Hip-hop dispensary Green Muse is a Black-owned business trying to survive in Portland — a city that has been completely reshaped by gentrification.
Against the drab backdrop of Portland rain, Green Muse’s bright yellow and green converted craftsman home stands out on the residential block just off Northeast Killingworth. Inside — with hip-hop music blaring, vivid graffiti murals covering the walls, and classic records from artists like A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, and Dr. Dre on display — Green Muse establishes itself differently from other dispensaries.
When co-owners Karanja Crews and Nicole Kennedy opened their doors in 2018 forming a thread between hip-hop and cannabis wasn’t just for branding purposes, but a need to recognize Portland’s Black community that’s been pushed out and overpoliced due to gentrification.
“Hip-hop has always been policed, there’s so much stigma around the genre and it’s contents,” Crews said. “Just like cannabis.”
For decades, cannabis has been weaved into hip-hop culture. Cannabis increasing popularity and usage are in part thanks to hip-hop; this is the thesis of the world’s first Black-owned hip-hop dispensary, Green Muse.
Karanja Crews grew up not too far from Green Muse during a time where gangs and drugs were running rampant within the area. After getting out of the neighborhood, he went on to pursue a career in education, graduating from Portland State University. While Kennedy’s decade long career as a nurse inspired her interest in the health benefits of cannabis. The duo met while attending a local teaching conference organized by Crews called Teaching With a Purpose. The conference trains teachers, features workshops, scholars and concerts with various artists. Their common interest in hip-hop and cannabis helped format Green Muse (which was originally called Green Hop). Both recreational smokers, Kennedy has always been interested in the health benefits of cannabis and the scientific backing behind the plant. Understanding the reproach that both hip-hop and weed have experienced throughout the decades, they saw Green Muse as an opportunity to pay homage to a culture that made legalization possible in the first place.
“We saw a need in the cannabis industry and how white-washed it is,” Kennedy said. “We decided to start a business that would pay homage to our culture. Hip-hop really paved the way for cannabis legalization. We want to racially diversify the cannabis industry because it’s about 95% white.”
Both Northeast Portland natives, they grew up during a time when the golden era of hip-hop was on the cusp of playing a dominant role in pop culture. For Karanja growing up an era of conscious rap helped plant the seeds during his youth.
“Artists like X Clan, KRS-One, A Tribe Called Quest, and other artists were what I saw being played on MTV,” Crews said. “As a kid, I was surrounded by a lot of negativity activity. Hip-hop was my outlet.”
Hip-hop is a culture that has always been unapologetic about its love for weed, an attitude that has led to more weed acceptance, despite the culture and rap artists experiencing constant stigma and disrespect.
“We took the term by Roxanne Shante — reintrification,” Crews said. “I grew up in this neighborhood where there was a majority of us living in it. I saw the transition and when the opportunity opened up, I jumped on it.”
The pot shop is the last Black-owned building in the historic King neighborhood—named after Martin Luther King Jr.—despite frequent offers from outsiders to cash in. The efforts to combat gentrification aren’t just on the backs of business owners but on those who own property too.
Portland isn’t only known for its early acceptance of weed; it’s known for being weird, white, and racist. Northeast Portland has historically been known for its prominent African-American population. But, over the past 20 years, African-American residents have been priced out of the neighborhoods they’ve lived in. Racism in Portland begins with homeownership. Since the late 1800s, Black people in Portland have faced extreme barriers — from home discrimination to insidious bank lenders — that have not only kept them from buying affordable homes but priced them out to keep Black American’s from increasing their own wealth status. From the destruction of homes to the construction of highways, Portland—along with other cities around the country—have established various ways to keep their cities white.
“A Black woman owns this property. She’s really one of the only Black property owners on this block,” Crews said. “She just held on to the property and tons of people were trying to get her to sell and she said no. Then we came along and she said, ‘yes this is what I’ve been waiting for.”
Just across the street, there was a Black-owned business called One Stop Records. That business was hit with fines and violations until they could no longer afford the fees. Today, a glossy, white-owned tea bar stands in its place.
Educating the next generation
For Green Muse, education is a big part of their mantra. As of right now, only 1% of Black people are actually involved in the cannabis industry. It doesn’t help when the costs of opening a business — state law fees, regulatory fees, budtending license — keep young people of color from entering the industry.
To combat those barriers, Kennedy and Crews created Green Hop Academy, in partnership with Portland Opportunities Industrial Center (POIC), a 10-week internship that evolves into a two-year apprenticeship. The whole goal of the program is about educating people of color about what the cannabis industry entails, teaching them the science behind the product that they’re selling, and providing them with the experience they wouldn’t otherwise have.
“What we’re finding out is that there are people who are ready to get into the industry but they don’t know-how. There are several people who come in and have had their [budtending] license for a year but can’t get a job because they lack the experience,” Kennedy said.
The cannabis industry continues to be one of the fastest-growing industries in the United States—projected to be a $40 billion industry by 2024— but the only ones benefiting from the boom are white men and women. For Black people who have been persecuted for having possession of weed, state policies keep them from working in the cannabis industry due to drug-related offenses. Much of American policy was devised to disenfranchise vulnerable Black communities.
The duo has made it clear that the only way through success is being able to collaborate with their lawmakers when it comes to enacting policies that can either hurt or help people of color. They received a $96,000 grant from the city to help fund Green Hop Academy. During the grand opening, on June 16th, 2018 — on what would have been Tupac Shakur’s 47th birthday—Mayor Ted Wheeler, Congressman Earl Blumenauer, and Commissioner Amanda Fritz spoke highly of the newly minted dispensary shop and their commitment to closing the vast gap in Black-owned businesses.
“We applied for the grant and as we worked through things, we learned what wasn’t working, or what was and what needed to change,” Kennedy said. “As we come across these barriers, it’s just about getting the city to cooperate and how to navigate that.”
Green Hop Academy is tailoring the next generation of cannabis industry insiders. For those just starting out, Kennedy and Crews stress the importance of future cannabis owners to understand the science behind their product. As educators themselves, they’ve always taken an educated first approach to cannabis.
“The whole notion of this academy is to bring more of us into the industry,” Crews said. “We teach cannabis from a more scientific perspective.”
Merging cannabis and hip-hop
Their scientific approach to cannabis also serves as an inspiration for their chart. The chart is complete with various different strains inspired by different rappers: Albina OG, Grandmaster Flowers, Illmatic, and OutKast 1:1. For their OutKast 1:1 strain, the CBD side is symbolized by André 3000 while the THC “partying” side is symbolized by Big Boi. This method helps their customers decide what kind of strain to purchase based on what they intend to feel.
“We basically rename the strains based on the artist,” Crews explained. “We broke down the subgenres of rap — trap, gangsta rap, funk, conscious rap, horrorcore — and aligned that particular vibe with the type of weed.”
When it comes to weed, terms like “Indica” and “Sativa” are considered outdated terms. The duo uses more scientific terms like terpenes, the aromatic oils that give various strains specific scents and give off the different effects, like alertness, or anxiety relief.
“A lot of people come in looking for Sativa and Indica, but that’s really only the physiology of the plant,” Crew said. “We break down the terpenes — the aromatic oils that color cannabis — which are actually the chemicals that are giving you that high, that affect.”
Cannabis isn’t just smoked to get high. It’s also known for its medicinal properties too. It’s been proven that cannabis can help manage chronic pain. With the opioid epidemic taking the lives of thousands of American’s every year, managing pain with weed can be an easier and even safer solution.
“Cannabis is a great alternative to managing pain,” Kennedy said. “You need to really look at the strain content and hone in on a specific strain that’s really going to help [customers] manage their pain.”
Putting Black people at the helm of the weed industry
Cannabis has become more whitewashed over the years, an image that has been branded as luxurious and chic while Black people remain in jail. Disparities between white and Black ownership of cannabis shops are fully apparent, as more and more white people gain a stronghold in the industry, while Black people—who are stigmatized for their cannabis use—continue to be incarcerated at high rates for marijuana possession. Big luxury brands like Beboe and the now-defunct Barney’s created high-end cannabis products and services; they offered glided vape pens, metallic accents, and French-made rolling papers made from organic hemp. Cannabis is now openly being enjoyed by the same consumers who would have vilified the plant years ago, but now weed is a billion-dollar industry.
But Green Muse isn’t just about putting Black people at the helm of the weed industry, it’s also about giving back to the community that birthed them. In the past, they’ve held their Green Hop Fest, a block party with food vendors, live music, and games for people of all ages.
As for Green Muse’s future, like most dispensaries, they’re waiting for cannabis to become legal nationwide. Legalization will not only open up doors for those incarcerated but no longer impose limits on who can access Oreogan weed.
“We’re waiting for weed to be legal federally. That’s something we’re really excited for,” Kennedy explains. “It will increase the market too as Oregon has the best weed, by far.”
Ultimately, Green Muse is all about increasing representation. Their legacy is all about Black empowerment, education, and reminding others that hip-hop is not only a reflection of their community but a call to place the culture at the epicenter of legalization.
“Our goal is to increase that 1% of Black ownership,” Crews said. “It’s a huge undertaking, but we have a responsibility to our culture, to our people.”
Yannise Jean is a freelance writer from Brooklyn. You can follow her @yjeanwrites