A look at hip-hop, violence, and responsibility in the Midwest city.
A couple of weeks ago, 18-year-old Joseph “Lil JoJo” Coleman was shot and killed in Chicago. In response to Coleman’s death, Chicago rapper Chief Keef sent out a string of mocking tweets, which led police to look into whether he was involved in the murder. While the results of that investigation are not yet known, the online blowback was harsh and immediate. As a result, Keef—or someone using his Twitter account—seemed to suddenly change his tune about the entire ordeal. It was a chaotic story, particularly when Lupe Fiasco inserted himself into the conversation and drew attention to his own album release date. But this event illustrated a continuing theme in coverage of Chief Keef and Chicago’s violence; the rapper has been dehumanized, reduced to a symbol of what is wrong with Chicago, denied the dignity to stand or fall on his own.
In response to Coleman’s shooting, some in the media fell on the usual tired narratives, resorting to finger-pointing and spreading anti-rap panic. The Sun-Times had a multi-page spread and cover story about the city’s hip-hop, while the Chicago Tribune’s headline read, “Chicago hip-hop war of words turns violent.” Blaming rap for violence has long been a popular media strategy, but it would be more accurate to flip that around: Chicago’s violence is now visible through hip hop. As a rapper, Coleman received almost no coverage prior to his death. But since his killing, news outlets have been quick to draw comparisons to the beef between Biggie and Tupac, implying a long-running hip-hop rivalry with Keef was responsible for the teen’s murder.
It’s easy to forget that the reason Chief Keef first received media attention was because his music had built a huge underground following without it.
Social media and YouTube videos don’t just give aspiring musicians a higher profile; they make gang culture more visible, too. Sometimes, there is an overlap between these worlds. Videos by artists like Coleman—and more recently, in the music of Coleman’s friend Lil Jay —are partially responsible for blurring the lines between art and violence. But in the end, they remain two different spaces, and care needs to be taken not to treat them as one and the same. (Keef’s grandmother, in a quote for the Sun-Times, seemed comically frustrated by this attitude when reporters inquired into the gang affiliations of the budding star: “And where’s this gang at? In my kitchen? In my basement? In my refrigerator where he go all the time?”)
Now that his tweets turn up in news headlines—Keef posted a graphic Instagram photo of himself and a woman involved in a sexual act over the weekend—it’s easy to forget that the reason Chief Keef first received media attention was because his music had built a huge underground following without it. Before anybody outside of Chicago knew his name, Keef was getting hundreds of thousands of YouTube views and performing for large crowds on the South Side. But this support was coming mainly from kids his own age in Chicago. No major outlets had caught up to him.
This is an inconvenience for those arguing that Keef, who signed with Interscope this summer, is just a puppet of a major record label hoping to profit offthe struggles of black people. So far, Interscope has seen little return on its investment. Ironically, some of the places that have profited most from his rise—whether they’ve been supportive or critical of his music—have been media outlets driven by hitcount-based advertising.
And much of that attention was condescending and negative, which Keef may now realize; looking back on the press coverage of his first trip to New York, it was easy to find interview footage of the somewhat-inscrutable rapper that suggested he was still impressed by all the attention. But by the time of this weekend’s graphic tweet, he took a more cynical position on the media’s behavior. After tweeting the graphic instagram photo, he retweeted a defiant follower who said simply, “Na tell da media ass Talk about Dat #FUCKEM.”
The fact that Keef earned his success by releasing music that resonated with his youthful local fan base and a rapidly growing national one should earn the young rapper more respect than most critics seem willing to grant him. Chicago rapper Rhymefest called him a “Bomb,” while Lupe Fiasco added that most of the killers in Chicago look like Chief Keef. Rhymefest in particular has made strong points about how Keef could be exploited. But with Chicago’s murder rate spiking by 66 percent since last year, many artists have turned away from Keef’s music, only to treat him as a scapegoat. Perhaps it’s the generation gap, but to Rhymefest, Keef is no more than a “lottery pick”; the qualities of his music don’t even enter into the equation.
Whet Moser’s Chicago Magazine piece, “Coming to Terms with Chief Keef,” dug deeper than most, describing the appeal of Keef’s music in a way that feels true: “It's hard, cold, and affectless, with sawed-off lines and numbingly repetitive syllables.” Moser comes away understanding what is effective and unique about Keef’s music is “shocking with its absence of shock.” In other words, Keef’s work is animated by its callousness to the destruction around him.
His honest indifference to such a brutal environment is what’s made so many fans latch onto in his music. It seems unfair to criticize him for reacting in a way that’s entirely consistent with his background.
Keef’s derisive response to Coleman’s death, which caused such a public outcry, should then come as no surprise. He grew up surrounded by gun violence. His honest indifference to such a brutal environment is what’s made so many fans latch onto in his music. It seems unfair to criticize him for reacting in a way that’s entirely consistent with his background. In a city where murder is so prevalent, where kids lose friends before reaching the age of ten, life has been devalued to the point where death is treated with casual irreverence.
But that doesn’t let him off the hook. In Keef’s defense, his manager has pointed out that “he’s a kid.” That may be true, but if we are to defend him on the grounds that his art is his own, independent from the labels that would exploit him, he still has to take responsibility for the impact of his words. Keef’s rise from obscurity may have been quick, but he’s now become a face of Chicago’s street culture, with that comes increased accountability. His music is not to blame for Chicago’s violence, nor could his music stop it, but he’s still an influential figure whose power gives his words added weight when tensions escalate. Considering the current temperature of Chicago’s gang conflicts, it doesn’t take much to fan the flames of a wider fire.
The rise of the drill scene and its vacant-eyed, deadpan teenagers has made for a gripping story, and it’s also provoked questions about what the negative effects of their success could be. Artists imitating the style and presentation of many of the original performers have popped up in increasing numbers. One extreme example is the story of Lil Mouse.
Lil Mouse’s management, likely deciding to one-up Keef’s “16-year-old-rapper” headlines, developed a 13-year-old artist to execute the standard Chicago rap signifiers, from subject matter to slang to the Money Dance (which has since been widely credited to Lil Mouse but in fact existed before him). The video for “Get Smoked” received enough attention that Lil Wayne (who recorded similarly-themed material and signed a record contract when he was only 12) remixed the track for his Dedication 4 mixtape.
Lil Mouse’s story is disturbing only in part because of his age; many rap fans knew similar lyrics by the time they were nine or 10 years old, including the authors of this article. What was more disturbing was the (likely poverty-induced) cynicism that inspired adults to exploit a 13-year-old. Keef’s music has received similar accusations, but Keef was, from the beginning, in control of his own self-presentation; the “I Don’t Like” video was produced entirely by the rapper and his peers. Whether you like or dislike “Get Smoked,” the song is heavily reliant on the novelty factor (and a great beat from Chase Davis) to make it stand out amongst a sea of similar Chicago hip hop videos.
It should be noted that few bloggers even posted the track; when it did appear, it was as spectacle, often accompanied by moralizing about the direction of today’s youth. The entire subject of a violent street culture appearing through the lens of hip-hop, whether speaking of Jojo or Lil Mouse, raises many questions about how the media should deal with artists who come from that culture, and where they draw the lines about who to cover.
The ramifications of Keef’s recent behavior probably won’t backfire completely for him; if anything, the proliferation of articles will just further embed him in the national consciousness.
The ramifications of Keef’s recent behavior probably won’t backfire completely for him; if anything, the proliferation of articles will just further embed him in the national consciousness. But those trying to follow in his footsteps might find that the bigger media outlets, in light of recent events, might now be more cautious about gunplay and child-rappers from war-torn cities, which would marginalize otherwise-ambitious artists who don’t have Keef’s craterous impact.
Keef’s been in the public eye for less than a year, and he’s already gone from zero coverage to intense media buzz to a full-on media backlash. His music and that of his peers, until now, has been so singular due in part to his relative isolation; it has a bleak, oppressive atmosphere that seems charged with urgency. One of street rap’s organizing concepts has historically been an emphasis on theater; the more convinced you are by the performance, the better the rapper. Keef has become a symbol because he so effectively channels the fears of listeners. But it is important to remember that he’s also a human being, one capable of creating work people enjoy on its own merits, and one who will need to take responsibility for his failings.