In 2015, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office commented on the shutdown of a Chicago hologram concert by local drill rapper Chief Keef by saying the Englewood native was “an unacceptable role model” who “posed a significant public safety risk.”
But while Emanuel was utilizing his platform to punch down on Keef, he was being a less-than-perfect role model himself. Three months later the world would realize he was the main participant in covering up the 2014 video of local teen Laquan McDonald being murdered by a Chicago police officer.
When it comes to explaining the city’s heartbreaking violence, local rappers and their lyrics are a frequent target, as are the radio stations — primarily WGCI-FM (107.5) and Power 92-FM (92.3) — and record companies that traditionally showcase them.
But many in the community say the aforementioned groups are convenient scapegoats and the real issue is city officials’ historical failure to rectify systemic issues within marginalized communities.
Wallace “Gator” Bradley, a former enforcer for the notorious Chicago street gang Gangster Disciples, is among those who believe music purveyors play a part in augmenting violence. He contrasts the handling of violent hip-hop with the treatment of rapper DaBaby, whose Lollapalooza set was canceled after he made homophobic remarks during an earlier concert.
“Why aren’t we apprehensive when rappers use music and social media to say they are going to kill someone?” Bradley asked. “Jay-Z and Kanye [West] had a song ‘Murder II Excellence’ that wasn’t played as much because it talked about stopping the violence.”
Meanwhile, there’s plenty of scholarly work connecting rap — and other musical genres — to violence. In 2003, researchers from Iowa State University and the Texas Department of Human Services reported findings that aggressive music lyrics increase aggressive thoughts and feelings, which might perpetuate aggressive behavior.
Englewood rapper Daweirdo describes the critiques as “bullcrap” and lays the blame on a “lack of leadership” within communities marred by violence.
“I see it every day when I was a kid growing up; it was never the music. It was always not having enough leaders on the front lines,” said Daweirdo, who created the Stop Teen Violence Music Tour, where he performed at numerous local high schools. “The music shines a light on a lot of things. People have their ways of telling us stories with music. I’m the narrator or the reporter in my neighborhood. … The stories that I listen to from the kids I sit down with within my neighborhood are never about the music; it’s always about survival.”
While radio stations and record companies draw the brunt of the criticism, the recent crop of artists doesn’t depend on them to gain notoriety. They cut out the middleman by uploading their music to YouTube, utilizing the DIY approach.
South Side rapper Rooga’s “GD Anthem,” a Gangster Disciples homage that uses abbreviations to cite various gangs, has 7 million YouTube views. Rooga, the cousin of slain drill rappers FBG Brick and FBG Duck, raps in part:
Oh, you say you GDK? F--- is wrong with you?
He said, “ ‘Cause you GDN I can’t do no song with you’ ”
And if the BD’s found out, they gon’ put me on the nеws
I’m like, “Shut the f- - - up, b- - - -, stop picking sides’ ”
Reach Media managing editor J.R. Bang, formerly of 93.9 WKYS in Washington, D.C., agrees with the premise of taking a critical look at YouTube.
“Radio is the oldest form of communication other than the phone when you think about it, so it’s easy to blame radio,” said Bang. “When you look at [93.9 WKYS] playlists, our playlist consists of the majority of the people who don’t talk about [violent rap] that might be one of two. In Chicago’s case, since I’ve been back, I barely hear us on our airwaves. But if I talk to a shorty, they’d be like: ‘Yo, go on YouTube.’ ”
Power 92-FM personality Pharris Thomas says terrestrial radio is often viewed as a “scapegoat” because they are deemed by detractors as much more accessible for criticism than streaming services.
“Radio has actually been making a conscious effort to clean the music that hits the airwaves from mix shows to on-air,” said Thomas. “They attack us because they can’t do anything to the other platforms. If we don’t play certain songs they can go right to YouTube, Spotify, Apple Music, etc. The radio is NOT the problem. Parents need to monitor what their kids do and where they visit on their phones.”
Maze Jackson, host and owner of the podcast creator WIIFTBP (What’s In It For The Black People) Media, believes social media streaming websites — particularly YouTube — that profit from rappers in death bear some of the responsibility when violent lyrics turn deadly.
King Von’s post-death ascension on the Billboard music charts backs up Jackson’s claims as the slain O Block rapper posthumously held four songs on the Billboard Hot 100 chart weeks after his death.
“The profits outweigh the dysfunction,” said Jackson. “I would point to the likes of Lyor Cohen [YouTube’s head of music], and the white record executives that control urban culture. I got a dead artist and a YouTube channel with all of this music I can release — I think it’s pretty insidious.
“Cohen has been at the forefront of our culture from Def Jam to now being the head of YouTube Music. And when you look at all of those places, he’s left a trail of death and destruction for Black music; he’s never really uplifted our community.”
YouTube declined to comment but pointed to the content restrictions in its Community Guidelines.
Vocalo-FM radio program director and DJ Ayana Contreras has a simple formula when vetting content.
“I don’t care if I know [the song] is going to be a big hit or No. 1 in the streets,” said Contreras. “I think what’s more important is what kind of energy that I want to use our platform to be putting out into the world. I don’t want to exclude any artists, because I think artists contain multitudes just like everyone else.
“I wouldn’t say there are any artists we won’t play, but there are definitely records that we won’t play, and themes that we don’t want to elevate.”