Navigating Chiraq: Music and Life in the Second City

On a rain-stained corner in Englewood on the evening of April 9, 2014, aspiring rapper Mario Hess, a.k.a. Blood Money, was gunned down as he stood talking to a group of women before a studio gig.

Though the shooting was only one of over a hundred homicides in Chicago in the first five months of 2014, Hess’s death garnered an unusually large amount of media attention because Hess was the cousin of Chicago drill musician Keith Cozart, better known as Chief Keef.

Keef is a drill rap artist and member of the GBE (Glory Boyz Entertainment) crew, a clique affiliated with the larger street gang, the Black Disciples.  Drill gets its name from the sonic imagery (often from guns) used in the creation of its beats and lyrics. Spouting hyper-violent, minimalistic lyrics detailing gang and drug culture on the far South Side of Chicago, Keef, now 18, helped popularize drill rap through a series of videos filmed during his 2011 house arrest.

Chief Keef is not the only Chicago drill artist. He’s just the most visible.

Keef’s version of drill rap has been cited by several Chicagoans, including rapper Lupe Fiasco and former Sun-Times critic Jim DeRogatis, as helping to popularize the view of Chicago as “Chiraq”—a gang-riddled murder capital and urban wasteland, with Keef’s music as its nihilistic soundtrack.

The use of the term “Chiraq,” and the view it implies, has raised questions, namely: what does “Chiraq” mean for those dealing with violence and economic inopportunity in Chicago, and why is “Chiraq” portrayed the way it is by outside media?

To some, it’s a method of self-identification and artistic expression, as well as a point of pride; to others, it’s a dangerous oversimplification. Examining the use of “Chiraq” shows that it’s a bit of both, and that it also describes a chasm cutting a city in two.

Two Second Cities

Kevin Coval, founder of Young Chicago Authors, the poetry non-profit behind the citywide Louder Than a Bomb youth poetry slam, deals with youth from every corner of Chicago. “Chiraq” is a term he sees bandied about in several contexts. For Coval, “Chiraq” works best in a context that encompasses all the realities of violence, poverty, and disenfranchisement in Chicago.

“I think media, and white media latched onto it once it was said, because it’s foreign and there’s something about it that is attractive to say and repeat,” Coval says. For him, “Chiraq” illuminates the traditional racial and socioeconomic boundaries drawn in Chicago.  “Its initial utterance,” he says, “was used to designate the disparity between the Chicago that is for white folks and wealthy folks and tourists and the Chicago that is mired in systemic inequity, dehumanization, degradation, and the difference between those spaces.”

Coval also argues that the relevance of “Chiraq” depends on how it is used. “Chiraq is not the right question. If the name is just the name and it becomes sexy for people to repeat and blog about and think about ad nauseam, [then] the thought and the consideration should be given to the conditions in which young people are being reared. That’s the conversation.” For Coval, unequal and heavy-handed coverage is debilitating for no other reason than it takes attention away from the actual issue: Chicago’s youth.

Chicago rapper and teaching artist Maurice Meaway, who teaches his students through hip-hop, understands this. As a mentor for students around the city, he sees their childhood experiences of Chicago first hand.

“The thing about Chief Keef that I really hate,” Meaway says, “is the fact that people tried to utilize him as a scapegoat for everything that was happening in Chicago, like the violence. That’s not a Chief Keef thing, that’s a problem in Chicago, he grew up in that environment.”

Meaway sees drill rap, and by extension “Chiraq,” as a mode of expression: “They’re speaking the truth basically… I feel like each artist is speaking the truth.” As he maintains for his students, “hip hop gives kids an avenue to tell their own stories.” Something similar is happening in drill rap.

Even with this understanding, Meaway has trouble swallowing the outright violence that often takes center stage in Keef’s music: “I mean, it’s complicated because what he’s advocating and what he’s doing is horrible! It’s horrible!” However, Meaway goes on to qualify his statement. “But then at the same time,” he admits, “it’s like, who am I to deny how he grew up, you know? I tell the kids to tell the truth no matter how ugly it is, and sometimes your truth isn’t beautiful.”

The crux of the issue, then, is what comes from this self-expression. For Coval and others, drill rappers are making a statement simply by existing. “I think that drill rappers have a large part in pointing out the duplicity and ignorance that exist in the city of Chicago,” Coval says, “and the constant hypocrisy because of the disparity that exists between these spaces.

Single Faceted, Easily Marketable

Outsiders jump into this gap, using “Chiraq” in a variety of ways. It’s an appealing and marketable term for many at a distance from this conversation.

VICE’s Noisey music blog is one such outsider. Their early 2014 eight-part documentary took Chiraq as its title and delved into the lifestyles and music of Chicago’s drill rap scene. Coming under fire from many (including the Chicago Reader) for its propagation of negative Chicago stereotypes, the documentary is certainly one-sided, describing the city with phrases like: “the perfect breeding ground for anger, resentment and violence.”

This type of coverage, however, contributes to the reduction of  “Chiraq” to mere artistic capital.  Hip hop artists far from Chicago’s South Side have used the term, including Kanye West and other artists in their 2012 G.O.O.D Music remix of Keef’s “I Don’t Like.” This version lacked much of Keef himself, except for a reappropriated chorus, a hasty single verse, and rhythms from drill beats master Young Chop.

“Chiraq” was also used as the title of a more recent track Nicki Minaj dropped in early April 2014, featuring Chicago rapper Lil’ Herb. Dominated by an almost comically sinister backbeat, all plunking synth and anxious strings, Minaj and Herb trade verses, with Minaj claiming, “I’m with EBK, you on EBT”—two street gangs connected with Chief Keef’s 3Hunna crew—while Herb ends with, “And I ride dolo from state to state even when I ain’t 150 man, Chiraq all the way to Queens.”

Though gang references dot Minaj’s track, her collaborator Lil’ Herb can’t be grouped into the stereotypical understanding of a Chicago drill rapper. With a lyrical flow and a knack for narrative, as well as more detailed production, Lil’ Herb presents a less defiant “Chiraq” than Keef, Lil’ Reese, and others. He eschews violent minimalism for a wary, detailed take on his experience, one where he “has to look to his left and his right” because people are “out for his life,” as he raps on “At The Light,” the second track on his first mixtape, Welcome to Fazoland.

In his partnership with Minaj however, he’s forced into a mold he doesn’t fit in comfortably. At her side, he raps about a “Chiraq” that, in Minaj’s hands, remains  single-faceted and easily marketable. Lil’ Herb’s “Chiraq” is far more complicated.

In fact, most current rappers in Chicago don’t fit into the established “Chiraq” mold curated by some drill artists and the outside media. The genre is far more fluid than most mainstream coverage of Chicago’s hip-hop scene cares to detail. In the same way that it isn’t fair to call all Chicago rappers similar in flow or lyric, neither is it fair to label all Chicago hip-hop “drill.”

“Everybody Dies in the Summer”

This is not to say that other Chicago hip-hop artists don’t engage with the idea of “Chiraq.” Rappers like Vic Mensa and Chance the Rapper, both affiliated with the SAVEMONEY crew, hail from neighborhoods close to those that Lil’ Herb and Chief Keef call home. MC Tree, just starting his career at the age of 30, has lived and worked his entire life in Chicago. They, and others like them, know “Chiraq.” This music is different from the heavy, simplistic, and violent understanding of “Chiraq” that has permeated popular culture outside of Chicago to such an extent that even Nicki Minaj, a New Yorker, feels the need to jump on the bandwagon.

Their music takes their personal experience with all the things “Chiraq” entails and wraps it in in the mantle of their own production, style, lyrics, and personality. They rap about “Chiraq” as much as Chief Keef or anyone else does, but in a different way. Stylistically, both Chance and Mensa sport surreal flows that borrow heavily from past Chicago influences and productions, from old soul samples to the extensive use of instrumentation and earworm hooks. Tree markets his own brand of hip-hop as “soul trap,” which bridges the gap between soul, funk and blues, and trap-influenced hip-hop.

The artists also approach “Chiraq” from different perspectives. On “Paranoia,” a hidden track on his Acid Rap mixtape, Chance talks about how “everybody dies in the summer,” and how he “hates crowded beaches” and “the sound of fireworks.” If Keef is a resolute participant in the violence of “Chiraq,” Chance is the weary bystander. For many other Chicago rappers, “Chiraq” influences them as citizens of a city they share first, and as musicians second.

Local female rapper Dreezy, known for her work with fellow Chicago female MCs Sasha Go Hard and Katie Got Bandz, adds another element to the mix. For Dreezy, who remixed Minaj’s track earlier this month, “Chiraq” is less about place (or authenticity) and more about talent and, more importantly, what that talent can achieve. In an interview with Chicago radio station 107.5FM WGCI, Dreezy talked about how, for her, the issue with Minaj’s track is not that she raps about “Chiraq,” but that she doesn’t do it well. “Honestly when I first heard the song I got excited ’cause I know Lil’ Herb and I’m cool with Lil’ Herb and it was a cool opportunity for him. But then when I saw that it was called “Chiraq” I was kinda iffy about it… I got mad respect for Nicki… but at the same time I know what I’m capable of doing so when I heard the beat and I saw how she was coming I was like okay this is nice but I’m finna turn up.”

Dreezy sees her music as being linked with the realities of “Chiraq” in a similar way to SAVEMONEY, Tree, and others. “I don’t necessarily agree with the violence going on in my city, but at the same time, it’s my city at the end of the day and I’m going to make the best from where I came from… all I can do is hope that when I get the amount of power to be able to influence other people that I’m able to change that view on my city.”

Getting Out

Coval agrees. For him, if drill rap, by its mere existence, draws attention to the disparity within Chicago, then it can also highlight a solution. “Chicago is the Second City, but it’s because in part we live in multiple cities.” Coval declares, “The city that is in Englewood is different from the city that is in Old Town and the quicker we understand that grand disparity the quicker we’ll be able to fix it.”

That gulf is defined by influence. As Coval says, “it’s a mentality of hustle. Part of what that term is is that you are engaged in a war, and that war is not only one of block by block and gang turf, it’s an economic war of survival.”

Journalist Ben Austen speaks to this unifying struggle further. Austen is the author of an article in Wired exploring the connection between gang violence and social media, a conflict exemplified by the Chief Keef-Little Jojo conflict of late 2012. Jojo, a drill rapper and member of the Tooka Gang (an affiliate of the Gangster Disciples and rival to Chief Keef’s Black Disciples affiliate), was shot and killed in 2012 in a dispute that escalated over social media. Chief Keef was under suspicion for the murder.

As Austen puts it, “one of the sad things about Chief Keef is now everyone thinks it’s a possibility.” Everyone from similar backgrounds to Keef thinks they can share in his success, thinks they can get out too.

This frames entire lives, often from a tender age.

In part three of the Noisey documentary, a small boy—maybe six years old—who has come to see Chief Keef perform live in New York shyly turns to the camera and shouts “Fuck BDK!”—unknowingly insulting the Black Disciple Killers, Keef’s rivals. After the small boy in New York snarls at the camera, he beams up at the rest of Keef’s crew, basking in their approval. These only slightly-older boys are his role models; he’s in the presence of his heroes.

As the term has spread across the country, the people who live with the realities of “Chiraq” feel bound together by common experience. Austen talks about how they have “been told this is the worst most dangerous place, so [they’re] just resigned” to accept their situation. Austen also notes that “there’s also this kind of weird pride. People always have this, ‘I’m from the worst part of the world, I was over there, I lived over there.’ That’s really dangerous because that creates more of the same…[more of this] self-defeatist pride and a bad moniker that people take on themselves.”

At the end of the day, most people who document “Chiraq” are inherently on the outside. We don’t live in a gang-pocked and poverty-stricken environment. We don’t live in West Englewood. In Auburn Gresham. In Chatham. Our childhoods, for the most part, were not tinged with fear.

This city isn’t hurting because people like to rap about guns, but because people have been told—by outsiders and by themselves—that their city is a warzone. As a result, the problems endemic to Chicago remain. Little boys still want to be gangsters. A man shot a dozen times on the street is noticed only because he has a famous cousin. Music made about a select number of artists’ violent upbringings is used to paint a picture of an entire city.

The term “Chiraq” colors the perceptions of people all over the world, and it remains a relevant and pervasive title, sometimes stated in the gun blast rhythms of drill rap, but not exclusively. If there is a criticism to be made about “Chiraq,” it’s a structural one. “Chiraq” identifies a problem that long predates the term;  “Chiraq” is not the problem.

Chief Keef has gotten out. He’s left West Englewood. He has made it into a different world than the one he grew up in. But that world is still struggling, with or without him.

The image featured of the Chicago flag is from WBEZ’s Flickr. The original photograph was taken by Matt Maldre. No alterations have been made. 

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