This article provides a review of Noisey’s eight-part series, Welcome to Chiraq. Most of the episodes can be found here; the first installment is featured in the video below.
The drill music scene, a hip-hop sub-genre originating in the South Side Chicago, has become notorious in national media over the course of the past few months, with artists being criticized for violent and illicit lyrical content, ostensibly linked to the gang violence. A relationship does exist between drill music and the environment in which it is conceived, but that connection isn’t necessarily causal, and it is irresponsible to paint it as such. The multiple part documentary Chiraq, produced by Vice’s music arm Noisey, advertises itself as a gritty and real portrayal of the music scene in Chicago’s South Side, yet it panders to the hype around drill music’s relationship with violence.
Chiraq seeks to explain the rise and significance of drill by going to Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood, following rapper Cheef Keef on tour to New York City, and engaging with artists and others involved in drill. The approach initially makes it seem as though the Vice series will give a voice to those who live on the South Side. However, the documentary falls short and fails to give a balanced view of life, violence, and music on the South Side or a fair account of the artists who emerged from the mix.
The first installment in the series immediately tries to emphasize the connection between drill music, violent gang activity, and murder in Chicago. Thomas Morton, the documentary’s host, opens the series with, “Hi, we’re here in the Windy City, home of deep-dish pizza, the Bears and the highest murder rate in America”. With such an opening, Mr. Morton paints himself as judgmental from the start. The opening sets the tone of the series: a grim statistic juxtaposed with an upbeat introduction.
The chosen statistic, however, is quite misleading. The city of Chicago may have the highest total number of murders in America, but one statistic presented regarding the number of murders per capita paints a slightly different picture. These, and other, inaccuracies in the introduction are an unfortunate indication of the gaffes that Chiraq makes.
Morton continuously asserts that the South Side of Chicago is a perfect breeding ground for anger, resentment, and violence. After voicing these opinions, he dismissively mentions the art and music that arises from the culture. Morton oversimplifies the elements that combine to inspire drill music and does not credit the music to the artists directly, but rather makes a claim that the music directly results from segregation, gang-related anger, and violence.
Part of the oversimplification arises from Morton’s judgmental and problematic interview style. Morton’s nervousness at being in the Englewood neighborhood is obvious in the documentary. For example, his discussion with Young Chop about DJ Kenn showcases his preconceived ideas of culture on the South Side. The interview is brief and Morton makes sure to emphasize that Young Chop is “straight edge” because he is not involved in gang culture. Morton’s assumptions about those involved in the drill scene become evident as his interview works to position Young Chop as a law-abiding outlier. In the second installment of Chiraq, Morton credits DJ Kenn for “discovering and producing“ Cheef Keef and other members of 3Hunna, and refers to him as the “drill music Mr. Miyagi.” Not only does Morton show a lack of sensitivity to race in his commentary, but he also actively takes agency and credit away from Cheef Keef and members of 3Hunna.
The issues continue when Morton interviews individuals outside the drill community, as his interview provides an unbalanced view of the genre and its artists. Morton emphasizes the voices of those who are antagonistic to drill and who equate drill music to violent action. Examples of those voices include a priest and the police officer, who both work on the South Side. The police officer is adamant about the fact that the music encourages illicit actions because of his experiences with people who also belong to the drill community. Morton does nothing to dispel or refute this close-minded notion, though the connection between drill music and crime remains unproven. Morton himself also frequently perpetuates this unproven relationship, such as when he admits that he expected to see a shooting victim at a South Side drill concert. In this way, his individual stereotypes continue to add to the documentary’s bias.
The series’ focus on Cheef Keef also limits the audience’s understanding of drill music and of the nuances of its forms and artists. This encourages a narrow view of the genre. Chiraq unduly emphasizes the importance of Cheef Keef in the community, painting him as the single pioneer of drill. When Morton’s team follows Keef to New York in the third installment, they choose to showcase Cheef Keef at the expense of other artists and producers from the South Side, such as King Louie. Chiraq focuses on Keef (without ever interviewing him) seems to prop him up as the genre’s single founder and main representative. The result is that Morton ignores all other drill artists in a documentary that might provide balanced and a more accurate analysis of drill music’s rise in Chicago.
Especially when compared to other documentaries on drill music in Chicago, Chiraq falls short of creating an informative and complex narrative. One good example is WorldStarHipHop’s The Field which encompasses multiple points of view and showcases many artists in the same film (including King Louie, the female artist Tink, and one of the youngest artists to hit the drill scene, Lil’ Mouse, in addition to prominent figures like Lil’ Durk and Lil’ Reese). The Field also emphasizes the musical achievements and evolution of the genre out of the South Side environment. Chiraq, across each installment of the series, fixates on violence and gang culture and, therefore, fails to provide necessary nuance.