Illustration from the Illamette Festival flyer. 

This Saturday (August 24), it’s going down at Illamette: a brand new Hip Hop River Festival and “edutainment” event celebrating the Willamette River and raising awareness of the federal government’s billion-dollar restoration efforts around it. 

The all-day festival is set to open with a Native American water ceremony and will also include performances by Mat Randol, Talilo Marfil, Amenta Abioto, and J Prodigy among other Portland hip hop mainstays, each of whom was chosen for the lineup because of their historical connections to North and Northeast Portland, or to the river itself. A station for storytelling to capture community oral histories related to the Willamette, fishing lessons courtesy of angler mentorship foundation Get Hooked, and a river cleanup are also a part of the day-long festivities.

“It’s ‘Illamette’...because the music is ill and the river is literally ill too,” explains festival organizer, Donovan Smith. He is also the Media Coordinator for the Portland Harbor Community Coalition (PHCC), an alliance of community groups that amplify the voices and restoration efforts of frontline communities—the communities immediately vulnerable to the toxic river’s effects such as Native American, African American, and houseless populations. The festival is funded in part through a $30,000 PHCC grant received from Metro. 

Born and raised in Portland, Smith’s activism around the Willamette River began in 2016, shortly after he heard Mayor Ted Wheeler name the Portland Harbor Superfund Site—an eleven-mile stretch of toxic water between Sauvie Island and the Broadway Bridge targeted by the federal government in 2000 for cleanup after river sediments tested positive for carcinogenic pesticide contamination—the most urgent issue facing future Portland. 

“[When I was younger], I just thought it was gross,” says Smith of the river threading through his city. “But [the mayor’s point] made me think, this is a life force that’s right in the middle of the city and it’s super unfortunate that I’ve grown up here my whole life and never questioned anything in terms of why is it gross? How it got this way? And who made it this way?”

The idea for Illamette was born a year after Smith got involved with PHCC. Get Hooked founder, Dishaun Berry, took him out on a boat for the first time in his life and they went fishing for sturgeon in the Portland Harbor. 

“I want to bring people to the [Willamette River] to access it and to be able to recreate in it, and be happy to be around it but I can’t have them eating out of this river,” says Berry. “You have to know where to go fishing and where to draw these resources from.”

Smith and Berry hope Illamette will generate sustained support for PHCC efforts and re-spark the relationship Portlanders of color have largely lost with the river as a result of gentrification-driven displacement. 

“[The Willamette superfund] is a billion-dollar project and I know the cleanup is going to change some of the landscape of the city in terms of who is going to be here and who is not... as the land along the river gets privatized,” says Smith. “[After the festival] we’ll continue to create culturally relevant workshops and events and listen to people’s vision for what they want to see from the cleanup and in terms of accessing the river.”

Illamette Festival

11 a.m. Sat, August 24, Cathedral Park, FREE

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