On April 21, 2013, three years to the day before his death, Prince played two shows back to back at Old Town’s Roseland Theater. The audience, at his suggestion, went crazy. It was the kind of live music moment—a legendary performer, an electric, intimate, late-night set—that’s now part of Stumptown musical lore, and a badge of honor if you were part of the crowd that witnessed the Purple One’s final Portland performance. (The walls of the theater itself were painted purple for the occasion; they remain so to this day.) And the presenters behind this wonder of wonders? A homegrown festival of funk, R&B, jazz, soul, and hip-hop called Soul’d Out.
Nicholas Harris, a Portland-based promoter and producer, and Haytham Abdulhadi, then a screenwriter in LA, launched the first Soul’d Out in 2010 as a two-week festival devoted to what they billed as “soulful music,” with more than 30 artists playing a half-dozen venues around the city.
“There was just nothing happening in Portland that fell in this vein,” says Harris. “Portland was very much in the throes of the indie rock era.”
The city had cemented its rock-leaning musical reputation with bands like Modest Mouse, the Shins, and the Decemberists: Slate even dubbed us “America’s indie rock mecca” in 2007. Beyond Jimmy Mak’s jazz offerings and hip-hop nights around the city showcasing largely local talent, many of Stumptown’s live music fans were starved of out-of-town acts in specific genres: “We realized that there was a very underserved community here,” says Harris, one that was “overlooked, not part of the cultural discussion, and did not have a seat at the table when it came to deciding what happened in Portland.”
So Harris and Abdulhadi invited blues legend Buddy Guy, jazz poet Gil Scott-Heron, hip-hop’s Dead Prez, English R&B singer-songwriter Corinne Bailey Rae, and others to play this indie rock town. “People just said we were crazy,” recalls Harris. “What are you doing starting an event like this in the whitest city in America?”
But Soul’d Out found its audience. “Immediately we had support within the community,” says Harris. In that first year, Harris estimates the Soul’d Out audience at some 3,000 people. Over its 10-year run, that number has rocketed to more than 16,000 as the festival refined its model—compressing the timeline to one week—and snagged big-name acts like Lauryn Hill, Mos Def, and Solange.
Soul’d Out has become an annual highlight on the city’s calendar, with a rep that rests on bringing high-caliber artists who might otherwise skip this city on national tours in favor of bigger population centers. But despite its focus on touring talent, the fest has also showcased plenty of local acts, like local R&B and neo-soul artist Rich Hunter, who notes that Soul’d Out creates a platform for Portland artists. “I had a full crowd of 1,400 people watching me with a live band,” he says of his 2018 Roseland show with hip-hop trio De La Soul. “You can’t get any better exposure than that.” This year’s lineup includes locals like Dirty Revival alongside rising Brooklyn rapper Leikeli47, jazzy soul singer Kadhja Bonet, and neo-soul king Roy Ayers.
But Harris says the festival he created a decade ago would be tougher to launch in 2019, given consolidation in the music industry, which forces small fests to compete with big corporations to woo artists. Soul’d Out made headlines for taking on one of the industry’s corporate juggernauts, the Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG), which puts on April’s Coachella, the country’s biggest music festival. Last year, Soul’d Out filed suit against AEG and Coachella over its “radius clause,” which prevents artists signed up for the bigger festival from playing other festivals anywhere in the US from December to May 1 of the same year. That clause has increasingly constrained the kind of out-of-town lineup Soul’d Out aims for—New Orleans’s Tank and the Bangas and Canada’s Daniel Caesar are among those reported to have been affected by Coachella’s restrictions. [Update: in early April, a judge dismissed the lawsuit.]
Could a megafestival stranglehold and other industry changes spell the end for the Stuptown soul fest? Not if Harris can help it. “It’s probably not the best business model in some ways,” he admits, “but we put it all out there, and if the people come out and support it there’ll always be a home for this in Portland and beyond.”
Buddy Guy (blues) “He’s the last truly great living blues master, and he was on the first year of the festival for us. Having him back is a huge deal.”
Eric B. and Rakim (hip-hop) “A legendary hip-hop group that has never performed in Portland—that says a lot about what this festival’s about.”
DAkhaBrakha (Ukrainian folk) “One of our big world music shows this year—we brought them for the first time about five or six years ago.”
Saeeda Wright (soul) “We’ve been a huge fan of her for a really long time, and she’s doing an Aretha Franklin tribute.”