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You learned in this semester’s first issue of the Pilot that I am a Netflix addict. Well, here’s something else you might not know about me: I love rap music.
I have almost 3,000 hip-hop songs in my iTunes library, and many more in Spotify playlists. The genre is capable of so much – from the political prose of Common to the witty wordplay of Cam’ron – and it contributes to music just the same as rock and pop have. Jon Caramanica, a New York Times music critic, said in an interview last year that “if you are working at a major national publication writing about music, and you do not have a grammar of contemporary black music, you should not be writing about popular music.”
Since we’re now talking about hip-hop, it’s time to address the elephant in the room: gangsta rap. For those who don’t know, this subset of the genre is characterized by aggressive lyrics that reference sex, drugs and violence. It’s been utilized by some of the most critically acclaimed rappers of all time, including Jay-Z and Eminem. Gangsta rappers claim that what they’re describing in their lyrics is part of a musical persona, which is a valid point.
The same can also be said of musicians like Queen’s Freddie Mercury. In “Bohemian Rhapsody,” he describes himself as “just a poor boy” who committed murder. This song is considered by many to be the best of modern music, yet no one is up in arms about his “Mama, just killed a man, put a gun against his head” lyric. The point of music, like any other art form, is telling a story. And many times, musicians use creative license to do so. Although Jay-Z doesn’t deal drugs in the Marcy Projects anymore, his past informs his present in terms of lyrical content.
However, for today’s rappers in Chicago, there is no distinction between artistry and reality. Many view this trend as detrimental to society, but I think of it as a wake-up call.
The Windy City has always struggled with violent crime. In the 2013 calendar year, 2,194 shootings and 431 homicides occurred, according to the Chicago Tribune. And as of Feb. 10, there have been 124 shootings and 31 homicides in 2014. In recent years, Chicago has had a higher murder rate than New York and Los Angeles, leading some to crown Chicago as the “murder capital of America.” Many Chicagoans, especially those living in crime-plagued areas, have begun referring to their city as “Chiraq,” a portmanteau of Chicago and Iraq.
It’s sad to think that citizens and rappers alike see their neighborhoods as war zones. This, unfortunately, was made abundantly clear in an eight-part documentary titled “Chiraq,” produced and published early this year by the music website Noisey. In interviewing rappers, gangs, police and priests, the miniseries paints a grim picture of the current state of Chicago and the rap music many scapegoat for it.
Known as “drill music,” Caramanica describes this new kind of hip-hop as “unmediated and raw and without bright spots, focused on anger and violence. The instinct is to call this tough, unforgiving and concrete-hard music joyless, but in truth it’s exuberant in its darkness.”
And that’s the scary part: how these rappers are making talk of murder and other nefariousness so appealing. Musically, drill music is incredibly catchy, with booming bass and haunting melodies. And this is complemented by lyrics that convey “a sense of the struggle bedeviling the communities that produce much of the music,” Caramanica says.
Arguably the most famous of these drillers is Chief Keef, an 18-year-old who’s featured throughout much of the “Chiraq” documentary. Born Keith Cozart and raised in the dangerous Englewood neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side, the dreadlocked rhymesayer has become a phenomenon in the rap world. Despite having been confined to his grandmother’s apartment on house arrest these past few years for selling heroin at age 15 and shooting at police almost a year later, his homemade music videos have garnered millions of hits on YouTube. Keef’s most-watched song, “Love Sosa,” has 37 million views and depicts him and his buddies drinking, smoking and making gun motions at the camera.
To be honest, his videos are quite mesmerizing. Most mainstream hip-hop videos are celebrations, showing rappers driving fancy cars or popping champagne bottles. But this isn’t the case with Keef and his colleagues. You can’t help but get drawn into this posturing, this show of force meant to convey the superiority of his gang over your gang.
“He’s a kid. He’s growing up on camera in front of everyone on the Internet,” Keef’s manager said in the “Chiraq” documentary. “When people saw the videos, they could see the authenticity. This is the real deal; it’s nothing fabricated.”
And this authenticity has lifted Keef to dizzying new heights. Interscope Records signed him to a deal reportedly worth $6 million. He has his own line of Beats headphones. He moved to a huge mansion in the wealthy suburb of Northbrook, where he races ATVs in the backyard. And his Instagram account is even more telling. One post shows him holding five iPhones; another shows 20-plus electric toy cars for his infant daughter to drive.
Keef hasn’t been able to fully leave trouble behind. He has been hit with several paternity suits, along with a marijuana arrest, a 110-mph speeding charge and a stint in rehab. But the events of Sept. 4, 2012, epitomize the South Side’s new life as Chiraq.
Joseph Coleman, an 18-year-old from Englewood, was an aspiring rapper by the name of Lil Jojo. He was also a member of the Gangster Disciples, the chief rival to Keef’s Black Disciples. In the months leading up to Sept. 4, Jojo and Keef were threatening each other on Twitter and in their music videos.
“Social media isn’t just the engine for drill music’s crazy ascent to popularity. It’s become one of the main lines of communication in Chicago’s increasingly violent gang wars,” Noisey’s Thomas Morton said in the “Chiraq” documentary. “The threats, beefs and callouts on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube end up being settled on the streets.”
And that’s what ended up happening on Sept. 4. At around 3 in the afternoon, Jojo was deep in Black Disciple territory, and he tweeted the specific intersection he was at – 69th & Princeton. Just four hours later, unknown assailants found Jojo and fatally shot him in a drive-by. “There was little blood, but Coleman’s eyes were dilated, cold and fixed,” the Chicago Sun-Times chronicled. “‘It was like the look of death,’ another witness said.”
What makes this situation even more disgusting was that Keef joked about the murder on Twitter literally hours after Jojo died: “Its Sad Cuz… Jojo Wanted To Be Jus Like Us #LMAO.” After facing a well-justified online backlash, Keef later claimed that his account had been “hacked.” If his account was really broken into, then why is the tweet still up two years later? It’s absolutely monstrous.
Although police still haven’t identified Jojo’s killers, I don’t think it would be a stretch to say they were probably associated with Keef and his gang.
I was initially going to title this piece “Why Chief Keef Should Be Your Least Favorite Rapper,” to go along with the headline of Josh Benson’s music column (see page 43). While you could certainly make the case for this superlative, I believe it’s important to look at the deeper meaning of all of this.
Why do people join gangs? They seek protection, structure and support. These things and more are either lacking or absent in the crime-ridden areas of major cities like Chicago. In the South Side, shooting victims have to be driven 10 miles north to the nearest trauma center, and many die in the ambulance. Housing projects in the area have been torn down, leaving low-income people without a decent place to live. Eliza Solowiej, executive director of First Defense Legal Aid, said in the “Chiraq” documentary that “all the resources are segregated, the people are segregated, so people in Chicago may only know of [the South Side] on the news. There’s no crossing boundaries into communities that are poverty-stricken if you’re not part of that.”
Many of these rappers seem to be products of their environment. And maybe that’s the point of gangsta rap: bringing to light the symptoms of urban decay.