“My creative process is lyric driven,” says hip-hop artist Mic Crenshaw. “One line will come to me and I’ll be like, how does that line flow into the next line? Some of these lines are things that I’ve thought about forever.”
“As a teen I was a link between
Doc Martin and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
I had a provocative future
Leaving bodies in sutures”
Crenshaw has become a seminal part of the Northwest hip-hop music scene since moving to Portland in the early 1990s. He recently released the full-length album “Rebel Wise” in collaboration with producer and lyricist Quincy Davis. The album features 16 guest MCs from around the world with a mission to bring people together in community and “break the spell of hopelessness”.
In his early 20s, Crenshaw met Portland drummer Dave Parks and formed the experimental hip-hop act Hungry Mob. It wasn’t long before his lyrics and poetry gained national recognition.
“In the ‘90s in the U.S. all the most popular rap was talking about getting money and selling dope and being rich. I was like, ‘That’s not really who I am.’ So, how do I become who I really am so that the authenticity of what I’m saying can be felt by my audience?”
That was when Crenshaw’s political consciousness that had long been part of his development started to inform his lyricism, and he embraced his voice as poet and a political rapper.
In 2001, Crenshaw won The Portland Poetry Slam Championship and went on to finish as a national finalist. “That was really the beginning of my career as an independent hip-hop artist. It gave me a place to start to channel some of that purpose.”
In 2009, Crenshaw set out on a solo career, releasing his first solo effort, “Thinking Out Loud,” which reached number four on the College Music Journal’s (CMJ) National Radio Hip Hop Charts. In the winter of 2010 he released his second solo project, “Under The Sun,” topping out at number two on the CMJ Hip Hop Charts with his single “Yeah.”
A young rebel
Born on the South Side of Chicago 1970, Crenshaw was raised both there and in Minneapolis.
“The first few years of my childhood, Black urban life in Chicago was, I guess, the environment and what I was used to. In the mid-’70s, we started moving around outside of Chicago.”
Crenshaw attended junior high in St. Paul, Minnesota, then finished high school in Minneapolis before enrolling in a small college.
“Having assimilated to fit into white environments and then coming back home to the Black neighborhoods, and then feeling like I wasn’t accepted because of the ways that I had adapted to fit in the white environments. There’s a lot of emotional turmoil, a lot of identity conflict around that.
“I guess socially and you know, by the time I really felt like I fit in, it was only in the punk scene because I felt like everybody there had a common experience about not really fitting in anywhere else,” he said.
“Punk and hip hop, you know, together kind of paved the way for me to listen to reggae. And then reggae became something that had even more Black consciousness in a pan-African sense which started to help me identify with my story as a Black human, a person of African descent living in America started to help me identify with Black folks all over the world. And it was in that milieu that ska being the original music of choice, you know, for skinhead kids that were actually not racist or were even anti-racist. That started to appeal to me as well.”
The early roots and origin of the skinhead culture began in the United Kingdom in the 1960s amongst young working-class whites and Jamaican immigrants living and working closely together. Dawning straight-legged jeans, army boots, button-up shirts and suspenders, this inclusive skinhead movement was a statement of pride in their common blue-collar social status.
At the same time, these young English kids became exposed to the Jamaican sounds of reggae and ska introducing a distinct soundtrack to their multicultural working-class life.
In the mid-‘80s, Crenshaw and his friends discovered the roots of this early skinhead tradition and began to adopt its fashion and music roots as an extension of their punk rock ethos and rebellious spirit.
“At first we decided to become skinheads as a way to do something edgy, something that appealed to us, in an alternative sense, but it wasn’t long before white power, neo-nazi boneheads were being organized in our scene and in our city, and that gave us a very clear enemy to identify and to then respond and react to because we were multiracial.”
The mid-‘80s saw a concerted effort by neo-nazi groups to make their presence known in major American cities, where they attempted to infiltrate, indoctrinate and intimidate local communities.
Crenshaw and his friends, seeing a need for community defense, and wanting to differentiate themselves from the growing negative connotation of these white supremacist skinhead groups, adopted the moniker “Minneapolis Baldies” and formed an anti-racist skinhead crew mobilized to fight against the racist skinheads.
“We felt like we were fighting a war, and we were the only people who were going to do it, because no one else was gonna do it, you know? And that helped shape my identity in ways that I just wouldn’t be the same person if that didn’t happen.”
Trouble in the Northwest
When Crenshaw arrived in Portland in the early 1990s, he found a city with a vibrant music and literary scene. It was also a city that was being terrorized by the familiar enemy he’d been fighting back home in Minneapolis.
Neo-nazis had come to Portland, attracted by its predominantly white population and history of stark Jim Crow laws. Only a few years earlier, Mulugeta Seraw, a Portland State University student from Ethiopia, was beaten to death with baseball bats by three neo-nazis.
Crenshaw had recognized that he was on a dangerous path in Minneapolis. He credits two high school teachers for helping him redirect his focus.
“I was going to an alternative school in Minneapolis, and two of my teachers started to invest in my consciousness and in my political development and they were like, ‘We see what you’re doing on the streets, but you’re gonna be dead or in jail. You’re facing the symptoms. What do you think about trying to learn about the root cause of these symptoms?’ You know, racism, white supremacy is a symptom, but the root causes of these things are deeper than that,” he said.
“That intrigued me, actually, because I felt like there was something missing, there was something deeper going on. And I started to be able to connect what I was observing and experiencing to a broader history and historical processes.”
Crenshaw made the permanent move to Portland in 1992 and began transitioning his focus away from the direct action and confrontation he’d been employing on the streets of Minneapolis, instead directing his energies to poetry and hip-hop lyricism. Networking and finding collaborators in the Portland music scene, he began his creative journey as a hip-hop artist.
Black Lives Matter
In the spring of 2020, after a series of high-profile police shootings of young Black men and women, the murder of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police became the tipping point. After a bystander’s cell phone captured a police officer kneeling on Floyd’s neck for 9 minutes and 29 seconds for the world to witness, the stage was set for a new reckoning on racism in America.
“When George Floyd was murdered and the spotlight got intensified, you know, in relation to Black life and police terror and white supremacy in this country, it just brought more relevance to the work that we were already doing.”
As the unprecedented scale of Black Lives Matter protests took hold, and emboldened white nationalist counter-protesters rocked the country throughout that year, Crenshaw put words to paper, as both a personal historical record and a creative reaction to the upheaval.
Crenshaw opens a notebook on his table. “This is a piece that I wrote in the wake of what happened in Kenosha.”
“They get money from the feds and cash for state prisons,
Rittenhouse is getting out because of racism,
it is about class classify, you buy your caste
The way we play today is so connected to our past
gas from petroleum, colonial expansion, extraction of wealth, every cell gets the cancer,
the panthers fought it and they faced repression,
oppression as a weapon. pressurized state aggression,
bombs, tanks, planes, banks, pistols, and missiles, surveillance systems,
how is perpetual war, prevailing wisdom?
where the lynching fails we have jails and prisons.
I pray, I have faith, but it’s the way that I behave
liberation we crave as descendants of slaves too impatient to wait.
So I create it or take it insurgent. It’s urgent.
I’m determined to make it.”
“I always want to be able to take what I’m witnessing and what I’m feeling and put it in the language that is concise. But the intent is to transmute, you know, the pain and try to create something beautiful.
The book publishing company PM Press heard about Crenshaw’s story as a founding member of the Minneapolis Baldies back in the ‘80s and offered him a book deal to write a memoir of his time as a Black skinhead.
“There’s been a lot of questions recently around what can we glean from our experience of being active in the streets and in the community at that time that would be applicable or valuable now,” he said. “Because we see the current rise of different forms of fascism.”
Crenshaw set out to record the stories of his friends, other Black skinheads and anti-racist skinheads who were in the streets fighting nazis. As Crenshaw was gathering interviews, KBOO radio approached him with production funding to create a podcast about his experience being a Black skinhead.
“Some of the interviews that I was recording for my book ‘Black Skinhead’ became useful fodder for the podcast content. And so those two projects began to intersect.”
‘It Did Happen Here’
In November 2020, the 11-episode podcast “It Did Happen Here” was released. Crenshaw describes the audio project as “the people’s history of anti-fascist and anti-racist organizing primarily in Portland, but it draws from stories that involve Minneapolis and a broader national story that took place in the eighties and nineties.”
Hosted by Crenshaw and co-host Celina Flores, the podcast talks to former members of three core groups: the Portland chapter of Anti Racist Action, SHARP — Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice — and the Coalition for Human Dignity.
Through compelling first-hand stories, “It Did Happen Here” chronicles how these three organizations united to fight back against fascist gangs through open street battles and methodical behind-the-scenes intelligence gathering that exposed the far-right groups and white nationalists targeting Portland.
“The podcast serves as a means to kind of examine the surface of some of these questions like what is racism, what is white supremacy? What have people been doing about it historically? And how does that, how does that impact what we can do now?”
Although informed by his past, Crenshaw doesn’t want to be defined by it. Now in his 50s, his journey continues to lead him on a path to seek deeper knowledge and understanding about the root causes of racism and human conflict, and to help a new generation of young people cope with the conflicts of our time.
“I’ve seen what happens when cycles of violence become so ingrained that there seems to be no end and no solution, and the best way for me — if there’s any wisdom that I can draw from that these experiences — the best way for me as a human being to try to impact things in a positive way is to be creative and to use art and to engage the community and other creative people, whether it’s youth in the classroom or people in the audience or artists that I collaborate within this process of creating something that is a reflection of what we’re all going through.”
Crenshaw’s artistry and lyrics are an evolving document of his creative journey.
From growing up in Chicago’s south side to street fighting neo-nazis as a teen in Minneapolis, to finding his voice as a poet and lyricist in Portland, Crenshaw continues to tackle social justice issues on a global level. He travels each year across the African continent with the Afrikan Hiphop Caravan, performing in multiple cities from Cape Town to Cairo.
Crenshaw sees the issues of our time as a collective global experience and continues building community and dialogue through the connective power of his words.
Find more on Mic Crenshaw and his music on his website, www.miccrenshaw.com.
Listen to the podcast It Did Happen Here with hosts Mic Crenshaw and Celina Florez.
To learn more about the Minneapolis Baldies, watch the Emmy award PBS documentary “The Baldies” featuring interviews with Mic Crenshaw and others about the Minneapolis skinhead crew that fought racists in the 1980s and beyond.