part of it, accessibility to a quality education.
R: I think that’s honestly the biggest part. The fact is that our society has been set up to basically get us into debt. It’s a society that wants us to be victims to their predatory ways, so that’s why that education about property and wealth and taxes isn’t in our curriculums, and that’s unfortunate. I feel like when we graduate high school, we should all damn near be lawyers. We should know all the laws, we should be bankers, we should know how all the banking systems work but instead, they’re teaching us about George Washington.
E: Definitely. Education is where it all starts. Where do you see yourself in and Taking Ownership PDX in the next five years?
R: I’m glad you said that because how I just got my house is really interesting and kind of plays into my upcoming plans. A woman reached out to me through Taking Ownership and said she owned a house in a historically black neighborhood and wanted to sell it to a POC and she didn’t want to make any money off of it. So I got really lucky because she sold it to me for what was left on the mortgage, which is really unheard of outside of family. With that, in the next couple of years, I might build ADU in the back and rent it out to make some passive income that will free me up to focus on my art again. With Taking Ownership, I’m getting things in place for it to be really sustainable. Once I get my 501 (C) (3) status, we will have the option for recurring donations since people have been asking me about that. With that guaranteed income, we can become more sustainable and stick with more families over time. I would love to create more black homeowners, that’s the next campaign I’m trying to do with the woman that sold me this house. It’s a big part of my mission to bring the black community back to Portland.
E: Before we wrap up I want to give you a chance to let any readers know how they can help out Taking Ownership and your music.
R: Yeah definitely, we are always fundraising. That’s a big thing is getting donations and allocating them to the black community, so people can always donate at our website: https://takingownershippdx.com/ . We just posted some new videos with testimonials from some of the families we’ve helped that I would love for people to check out and people can also donate materials, and if they’re licensed bonded, and insured they can even donate their labor. People can also check out my music on all streaming platforms under my name Randal Wyatt or my group Speakerminds!
E: Thank you so much, I can’t wait to connect with you later on to see how everything is going!