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Chicago rapper Mykele Deville seeks to ‘Maintain’ through music, art, education

Mykele Deville is set to release a new album later this week. | Zakkiyyah Najeebah Photo

Mykele Deville just released the new album "Maintain." | Zakkiyyah Najeebah Photo

On the morning of our Valentine’s Day conversation, Mykele Deville is doing what he loves — not wasting one moment of his day. In between two acting commercials and before an interview at CHIRP Radio and, later, working with children at The Yard Theater Company, the multi-hyphenate rapper/poet/actor/teaching artist finds a few minutes to talk about “Maintain,” his latest passion-driven project. The complex, seven-track album, released last week on No Trend Records, recently streamed on Billboard and has received positive reviews. The masterful album speaks volumes as to the complexity of black life in America.

MYKELE DEVILLE
When: 8 p.m. March 3
Where: Lincoln Hall, 2424 N. Lincoln
Tickets: $15 (in advance)
Info: lh-st.com

“The word ‘maintain’ has a lot of roots in black culture and hip-hop culture. I remember listening to some of my favorite artists back in the day, like Nas, [who] talk about maintaining in their art,” he says. “I started thinking deeper about that, how in black and brown communities in this country, people feel attacked or under attack or hunted or other-ized in a number of ways because of their skin or culture. But they’re surviving and maintaining a level of peace or happiness, which is a feat all its own.”

Deville, an Austin native and an alum of the former Gallery 37 program with fellow Chicago wordsmith Jamila Woods, debuted in 2016 with the acclaimed mixtape, “Super Predator,” which was released during the presidential election and references Hillary Clinton’s infamous remarks in a mid-‘90s speech describing gangs. “Maintain” comes at an even more tumultuous time and is a reflection of life in Trump’s America and the growing racial divide.

“It’s endless, the amount of stories you hear. So many have happened over the last years that have added to a sense of paranoia and depression and almost futility when it comes to my body and my position in this world and the way I’m looked at,” Deville says, noting that the six-part Netflix series, “Time: The Kalief Browder Story” was something that weighed heavy on his mind while he worked on “Maintain.” Executive produced by Jay-Z, the series tells the story of a Bronx teen who was imprisoned on Riker’s Island for several years because his family couldn’t afford bail after he was accused of stealing a backpack. The teen eventually took his own life.

A fan of rock music in high school, and self-trained on the guitar, Deville was inspired to write the new song “Kalief” by one of his favorite bands Nirvana, recalling their non-fiction song “Polly,” written about the abduction and rape of a teenage girl in Tacoma, Washington. “[Kurt Cobain] was so affected by reading that story in the paper he had to write a song about it; and I wanted to do that. … The tragedy that happened to Kalief is not really unique and not a story I haven’t heard about young black males, but it keeps happening. So the question is, what can we do once we know about these things? My album may offer no clear answer but I think rap can become therapy for a lot of folks, especially for artists and for artists of color because we can’t afford therapy most the time. We speak and heal through our art.”

“I’ve reached a really wonderful artistic period in my life, finding my voice and becoming more confident in my flow as a rapper and finding my way as a poet in Chicago," says Mykele Deville. | Zakkiyyah Najeebah Photo

“I’ve reached a really wonderful artistic period in my life, finding my voice and becoming more confident in my flow as a rapper and finding my way as a poet in Chicago,” says Mykele Deville. | Zakkiyyah Najeebah Photo

Deville says he didn’t want the whole of “Maintain” to be steeped in trauma stories, though, and much like his second 2016 release, “Each One, Teach One” (dedicated to life lessons for his 9-year-old niece Vaniya), there’s a good dose of positivity on his latest effort. Songs like “Type Love,” featuring songbird Daryn Alexus, champion the idea of self-love, while “Loosies + A Poem For Us” is an ode to his creative and romantic partner McKenzie Chinn, a creative with whom he works in the Growing Concerns poetry collective.

“The smartest decision I ever made was to be near [McKenzie],” Deville says, glowing about the couple’s recent move to Hyde Park. “It was a dream neighborhood for me when I was living in Austin. On the West Side a lot of times you’ll see older generational affluence in the community in certain spots, such as a family that has owned their home for a long time. And that was as close as I got to black ownership and black affluence in my community. So to live in Hyde Park and see that all around me and the university culture, the artistic culture and all the intergenerational love going on, it’s a wonderful thing for me and my art.”

His journey is something Deville tries to impart with the many youth of Chicago he works with through Foundations of Music as the lead poet-in-residence as well as a teaching artist at Edward H. White Career Academy and Tilton Elementary School near his childhood home on the West Side. There’s also his work with The Yard Theater Company where Deville works with the Chicago theater veteran Mechelle Moe, who was also his first mentor through Gallery 37, a hub for many of the After School Matters programs.

“Education is super-important, of course, but education has to be accessible,” says Deville. “I remember being in school and in programs that would teach young black men about etiquette and how to get internships but there was nobody like me that would show you options other than being out on the block or sports or trying to be a doctor, to find your way. You can express yourself.”

He continues, “Hip-hop is the great language of the world right now; we’re winning Pulitzers, we’ve got ‘Hamilton.’ And if I can connect the dots between hip-hop and education, poetry and my theater background, and put it into a curriculum that in some way teaches [kids] to come out of their shells and speak about social issues, they’ll not only become better emcees but they’ll be learning at the same time and discovering another pathway that works if you put in the work.”

Deville leads by example, challenging himself to sell 150 tickets to his own record release show for “Maintain,” happening March 3. It’ll be his first time playing Lincoln Hall, his first time with a live band and it coincides with his upcoming 30th birthday.

“This is a culmination of a lot of work, hard work,” says Deville. “I’ve reached a really wonderful artistic period in my life, finding my voice and becoming more confident in my flow as a rapper and finding my way as a poet in Chicago. Usually when I create records or art it comes from a place of stress or deficit, wanting to express something in anger. Now at a point where I’m happy while still remaining present about the world around me.”

Selena Fragassi is a local freelance writer.