It’s morning in America, and like the rest of us, Maze Koroma is shell-shocked.
A day after the election, the soft-spoken 24-year-old rapper is nursing a latte at Papaccino’s coffee shop in Woodstock. He’s got a video dropping tomorrow, and a new EP later in the month. But after the events of the night before, he admits that normal artistic self-promotion suddenly seems a bit frivolous.
“It feels weird to put out stuff right now,” he says, “with everything else going on.”
It’s not the conversation either of us expected to be having. As a member of both the psychedelic rap crew Renaissance Coalition and the ascendant EYRST label, Koroma is perched at the vanguard of a hip-hop scene producing some of the most exciting music in Portland, his trippy-yet-personal style being a major contributor. As the year closes out, it would not be an exaggeration to say he and his peers could possibly blow up on a national level sooner than later. But it’s hard to look toward the future when doing so means staring into the tangerine-colored mushroom cloud looming on the horizon.
So maybe it’s best to start in the past. A son of immigrants from Sierra Leone, Koroma grew up in what he calls “a traditional African home,” one that was not particularly inclined toward the arts. He got introduced to hip-hop through his older brother’s Outkast and Wu-Tang Clan albums, but his initial creative outlet was poetry. “Whenever we had something in class, I would make a poem, using the NBA or something, talking about the players,” he says.
In high school, Koroma shifted toward rap, freestyling with friends and recording mixtapes. His junior year, he met future Renaissance Coalition partner Zoo, who had already established relationships with Portland hip-hop vets like Vursatyl and Libretto. “I felt this is the thing I could lock in and use,” he says. “When I found out I was good at it, and I liked it, I just went full force into it.”
But there was a learning curve, particularly when it came to live performance.
“I didn’t even know what I was doing,” he says. “I had no DJ, I was rapping over my own beats. I didn’t know that at live shows, you’re not supposed to do it over the lyrics.”
He eventually figured it out, as anyone who’s caught one of his unpredictably quirky shows lately can attest. At PDX Pop Now, he tossed Ring Pops into the crowd. Recently, he’s taken to incorporating one of his favorite hobbies, karaoke, into his sets, delivering full-length covers of drunken-sing-along classics like “Careless Whisper” and “Time After Time.”
As off-kilter as he can be onstage, Koroma’s studio projects are conceptually disciplined. On Osiris, his first EP of 2016, he pondered life in the digital age over synth-fueled production matching the 8-bit cover art. “We used to go on the internet,” he declares on “Electronic,” “now we’re literally in the internet.” For the upcoming It’s Complicated, It’s All Happening so Fast, Even Though I Can’t Keep up With You, You’ll Always Be My Sunshine, Koroma got together with EYRST producer Neill von Tally for a jam session that was then cut up and pieced together into songs. Like its predecessor, the new project is at once honest and deeply hallucinogenic. On “Complicated,” Koroma describes the frustrations of the local rap grind in blunt detail against a disorienting whir of keyboards and static: “They see the moves, now they want to get involved/ Why you need a horoscope just to tell you who you are.”
It’s a project imbued with a sense of tension that, consciously or not, comes off as prescient of the current moment. But while Koroma admits that pushing a record feels weird right now, he has hope the future—for himself, the country and the world—is brighter than it seems.
“As far as hip-hop culture, that’s the most powerful culture right now,” he says. “People are definitely worried, but as long as we know that, there’s definitely power that we have, and a lot we can do.”
HEAR IT: Maze Koroma’s It’s Complicated, It’s All Happening so Fast, Even Though I Can’t Keep up With You, You’ll Always Be My Sunshine is out Nov. 18.