By Flora Block
As a result of the city’s proliferation of segregation policies through de-facto practices such as redlining and white flight to the suburbs, Chicago continues to be one of the most segregated cities in the United States.
However, due to the ethnic and cultural diversity that is intrinsic to its culture, Chicago has been an axis for social activism and mobilization against oppressive policies since the Great Migration. Modern hip-hop was conceived within this diverse hub of resistance, and from a divided city emerged artists like Vic Mensa, Chance the Rapper, Saba, Joey Purp, and Noname, who continue to assert hip hop as a nexus of art, community, and social activism.
Chance the Rapper is a valuable member of the Chicago community. He is committed to serving Chicago through the development of its youth, and donates large amounts of money to the notoriously underfunded Chicago public school system. He also funds “Open Mike” events, which provide a platform to young Chicago artists for artistic and social unity.
Early in his career, Chance’s work was defined by the social issues in the South Side, and through the expression of a relatable reality, he offered solidarity to Chicago’s youth. His 2013 album, “Acid Rap,” addresses the disproportionate exposure of people of color to gun violence in Chicago.
In the song “Paranoia,” Chance’s final verse sings: “It just got warm out, this the shit I’ve been warned ’bout … Cause everybody dies in the summer / Wanna say ya goodbyes, tell them while it’s spring.” Murder rates in Chicago spike during the months of June, July, and August. Chance’s recognition of the fear that accompanies summer provides some insight into the reality of the Chicago experience for people on the West and South sides.
On “Acid Rap,” Chance featured fellow artist Noname, who emerged as an activist and echoes Chance’s recognition of political and social realities. Noname recently founded a book club that increases education of black history and art, as well as provides these same reading materials to incarcerated people.
In her music, Noname reiterates this passion for reality, often commenting on the prevalence of white supremacy and its violent manifestations. In “Casket Pretty,” on her album “Telefone,” Noname’s hook sings, “All of my ni**as is casket pretty / Ain’t no one safe in this happy city.” In these lyrics, Noname echoes the fear depicted in Chance’s “Paranoia.” Later in the song, Noname clarifies her fear to be based on the prevalence of police violence against young black men, which is endemic in Chicago: “Blue and the white / Badges and pistols rejoice in the night / And we watch the news / And we see him die tonight.”
Saba is an artist who utilizes his music to process trauma and pain, working through the personally felt realities of the West and South Side that Noname and Chance depict. In his most recent solo album, “Care For Me,” Saba reckons with the murder of his cousin, John Walt.
In “PROM / KING,” Saba tells the harrowing story of his relationship with his cousin, before describing the night Walter is killed “for his coat” (“BUSY/SIRENS,” Saba). Saba also describes the common West side experience in one of his most popular songs, “LIFE:” “Momma mixed the vodka with the Sprite / They killed my cousin with a pocket knife … Life don’t mean shit to a ni**a that ain’t never had shit.” Saba’s lyrics convey this experience to a global audience, and Saba elevates his claim with action. Much of Saba’s pragmatic activism has materialized through his grief over his cousin’s death. After his death, the John Walt Foundation was established, and in Walter’s name, promotes and supports young artists. In support of this cause, Saba and the rest of his close friends and family host a concert every year in Chicago devoted to the foundation.
Chicago has shaped artists that commit themselves to conveying the reality of Chicago in all its beauty, pain, and complexity. Saba and Noname are two artists whose poetic styles and instrumental collaboration elevates their work. In combination with social activist intentions, artists like these two are matching their lyrics with pragmatic action that is making a difference. In the wake of Chance the Rapper’s commitment to Chicago’s youth, this new generation of Chicago rappers is paving the way towards a redefinition of rap in its full actualization as a powerful platform for social change.