A Black Arts Party

Reed College hosted its 2nd Annual Black Arts Festival and Black Indigenous People of Color (BiPOC) Community Marketplace on Feb. 23, and it was the most popping celebration of Blackness and queerness in this city in a while.

That’s a lofty statement, but there’s a truth to it that many of its attendees surely felt. There was an energy in the air that slapped you in the face upon entering the school’s Kaul Auditorium. A long line interrupted the entrance pathways as hungry guests waited to get a plate of festival’s catered cuisine, which featured considerably “stereotypical” black food like collard greens, cornbread and ribs, but also served up burgers and vegan Nigerian food as well. That front food room bustled with tables of folks bonding over delicious goods. It led into the main auditorium room, where tons of vendors exchanged smiles and stories with interested guests. Over 30 vendors and organizations were present. Some were larger in scale—like Don’t Shoot PDX and She Shreds magazine—but the smaller ones like Dakky Comics and Switchblade Sistas Vintage had many excitedly trying to give away their money.

DJ BNICK had already been spinning tunes that people were down for. Adults and children alike vibed on the dancefloor to Cardi B, YG and other artists—BNICK knew the tracks to play for the turn up. Spoken word poet Bella, who took the stage first, deserves a mention for her deep and emotional words on abuse, racism and identity. She was nervous but brave, running through her poems with eyes closed and hands cusping near her heart. It was passionate, touching and necessary to acknowledge that there is pain within our culture. While Bella offered the more serious side to performing, Maarquii was next on the docket. Anyone who’s ever seen them knows how much life their performances give.

Maarquii can lay a lace front wig like nobody’s business, and the one they chose to accessorize with that night was long, wavy and golden. They whipped it back and forth as they sashayed across the stage, pausing at moments to spit lyrical fire and twerk to their tracks like “Full Outfit” and “Baaby Kitty,” but a blown amp caused the biggest pause of the night. Technical difficulties eventually solved, Maarquii went on with a spicy attitude, occasionally joined by their two dancers. Toward the end of their set, other dancers within the queer community hopped on stage giving their own full-blown performances. Legs kicked high and spread wide, and the whole group apparently have the strongest muscles in the world with their backbends and spring ups. Loud “YASSSSS QUEENS” and snaps could be heard from the crowd, but the next performer, Shelby Williams, toned everything down a bit.

Just her and a microphone, Williams stood center stage and gazed out onto the crowd as her rich, buttery voice belted out Black classics. Of them was Roberta Flack’s (made famous by Lauren Hill and the Fugees) track “Killing Me Softly with His Song.” Williams’ timbre was soulful and smooth, causing many in the crowd to raise and sway their arms as if to be praising in a Black church. Williams was the focal point, though, and everyone there looked up at her in worship.

That is, until the festival’s headliner Doja Cat took the stage. She wore large, fuzzy raver boots with monster faces on them, with a tiny schoolgirl shirt and an almost anime-like approach to her makeup. She was the new idol.

The auditorium was near capacity at this point—excitable Doja stans pushing their way to the front to get as close as possible to the 23-year-old singer. It was the first night of her tour, and she thanked the crowd for kicking it off for her with animated engagement as she went through her most beloved tracks. “No Police” got everyone to join in replicating the song’s cop car siren, while “Tia Tamera” made the crowd jump up and down. She asked everyone to help her sing her famous “So High” before walking off stage, which prompted a member of her crew to grab the mic and ask everyone if they knew how to do the “Moo” challenge. Named after her very silly song of the same name, the challenge itself is just rhythmically bending over a la the cat-cow pose in yoga. A good third of the crowd—many of them the fabulous dancers that took the stage when Maarquii was performing—rushed the stage to dance alongside Doja. Those left in the audience did the challenge from the floor, collectively shouting out “mooooooo” when the song called for it. Afterward, it became nothing but a huge dance party on stage, with backbends returning and asses shaking all up on each other. The dancers weren’t so much competing for the spotlight as they were sharing it, beaming and building off of one another in a collaboration of movement. It was too high energy to be emotional, but analyzing such carefreeness could tug at a heart string. Especially for Doja, who appeared to tear up a little bit as she hugged almost everyone who joined her on stage.

Yet, just like that, the auditorium emptied just as quickly as it filled. The campus was dark and wet with rain. The embers of lit cigarettes and spliffs left mild illuminations surrounding the auditorium as everyone tried to figure out their next moves. By the time the festival was over, it had barely reached 7 p.m. It was imperative to keep the party going for most, but many simply basked at the bond that little black festival just created. The night didn’t even incorporate much in tangible art. Instead, it more so celebrated the art that is black culture itself. The people that attended, the artists that perform—they all contribute to this artistic beauty that is black existence. If that’s what the festival is all about, then it’ll likely only grow bigger and better from here.