"No matter how big my smile is there's a lot of hurt behind it": An Interview with Portland Rapper Bocha

Bocha's "Brown Skin" was written last year, but is more relevant than ever today. "No matter how big my smile is there's a lot of hurt behind it," he says.

Direct from Artist

Photo by Cooper Pattison


Black people are having a moment right now. In all honesty, it’s well deserved, considering the centuries of catch-up necessary when it comes to equality and fair treatment. Despite the great sadness shrouding our never-ending efforts, there are still bright moments of respite to be enjoyed. 

One of them comes via Portland-area rapper Bocha and his recently released track “Brown Skin." In it, Bocha transforms the typical negativity thrown at Black women and men into words of praise—he speaks with pride and appreciation for the color of his skin, as well as that of a certain lover. During a time when discourse around Black lives is centered on the injustices we are and have been experiencing, Bocha finds a way to add just the slightest bit of light and love to the conversation without detracting from the issues at hand.

That’s an impressive feat, considering the place Bocha has called home his entire life. The Portland area—and Oregon as a whole—feigns progressiveness and inclusivity, when exclusivity and racism are written into its history. In some Oregon towns, that troubled past is still very much an in-your-face reality. In Metropolitan Portland, it’s often passive and microaggressive interactions that entrench the daily lives of the city’s Black natives and transplants. Although Portland is known to be overflowing with whiteness, the city’s Black community is strong and supportive. For Bocha, that support comes as a celebration of his many talents.

The 24-year-old artist is known for more in his hometown than just an attention-grabbing ability to spit—he’s an activist and a business owner to boot. Produce Organics, his brand and collective with fellow Portland artist Donte Thomas, boasts a shop front in downtown Portland, meaning Bocha often finds himself overwrought with creative pursuits. 

Lately though, his focus has been protesting and demonstrating for the sake of his fellow Black lives and seeking justice for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and every other life lost. Still, he found time to talk to us about his new in-studio video for “Brown Skin” (below), his latest EP I Like U, and what it’s been like for him relentlessly hitting these streets for his people.

I know you’ve been out protesting. How's that been?
I've been up there damn near every day, but it's been okay. It's been draining, but I feel like we've been getting somewhat of a point across.

Have people been putting themselves on the line for you when the cops come around?
The last three days we've avoided the Justice Center [one of the focal points of the protests in Portland] because literally every night, if you end up there, you're going to get tear gassed. Our goal isn't to get tear gassed—our goal is to make a point.

Because the police aren't going to tear gas the old lady standing on the corner of the street.

Are you sure?
I mean...

Let's hope they don't. As someone who has a store in downtown Portland, how has it been for you seeing people taking their anger out on certain establishments?
It's been intense. We had to close our doors during the first riot because people were trying to break into our building—the first two nights people were looting a lot. It forced us to remove all of our merch. We’re just guarding the shop now so our windows don't get broken at this point. It hasn't really affected us too much, but we are the last standing business in our area, which is sad. 

Do you have any signage or anything in your windows that indicates you're a Black-owned business?
We don't have anything that says that, because we just didn't feel like we had to put it all on the walls, you know? Now that we're in these times, we're thinking of different ways that we could push that narrative. We thought it was obvious, but it's also good to promote that, which we realized recently.

Has living in the outskirts of Portland affected your perspective and your stance as you go into the protests every day?
If you're not in Portland in general, you're not really tapped in. I'm doing all this protesting and getting tear gassed every night, but during the daytime over on this side of the town people are just living their regular life. I go to the store and I'm trying to buy a bunch of water because we're making these protest packs for people, and people give me weird looks when I talk about it. 

They're just like, “Yeah, I hope they're not out looting,” when I just have eight cases of water bottles. It's a bittersweet feeling because I feel like it's Portland and not Oregon as a whole that's being united. I like to hold my community accountable. If we want change, we all have to really want it and we all have to do something about it. It's hard to do that when a lot of people don't see that change is needed. 

I did want to talk to you about the new video for “Brown Skin.” Was that something that you already had written or did you feel inspired by the context of the moment?
No, that song was made last year. [Producer] Neill Von Tally and I had a studio session where he played that beat and that hook. In my head I had “something, something Brown Skin,” so I had to go home and write it. I just sat on it for a year.

I was actually working on a whole other video, and it was going to have a lot of people of color involved in everything. But literally the week we were supposed to film the pandemic hit. I was planning on pushing this song because it stood out to me on the project in general, but then this whole George Floyd shit happened. I was just like, alright, we need it out and we need people to listen.


What was it like for you to film the video during this time in general?
There’s been a creative block for me by not having the resources I want because of the pandemic. Social gatherings aren't really recommended, so you can't really have too many friends together for a lot of things. Neill's parents are very old, so at the video shoot we couldn’t even have contact with him. We were in separate rooms.

What inspired us and gave us the vibe in the studio with the filming was that we haven't performed live in so fucking long. We filmed like maybe five takes because I wanted to feel it. I didn't want to just record it once and be done. I felt like I was performing again, and it felt good. 

At the end of the video you have the list of everyone who has been killed. 
Yeah, it was something that I pictured including because we've been chanting “say their names!” so we had to put their names on it. This shit's more than just about me. It's relevant to the time.

On the rest of the EP there are odes to Black women in general. The project flows together nicely.
They're about specific situations. Each individual song stands alone. The first three songs are from this last year and the last three songs are from three years ago. It took me a while to put together because I have a lot of songs and I plan on dropping a lot more music from here on out, but I felt like this was just a good start—a little sweet touch before I start yelling in peoples’ faces again.

You always have a whole lot going on. Are you still planning on continually dropping music or are you going to take a break and focus more on your activism and protesting?
To me, the music won't stop, and I want people to understand that. I feel like people are getting offended by people pushing their endeavors, but I am a Black business, you know what I'm saying? I'm not going to stop pushing what I do. I’m also a voice, and what I do is way more important to me than what people on the internet think. I'm going to continue to drop music, be a positive influence on people and do what I do in my personal life. I'm out here on the front line, they see me. 

It seems appropriate for you and every other Black artist and business owner to keep going, especially because it's our time right now to do so. But do you feel like it might be slightly less appropriate for non-Black artists to be doing the same thing right now?
Right now, yes. I do want to hold everyone accountable, but I don't want to be ridiculous in how I hold people accountable. People still have to get up and live their lives and go to work every day no matter what race they are, so I'm not going to guilt-trip my white coworker who supports me because of what the internet says. Let him do his thing because he's going to continue to live his life and support people he has to support. I'm not the one to be like, “I see you’re not posting about all this.” That shit is so trash to me. If they're going to live their regular lives and still uplift our people, that's really all that I ask of them. Do that shit in real life, because a post is great and everything, but it doesn't do anything for me.


Right. A post or just having that Black Lives Matter placard in your window or on your lawn. You can't just put that up and think that you're done. You didn't just solve racism with that.
You know what I'm saying?! Go out there and support me, show up, call me, ask me how I'm doing. I understand this is deep for white people to just change their whole way of thinking. It's like telling us to change our ways of being Black—you can't really do that. As long as you're being aware of how you move, how you hold yourself, and how you talk to your kids—if you move accordingly in that way, I feel like the future will go as it should.

On that note, do you feel this particular time, with everything going on, will inspire a certain conceptual project out of you or inspire you in a way that's any different than how you're normally inspired?
Yeah. I don't want to say that I wasn't really prideful before, but I feel like visually I will be a lot more prideful and probably more in your face about this Black and Brown shit. I understand now that it has to be in people's faces. We really do need to be constantly pushing this movement because this is not fair. No matter how big my smile is there's a lot of hurt behind it. I'm going to make sure no one forgets that, no matter how sweet shit looks.

Support the Produce store online or buy Bocha's 'I Like You' EP on BandCamp where his label EYRST is donating 100% of the label’s proceeds through June 19 directly to Don’t Shoot PDX and the NAACP.