Chicago is a city of neighborhoods, each with its own distinct character. One of the most obvious reasons for this variation – an echo of the city’s history that remains a sad fact of life today – is deeply seated and deliberate racial segregation. Highways and train tracks were placed to cut off burgeoning minority neighborhoods, such as Bronzeville on the city’s South Side. Once second only to Harlem as one of the nation’s foremost African-American arts communities, the neighborhood’s cultural center was bulldozed to build the Dan Ryan expressway and the campus of the Illinois Institute of Technology, displacing the neighborhood’s residents and erasing the cultural mecca. Today, affluent neighborhoods thrive only a few blocks from endemic poverty, failing schools, and food deserts. The dueling pressures of gang violence and police brutality only compound these divisions, especially on the city’s South and West Sides.
The local ‘Drill’ scene reflects this violence. Drill is a style of dark, aggressive rap popularized by Chief Keef, which has been widely criticized for glorifying the violent atmosphere on the city’s streets. Out of this strained and divisive sociopolitical climate, a new movement of artists has emerged. Singers and rappers like Chance the Rapper, Noname, Saba, Vic Mensa, Jamila Woods, and Mick Jenkins are at the forefront of Chicago’s creative rebirth, using the power of music to catalyze political change.
Chance’s music is indelibly influenced by the music of the South Side: the Gospel of Chicago’s churches, the R&B of his parents and grandparents, Footwork rhythms, and Rap blasting from the radio. From the beginning, his output has been profoundly musical compared to other recent Chicago rap, like that of the drill scene. On his most recent mixtape Coloring Book, Gospel choirs ring out on “How Great” and “All We Got.” A marimba and a Footwork beat tangle together in “Angels.” Finally, in the spiritually moving track “Finish Line/Drown,” all of the prior influences on the album tie together into a cohesive, yet unique conclusion.
Most of these new Chicago artists follow in the same musical vein. They rap, but they don’t just rap over simple beats; instead, like Chance, they work with a close-knit crew of talented instrumentalists called the Social Experiment. Two rising artists that exemplify the Chicago scene are Noname (fka Noname Gypsy) and Saba. After high-profile collaborations including Noname and Chance’s performance on SNL and Saba’s appearance with Chance on The Late Show, both released records this year packed with unbridled musicality.
Noname’s Telefone showcases skittering, syncopated beats woven around gorgeous vocal harmonies, twinkling keyboards, and woozy synths. Noname’s singsong raps ebb and flow from serious contemplations on Chicago’s violence (“Casket Pretty”) to intimate musings on her personal life (“Yesterday”) to celebrations of neighborhood togetherness (“Diddy Bop”). The entire record balances criticism of the violent situation on the city’s streets and daily life on the South Side with wide-eyed nostalgia for the happier days of her childhood.
Saba’s Bucket List Project is a more diverse album, including the somber, Kendrick-inspired “Church / Liquor Store,” the trap-styled “Westside Bound 3,” and the confident, but disenchanted braggadocio of “World in My Hands.” His music is boldly melodic, mixing virtuosic speed raps with hummable hooks, but it’s always tinged with a certain down-to-earth melancholy that exemplifies his split feelings about his city. In this manner, Saba’s music balances his civic pride with an emphatic concern for Chicago’s future and awareness of its present, painful reality.
These artists have newfound national exposure stemming from Chance’s success as the movement’s figurehead and have created waves nationally, but the local change they have inspired is even more powerful. On his recent tour, he exemplified his passion for civic engagement by organizing voter registration outside concert venues. Additionally, through Chance’s collaborations with the Chicago Children’s Choir, he roots his own musical process within his community. By doing so, he amplifies the voices of Chicagoans and inspires them to tackle the problems of their city.
Josephine Lee is a fixture in the Chicago music scene. As the president and artistic director of the Chicago Children’s Choir (CCC), she has transformed the non-profit into a world-class organization. By providing music education to kids who otherwise wouldn’t receive it in the struggling public school system, the CCC gives Chicago youth the tools to express themselves musically in a safe place. For over fifteen years, Lee has lead the organization that serves 4,400 young people aged 8-18 throughout the city. With the CCC, Lee has had success in constructing “bridges across [borders of] race, religion, socioeconomic, and sexual orientation,” but Chance changed everything. “It wasn’t until the collaboration with Chance that people felt so proud to be with the CCC. People felt they could relate to Chance differently than with [past collaborators] the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Bobby McFerrin.”
Lee met Chance when he was emerging in Chicago’s rap scene as a teenager through her friend Joe Shanahan, a prominent local concert venue owner and music promoter. She “wanted to collaborate, but the timing didn’t work out.” Fortunately, the opportunity to work together again came in early 2016 when Peter Cottontale, a frequent Chance collaborator, contacted her about recording for his new project, Coloring Book, with members of the choir. She immediately agreed. By this time, she felt Chance was ready. “Out in LA, he had a bad lifestyle,” she says. But while he was there, “he had a revelatory moment. Then he came back to Chicago and really changed.” Soon, Lee became deeply involved with the production on the album, bringing current and former members of the choir to sing choral arrangements, as well as instrumentalists to work on five of the album’s tracks. CCC singers sang on “All We Got,” “Finish Line,” and “How Great,” and Lee also assisted in the arrangement of parts of “Same Drugs” and “Summer Friends” during a whirlwind 48 hours in the studio.
Before the album was released, Lee was still conflicted about associating the choir’s name with the project because of its profanity. However, when the album dropped with an official feature for the CCC on opener “All We Got,” she recalls being astounded by the immediate response. Coloring Book “instantly sparked excitement and validation in a sector that we had never gotten before,” as current and former singers beamed with the pride at their involvement with such an important artistic contribution to the city.
One of the singers involved with the Coloring Book sessions was Alex Du Buclet. For Alex, working with Chance on the new album was the fruition of years of singing with the CCC and in local talent competitions. “I’ve been going to his ‘Open Mikes’ [Chance’s open mics, named in honor of his mentor Mike Hawkins, the YOUmedia program coordinator that gave him his start as a writer] for over a year now where I’m sure he’s heard me sing many times. Peter Cottontale is the one who recognized. She continues, “One thing led to another and about seven of us got to do a gig with Chance, and then from there Peter [Cottonale] and Josephine [Lee] reconnected and next thing I knew the Chicago Children’s Choir was in full partnership with Chance.” To Alex, the small group gigs at Chance concerts and the larger choir-affiliated collaborations were equally amazing, but very different. The first gig “felt more personal because it was like the seven of us did it on our own, while the other [Coloring Book sessions] brought greater opportunities, like getting to experience the life of a working musician and then see it all put into play with the Magnificent Coloring Day here in Chicago. There’s nothing like performing in front of thousands of people, getting that sort of high off of adrenaline.”
Aside from Chance, Alex has had the opportunity to collaborate with two other great Chicago artists. When Alex sang onstage with Jamila Woods, who grew up in the choir, Alex was inspired by Jamila’s music and social involvement. “Not only was it incredible to sing next to [Woods], but it was incredible to sing with her on a song celebrating black women,” adding that Jamila’s success is a reminder that she could one day make it as a musician. A few years back, when she was just in middle school, Alex also sang on an unreleased Vic Mensa track. Getting the chance to dip her foot into “their circle just to see what it’s like […] was almost like a slap of motivation in the face to do better and work harder.”
Sophia Byrd, also a member of the CCC who has sung with Chance, embodies the kind of active social and political engagement that the new movement of positive Chicago artists embraces. “A significant part of who I am is my passion for social justice,” she says. Over the summer, she and three friends started an organization called BLM (Black Lives Matter) Youth. Sophia explains that the mission statement of BLM Youth is “to validate and amplify the voices of young black people within the movement.” On July 11th, 2016, they held their inaugural event. “Hundreds of teens and young adults” (she’s being modest: there were eventually well over 1000 people marching together) first gathered at Millennium Park in downtown Chicago for a silent protest against police brutality and gun violence. With cooperation from police officers, the protest transitioned from the silent sit-in at the park to a defiant parade downtown, walking down the middle of two of the city’s major thoroughfares singing “We shall overcome!”
Sophia was proud that the message of her cause had been heard: “That event contributed toward the fight for equity and the end of systemic oppression.” These kinds of grand statements and large-scale events are proof that artists like Chance, who make social justice a part of their mission as musicians, are able to inspire young people to go out and make their own change in the world. “Chance, Jamila Woods, and Vic Mensa are all great examples of Chicago artists who have gone out into the world and used music as a catalyst for change,” Sophia says. Her actions as a young Chicagoan speak volumes as to, first and foremost, her own courage, and also the influence of this new Chicago music movement.
As the voice of young people in the city, artists like Chance are worshipped as musical icons. Chance’s ‘3’ hats immediately became popular. Lee gives her own take on this: “The only other time I saw that kind of worship was when we performed for the Dalai Lama. If you have that kind of god complex, you can either be egotistical, or use that power to do good. And he’s chosen to use it to do good. It pleases me to no end to see Chance and Jamila embracing excellence and embracing their city, their community and doing something great with that art and that voice.”
At a time when Chicago is in desperate need of positive voices, a new group of thoughtful musicians full of civic pride have come together and inspired tangible action. The hardships of the struggling poor won’t go away because of a hit rap album: platinum records don’t end gang violence or solve the problems of a dysfunctional education system. Music can’t change everything, but it can be a powerful conduit of progress. Chance and the new Chicago artists are taking back the city with positivity in a beautiful process of progress. Together, they’re showing young people that they can have a positive impact on their own communities, and it can sound great, too.