PORTLAND, Maine — Wind-whipped freezing rain fell Sunday afternoon, coating the city’s sidewalks with a fresh layer of winter mayhem. Single pedestrians, arms outstretched for balance, shuffled down Cumberland Avenue’s slick verges with caution in front of the cathedral.
None looked too pleased.
But down a steep nearby side street, leading to a dead end at Kennedy Park, there was much joy.
Inside Mayo Street Arts, two delighted rappers rehearsed with bombast, style and fervor, oblivious to the frightful weather outside. Both stalked the tiny stage, microphones in hand, spitting rhymes, telling it like it is, over thick beats. Rappers, Shine and AB the King, were rehearsing their parts for an upcoming emerging artists showcase on Jan 22.
Both rappers intend to make the most of the Mayo Street gig because it’s a rare opportunity to perform in a city where hip-hop shows are few and far between.
Portland is rich with low-barrier performance stages like Geno’s Rock Club, Port City Blue and Sun Tiki Lounge but none have regular rap shows. Flask Lounge hosts a monthly hip-hop night, called Monday of the Minds, but only a few open-mic slots are available each time.
“There’s a lot of venues in Portland,” said King, whose legal name is Iyenda St. Louis, “but they mostly have bands.”
King, 20, has been writing rhymes since middle school in Falmouth, where he grew up. He began practicing the craft seriously in high school but he’s still only performed on stage a handful of times.
“It’s exciting,” said King. “I want to put my music out there and share it. My favorite part of making music is performing and the energy I get from doing that.”
Shine has a bit more experience. His online videos have garnered over a million views but, just like King, he rarely gets a chance to rap in front of a live audience.
“I’m pretty lit,” said Shine, whose real name is Munye Mohamed. “I think more people will want to see more live rap shows here after this — this is just the beginning.”
Mayo Street Arts, situated in an old 19th century church, is well known for its family-friendly music, dance and puppetry programming. The hip-hop showcase will be its first foray into adults-only, 18-plus programming.
“It’s an experiment,” said Katie Page, the venue’s program manager.
Page was on hand Sunday, coaching the rappers on mic technique and running the sound and lighting boards.
With minors out of earshot at the showcase, rappers will be free to say what’s really on their minds, touching on subjects such as weed, alcohol, PTSD, racism and romantic relationships.
They will also be able to swear as much, or as little, as they want.
Even though the adult-only showcase is an experiment for Mayo Street, Page believes it’s a logical extension to the organization’s long-time mission of incubating traditional arts and artists in a community setting.
“We’ve always been a haven for emerging artists,” said Page. “Our stage has seen many first-time performances.”
Nationally-known, Portland-based, Rwandan dance group Ikirenga Cy’intore had its first-ever performance at Mayo Street. Likewise, local South Sudanese-American dancer and teacher Veeva Banga got her start as a child on the same stage.
Page said Shine and King — both being locals, and rap being an artform — fit the bill just as well as the aforementioned traditional dancers.
The showcase gew out of Shine’s recent Mayo Street performance as part of its International Open Mic series. Shine, who lives and went to high school in Portland, is originally from Somalia.
“We wanted to have a spoken word night,” Page said, “but Shine has such an online following, we decided to go this way.”
In addition to uncensored rap music, adult beverages such as beer and wine will also be available at the show. In another departure from a standard Mayo Street show, nearly all tickets will be standing-room-only, allowing the crowd to move to the music.
However, it’s not a total free-for-all. Audience members will have to stay masked and show proof of vaccination to get inside. Performers will be tested for the coronavirus just prior to the show.
As the rehearsal concluded, Shine and King posed for a picture, throwing hand signs as the camera. Shine then called for Page to join them. She did her best to mimic their stances.
Everyone had a good laugh before bundling up and heading back out into the dreary weather.
“I’m just doing what I have to do,” Shine said, on his way out. “But it’s a big thanks to Katie.”
Local rappers Shine, AB the King, Don Julio, KSL and Neeko will perform at Mayo Street Arts at 7 p.m. on Jan. 22. General admission tickets are $15 and balcony seats are $22.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the minimum age of attendees, and the incorrect stage name for rapper KSL.