'Wave Don't Die': Chicago's Activist Music Scene
How a New Generation of Artists & Activists Are Affecting the World
Words by Jake Krez • Photos by Katrina Tarzian & Aris
It’s a scene that’s becoming all too familiar in these turbulent times: a large group of protesters clogging downtown streets, disrupting corporate commerce and planting themselves on the ground with their hands up. Once again our city’s voice stand up for a fallen friend, brother, son as thousands poured onto Michigan Ave this past Sunday to stand up against the latest brutal police shooting, this one that left 18-year-old Paul O’Neil dead. Once again the Chicago Police Department trotted out a list of reasons to try and explain. Once again Rahm Emanuel pursed his lips, gripped the podium and dipped his head to the floor in a gesture that has come to embody the greater mentality on the subject. And once again, another young man didn’t come home because of the itchy trigger finger of one of those lives in blue. With hearts heavy and spirits waning, the pain is once again palpable.
In Chicago, the pain is always real. Whether bullets originate behind badges, briefcases or bs, the pain associated with loss rarely subsides in the country’s murder capital. The last half decade or so has seen a rise though in local youth with a message, with a manifesto, with something to prove and a means to do it. As we continue down this latest path towards social justice, we do so with the backing and understanding of one of the most important artistic communities in America or the world at large and the support of a contingent of young people locally that refuse to bow to the status quo. The result is one of the most fully realized movements we’ve seen in post-modern America.
In July of 2013, a group of young Chicagoans gathered in Ohio for an inaugural meeting of forward-thinking black youth to be called the Black Youth Project 100, later trimmed to ‘BYP’. While members from across the country met, they did so with the backdrop of George Zimmerman’s acquittal for shooting unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida. An act of violence that seems all too familiar in today’s environment, Zimmerman’s acquittal was the first punch in the gut in what has become a national fistfight over political and policing tactics in America. Malcolm London, local poet, rapper and activist remembers the feeling amongst those in attendance at the conference and the effect it had moving forward.
“I remember the night the BYP100 became a mobilizing force and it was the night that George Zimmerman was acquitted and it just so happened that BYP was running a retreat for 100 organizers from around the country who all happened to be just outside of Chicago,” said Kevin Coval. “I remember that night talking to Malcolm and realizing what was going on and we’d met at an area downtown and took over the plaza at Congress & Michigan. This was different because it was a march and occupation movement led by young black folks at the center who created something that had reverberations we’re feeling now.”
Three years ago doesn’t seem that long ago. 2013 turned out to be a new beginning for artistry here in Chicago, that year giving rise to a pair of movements that have come to dictate both the personality and outlook of the city on an international scale. While the activism has been a constant on the city’s streets, the music in the Second City has grown to become arguably the most vibrant locale for art and expression the country has to offer, producing quickly-rising talents like Chance The Rapper, Vic Mensa, Eryn Allen Kane, NoName and plenty more via a movement known locally as the Chicago Renaissance. It’s a movement with beginnings that differ from the typified motif of what contemporary expression can look and feel like and one that does so with an acutely-informed mindset that at it’s essence is wholly Chicago. It also rose to prominence off the popularity of Drill music, the nefarious, gunshot-riddled tales of the darker sides of the city. Without it, many current stars may have never emerged on a national scale. With the spotlight on the city, the thoughtful, poetic underbelly of the city’s hip-hop and larger music scene found a way to flip it to their own advantage.
“We're not in the business of forgetting. We're making sure that you know what's happening, you can't say that you don't know, whether it makes it into your art or not, you can't say you don't know," said activist Kush Thompson. "What's happening with Vic and Chance, I hope they continue to talk about the things they talk about. Kids at Lolla who turn up and don't listen to the message, I hope they get it. As an activist a lot of time we sound like a broken record and kids don't want to hear us, but if they're favorite rapper is talking about the same things it makes delivering our message much easier and well-received."
While the rest of the country astonished at the brash callousness of Chief Keef and the subsequent Drill movement, another side of the city was quietly developing a sound and a culture that would eventually utilize the spotlight earned through Drill to espouse the sort of inclusive messages that often pace large-scale artistic movements. The same way Grandmaster Flash recounted life in the projects on “The Message” at the beginning of New York City’s time as the central hub of hip-hop, so too does Chance explain the subtleties of growing up in the country’s most segregated city amidst hectic gunfire on songs like “Paranoia”. While Drill did much to report on the circumstances of those living in some of Chicago’s more forgotten corners, the cross-section of activism and music truly found a home with a community of artists who approached the craft with a different mindset based more in social change than fancy belts. That’s not to say either is wrong. Those who paint Drill with a wide brush do so without understanding the importance of those voices telling their stories. Yes, the guns, lyrical content and general hype did much to build up the genre, but at the essence of the sound was embattled young men and women living in some of of the country’s most disenfranchised neighborhoods speaking on what they saw on a day to day basis. In a city and a country that increasingly focuses on the three inches in front of their face, allowing those in the Gold Coast to get it for even a moment was a major win.
The nucleus of the side of the scene many across the country have only just started to finally uncover began with after-school poetry programs YouMedia and Young Chicago Authors that at once introduced poetry as a cool, powerful creative tool and brought together a collection of teenagers from across the city with backgrounds as diverse as Western Ave is long. For a city that has long suffered from misunderstandings between those that inhabit the ‘most segregated city in America’ the small fact that kids from the West side, south side and north side were choosing to spend their time after school explaining their individual realities to one another is no small feat. That crossing of boundaries manifests itself today in many ways, including SaveMoney, the vaunted hip-hop collective which can point directly at the programs run by Coval and Hawkins as their origin. At the core of where that all began though is the idea and practice of social justice, long a tenant of a city that has produced names like Jane Addams, Gwendolyn Brooks & Jesse Jackson, among many others. Today, the idea mentioned in songs, raps and videos is brought to life and pushed as a progressive agenda for change by those on the ground floor, people like Page May, Bella Bahhs, Asha Ramsby and Kush Thompson. For her part, Thompson has emerged as a powerful voice, unafraid to go to jail for her beliefs or let others know how she feels. Having recently been taken in by Police for demonstrating at Freedom Square, the embedded protest on the city’s west side standing up against the CPD’s alleged use of a ‘black site’ to bring citizens in Homan Square.
“This has been happening, this isn’t new, black kids didn’t start dying in the last five years,” said Thompson. “There’s this demand for people to talk about what’s happening and when artists ignore it the public calls them out on it even if they’re not hip to what’s going on it’s the duty of artists to acknowledge what’s going on. I’ve seen that change, that the artists here are more willing to be that reporter for what’s happening here.”
Just over a year ago Nico Segal teamed up with Chance The Rapper and the Social Experiment to release SURF, a highly-conceptual project which became the first free project available on iTunes that spoke to the subsequent movements of independence and diagonal thinking. The project was a huge win for Chance and the team, but one that came at a rather precarious time for the movement at large. Only a few months prior one of the catalysts for what has become the Renaissance passed away suddenly at the age of 38. ‘Brother’ Mike Hawkins, ‘Brother Mike’ as he was affectionately called by students and staff at YouMedia, an after-school program that he helped found and used as a center to help shape the young minds that today dictate the near future of our city. It’s an effort that has manifested itself across the city in many ways, with each disciple of the collective going about things in their own way.
“On a real level, I have to give it up: yesterday we had our 15th Open Mike, Brother Mike’s daughters came through, and his girl and just remembering, we were kids in a library, said London. “All of us were just kids who, I attribute it to Brother Mike, to Kevin Coval, to folks who gave us spaces. It wasn’t that mogs weren’t always making art, but we had that Louder Than A Bomb, of having spaces to just go to.”
Brother Mike’s passing was an upsetting but important moment for many who found themselves squarely positioned between music and activism. The day they found out, Chance and Malcolm convened at the latter’s home. Sitting in his bedroom, going over the memories, stories and laughter from years past, they made a pact to create a similar space to affect the next generation. Thus, Open Mike was born. Since beginning just over a year ago the monthly event has brought together high school students from across the country to express themselves in an open environment, watched closely by the likes of Chance, London and the deep roster of like-minded wordsmiths and progressives who are at once pushing forward their own personal agendas while laying a path for those who come after them.
“I grew up in YouMedia and Brother Mike hosted YouMedia and he was a very conscious person and he infused that into his art,” said Ric Wilson. “Everyone thought it was wack at the time but we couldn’t curse at YouMedia, we couldn’t be caught putting people down, oppressing them, that same foundation and rules structure is in YCA and it really just set the tone for what all of this was going to become. With a beginning like that, it’s not totally surprising that we have the kind of artists we do in the places they are.”
Change comes in many ways. Jamila Woods affected important but subtle change in the way she approached explaining her experience as a black woman in America today, helping to take ownership of both her own narrative and that of fellow young women who grew up with similar experiences. For Vic Mensa it’s a bit more brash; in your face. “16 Shots” the lead single off his recent album, There’s A Lot Going On, left little room for interpretation, the title itself a reference to the number of bullets fired at Laquan McDonald. His harrowing Lollapalooza performance alongside armored police impersonators might have been construed as a publicity stunt had he not been shoulder to shoulder with protesters in the weeks and months prior, marching in step down State St. and Michigan Ave. For Chance, it’s about example. While Vic may be advocating for change with a middle finger in the air, Chance has affected the status quo by creating a newfound image of what the connotation of a rapper is. A father, a role model and a positive voice for his city all at the age of 23, Chano is proving that any stereotype of what a rapper can be is far off in 2016.
While these names have found their way to the national audience, a next wave of Chicago’s scene has emerged as well, one which at once takes notes from their trailblazing counterparts and builds on the movement in real time. A pair of those voices are Malcolm London and Ric Wilson, two young men who have found success in transitioning their messages from the streets to the studio.
“I like to think I’m the intersection of both worlds, as much work as Chance and Vic do they’re still a little removed in some ways from the on the ground shit of everyday shit. I might do perform in Dublin or some shit but I’m still back on the west side in a classroom for little to no money,” said London, who recently released the video for politically-charged single "Charlie". “There’s like this soundtrack to the movement here now. What Chance is saying in his music, whether it be biblical or this belief that I am great or whatever, kids are absorbing that shit. They’re hearing the words, they’re like ‘fuck the labels’. That’s an anti-establishment song, that’s an anti-corporation song. We’re talking about peace and love, we’re talking about justice, that’s some shit that should not be hard to do, we’re just doing it in a creative way.”
While London’s name has long been present in the conversation around activism in the city for his outspoken poetry and trip to the United Nations, among many other progressive actions, Wilson has emerged as perhaps the concentrate version. Whereas London came up as strictly a poet and activist with friends in the hip-hop realm, Wilson was a couple steps behind, two years younger to be exact and thus emerged on a scene with considerably more attention, attention that is equally important for the progression of music and the city at large.
“I think it’s something that’s going to continue into the future,” said Wilson. “This wave is the most interesting wave because the first wave happened, the second wave happened because of the first and now we have the latest one kind of alone. We’re all friends but it’s a separation, Smino’s not blowing up because of anyone: Ravyn, Monte, Femdot, all of them, this is super exciting. Now it’s like we don’t have to go anywhere, that first wave brought the resources and now we’re working with it.”
In the years since the latest chapter of Chicago’s activist culture began to unfold once again, organized groups of young, often African-American citizens have taken to the city’s streets to demand changes in policing, social welfare, school closings and much more. In the process, actions such as ‘shutting down’ big box stores along Michigan Avenue during the holidays by creating human chains in front of their doors have aimed to make avoiding the issues virtually impossible for those who are fortunate to live in areas of the city’s without them.
In a recent piece for the Chicago Defender, writer Ken Hare compared the current crop of young, motivated activists organizing for change to movements past, writing: “In a sight rarely seen in over 50 years, some are calling the New Era Chicago movement – a revival of Black Power.” New Era Chicago is but one of many organizations in the city including BYP100, Assata’s Daughters, FLY and more who are continuing a tradition of peaceful unrest that has paced this city since it’s earliest days.
There’s no denying at this point that the spotlight is squarely set on Chicago from a multitude of angles. Already recognized as one of the most important political cities in America, it has become representative of the times we find ourselves in as Americans. For the youth at the center of the country’s most racially divided and top-down corrupt city, the cross-section of both music and social activism is an unavoidable one. We’re at an interesting time in the history of hip-hop music in particular. Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” has become a rallying cry for those speaking out injustices in streets across the map, at rallies recently at Freedom Square, children could be seen dancing to Chance’s “No Problems”. At a time when the genre has emerged as the most contemporarily relevant genre in music, rap music has continued to serve as the most unifying force in popular art today.
“I think the wave right now is not going to live very long, it’s just the time of the now. Artistically this is literally an extension of myself: I party and T up and I care about things. That’s really why I wanted to make honest real music and I think that just shows because we come from an honest real city. I think it was Carl Sandburg or Studs Turkel but they said ‘loving Chicago is like loving a beautiful woman with a broken nose’. You see the beauty but you can’t ignore the ugliness. From the potholes to the graveyards, you see the blood but you also see the sunflowers and the kids, that’s just been Chicago from the politicians to the niggas on the corner and it just reflects in the music, there’s just no city like Chicago,” said, London. ““I’d be a fool to say that any of us aren’t thinking about legacy and what we’re leaving on the earth but I think that’s because we care about the shit that we’re doing, our craft. The moment is beautiful, the time is beautiful, I’m just excited to be a part of it and I’m really glad to see the wedding of the culture and the music and the activism.”