Bigger Than Beef: Chicago Crime’s Disconnection With Rap

September 6, 2012 13 comments

This will probably come off as reactionary pontification, but I’d like to think of it as a reaction to reactionary harangue. (“ooh, so meta!”) Whatever the case may be, I’d be remiss not to at least state my intentions.

Now, difficult discussion ahead: Much of the national discourse recently about crime has centered around inner-city, and probably (but not limited to) gang related gun violence. Nowhere in the US is there a more concentrated volume of such crime than Chicago. Tyler Zimmer of the Chicago news and culture site Gaper’s Block cited Chi-Town’s murder rate, just this summer, to be “up 49 percent according to recent estimates”, with a staggering average of “between 30 to 40 people shot” including “four to eight killed” each weekend. This isn’t new to most people who have expressed concern for the city’s well-being and followed the downward spiral of violence in the South, Southwest and West sides (the most violently fervent areas in inner-city Chicago.)

What else isn’t new is observers and journalists alike making attempts to draw parallel’s between the music that provides the backdrop to these devastating acts, and the crime itself, especially among youth. We tend to have this conversation every decade — the chronology in music reaches as far as Black Sabbath, to 2 Live Crew, to Snoop, to Eminem — but, with today’s live, primary source scribing of events via Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, Instagram, and the like, it’s much easier for an individual to publically connect their lifestyle (fabricated or not) to their persona (professional or amateur.)

That brings us to the situation that polarized much of the blogosphere recently (probably more in independent circles than most) and, more importantly, compassionate individuals who strive to understand the reason behind, seemingly, senseless loss of life: The shooting death of Chicago rapper Lil JoJo (18 year old Joseph Coleman) Tuesday night. The incident, apparently stemming from a previous conflict involving various public members of the underground Chicago rap scene, drew the attention of news outlets and music blogs alike, mainly for its perceived depiction as a “beef”. I’ll quickly summarize for argument’s sake — Complex ran a feature yesterday that highlighted the major players and more detailed minutia of the altercation — I choose not to give any more specific attention to that aspect of the instance for respect of the deceased and family:

So, months ago, JoJo, a member of Chicago’s Brick Squad crew, (no Waka) made a diss track called ”3hunna k” directed at Lil Reese, a member of the same GBE (Glory Boyz Entertainment) clique as everyone’s favorite Drill movement representative, Chief Keef. This ongoing feud culminated in a Youtube video, posted merely days ago, that captures the scene of Reese and JoJo engaged in a verbal altercation, punctuated by the words of an unidentified individual shouting towards JoJo, “I’mma kill you”. That, we now know, foreshadowed the unfortunate events that came just days later. Chief Keef and crew’s involvement has certainly galvanized this particular situation, (with each sending post-mortem tweets seeped in nihilistic apathy [of which Keef may be under CPD investigation for]) but it’s the notion that the music involved, and the qualifier of “beef”, is a major factor in the death of this young man.

From my, admittedly restrained, synopsis, one could certainly take the position that a rap song sparked the violence that followed. But, one also can reserve the right to say that that is complete bullshit. We live in an age where the word “beef” can be applied to any situation where two self-claimed artists have a disagreement. Not to take away from either party, (although, lyrically, it wouldn’t be taking much) but what elevates this from a typical Chicago gang conflict, to a “rap beef” gone wrong? Would this not have happened had JoJo not been making raps and uploading them to Youtube and Datpiff? Would any of the many other non-rapping young men and women in Chicago be in any more danger if they were to pick up a mic? I think the conversation is clearly bigger than the musical perspective, but what perplexes me is just how easily we turn these kids into commodities and caricatures, just because they’re, essentially, amateur rappers in the premier den of American violent crime.

We look at rappers like Chief Keef as harbingers for the streets they inhabit. Cold, hard looks at the life and loss that occurs there, and that is certainly accurate from the vantage point of your computer screen; understand, these kids do eventually put their shirts back on and go home — be it usually a broken and perilous home. There’s an empathy that is curiously missing in much of the coverage (that lands somewhere between condemnation and fascination) that a lot of people tend to ignore. In that disconnected outlook, we devalue the worth of their basic humanity. I know that sounds sensationalist by nature, but the way much of this Drill movement is presented by the media (from King L, to Lil Durk, to even Lil Mouse) suggests people who are lesser than the status quo of raps standard and, maybe subconsciously, human standard. Which, while the former is indisputably accurate on a basic technical level, does not denote their life experiences and their ability to convey them the best they know how. Our contact with these artist — a few videos a week, constant stream-of-conscious tweets, etc. — have added a layer of contextual judgement that we may not be close enough to analyze on a cerebral level. Instead we’re left with inferences about lives we don’t live and people we wouldn’t dare challenge face-to-face.

I’m not questioning the reluctance to elevate these artists to the same level as others, (lets say, um, Lupe Fiasco) and this music is not of any discernible quality for me. Then again, it certainly isn’t for me. But, that’s almost the point. To immediately call this JoJo/Lil Reese conflict a “beef” based on the fact that they both rap, is to ignore the most impactful and influential aspects of their personas: their surroundings. Chicago, and it’s accompanying rate of violence, is the reason why these kids leave the lasting impression of realism that they do. And, it’s our dismissal of their legitimacy that denounces the reality of their situations as fodder for musical inspiration. That’s not material, it’s not a bit; this shit is real for them. I’m not claiming that, as artists, they’re legitimate. I don’t like Keef or any of his ilk’s choices in terms of how they present themselves musically. But, blogs and news outlets raise them to prominence under the guise of only musicianship, (retroactively, I might add, seeing that Drill was a movement alive long before blogs got a hold of it) when, at the end of the day, music or not, they’re dodging bullets and throwing gang signs regardless. To offer a common cliche, “this is deeper than rap”.

I’ll be the first to admit my guilt of this too, but I think we get wrapped up in how to quickly label and qualify destructive situations, and the individuals involved, but these are all humans. Humans with complicated backgrounds and motives (however trivial they are) for everything we see as “just” this, or “simply” that. If there’s one thing to learn from the, now elder statesmen, plateaus of Jay-Z and Nas, it’s that beef is on wax. Once it hits the streets, it something completely different. Something totally separate from music. The loss of Joseph Coleman is tragic, but sadly, it’s not unique, and it’s certainly not just “beef”.

This is something completely different.