I’m from Chicago. You’ll know this if you’ve ever been within a few feet of me, as I often curse out people out who claim they’re from the city, but when probed deeper shamefully admit that their neighborhood actually falls in Northern Indiana, all while suddenly displaying a deep fascination in their shoelaces. I own a sweatshirt that says “Fuck Your Home Town” with the stars of our flag replacing all the second letters. I take pride in the accent that jabs a hard “A” sound into most of the words I say, taking the place of other vowels with an unnecessary vigor.
Like many people from my city, I am aggressive and protective with my love for Chicago. We love our city with a passion because it is often implied that we shouldn’t, or that it needs fixing before it is acceptable for habitation. Everyone from dorm mates to strangers on planes give a small grimace at mention of the current events taking place in the city. As such, we Chicago natives take great pride in hometown heroes, the people giving good press to the city we already know to be a vibrant hub of theatre-shaking poetry slams, breathtaking art shows, and of course, the face of fresh hip-hop.
Last weekend, I went to see one of the last shows in Chance the Rapper’s “Family Matters” tour. It felt a little sacrilegious, seeing a fellow Chicago native in San Francisco, a city I am decidedly undecided about. I was initially unimpressed by the crowd in line, lots of white teenagers* slipping fifths into plastic cups to drink warm whiskey from under the lids of their tie-dye bucket hats; I then decided I was possibly being a judgy bitch, and should take the message of the tour name to heart. I entered the Warfield to the distinct scent of patchouli and weed, not unexpected and surprisingly warm. The crowd was all in good spirits as the first opener, D.R.A.M. — a loose limbed, dreadlocked singer with the voice of a 1950s jazz record left on by a fireplace — took the stage, jumping around with an enthusiasm hard not to mimic. The space between each song was interrupted by his deep laugh and a call and response of “Spread!” “Love!” between him and the crowd. He set a comfortable mood for the evening, the type that encourages people to pass around the illicit substances they snuck in and create dance circles across the floor.
When Chance finally took the stage, the LED boards behind him lit up in a technicolor array of dizzying images, as if a toddler on a sugar high was given free access to a wall with a box of assorted crayons. He pushed through his 10 Day and Acid Rap mixtapes, crooning crowd favorites like “Everybody’s Something” and “Brain Cells” as the screens alternated between enormous stained glass windows, cartoon blunts with drifting smoke, and a school board with the message “Say No to Drugs” scribbled across in chalk. He hit his stride in “Sunday Candy” as everyone screamed along to the lyrics based on what his grandmother might say on a rainy day. This was all great and good and in the moment, the music was fun and the crowd was happy and the energy was hype and all we wanted was one more song one more song one more song.
Of course he came back for an encore. Of course the show ended successfully, with a crowd high on one hell of a live show. But then what? What will stick after Chance has left the stage and the people file out and you’re standing in the dark street waiting for an Uber? Maybe it’d be a part of “Paranoia,” a hidden track in “Pusha Man”, with the lyrics “I know you scared/ You should ask us if we scared too/ If you was there/ Then we’d just knew you cared too.” Would we remember the Chicago skyline illuminated behind him onstage when he spoke to the lack of safety on Chicago’s streets, the pervasive violence against black bodies? Chance, like many artists from the city, is using his prominence to promote awareness not just of the violence, which gets plenty of publicity on its own, but more specifically of the impact on the people of the city. Family Matters. That’s his point — that among all of this awful news, we have to focus on the people.
As I left my city again after Thanksgiving break, I asked the woman sitting next to me on the plane if she was from Chicago. “Oh no,” she said, laughing a little nervously. “I’m from Nashville, just connecting through.” She continued to talk about a position she might apply for here, but concluded that “Chicago’s just a little too scary, you know?” She had only seen the airport.
Chicago is a case study for police brutality, corruption, segregation, gang violence, and gun control. Sadly, many of these issues arise from poor handling of the others. The recent Laquan McDonald killing and subsequent charge of first degree murder laid on his attacker, a police officer, has served as a reminder that much progress needs still to be made in our wounded city. The people who are bravely and continuously fighting for that progress won’t get much coverage, and what they do will most likely be negative. This isn’t surprising. Each time protests occur, it is seen as an overreaction to an isolated incident, rather than a buildup of frustration due to school closings, the defunding of mental health clinics, illegal police practices, all of which affect predominantly people of color. Showing a typical lack of empathy, Mayor Rahm Emanuel urges calm after each scandal breaks through, without promise of dealing with any underlying issues. Peace and unblocked streets for Black Friday shoppers seem more useful to him and other city leaders than peace and safe streets for Black citizens and other citizens of color. A friend of mine and prolific poet, Nate Marshall, recently published a book, Wild Hundreds, which has a poem in it called “Out South,” in which the closing line is: “Every kid that’s killed is one less free lunch” — how can it not seem that way when elected leaders treat systematic killings in such a cavalier nature? In times like these, new leaders from the community are necessary to remind people that they matter and their anger is justified. By using his talent and rapidly rising status to engage with these difficult issues, Chance has become a loud and necessary voice of the Chicago people. He recently tweeted about the protests, saying, “Be strong Chicago, I’ll be home in 2 days.” Both on and off stage, he’s always talking to his city, to his family, to us.
If you’re listening to Chance now — and I hope you are, because it’s catchy stuff and all reading is made better by relevant background music — I think it’s important to remember he represents more than tie-dye and bucket hats and weed. He’s definitely about that, and that’s cool, but there is a whole city behind him, a place he calls his home and family, and that matters. Family Matters. Chicago Matters. My city matters, even if the violence, and the news stories, and misguided ideas of “Chiraq” want to convince you otherwise. The people in this city — including me, and definitely including Chance — love it more than you can imagine. Ask us about it. I promise we won’t be too mad if you’re from the suburbs.