A Portland Gospel

A life in music, from Jefferson High School to singing with Prince

A black-and-white photograph of Saeeda Wright singing. She is a Black woman wearing a headscarf, with an emotional expression on her face.

A black-and-white photograph of Saeeda Wright singing. She is a Black woman wearing a headscarf, with an emotional expression on her face.

I grew up on the third pew of Maranatha Church at Northeast 12th and Skidmore in Portland. In the 1980s, you could always find my grandmother and me there watching my great-grandfather and great-grandmother lead worship. From the third pew, I saw my heroes, cousins, and aunties, Black girls like me, hit the stage to help people through song. All around us, people would start crying or rejoicing. That was my normal. That's where the journey of sound began for me.

Most of my family is musically inclined. On any given day, my mom would fill the house with the sounds of Earth, Wind & Fire, Stevie Wonder, or Patti LaBelle, and we'd jam through the night. Gospel in the morning and soul at night. My mother sent me to the magnet arts program at Jefferson High School, one of the only schools in Oregon with a majority of African American students. We had a full production studio with satellites and TV cameras, several dance studios with proper flooring, stages, a theater, dark rooms for making and developing photos, a full auto shop, and a woodworking studio. The whole building was dedicated to trades and the arts. We had terrific artists-in-residence coming through the school to teach in our highly esteemed dance department.

The music program was less well funded and slid into a slight decline, but we still gathered together a bunch of misfit, goofy church kids to do what we knew best: sing. We fought with our voices to keep the rich legacy of music alive at Jefferson. We had an excellent teacher, Suzanne Lundy, who saw that we were serious about singing the Gospel and wanted to pull more out of us. The choir room was our sanctuary, where we found solace and escaped the worries of the day. We inner-city kids didn't have the traditional knowledge base in music, but we'd still enter choir competitions and hand the rival schools their tails. We'd go from singing classical to jazz, then turn around and wail on gospel and some Steely Dan. We learned a beautiful versatility that gave us pride and a sense that it was possible to be great at everything, even when the odds are against you.

One day, Sue pulled me aside and told me she noticed I was learning my own music and every other student’s parts, and had no problem saying to classmates, "Hm-mm, your part's wrong!" Like my classmates, I didn’t have any formal training. Most of my music lessons came from the third pew at Maranatha. But Sue saw I had potential, and entered me into any competition I was able to qualify for. I was selected for All-Northwest Jazz, All-State Jazz, and All-State Concert Choir. I was up against kids who had been in music theory training since elementary school. Because I couldn’t sightread, Sue would sing my parts on tape and give me the recordings. I would memorize the sections and follow along with the sheet music, teaching myself to read it. When I received my first solo for All Northwest, I had an out-of-body experience. I was so afraid that I wasn’t good enough to be in that space, and I was sad about being chosen to sing a blues! Sue reminded me that the blues was rooted in Gospel, so I had to tap into my roots to find my confidence. When I started singing the blues solo, I closed my eyes and began to leave my body. I went somewhere else—I don't know what happened. Something opened up in me, and I was in the zone. When I finished singing and returned to myself, I heard the crowd roar and saw Sue crying in the front row. It was the first time I caught a glimpse of who I could be.

I was devastated when Sue had to find another job due to budget cuts. My mentor was ripped from me, and I feared that my confidence left too. I knew I would not have had the opportunities I did if not for her belief in my gifts. Jefferson’s art budget was reallocated to the dance department, so the music department continued to decline, and my interest in music competitions declined with it. I didn't apply to any colleges because there was no money for me to go. But then, at the school’s annual Black College Fair, I was asked to sing the “Star Spangled Banner” and “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” A representative from Clark Atlanta University, a historically Black college in Georgia, heard me sing and said, "We're going to see about getting you a scholarship." After much support from administrators, an audition tape, and a few phone calls, I ended up getting a full one-year scholarship based on that performance.

While at Clark Atlanta, I was honored to study with Glen E. Halsey, who taught me texture and tone and how to paint with music. He taught me that every sound has a color and a feeling. If he wanted a bright sound, he would say, "I want yellow," and he'd flick his wrist a particular way, so we knew to sound light and airy. If he wanted it darker, blue, he would move his hand a specific way and say, "I want it deeper than that. Give me an indigo," and we'd reform our vowels. We built a kinetic connection between his hands, our voices, and the picture we painted with the audience. He allowed me to sing in Carnegie Hall and back up Denise Graves at Spivey Hall. I learned so much under his tutelage that I wanted to bring that magic back to Portland to develop my own music practice in my home.


By 2012, I had become a mother, found my way back to the church, and I was teaching voice lessons in Portland while trying to do music full time. Then my life imploded: I lost my car, I was houseless, and I felt like a terrible mother. I was depressed. I knew I had to find work because I had a son to take care of. I'd been so good at encouraging others, but I was terrible at loving myself and giving myself the same grace. I consulted my scriptures and tried to get to the heart of what brought me joy, what I owed myself in terms of my art practice in this city.

In 2006, my then-manager introduced me to Liv Warfield, a singer-songwriter who needed a background singer. We got along well, and I put aside my pride around wanting to be a solo artist and jumped into backing up Liv. Serendipity occurred when she added a second background singer, Ashley Jayy. As soon as we started rehearsing, we had this crazy blend: my voice, Ashley's voice, and Liv's, all balancing each other. Ashley has a high youthful timbre, whereas I have a rich, darker timbre. Liv is somewhere in between with her rock-n-roll chops. When we locked harmonies, it was goosies!

I sang background for Liv for several years before she was honored to have her sophomore album produced by Prince. The next thing I knew, we were flying to the Mohegan Sun Casino to open for The Purple One! How could it be possible?

From time to time, on spot dates, Prince would allow Ashley and me to join his background singers (including Liv) on stage during his sets. We formed a small choir of five powerful women behind him, and he loved it. One night, in front of everyone, Prince called me out to sing “Rock Steady,” but I didn't know the words. I'd heard the song millions of times, but I didn't know it well enough to sing it alone. Devastated from having to decline The Prince, I headed backstage at the Palladium to await the second encore. I went to find a mirror. I consciously spoke lovingly to myself, saying, “That moment is gone. It'll never come back. The next time he tells you to sing, you sing! Your chance will come again. When it does, you go for broke!”

Prince called for one more encore, and it was game on. Prince took his microphone off the stand, put it to my mouth, and said, “sing!” I grabbed that microphone, and I wailed. I sang for my life, you understand? I left it all out there. Whatever came out of me blessed the people in that room. Prince looked like a proud father. The next day, a reporter writing about that night accidentally called me the newest member of Prince's New Power Generation.

I'm a large woman. Many people think a big woman like me or a Black woman like me doesn't belong on a big stage. That night, by sharing his mic and his stage with me and lifting me up, Prince showed me that I belonged. Since then, I've been able to tour the world and share the stage with artists such as Raphael Saadiq, Mint Condition, Stevie Wonder, Lalah Hathaway, Cece Winans, Crystal Akin, JJ Harrison, and Derrick McDuffey and Kingdom Sound. I became active as a singer, songwriter, vocal coach, and mother of an amazing son.


Sometimes people forget that a thriving, humming community is bursting with Black talent beneath the surface of Portland. I'm writing a new album and teaching again, helping new singers coming up in this city. I feel alive when I'm sharing what I've learned. I feel my purpose when I'm offering music to other people. Giving that away is the next level; that's the legacy. I want Portlanders to remember that music uniquely bridges gaps. Music gives hope to those who may otherwise be hopeless. Despite our quickly gentrifying neighborhoods, you see a real mix of people at music shows.

Northeast historically has been the only neighborhood where I felt safe in Portland. I know not everyone will understand why I feel that way. Maybe it's because they can't see what's under the surface, or they are not bombarded daily with images of brutality and injustice toward their own people. I can only afford to live in the neighborhood I grew up in because I am working with Portland Community Reinvestment Initiatives, which has programs to help low to moderate income Portland families find reasonable housing. I still see a lot of Black Lives Matter yard signs, but if nobody on your block is Black, what does it mean?

Issues of racism are still tangible: if I see a car tailgating me too close, I check to see if it looks like an undercover cop car, and I feel a creeping paranoia, even though I have done nothing wrong. A few days ago, at a venue, a White bouncer checked my purse at the door. I didn't see him checking anybody else's purse. I asked him about that. He said he did check others’. Another nearby White man said his bag had also been checked. And I told them, “Thank you. I needed to be reassured that I wasn't being discriminated against. I needed to hear that.”

I want to live without the fear that one of the White people I am surrounded by daily, wants to see my whole race dead. It's not that I only want to live with people who look like me. If that were the case, I'd move to the South. I want to live here, where I've built my career and musical family. I've been dreaming about a Portland where I can affordably live next to neighbors of other races, and we'd feel genuinely neighborly: act as friends, talk, have block parties, and have our kids play together. I would like Portlanders to work towards racial healing through art so that we could look back and say, “We're proud. We put in the hard work.” How would it feel to enjoy the fruits of that labor?


1 comments have been posted.

Thank you, Qeciyeew'yew, for this essay and for your beautiful words. I was born in Portland and lived and worked there for about a decade as an adult before being driven out by cost of living/rent prices. I'm a writer and was part of a thriving Native American arts community in the city. Around the time I left I watched so many of my friends also leave. I miss Portland. I miss that community. I often wonder how many BIPOC artists have left the city. What the city has lost in terms of all that talent and skill and creativity. It makes me sad. I too dream of a Portland where I could live among other artists from a wide diversity of cultures and stories and ancestors. I'll add my prayers to yours and maybe one day we can find it again. Bless up.

Melissa Bennett | May 2023 | Silverton, OR

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