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Portland Hip-Hop Has Endured Racism and Commercial Obscurity. Can It Weather the City’s Endorsement?

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Swiggle Mandela, KayelaJ, and Karma Rivera are three Portland rappers making major strides in an often-overlooked scene.

On a Thursday night last September, Makayela Johnson is making over Makayela Johnson. People from high school and Facebook know her as the person who ran track, graduated valedictorian, and worked in the cafeteria at a nearby hospital. What they might not know, though, is that she’s now an up-and-coming rap star.

It’s just past 9 p.m., and she’s home from a sound check that took longer than expected. The front door of her mother’s ground-floor apartment in northeast Portland is open, and hip-hop music drifts into the room from a neighbor’s boombox. A rapper since she first performed in her second-grade talent show, Johnson just quit a graduate program in family counseling to pursue her career as KayelaJ, a queer artist who is, according to her Instagram bio, a “lyrical genius.” The decision to leave the program is so recent that, a few minutes later, her aunt asks how school is going.

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