Northern Soul

Despite the success of Soul’d Out Music Festival, Portland’s neo-soul and R&B scene is still in its infancy. Adebisi Okuneye, lead vocalist with Portland neo-soul band Adebisi, calls it “sparse.” 

“Portland’s black community has historically been brutally marginalized,” she says in an email interview. “Oregon was one of the only states to ban black folx outright, and the latest manifestation of this is gentrification. This has a huge impact on the music scene.”

For a neo-soul scene to truly take hold in Portland, musicians need space. “I wouldn’t say the spaces don’t exist,” she says. “It’s just very difficult to find sustainable spaces for black music with black people actually involved in the process.” 

Adebisi, a seven-piece band fronted by Okuneye and featuring horns, drums, guitar and bass, has been together since 2017. Last spring the band premiered a music video for the song “Here it Comes,” featuring rapper Mal London. 

The song’s a smoky, down-tempo, post-hip-hop soul tune, with Okuneye’s voice as easy-going and free as Lauren Hill, while the band elevates the pocket into territories reminiscent of soulful space-queen Eryka Badu. 

There’s sadness in the music, like watching a neighborhood change right in front of your eyes. And while Okuneye sings as easily as some people speak, it’s still difficult to articulate her creative ideas within the context of a band.

“This can be a bit intimidating for me,” she says. “Our songwriting process is still a little all over the place. But it’s great to be surrounded by a talented group of musicians who also happen to be good friends of mine.” 

As of right now, Adebisi has no plans for a full-length release.

“The thought of one definitely motivates me to hone my songwriting skills,” Okuneye says. “We are working on a four- to five-song EP to release sometime later in 2019, and I’m really excited for that.” 

In the meantime, expect to see Adebisi even more frequently in Eugene. “I will say Eugene’s audiences have been some of the most receptive I’ve seen,” she says. “We’ll be here about once a month for a good part of the year.”

Adebisi plays with Eugene’s Soul Vibrator 10 pm Saturday, Feb. 16, at Luckey’s; $7, 21-plus. — Will Kennedy

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