Reenacting Chi-Raq: The Plight of the Black Chicagoan Youth

Pray for Chicago – is the last title shown before the credits in the Chiraq YouTube documentary. It’s like a war zone in Chicago with a death toll that has been higher than that of the American troops in Iraq since 2000, hence the name Chi-Raq. But Lupe Fiasco in the Chicago Parts Unknown episode insists that Chiraq is Englewood which according to my understanding makes up all of the city’s South side. Other Connoisseurs have cited both the West and South sides as the areas where the largest concentration of the deadly violence is limited to. Chicago as a whole is one of the biggest cities in America with a lot more to offer than the unfortunate reputation it’s taken on in the recent years. Some, credit its war-zone outlook to its emerging hip hop scene with new age gangster rappers such as, King Louie and Chief Keef among others. Numerous music videos on YouTube show these young black men mugging for the camera with machine guns and cash. On a heavy drill-like beat, they rap lines like, “We don’t fight no more; we shooting.” It’s called drill music, squad music, and it has taken over the hip hop world by storm. In many fanatics’ minds Chicago represents danger, a no-go zone. And to hear words spoken by the youth from the streets of Englewood is to get a reliable account of how life is like on the “dark side.” And well known producers and record labels alike are paying attention.

Not to take anything away from the various numbers indicating a genocide-like crisis with half the casualties under 25 years old, perhaps some of the more notable deaths include, 18-year-old Lil Jojo in 2012, 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton in 2013, and 45-year-old Nykea Aldridge who was caught in a crossfire while she was pushing her infant child in 2016. She was a cousin to NBA’s Dwyane Wade. Lil Jojo was an up and coming rapper whose gang was feuding with Chief Keef’s gang on social media before the conflict escalated into a shooting in the streets. Hadiya was an honor student and a majorette, and had performed at President Obama’s inauguration events a week prior to her death. Her death came up in a Senate hearing, and her killer turned himself in, following a huge public outcry. Two brothers in connection with Nykea’s death were arrested. However while a number of people were investigated in connection with Lil Jojo’s death, including Chief Keef and 18-year-old “D.Rose” – recently found guilty for the murder of another teenager, no one was ever arrested. Though it should be noted that evidence pointing to the suspects was posted all over social media. Whispers of a street justice retaliatory murder were well documented in songs and broadcast messages. It’s amazing how much damning information these kids post online! If you’re looking, you can even find incriminating videos. Nevertheless it’s a form of branding for these kids. Street cred and respect are the only form of human capital available to them. Being that they are all self proclaimed rappers and aspiring stars in the hip hop world with often limited education and colorful records in the juvenile and criminal justice system, this is capital that could potentially propel them out of these unfortunate circumstances.

Hadiya Pendleton


Nykea Aldridge


Lil Jojo

With over 1400 people shot in Chicago so far this year, there have been about 430 homicides recorded, 80% of which are black non-Hispanic people living primarily on the West and South sides of the city. Over 50% of the people that are murdered every year are under 25 years old. Many of the people that die don’t have the social capital to make the news and garner the attention of the public and the police for any significant stretch of time. As such their deaths often go unsolved. It is a systemic problem. And many young people at the center of it will acknowledge that it’s a never ending cycle. Their grandparents, parents and kids to come are all key players in this cycle of violence. And they are not giving up their guns anytime soon. They don’t wanna get caught off guard when the next altercation comes around. “They lack conflict resolution skills,” says one member of the Ceasefire community activist group of ex-gangsters. When a kid runs out of insults to say in an unpleasant exchange, the next thing they think of is to shoot. They don’t have anyone to teach them these essential nonviolent survival skills germane to civil society. Many of their fathers are locked up in the criminal justice system. Mothers are often too young to care, or are addicts, and may even be behind bars themselves. With one of the lowest high school graduation rates at 65%, and virtually no after-school programs to occupy them, many of these kids seek for meaning and purpose in the gangs. They want to be gangsters because that’s what they see all around them.

Rap remains the one sure way out of the ghetto for the young black men and women of Chicago. Virtually everyone is a rapper, with their own individual YouTube channels to get their music out to the world. And it’s working. Chicago has recently emerged on the rap scene, with it’s own sound and style. People love the so called drill music in part because they are fascinated by the life experiences portrayed in the lyrics, and also because they appreciate what it takes to survive the despair. Those who have made it out have gone on to live the abundant life of the stars. But many still remain back in Chicago. Not everyone can be a star yet everyone has made it their life goal to become one. So how do you help people that are stuck in this predicament? Efforts have been made to alleviate the plight of the young black Chicagoan. Several charities, including Kanye West’s Donda’s House Inc, and Dwyane Wade’s Wade’s World Foundation have embarked on various after-school programs to enhance the education, health and social skills of children in at-risk situations. Activist movements initiated in community symposia are advocating for more school funding and less policing. There is a lot that is being done to improve the prospects of the children of the next generation. But with the exception of the Ceasefire ex-gangsters who mostly interrupt conflicts before they escalate into shootings, none of the efforts of these well funded organizations is addressing the plight of the current young gangster. It’s like they have been written off to fight it out in the rap world, not to mention the illegal drugs that they may or may not be peddling.
So how do you help the young

Chicagoan gangster? How do you help in slowing down the slippery slope to a young man’s premature death? There are no easy answers. But perhaps we may learn a thing or two from one of the greats from Chicago’s south side, Quincy Jones. When asked by Oprah, another Chicagoan in an an interview why rap scares people, he said, “Young black urban males with a lot of energy – and expression of the conditions of their life in a very poetic way. It’s a very dramatic way, a very theatrical way, and it’s very powerful stuff.” They are basically re-enacting their life for the rest of us to see. And people are eating it up. Quincy Jones’s work is extensive and well known to most Americans. It’s a mainstay at the National Museum of African American History in Washington. At the museum, the history of the African American is tracked from slavery, abolition, the civil war through the segregation era, civil rights movement and the election of the first black president. The arts are a big part of that history because many great African Americans came up in the arts. Washington DC is a tourist destination for its museums, Capitol Hill and the White House among other attractions. I don’t see why Chicago’s South and West sides cannot get a Museum of the contemporary arts where all the youths can reenact their lives through music and performance. They are already doing it on YouTube for no money. Maybe they should start thinking about monetizing this art form as a community, rather than embarking on individual competing pursuits in a world where a simple disagreement could lead to one’s death. It could be the first step taken in building a community in an urban American war zone that is called Chi-Raq.

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