Chief Keef, Chicago and violence in hip hop
I have the most tenuous of links to Chicago, America’s third largest city. My great grandfather (the unfortunately named Peter Condon), who also had the bad luck of being a Depression-era Irishman with a taste for a drink, emigrated there and made a fortune in the first half of the twentieth century (one he’d later lose back home). I feel a special connection to the place, despite having never been there. Perhaps it has more to do with the positive impact which the music of Kanye West and Lupe Fiasco (both proud Chi-town representatives) had on my adolescence.
It saddens me then to see that this fascinating city, one in which Barack Obama once worked as a community organiser, is in turmoil. Whilst Chicago’s drill-hop scene has been embraced by the wider media and music fans nationwide, the city has been locked in a deadly drug war, with over 340 homicides committed this year already.
At the centre of a media storm developing around Chicago is the rapper Chief Keef, a 17-year-old who signed to Interscope in mid-June on the strength of local street anthem ‘I Don’t Like’, and a co-sign from Kanye West. He is a mirror to the streets, as authentic a rapper as we could have ever wished for, but he has also exposed the deadly nihilism of those left to their own devices in inner-city America for the last two decades or so. His recent hits ‘3Hunna’ and ‘Bang’ are gun-toting, kushed up anthems, a dead-eyed stare at the apocalypse Chicago finds itself facing.
Whilst indie magazines and music websites flock to Keef and other Chicago talents such as King Louie and Lil Durk, perhaps fascinated by the I-don’t-give-a-fuck aura Keef displays in his locally made videos, perhaps on the strength of grimey beats that emerge from the same milieu as Virginian producer Lex Luger, the city’s problems are deepening. On Tuesday evening, another Chicago rapper named JoJo was murdered. His crew had been at loggerheads with various rival rappers including members of Keef’s collective, Glory Boyz Entertainment. JoJo himself had made a track entitled ‘3Hunna K’ which saw his crew wielding guns as he spat over Keef’s track ‘Everyday’. As news broke of Jojo’s death, a post to Keef’s Twitter account read ‘It’s Sad Cuz Dat N**** Jojo Wanted To Be Jus Like Us #LMAO”. However, Keef denies that he made the post and claims his account was hacked. To me, the 17-year old represents both a scary strain of current hip hop culture and a seriously alienated group within American society.
Indeed, Keef finds himself at a profound disconnect with older artists such as Lupe Fiasco, Kanye West and Lil Wayne, part of a small superstar minority who have emerged from black America and become (certainly in the case of the latter two rappers) part of the establishment. Perhaps there’s no surprise here. Other than the wealth he is quickly accumulating, how can Chief relate to Kanye, the Kardashian-dating backpack rapper of awards-ceremony and Paris partying fame. If Kanye dropped out of college, Chief never even made it out of Chicago’s broken high schools.
To some extent, the comfortable kings of mainstream hip hop share something in common with white reviewers, with politicians who pretend they understand the problems of Chicago and cities like it- they are now too far removed from that environment (or perceived to be too far removed) to be anything other than voyeurs, looking from outside in. I think, with sudden guilt, of my own fascination with the drugs and violence of The Wire, as a white Catholic boy from the South Coast.
The predicament, for ‘establishment’ rappers, is whether to encourage or discourage young talent from the streets. Can they dissociate themselves from the more unsavoury elements of the music of rappers such as Chief Keef without coming across as hypocritical, or without leaving angry young men to their own destruction? Should they try to be anything more than encouraging voyeurs, distant mentors?
Just the other day, Lil Wayne co-signed a 13-year old Chicago rapper named Lil Mouse, who came to Wayne’s attention with his track ‘Get Smoked’. The track’s title says it all. A little boy rap about gang violence, guns and sex. Pretty unedifying, but then who are we to blame him? Adults have left him exposed to this, adults such as Lil Wayne, who himself emerged in a society plagued by poverty, violence and misogynistic tropes. When he was 12, Wayne accidentally shot himself whilst playing with a gun to the sound of rap music.
Lupe Fiasco, one of hip hop’s most enlightened figures (and sometimes just a little bit preachy), has treated Chief Keef’s rise with ambivalence. Last night he received a vociferous backlash from Chief Keef (via twitter) for negative statements uttered in an interview with Baltimore 92 Q Jams.
“Chief Keef scares me” he said. “Not him specifically, but just the culture that he represents…. The hoodlums, the gangsters, and the ones you see killing each other and the murder rate in Chicago is skyrocketing and you see who’s doing it and perpetrating it — they all look like Chief Keef”.
There are a thousand debates to be had here. Questions about authenticity in hip hop and the essential tragedy of this rich, fascinating counter-culture. The gap between the mainstream and the underground, between the poor inner city and the wealthy establishment, about how Chicago’s music has suddenly become ‘interesting’ for all the wrong reasons, and about how, in roughly five minutes, we’ll all forget about its problems and go listen to the next 2Chainz track about cars and hoes, because it’s all harmless fun, isn’t it? Forget Snoop Dogg’s early 90s criminal persona (and actions) and focus on his current incarnation as a Rastafarian. Deep down, we, the white media, will fetishize the violence hip hop sometimes endorses or reflects, because it’s something we’ll never witness at first hand, and then we’ll all go back to our safe happy homes.
Well I’ll say one thing is certain. We can’t just put our headphones in. We have to keep asking questions.
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