What to Read, Watch, and Listen to from Black Artists and Creators This Week

The Portland Monthly staff shares their picks.

By Portland Monthly Staff June 3, 2020

Killer Mike (left) and El-P of Run the Jewels performing in Barcelona, Spain in 2017

Octavia E. Butler’s Sci-Fi Novels

One of the magazine’s editorial interns last fall introduced me to the work of Octavia Butler (thanks, Mark!), winner of every sci-fi and speculative fiction writing award in the universe as well as a MacArthur “genius” grant. The longtime Californian spent her last years in Seattle, where she died in 2006 at just 56. I soon picked up Parable of the Sower, the first in Butler’s Earthseed series (something I’d heard of but had mixed up with Earthsea, a series by another legendary West Coast female sci-fi author, Portland’s Ursula K. Le Guin). Published in the ’90s and set in the (gulp) 2020s, the novel begins in a hot, dry Southern California where climate change, economic collapse, racism, and desperation have turned cities into a patchwork of community fortresses, neighborhood militia groups, drug-addled arsonists, wild dogs, useless police and emergency services, and dangerous no-man’s lands. (As Portland’s Literary Arts noted in its teaser for a Butler seminar this past winter, “The Parable series becomes especially relevant in the current political climate.”) We follow Lauren, a street-smart minister’s daughter with hyperempathy, a condition due to her mother’s prescription drug abuse while she was in utero that makes her feel the pain or pleasure of those around her. The teenager has quietly been developing (she would say discovering) the religion of Earthseed, which eventually leads her to take a group of fellow refugees northward in search of a place where she imagines less competition for water might mean a better chance at a new civilization. (Listen to Butler herself talk about racism, empathy, and competition—and why someone like Lauren should definitely not be dentist—on NPR back in 2001.) I’m not sure I can recommend bingeing Butler’s bleak series during a pandemic, though I’m very curious about this use-what-you-have acorn bread Lauren keeps mentioning. But between the rest of the Earthseed books, Kindred’s time-travel take on slavery, the interplanetary Xenogenesis trilogy, and so much more, my PacNW-author reading list (already packed with Le Guin titles) just got a lot longer. —Margaret Seiler, managing editor

So. Much. Stuff. 

There is so much I could recommend this week for reading, but Danez Smith’s powerful Dinosaur’s in the Hood is a good place to start. (There are more moments of wonder in his books BoyDon’t Call Us Dead and Homie.) For some local perspective, Melissa Lowry’s Black Girl in Suburbia, documents her experience growing up black in West Linn, Oregon (you can contact her through the website about watching the movie).  Then there's local literary giant Mitchell Jackson’s Survival Math, a staggeringly vivid and artful exploration of the legacy in this country. Chase it with his acclaimed debut novel, Residue Years—Fiona McCann, senior editor-at-large

Hip Hop Evolution (Netflix)

An enlightening, electrifying journey through America's hip-hop revolution unfolds in this four-season documentary made by rapper and journalist Shad Kabango, who doubles as the series affable, knowledgeable host. Along the way, Kabango interviews the pioneers, rhythmic rule-breakers, music-altering icons, and unlikely moguls who rose to change music history. Their historical narratives and insider analysis, backed by amazing archival footage, give these stories the depth often missing in music documentaries. Some unexpected highlights: watching unknown teen rappers Jay Z and Kanye West, the rise of the bootleg tapes, which captured the blistering energy of live battles and explorations of regional sounds, Detroit to Memphis to Houston. – Karen Brooks, food critic

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

This short, powerful, and eloquent book was given to me by an old friend, a black educator, and perhaps the brightest and kindest man I’ve ever met. He simply placed the book in my hands, gave me a hug, and let the book explain itself. Comprising “letters” composed on the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation, James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, a searing and nuanced examination of America’s legacy of racism, is necessary reading, as urgent now as it always was.—Gabriel Granillo, digital editor

Becoming and The Lovebirds

It’s a choose your own adventure situation. Do you want to repeatedly sob out of seeing kind behavior and masterful storytelling? Or do you desperately need to laugh over some ridiculous jokes you saw coming and still laughed until wine goes through your nose? If you choose the former, opt for Becoming the documentary that follows Michelle Obama on her book tour of the same name. See the former first lady talk to kids about how to feel special when they do not, field questions from Oprah and Stephen Colbert about life in the White House, and repeatedly make you aware of the value of personal story as a connection. If you deeply need a laugh in your life, turn to the sweet combination of Issa Rae and Kumail Nanjiani in The Lovebirds. The on-the-rocks lovers witness a murder on the way to a party and a madcap series of adventures ensues to try and clear their names. These two are reliably great. Put them together, and it’s double the pleasure. In summary, you should just watch them both. —Eden Dawn, small business editor

And, today's most popular pick, co-signed by no fewer than four Portland Monthly staffers...


Killer Mike—one half of Run the Jewels—took over social media this weekend with his poignant, powerful speech at an Atlanta press conference, responding to the George Floyd killing and the protests that began in Minneapolis. And today, Run the Jewels gave us this gift: the surprise early release of their highly anticipated fourth album RTJ4. “Fuck it, why wait," the group said in an image posted on Twitter. "The world is infested with bullshit so here’s something raw to listen to while you deal with it all. We hope it brings you some joy. Stay safe and hopeful out there and thank you for giving 2 friends the chance to be heard and do what they love.” We're the ones who are thanking you, Killer Mike and El-P. 

Yes, you can stream this fire on Spotify right now, but the big brain move is to download it from the RTJ website: pay-what-you-want with all proceeds benefitting the Mass Defense Program—Marty Patail, editor in chief

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