Portraits of Chiraq, Documentary, and Narrative in Chicago

What we talk about when we talk about Chiraq.

Jan 28 2014, 6:15pm

Noisey host Thomas Morton with members of MGS, a Chicago rap group.

The rise of Chief Keef and his peers in and around one of Chicago's rap scenes commonly known as drill has brought a new wave of media attention to the city's severe problem with urban violence. Drill music is only one of the microgenres of rap music Chicago has to offer, but it's increasingly singled out for its purported links to gang culture and an aesthetic that many feel only perpetuates the more toxic elements of life in some of the city's poorest neighborhoods. It's recently spawned a number of documentaries, including Noisey's own Chiraq, WorldStarHipHop's The Field, and even some international projects as well. Regardless of what you might think about these contemporary representations of Chicago, they're signaling a change in the conversation behind the city's music culture.

Those recently acquainted with Chicago's rap scenes might not realize that there's already a long history of media depicting the city's most compelling urban narratives, especially those complicated by poverty and gang violence. Steve James' 1994 award-winning documentary Hoop Dreams tells the stories of William Gates and Arthur Agee, two African-American teenagers from poor neighborhoods in Chicago that get recruited to play high school basketball in an affluent suburb, with hopes of securing a college scholarship and eventually joining the NBA. Alex Kotlowitz's biography There Are No Children Here chronicled the lives of Lafayette and Pharoah Rivers, two brothers growing up in the now-razed Henry Horner housing projects on the Near West Side. James and Kotlowitz also collaborated on the 2011 documentary The Interrupters, which chronicles the high-risk efforts of antiviolence activists (often former gang members themselves) in Englewood. Columbia University professor Sudhir Venkatesh's 2008 Gang Leader for a Day retells the explorations of his early graduate studies at the University of Chicago, where his in-person surveys of tenants in the Robert Taylor Homes led him to befriend a local captain of the Black Kings gang in the early 90s, granting him an inside view of the crack trade in one of the city's most notorious South Side projects.

A common link between these depictions is the desire to transparently show the audience How It Really Is There, and unfortunately it's the closest view a lot of people will ever get to some of the most socioeconomically fraught communities in the United States. This isn't helped by Chicago's infamous history of hypersegregation, which systematically relegates the city's African-American community to impoverished neighborhoods and public housing projects. So naturally, questions of responsibility arise—how can the authors of these works give an honest representation of what's happening in these communities? Is that even possible? What's gained or lost when individuals outside of these Chicago neighborhoods try to convey these complex narratives? At the center of these questions is the raw, personal element of what the subjects of the documentaries tell the audience through their stories. When a teenager from any of these blighted neighborhoods on Chicago's South and West Sides gets the rare opportunity to talk at length about the trauma of living in these places, it's highly valuable for illustrating the sheer emotional, economic, and social strain that urban poverty inflicts on people—particularly (and maybe troublingly) to those that don't live in these places. In the fifth episode of Chiraq, Young Chop mentions having traveled to Paris with Chief Keef to meet Kanye West, but in the same moment remarks how he can't recognize the part of downtown Chicago the segment was filmed in because he's never been there before despite living in the city his whole life. The documentary format and nonfiction writing can help to illuminate the realities of these stories, and that's where authors and producers like Kotlowitz, James, and Venkatesh (and now documentarians of the music scene) have made gains.

From left to right: Noisey Chiraq producer Andy Capper and Chief Keef with Tadoe, Ballout, Noisey DP Jerry Ricciotti and friends.

Naturally, there's also the rap music from Chicago—it's own form of documentary, in a way. Chicago's rap often attempts in part to express the harsh realities of urban life over a few bars on a three to five minute song. The appeal is there, impossible to deny thanks to record sales and YouTube views. What differentiates rappers from documentary makers and novelists that they're trying to do more than just tell a story; they're often also trying to sell a lot of records. The reality of the situation is that Chicago's dynamic hip-hop climate has continuously drawn more attention to the violence that's been a fact of life for the urban poor there for decades. Of course, it's not as though rising artists like Keef and Lil Durk are the first to incorporate that into their music. Even relatively recent (but still older) local stars like King L and Big Homie D.O.E. have been rapping about the violence in Chicago with the same kind of lucidity as their younger counterparts. The Global Gangsters, featured in the second episode of Chiraq, are veterans to the scene—I saw them open for Clipse in Chicago nearly seven years ago. The way these rappers frequently weave violence into their music has come under fire from other Chicago rappers as well: Lupe Fiasco has admitted "Chief Keef scares [him]" and Rhymefest has described him as a "bomb" that "represents the senseless savagery that white people see when the news speaks of Chicago violence." Yet, like the documentaries that breach the same issues, these rappers are taking existing problems and effectively making them more vivid, for better or for worse. Cam'ron summarized it better than most on national television when he noted that when "you look at the news, you don't get mad at the person reporting the news" (except maybe you do if you're watching Bill O'Reilly). Granted, it's more complicated than that, but the dimension between Chicago's rap music and its violence is just that: one dimension, not the whole picture.

As much as it pains me to admit it, David Foster Wallace makes a few good points in his mostly insufferable 1990 book Signifying Rappers. Among these is the notion of rap music as "unique in its distillation of the energy and horror of the American present." Wallace was listening to rappers like Public Enemy, Schooly D, and N.W.A. in the wake of the Reagan administration and the aftermath of the crack epidemic, before most of the rising rappers in Chicago were even born, but that distillation is just as vivid as in any drill song released today, if not more so. Any filmmaker attempting to document what's happening in Chicago rap right now likely recognizes the music's incredible ability to do just that. With that in mind, it's important to remember that what's being narrativized in Chicago doesn't exist in a vacuum; rather, it's a blueprint for the same kind of violence (and music that characterizes that violence) that's afflicting and has been afflicting countless neighborhoods in inner cities across the United States for decades. This is all in spite of the fact that in Chicago, the homicide rate has actually decreased steadily for years—instead, it's just been concentrated into what gets labeled as Chicago's "dangerous neighborhoods." Maybe the recent fascination with the city's violence has evolved into something that's more visceral or captivating (or even marketable) than its previous forms, but the formula is still the same.

Lamron / 300 hand tattoo, shot the night of the Durk / Reese recording sessions in Episode One.

The current spotlight on Chicago is a new opportunity to confront the institutions that have systemically failed and abandoned these communities. The combination of isolating neighborhoods through a lack of resources like schools, supermarkets, banks, and hospitals and the transformation of Chicago's gangs from large hierarchical groups deserving of the label organized crime to small cliques with territory that sometimes expands only a few blocks has expedited the desolation of the South Side. In this vein, chapter five of Chiraq draws attention to the absence of trauma centers on the South Side, which means that adult victims of street violence have to travel miles to find the nearest emergency room that will treat them.

Perhaps most importantly, the media's focus on Chicago might be a chance to question the beguiling effect of "warzone" imagery associated with the city and its rap music in the first place. As Natalie Y. Moore recently observed, "war denotes the most extreme circumstances of inhumanity...Joblessness, inequality and segregation are grave enough that slapping a war metaphor, for some, perhaps, demonstrates that the state is the enemy. But war is also anonymous and abstract. War can further dehumanize black bodies and count them as casualties." In examining the cultural climate of Chicago's rap music, there's often a very real risk of mythologizing it. Depicting the struggle of individuals in these neighborhoods can inadvertently strip them of agency—so it's important that anyone seeking to document this culture do so with an awareness of the implications of doing so. Clearly a lot is at stake in any attempt to parse what's happening in Chicago, and at any rate, it's idealistically all a part of efforts to improve the future of the people who live there by giving them a voice. When the focus is on the portrayal of violence in Chicago and how that story's getting told in other forms of media, it tends to come back to how the music is ultimately a fundamental device to help tell that story. While not the only one, it's a vital instrument in understanding the intricacies of urban life in Chicago.

Gabriel Herrera is a writing human living in New York. He's on Twitter - @gabrielherrera