Young, Gifted and Brown fosters community through dance in Portland

YGB aims to create healing spaces for Black and Brown Portlanders.

DJ Dirty RedDJ Dirty Red performs at a YGB event at Dig a Pony in 2018.
Ashley Anderson

Breathable air, a lack of hustle, front porches — these are some of the qualities that attract people to Portland. When Young, Gifted and Brown (YGB) co-founder Natalie Figueroa moved to Portland from Chicago almost a decade ago, it was the local custom of thanking the bus driver that won her over.

But there was one surprising thing she missed from her hometown: “Pockets of community.” In Chicago, she could go to a specific neighborhood and be immersed in the Mexican-American culture she grew up with.

“But in Portland, my friends and I couldn’t find spaces full of Black and Brown people that felt welcoming and open,” Figueroa explains. The solution? “Make the space instead of waiting for someone to make it.” And Figueroa decided to start on the dance floor.

The Creation of Young, Gifted and Brown Portland

In July 2015, Figueroa and Vaughn Kimmons, another Portland-via-Chicago creative, teamed up with Renée Lopez (of Miss Lopez Media) and resident DJ Lamar Leroy and secured a supportive venue in Killingsworth Dynasty. The group styled themselves as YGB — Young, Gifted and Brown — playing off Nina Simone’s song To Be Young, Gifted and Black.

From bathrooms filled with candy to handmade thank-you notes, every detail of YGB’s first party was intentional. “I was trying to give people the full experience of feeling loved and welcome,” says Figueroa. “YGB creates healing spaces for Black and Brown people. When you say ‘healing space,’ a lot of folks think of a therapy room or a spa. But dancing together to beats that have been deeply ingrained in our humanity is healing; it gives us our humanity back, when every other part of this world wants to take it from us. Music is the medicine.”

The effect was powerful: a reliably groovy live music night with stage time and fellowship for musicians of color, which helped cultivate a fertile ecosystem for creation. Kimmons says that in YGB she found “the space to share the creativity I was stifling,” and connected with Andre Burgos, now her partner in soulful duo Brown Calculus.

“YGB helped me to tap into a community that was less concerned with retracing a template for how a genre or art form should be approached,” says Burgos, “and more concerned with collaboration, pushing the boundaries, personal expression and communal growth.”

The summer 2018 My People’s Market event took place at the Rose Quarter Commons. Photo by Ashley Anderson.

The Mission of YGB Portland

At the core of YGB’s message is a rejection of the narrative of Portland as an all-white city, a stereotype that Figueroa and YGB collaborator RaShaunda Brooks view as an erasure of the city’s marginalized but longstanding Black, Latinx, Asian and Indigenous communities.

“That [characterization] undermines the people who are here,” says Brooks. Instead, says Figueroa, “let’s talk about why it is that you don’t see them. Let’s talk about how they got erased. We contribute to that narrative if we don’t work to build community together.”

A group of friends attends the second My People’s Market in June 2018. Photo by Ashley Anderson.

The Future of YGB Portland

Three years in, Figueroa and Brooks continue to build the YGB community, broadening its scope from party collective to advocacy platform. YGB curated the music at the multicultural bazaar My People’s Market and made sure displaced artists got paid through the “Art Saved My Life” residency. They’re also collaborating with Deep Under Ground to run Young Gifted Artists, which brings art education to youth during the summertime free lunch program at McCoy Park, located in North Portland’s New Columbia, the largest public housing project in Oregon.

Through a diasporic cultural exchange project between Portland and Chicago’s music scenes, YGB is exposing local artists (including neo-soul crooner Amenta Abioto, hip-hop performance artist Ripley Snell and R&B darling Blossom) to larger markets — and in turn showing Chicago musicians that Portland’s music scene is more diverse than they might imagine.

“There’s so much more space for hip-hop, electronic music, DJ culture — things that when I moved here, I couldn’t find,” says Figueroa. “There are all of these young Black and Brown people who are coming home to Portland because they got pushed out and bringing with them all their talent and music, and also an influx of Black and Brown artists moving here. They’re seeking the same thing everybody wants from Portland: all the good vibes. There’s this whimsy about the city that lets you be you. For a long time, it seemed like that was only available for white people — but now a lot of people of color are like, ‘I want that whimsy too!’”

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