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Chicago’s Chance

Alec Stern
Image from Coloring Book (2016)

Chance the Rapper’s prideful ambition is reshaping Chicago’s cultural narrative.

"Whoever said the sky was the limit, wasn’t living where I was living"

-- TheMIND, "Mercury Rising"

Through his music and activism, Chance has managed to bestow the brightest of colors upon a city that is too often depicted in only black-and-white.
At the end of his star-making verse on "Ultralight Beam", Chance the Rapper makes a grand declaration, "You cannot mess with the light. Look at lil’ Chano from 79th." On first listen, this is an announcement of his newfound stature as a superstar, and especially with his debut on the Saturday Night Live stage, it was easy to believe Chance's light would shine brightly and be "seen", if you will, both far and wide. But this final couplet can also be read as a plea. "Look", he says. "Look". He’s asking the listener to be active. To really understand who Chance the Rapper is, we need to go back to where he came from. He knows what we will find there if we really take a look.

Art is often an expression of personal experience, as well as a means in the search for a greater awareness beyond one's own reality. Hip-hop is in the midst of a highly reflective, conscious, and political period that has seen artists injecting profoundly essential perspectives on matters such as race, sexuality, and non-normative individuality into our larger cultural spectrum. Through sound, these storytellers are displaying the realities of their own lives, and in turn, they're proclaiming vital truths for those often without a voice of their own. The artists who trailblaze and transcend are the ones who provide an essential sense of humanity to the people and places they know firsthand; communities often laden beneath stereotypical narratives they neither own nor believe in. They're asserting to be heard on their own terms.

The South Side of Chicago is like this; it's a place some may feel they know without every stepping foot inside the city limits. But what if a place was able to speak for itself and tell its own truth? In 2016, Chance the Rapper became something of an ambassador for Chicago and its communities. By offering an honest and heartfelt take on his surroundings, by remaining independent of major labels, and by injecting a profound sense of hope, positivity, and pride in his hometown, he has provided an opportunity for Chicago to shape its own cultural destiny. Through his music and activism, Chance has managed to bestow the brightest of colors upon a city that is too often depicted in only black-and-white.

Chance the Rapper was everywhere in 2016, appearing at major festivals, on late night television, on Saturday Night Live (twice), and even at the White House tree lighting ceremony. Within that same time frame, however, his hometown of Chicago experienced one of its most tragically violent years in recent memory, routinely making national news. This contrast speaks volumes. Take, for example, the date 11 August 2016. On this day, Chance the Rapper graced the "New Pioneers" issue of Billboard Magazine, starred in an advertisement for Nike in which he premiered a new song "We the People", and was featured on President Obama's official Summer Playlist. It also marked three months since the release of his third mixtape Coloring Book, which made history as the first album to chart on the Billboard 200 solely on streams. On that very same day, The Chicago Tribune reported that nearly 100 people had been shot in Chicago in the prior week. Two days before had been the deadliest day of gun violence in 13 years, with nine people murdered over a 24-hour span. One of the victims was ten-year-old Tavon Tanner, who was shot in the back as he played with his twin sister on their front porch.

How can a city simultaneously swallow so many lives while also catapulting a single young soul to uncharted new heights? Sadly, that's always been the tale of Chicago: a city with two extremely disparate and segregated realities. This is a city with a rich immigrant community, yet the minority populations here each have their own history of blatant and routine racism and violence directed toward their communities, their people. The disconnect between the largely white neighborhoods to the North and the predominantly black neighborhoods on the South and West sides, however, most plainly lays bare the foundations of institutuional racism in Chicago.

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Chancellor Bennett was born on Chicago's South Side in a predominantly African American community called West Chatham, about ten miles south of downtown. Chatham has one of the highest rates of violent crime in the city and growing up in that environment, Chance was exposed to visceral traumas that threatened to consume him whole. After witnessing the murder of his close friend and fellow MC Rodney Kyles, Jr., at the age of 18, music became the conceivable golden ticket out of the cyclical destructiveness that surrounded him. We know this from the first song Chance ever publicly released, “14,400 Minutes” off the mixtape #10Day, “I was standing right there / an inch away from Heaven, a million songs from right there.”

From #10Day to Coloring Book, Chance has remained unapologetically transparent about his life, his home, and most importantly and uniquely within hip-hop, his feelings, particularly in regards to violence. As an essential art form, rap music has a history of incorporating and repurposing the realities of gang and police violence to connect, to educate, to heal, and in some cases, to display power. In regards to Chicago, the South Side has been a focal point of violent lyrics, most recently with the rise of Drill, a style of hip-hop routinely denounced for its sensationalistic influence on children and teenagers, as well as its motivation to capitalize on society’s voyeuristic interest in violence. Chance the Rapper, however, has taken a conscious approach in his perspectives on violence, a style similar to that of Common, Talib Kweli, Mos Def and Nas. His music has an almost childlike innocence and optimism, yet it’s mature in its thoughtfulness and accountability. His compassionate viewpoint is on full display throughout his work, and particularly in the song “Paranoid” (Acid Rap, 2013):

I heard everybody’s dying in the summer,

So pray to God for a little more Spring.

I know you scared

You should ask us if we scared too.

If you was there

Then we’d just knew you cared too.

These are not prideful boasts, scare tactics for power and popularity, or shock value for the sake of entertainment. These words convey vulnerability. It's one thing for an artist to take a stand against violence, which Chance has made a key platform within his influence, but it's another thing altogether for someone to expose such a profound and universal fear of its grip on one’s friends, family, and hometown. Many have deliberated hip-hop’s uniquely intrinsic relationship to violence as both a product of and reaction to the fundamental role violence has played in the black American experience. Through this lens, Chance’s music can be understood as both a tool for personal self-expression and as a conduit for a larger-scale dialog and understanding. While an artist’s relationship to their audience can often be similar to that of a therapist and patient, Chance has never asked his fans to pay to hear his feelings.

From day one, Chance has held strong in his resolve to give his music away for free, as both a nod to mixtape culture and in maintaining his artistic control and accessible relationship with his fans. While he was not the pioneer of free music by any means, Chance the Rapper’s success has helped turn this once-revolutionary idea into a serious consideration for artists and industry heavyweights alike. For example, with the album Surf, the band The Social Experiment’s debut on which Chance was heavily featured, he convinced Apple to release it on the iTunes Store for free. It was the first and only time the tech giant had done so with a full-length album, and as a result, Surf was downloaded 618,000 times in its first week, with over ten million individual track downloads.

It's also likely not a coincidence that shortly after the release of Coloring Book, the Grammy’s overturned a previously unyielding guideline that prohibited albums not sold through traditional retail methods to be considered for awards. Simply put, the world wasn’t ready for a trajectory like Chance’s until very recently, which is one of the reasons why he's one of the most now icons we have. In an industry of artists and corporations chasing taillights, the masses have found something incredibly admirable, thought-provoking, and hopeful about Chance; he's the outsider leading the pack to something new and brighter. In some ways, Chance the Rapper has become more of a symbol than the 23-year-old he really is, and this is largely due to what is arguably his most unique asset within the music industry landscape: his resolute stance and ability to remain independent of major labels.

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