It’s probably easy for you to show compassion to someone who’s similar to you, pleasant, or successful. But are you willing to offer someone support when it’s difficult or uncomfortable? Most of us consider ourselves to be good people. To those that virtue signal on social media, or claim to be filled to the brim with positivity, do you extend those good vibes to a homeless person on the street or a refugee that can hardly speak English and stops to ask you a question?
Those are among the questions that arise from interpreting the first single, "Wake Up Century," off the upcoming album by the same name, by Portland songwriter-artist Myles Bullen.
Bullen's music video was just released on YouTube last week, garnering positive feedback from the circles in the art scene. It doesn’t stray too far musically from Bullen’s past work — an ambient, slowly uplifting hip-hop beat behind his signature poetic style of rapping — but it does feature some sweet aerial shots of Portland, and layers of poignant messages, one of them being: the arts scene is vibrant in Portland, partly because working-class grind hard for their passions, and support each other when no one else does.
Or as Bullen raps in the video: “we’re artists with insomnia, working we don’t sleep.”
“We don’t ever clock out,” said Bullen in an interview with The Phoenix. “The song resonates with the artist community. We push hard. The arts scene here is blossoming because community empowers each other.”
Myles Bullen has been a central part of the youthful street art scene in Portland for the past three years. When he's not encouraging others to pursue their passions, he's bouncing between his own which include teaching yoga, spoken word poetry, and creative writing. Bullen, a short, fair-skinned dude who's prone to rapping and grinning at just about any moment, focuses his energy on motivating new generations of artists; he's taught at prisons, addiction recovery centers, schools, and youth detention centers. Although he loves to talk about the power of pursuing creative passions, he doesn't shy away from serious topics, as evidenced in the Wake Up Century video.
It begins in Bullen’s apartment studio, where he’s putting the finishing touches on the song and marking up a cassette tape with the words Wake Up Century. Everything is in black and white, except for the boombox that Bullen pops the tape into and takes to the streets: an old school aesthetic. It’s also emblematic of what Bullen and his fellow artist friends try to do almost every day: bring art out of the “cage of the gallery,” and place it right in front of people, encouraging interaction and conversation.
In between some fantastic aerial drone shots of Deering Oaks and the Old Port, the video reveals its main subjects: Myles Bullen, the spoken word poet, rapper, and youth educator, Earth Person, a local electronic music producer, and Cory Tracy, a diehard hip-hop fan (whom you may recognize as the dude who sits in Congress Square with signs).
“He’s a local legend,” said Bullen. “He’s always smiling and bringing happiness to someone’s day.”
Who didn’t have a chuckle when Tracy sat all day in Congress Square Park during last year’s presidential campaign with a sign that read “They Both Suck”?
As the troupe meanders through familiar streets in downtown Portland, the chorus rises and the main point of the song appears instantly: You have to lose to learn to love, pick yourself off the ground, anything's possible. It's this light and hopeful message that's sung pleasantly on the track and lies at the core of Bullen's life philosophy.
In the video's bleak, black-and-white version of Portland, where Bullen’s scarf and radio are the only splashes of color on screen, the first verse rolls in: Pleasant and kind, love is incredible / Your hate speech is unneeded, unwanted, and unacceptable / We leveled up, invest in growing vegetables, confession / We are a collective of the source that everyone’s connected to / a new generation that’s breaking through.
Later in the video, we get appearances from the local rapper and community organizer Stay on Mars, who plays a homeless man with a sign reading “Love, Listen, Learn,” and Abbeth Russell, a visual artist, fixture of the First Friday Art Walk, and founder of the Hidden Ladder Collective.
We see Russell in the middle of painting her recent work, “Gem and Eye,” an acrylic that features two of her creepy ladder creatures, one orange-skinned and one blue-skinned, coming together and forming a heart with waves from their mouths. The image, conveying “balance between differences,” would later be used as the single art for Wake Up Century.
"Gem and Eye," by Abbeth Russell.
“Abbeth’s art is beautiful because it’s so dark,” said Bullen. “It’s important to show the beautiful parts of people that aren’t trying to be happy.”
“My art usually contrasts the light and the dark of the world,” said Russell. “We all have both. None of us are bubbles of positivity.”
The themes explored in Wake Up Century certainly don’t tread on any new or exciting ground.
The song embraces a Beatle’s philosophy of “All You Need Is Love,” an idea that’s been played with in just about every artistic medium for decades. Sure, Wake Up Century flirts with the sort-of-tired truism of “opening up your heart,” but it does localize the message in an engaging way. It forces one to think about small-scale altruism and community building on the streets of Portland, instead of just in conversations around social issues or online circles centered around the big news of the day.
It urges action and conversation instead of passivity. It calls for viewers to wake up, and offer something, anything, to those that might need help.
The Wake Up Century troupe: (from left to right) Abbeth Russell, Stay on Mars, Myles Bullen, Earth Person, and Cory Tracy.
“A stranger is just a friend that you haven’t met yet,” said Bullen. “Give people your time.”
Russell agrees with this mentality, telling me “some are just afraid of people that are different. Just say hi to them.”
For Russell and Bullen, reaching this utopian social vision of a community that supports not just artists, but anyone who’s struggling in life, requires us to talk honestly and openly about pervasive issues: racism, sexism, homelessness, addiction, oppression, and suicide. Otherwise, we can’t grow as a community without at least starting on the same moral foundation, as verse two suggests, “Strong move along, uprooting our feet / Confronting our ego, hear our spirit when we speak.”
“I know a lot of positive people that don’t actually have the depth to be positive humanitarians,” said Bullen. “Show love when it actually matters, when it’s difficult. You have a choice to ignore, or open up.”
You can watch Bullen and Earth Person’s love-letter to Portland’s street art scene here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eFumuTSs0Yg