THE MID-WESTERN CITY OF CHICAGO HAS BEEN HIGHLIGHTED AS A CITY BLIGHTED BY VIOLENCE. AND IT IS VIOLENT, BUT BENEATH THE SURFACE THERE’S A SOULFUL SCENE PEACEFULLY CO-EXISTING WITH THE ROWDY DRILL SCENE.
Words by Lily Mercer
Christened “Chiraq” by locals, Barack Obama’s hometown bears more than a passing resemblance to the Middle Eastern country the nickname references – if only in mortality rates. But unlike Iraq, Chicago’s music scene is flourishing. The drill scene is the jewel of Chicago hip hop, with its high-energy and heavy baseline. With a simple, short rhyme pattern, it’s the biggest sound coming out of the city, thanks to artists like Chief Keef and King Louie. But alongside this energetic, aggressive sound, there’s a gentler, more soulful scene emerging. Right now the golden boy is Chance the Rapper, a 20 year old with sharp observations on the negativity happening around him. His fellow creatives: Vic Mensa, Lucki Eck$, Kami de Chukwu, Martin $ky, Mick Jenkins, Jean Deaux and Noname Gypsy have the same peaceful outlook. And whether singing or rapping, they’re on the brink of a new wave of neo-soul influenced hip hop.
Naturally these artists still touch on the depressing side of life in their city, though they never glamourise it. There’s an objective view on the violence that is inflicted on their lives. Thelonious Martin, who grew up between Chicago and New Jersey, says, “Someone you know has lost someone, it’s affecting everyone even if not directly. Everywhere I go people are asking me about the violence in the city.” Even the friendship groups seen by many young Chicagoans as an escape, are marred by sadness as it becomes common to lose peers to the violence. As Chance states on ‘Nostalgia’ a song from his debut release, ‘10 Day’, “Round here we lose friends like every week. I like to think we playing a long game of hide and go seek.”
Some of Chicago’s musicians were gang members themselves before their music careers took off, and the ones that weren’t, inevitably know people involved. It’s impossible to avoid it completely. Two very different artists like Chance the Rapper and Chief Keef have grown up in fairly close proximity to each other. Keef came under the spotlight with his video, “Don’t Like” which reached Chicago’s biggest rap export, Mr Kanye West, who remixed the track. Keef is seen by some as a rap villain, thanks in part to the public’s shock after he tweeted, “Ha ha” following the death of his rival, Lil Jojo. Despite the negative views some have of him, Keef is arguably Chicago’s most influential musician. But don’t let Kanye hear that. His simplistic style of rapping and repetitive Young Chop production have pioneered the dominant sound in rap today.
Another rapper to be picked up on by West was the heavily tatted King Louie, who contributed the only featured verse on ‘Yeezus’. On the track, he comments on the violence, void of emotion as he states, “It was real if it made the news,” a conclusion that you can easily comprehend when you consider that 506 people were shot in 2012 according to the Huffington Post. With such a high rate of gun crime in the city, it’s understandable that only the most serious offences make the evening news. And the sense of pride which you could assume from this statement, is chilling. His emotionless narrative is not uncommon amongst others from Chicago. Amongst the glorification that comes from rappers, it’s artists outside of the Drill scene, like Chance and Vic Mensa that are taking a more critical approach to their city’s governing. On the song ‘Time Is Money’, Vic confidently laments the issues he’s grown up questioning:
if you gon’ die, might as well die young tryin’ to be optimistic with the politicians cut schools, buy guns but when the shots is lickin’ at the ones that’ll lose they son instead they send ‘em to private schools and pull back on public funds, while functioning as if they could begin to fathom where the fuck we comin’ from sometimes i hold my tongue, talkin’ feels useless i used to point in circles for wasted years lost in excuses”
The inquiring grief that often blurs into casualness observation that Mensa has accepted the Chicago way of life. Later in the song, he admits that given the chance, he’d ask God the right questions: “Like, why you let babies get shot while babies is killin’? / All because the system that raised me from grade school made me the villain.” Besides this, it seems asking questions about the violence is pointless because it’s incomprehensible. There’s no explanation for why so many people are shot and killed each year. And so young people have stopped wondering and begun to accept it.
Chicago’s murder rate is four times that of New York. Though the figures for 2013 are lower than they were at this time last year, there doesn’t appear to be a great deal of change. Over the long weekend of Independence Day on July 4th, over 70 people were shot, including 12 fatalities. Two of the non-fatal victims were aged only 5 and 7. Shockingly, this isn’t uncommon, with children often falling victim to traumatic injuries as they get caught up in the crossfire.
Aged 20, Vic Mensa says of the statistics, “Numbers sound crazy, but I feel like we’re all desensitised to it [here]. People in other places just look and sound shocked. My girl told me there was a shooting outside of her friend’s house in the North Side. She heard a bunch of gun shots and it turns out, right outside six people got killed one night. I wasn’t even like, “Damn they got killed?” I was like, “They got killed on the North Side?” I don’t hear about that all that often. But you hear about shootings every week so you look at different ways of seeing it. It just seems a lot less severe to you unless someone close to you gets shot, ‘cause it’s just a number. It’s constantly being regurgitated by media outlets.”
Mensa speaks from his home on the South Side of Chicago, an area that has played its own part in the city’s criminal landscape as he explains, “I look out my window and I’ve seen shootings on this block and people have died on this block, people I know have died close to here. The little girl, Hadiya Pendleton, who was like the news of the world when she got shot, [was] shot five blocks from my house. I never gang-banged, that wasn’t ever me growing up and still isn’t. I think it’s stupid and senseless violence and killing, whats the point? But I understand it because people grow up not feeling like they have any worth and that life has any worth.”
While some of the violence is linked to actual gangs, there are lots of armed teenagers on the streets of Chicago that are simply acting out of fear and self-defence. It’s easy to buy a gun there, so easy that Chance observes on ‘Paranoia’, “Round here, it’s easier to buy a gun than it is to find a fucking parking spot.” Similarly, it’s almost as easy to buy a gun as it is to buy a car. Though guns can not be legally sold without a permit in Chicago, they can be bought easily on the outskirts, which coincidentally includes the city’s rough South Side. “As a kid growing up I seen the elevation of how guns were used, at least in people around me, my age.”
Mensa explains, “It started out where a couple people had guns, even round seventh grade, eighth grade. A few people got guns and had access to someone they can call, a brother or cousin who has a gun. In high school, I remember the thing was shooting at niggas. Like, “Yeah I shot at they ass,” or “I fuck around and shoot at them niggas;” these are common things to hear. Then like 16, 17, that’s when motherfuckers really just start shooting people. There was a point in time, when you would shoot at people to scare them, now you don’t make the call, you got the gun. They really don’t shoot at motherfuckers no more – they shoot to kill.”
Chicago has a rich history of gang culture, as the home of Larry Hoover’s Gangster Disciples and the rival Vice Lords. Housing projects like Cabrini-Green and others in the south side of Chicago were havens for young black men to make a great deal of money selling drugs in the seventies and eighties. In buildings, they constructed a surrogate hive, caving out walls to create passages allowing them to escape into the neighbouring buildings when under pursuit. If you’ve ever seen the movie Candyman, you’ve seen Cabrini-Green, as it became the backdrop for the nineties movie. The projects were eventually destroyed to allow for the gentrification of the neighbourhood bordering Old Town Chicago, a popular tourist and college student hangout. With most of the subsidised housing relocated to the South Side, rival gangs like the Gangsta Disciples and affiliated gangs were moved into housing developments often with or near to Vice Lords or Latin Kings. It’s believed that this escalated problems, as rival gang members became neighbours to their former enemies.
Considering that today’s generation grew up in a similar environment, it’s understandable how the issues have trickled down into their lives. For eighteen year old rapper Martin $ky, the problems increased as he was growing up. “It wasn’t so bad as a kid. I didn’t really know about how bad it was outside of the block I stayed on. It was peaceful, and everyone on the block knew each other and looked out for each other. As I grew up though, it all changed and I eventually had to move to the ‘burbs. The city is really bad in some parts. In some areas, gun shots are a part of the day just like the sun coming up and setting is. There’s a bright side to the city though. There’s areas further north that are full of positive people.”
There are obvious links between the violence and the music, such as the case of Chief Keef and Lil Jojo, which is said to be based on gang differences. Many musicians in Chicago have been personally affected by the problems caused by gangs. Mensa agrees that music has a positive role, but it’s not always therapeutic, he says, “At times, but it also propagates it too. The violent music and violence all rotate in a cycle and it’s not like the violence exists cus of the music or the music exists strictly cus of the violence. But they definitely influence each other. When people blame violence in the city on Chief Keef and them, it’s stupid to me because it didn’t start with them. They’re really just a product of that environment so I don’t know how angry you can be with them saying what the fuck they know.” $ky makes a similar point, “It’sall some of these kids know really. They’re just rapping about what they see and live. It’s a cycle of fear. Actions and reactions. Misunderstandings. It’s bad. You can hear it all in the music.” Lucki Eck$, a seventeen year old rapper from Chicago’s west side, says the link between music and violence has weakened “[It’s] not how it was last year. Like when Chief Keef gang- banged in his music, it was bad. But he had to change his content for the industry, so people followed him.”
When asked what the prospects are for young people growing up in the city today, Eck$ responds, “I honestly don’t know anymore.” For a lot of young people, future prospects are dim, Mensa explains the significance of this, “I feel like that’s the biggest factor; life just looks like a dead end for a lot of people. Nobody in the hood knows astronauts. Niggas don’t really have a lot of hope or see too many avenues other than the ones that are apparent to them.” He continues, “I feel like it just contributes to the disease of giving no fucks. That’s the biggest problem to me, that’s the biggest contributing factor to the violence, that young niggas really don’t care and if you don’t care about yourself, you don’t care about the next person and there’s no telling what you’ll do.”
He also blames parents for causing violence to be so ingrained in Chicago’s youth, “I feel like kids grow up hostile cus that’s the energy they’re raised in. Mothers on the train on the grade line just be smacking the shit out of their kids in the head like, “What the fuck is wrong with you? Why you ain’t eat those hot Cheetos?!” Motherfuckers grow up polluted. Family life doesn’t exist, fathers are absent. Mothers have kids mad young, don’t really know how to raise them or handle them so they resort to violence because that’s what they were raised on.” Explaining the bitterness that spreads from this, Mensa says, “It makes sense that’s the energy they give out to the world cus that’s all they been given. The school system is all abusive, there’s not a lot of love that people are raised with so they get older and they don’t have a lot of love because no one ever gave that to them.”
This statement is supported by Thelonious Martin, “With any problems, we have to start at the home, making sure we raise the children the right way and making sure that plant the seeds for the future.” When asked if music has a therapeutic role in Chicagoans lives, he says, “I know it does especially with friends with Malcolm London, he’s a clear example of using your craft for good and not letting your environment be a limiting factor but something that helps you grow. It’s great to see how music can positively affect the youth, whether through poetry, music programs, or even just stopping by the high schools and passing out tickets to shows, music has always a release, and it’s great to see it working in a positive way.” In order to promote a solution, he suggests a program for young writers, “I’d say join Young Chicago Authors, that’s one of the groups that encourages kids to take pride in their words and know the strength of knowledge.”
It’s people like Malcolm London that are attempting to change life for young people in Chicago. At the tender age of 19, London uses his poetry to provide a voice for his activism, which has even seen him participate in a T.E.D. talk. Like Chance, Vic, Thelonious and the other musicians mentioned in this article, he sees a future beyond the destruction that exists in his city. Refusing to be held back, it’s people like London that are likely to enforce the necessary changes for youth in Chicago.
Originally published in Viper Magazine’s 2013 Zine.