H. Melt is a trans and queer artist/poet living in Chicago, whose work challenges the presumptions that surround and obscure the queer and trans stereotypes in popular culture. Originally from Evanston, H. Melt left Chicago for the University of Vermont, but was drawn back home to pursue their MFA at the School of the Art […]
H. Melt is a trans and queer artist/poet living in Chicago, whose work challenges the presumptions that surround and obscure the queer and trans stereotypes in popular culture. Originally from Evanston, H. Melt left Chicago for the University of Vermont, but was drawn back home to pursue their MFA at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. They are the author of the recently published book “SIRvival in the Second City,” and have had their work published in THEM, the first trans literary journal in the United States. Their work combines the voices of both trans and queer communities, as well as a unique Chicago perspective. (more…)
Living in Chicago during the winter causes you to gain an appreciation for life’s small joys. For some, it could be as simple as a cup of coffee with a friend or a smile from a stranger. For me, it’s been the sound of winter rain. On an unseasonably warm afternoon recently, I stood outside and listened to the rain fall. It was soothing, comforting, and reassuring me that winter was nearing its end. It was a sound that gave me life.
Before standing outside to listen that day, I had attended an event at DePaul University’s Student Center, during which people had shared their experiences through storytelling, poetry and the spoken word. They shared many different stories — stories of injustice and pain, of joy and discovery, of discomfort and confusion. Through their words, their vulnerabilities were exposed. However, the performers did not seem ashamed, for they were comforted by the finger snaps of their peers and of an audience of nearly two hundred people.
As each performer shared their piece, audience members would sporadically snap their fingers, providing them with the motivation to keep going. As storytellers’ stories deepened and they pulled back more layers of themselves, the sounds of snaps grew. It was as if each performer was doing trust falls, leaning back each successive time with greater abandon into the arms of an audience that stooped to catch them. And they thrived off of it, becoming more confident. As the snapping continued, taking no particular structure or rhythm, I was reminded of how closely it resembled the sound of rain.
My curiosity for the connection between snapping and poetry peaked. When I got home, I did some rudimentary research, and found that finger snapping started as a tradition in poetry during the 1950s with the new generation of young, hip beat poets. Greenwich Village in New York City was one of a few cultural hubs across the nation for artists, poets and painters. Beat poets from “The Village,” as it was called, would gather in the basements of each others’ homes for poetry readings. These events consistently drew large crowds, and fear of disturbing the neighbors became an issue. So instead of giving a round of applause at the end of a poem, audiences were encouraged to snap their fingers to show their appreciation.
But since the 1950s, when it was merely used as a way of keeping peace with sleepy neighbors, snapping has developed a much deeper meaning. Kit Main and Morgan Spears, President and Vice-President of DePaul’s student organization P.O.E.T.S. (Presenters Of Enlightenment Through Spoken-Word), helped me to understand the true value of this practice. For them, snapping has a wide range of meanings, yet each meaning seems to fit within a similar theme. A snap says to the performer, “I like what I am hearing. Keep going.” Whereas a clap signifies the end of a performance, a snap is a request for more.
With a snap, encouraging words that might conflict with the performer’s words are less necessary. The sound provides intimacy, comfort, and builds a connection between the performer and the audience. The action lets the performer know that the audience is on the same level of awareness and consciousness. It reminds the performers that they are not alone on stage. It acts almost as an auditory lubricant for the rest of the performance to flow freely. A snap is the sound of affirmation, of support, of human connectivity.
Just as the sound of winter rain told me that the end of winter was near–even if Old Man Winter has a few more snow days on the agenda–the sound of the snaps gives performers with the confidence to continue sharing their deepest selves.
DePaul P.O.E.T.S, Many Mic Mondays is just one of many other open mic style events that take place across the city nearly every day. These safe spaces encourage performers of all levels of experience to stand up on a stage and peel back the layers of themselves through an artistic medium. Two of our Allies, Lyric Mentoring and Street-Level Youth Media, regularly provide safe spaces for youth to do this–and these events are open to the public. Lyric Mentoring’s open mic event takes place every Tuesday night, and Street-Level Youth Media hosts the event COLOR on the first Friday of every month. Come catch a glimpse and an earful of how passionate and supportive the youth artists of Chicago can be — and support our Allies as they lift up our community.
If you’re a Chicago native who lived through the 1990s, you probably still get a pang of excitement and nostalgia from any mention of the “Bulls Dynasty” years. There was the darkened stadium, lit only by the flashes of cameras; those instantly recognizable, rippling synthesizers, the booming voice of the announcer: it was nothing short of an electrifying experience, even just to be watching from home. (more…)
Upon arriving at the Taylor Park community center, I became lost in a maze of dim hallways and bustling classrooms. While I searched for the room dedicated to students of our Ally organization, Intonation Music Workshop (IMW), I was drawn to the sound of gospel music. Peering into the classroom from where the music emanated, I was immediately greeted by the young man I had come to meet, Laveric and his mother Beverly. Squaring his shoulders and firmly shaking my hand, Laveric ushered me to a table littered with drawings and school books, where he had been doing some homework. “You’ve come on a good day,” he said. “It’s rainy out. I concentrate better when it’s rainy.”
Situating himself between his seventh grade math book and a stack of papers, Laveric explained to me that he has been attending IMW classes at Taylor Park for four years, participating in three IMW programs along the way. At age twelve, he already possesses an impressive array of musical abilities, and a long list of performances at professional venues under his belt. As an active member of IMW, Laveric can be seen performing with IMW’s advanced All-Star Band, the hip hop crew RhymeSchool, and his Taylor Park group The Glows. Impressed by Laveric’s charismatic personality and knack for planning, I was reminded just how big Chicago kids can dream.
First joining IMW at age nine, Laveric had no prior experience in the performing arts. His initial interest in art manifested itself as a love for drawing. Laveric explained that “art runs in my blood” — his loving mother, Beverly, and two uncles are artists, and are his biggest creative inspirations. He proudly shared their drawings with me before showing off some of his own — Shadow from Sonic and Goku from Dragon Ball Z, among a few of the recognizable characters. Flipping through the sketches, I noticed that Laveric’s artistic talents go far beyond just his musical abilities.
In his first days with IMW, Laveric discovered a passion for guitar, and decided to focus on it as his go-to instrument. After a year, Laveric expanded his musical talents to singing and playing bass. Recently, he’s taken on piano and drums, two instruments he says are, “much more difficult than guitar.” Last year, Laveric was accepted as a member of The IMW All-Stars, a band consisting of advanced IMW students from sites all around Chicago, who come together to perform at public events and fundraisers. They have covered a variety of music from Elvis’ “Blue Suede Shoes” to “Tighten Up” by The Black Keys and Outkast’s “Hey Ya” — the latter on which he is known for doing a killer rendition of Andre 3000’s famous “shake it like a Polaroid picture” breakdown.
After listening to Laveric speak for only twenty minutes, I realized how IMW provides so much more than just a platform for students to perform and display their musical talents. IMW gives students an environment to build relationships organically and share artistic ideas with those they otherwise may never have met or considered their peers. One of Laveric’s favorite parts of being a member of the IMW All-Stars is that “he gets to work with so many awesome people” from all around the city. Laveric often shares the stage with one of his classmates, also a member of the All-Stars, and told me that they “share a lot of cool memories” to brag about at school. One boast-worthy moment came earlier this year, when the All-Stars performed at the Milwaukee Avenue Arts Festival in Logan Square, and rocked the house at the Alhambra Palace in the Near West Side. The All-Stars will also be performing at Lincoln Hall on February 15th as a part of IMW’s Annual Rock-N-Pop Circus.
In addition to performing with The All-Stars, Laveric writes lyrics with IMW’s RhymeSchool crew. Led by Chicago rap icon Psalm One, Rhymeschool focuses on writing and performing lyric verses to hip-hop beats with IMW students. Just this past summer, RhymeSchool performed at North Coast Music Festival, and wowed the audience at the annual gala this past October.
Once a huge fan of playing football with his friends after school, Laveric left the sport behind for his pursuits in music. “I was one of the fastest guys out there. I could run and nobody could catch me.” Asking him why he chose to quit the sport, he told me, “anyone can run, not everyone can play the guitar.” Clearly, Laveric has his priorities in life sorted out.
Laveric walked me through the process of how each member contributes in the selecting new songs to learn, and actively participates in identifying and learning “key points” of songs. Through guidance and repetition, he said that, “we practice a song until we feel comfortable enough to perform it in front of people, then we move to the next one.” The skills of patience he developed from learning music have served him well at home, too. Laveric’s mother Beverly told me how “Since starting at the guitar, he [Laveric] argues with his brother a lot less. They both actually help each other a lot with homework and music.”
As a member of The All-Stars, Laveric works closely with some of IMW’s eldest high school members. Laveric looks up to one member in particular, and told me how he plans to follow in his footsteps by attending Chi Arts High School. Laveric also expressed interest in attending either DePaul University (hopefully, the basketball team will be good by the time he arrives) or the University of Chicago. Without my asking, Laveric told me that he wants “to pursue art” as a major and play guitar for the school’s band. His exposure to music through IMW’s after-school programs have inspired him to see art as a tangible goal and even a career — it is, after all, what he’s good at, and what makes him happy.
When I asked him what he likes best about being an IMW student, Laveric said that he finds joy in being “a student teacher to new kids, because I can help them every year.” It’s known that as humans, we learn best through teaching — and students like Laveric appreciate the opportunity to do so. I was in awe as Laveric told me, “when I get older and am in college, I want to come back and help at IMW.” Clearly, Laveric’s shown himself to be an All-Star in more than one sphere of life. He’s a motivated, ambitious young artist, ready to give back to his community. I’d say that’s good news for the future of Chicago.
Where does the “Second City” stand in the landscape of American pop culture? Consider that the Chi has traditionally been a cultural epicenter, especially for entertainment. Chicago has influenced, cultivated, and showcased great talents of various art forms; in the early days of blues, musicians flocked to our city, and Chicago jazz and soul became their own subgenres, well-defined and respected.
While the days of Charlie Parker and Sam Cooke are long behind us, hip-hop has taken over as the new music to which Chicago can lay significant claim. If we look closely at the artists that have emerged from the Chicagoland area in the last decade or so, we notice that Chicago has produced some of the best MCs in the hip-hop industry. Through their music and popularity, Chicago MCs have been vanguards of social and cultural awakenings that tie many urban environments–domestically and internationally — together. They spoke to how they perceived their own world, and vocalized who they were in tandem with where they come from. This awakening transpired amidst all the political controversy as well as gun violence in our city, and these MCs have been able to inspire hundreds of thousands of people by escaping–and ultimately, living–through music. I’ll be taking a look at four of them: Kanye West, Common, Chance the Rapper, and Lupe Fiasco.
Interestingly enough, not all of these four were able to make it big immediately within the confines of Chicago. Some have had to go elsewhere to get their chance to be seen and heard on a bigger stage. For instance, Kanye moved to New Jersey in order to garner the attention of music labels. Common had to venture to the “Big Apple”–widely known as the home of hip-hop–to finally get his opportunity to shine.
But these now veteran rappers always brought global attention back to their homefront. As they gained success in the early 2000s, they laid the foundation for a new generation of Chicago MCs, eagerly awaiting their chance to spread their message, and their Chicago identity, to the masses.
Kanye West was one rapper and producer whose surge in popularity, many may say, led this cultural renaissance in Chicago in the mid 2000s. He built up a musical repertoire that appealed to a wide range of people representing the same city. He also helped promote the local culture by creating music with several artists that were locally known, but had not yet received national attention–artists such as Rhymefest (an I Speak Chicago supporter) and GLC, among others.
The aforementioned four great Chicago rappers certainly have a lot in common, other than their hometown and success in the industry. Their music has helped residents of this city to endure, despite daily hardships. They have thought critically about experiences that they have had and ones they have dreamed of. Any artist–a poet, rapper, writer–must be able to connect with the public sphere and relay a message that is relevant to them. They also must take on the responsibility of challenging conventional thought and sparking new dialogues. On a more interpersonal level, musicians can provide the soundtracks to our lives.
Kanye’s “Touch the Sky,” which features Lupe Fiasco, “Good Life” or “Spaceship” are songs with a timeless message of encouragement that is universally relatable. His album Graduation may be the most cohesive project that reinforces positive messages throughout its entirety.
However, it is not simply the ability to motivate or uplift that makes Kanye a compelling artist. For example, in his song “Diamonds,” Kanye points out the pressure within the hip-hop industry to purchase and flaunt expensive jewelry. He explains the motivations and the internal crises many of these artists feel simultaneously. One of the lines of the song reads “Little is known of Sierra Leone and how it connects with the diamonds we own.” Here Kanye takes a common occurrence of material wealth and makes the audience consider what may be problematic with their pursuit of seemingly lavish lifestyles.
Before Kanye, Chicago was most notably known for producing the rapper formerly known as Common Sense in the mid 1990s. I recently read Common’s autobiography, One Day It Will All Make Sense, in which he spoke about his growth as a man who was raised by a single parent on Chicago’s South Side. Most notably, he gives credit to Kanye for revitalizing his career with the production/creativity ‘Ye provided on Common’s most critically acclaimed album, Be, released in 2004. On this album he speaks power to the youth of Chicago and around the world, specifically in the intro, “Be,” and outro, “It’s Your World.” We hear the candid thoughts of a hopeful man who speaks to a population overlooked; he speaks to them about the capacity for betterment of both self and community.
Of the subsequent generation of Chi MC’s, Lupe may be the most radical and outspoken; anytime he gets a platform he makes statements that are applauded by some and shocking to others. He has often been critical of American government, foreign policy, and military procedure, which has consistently brings him widespread condemnation. We can clearly see his sharp opinions on institutionalized and personal violence in songs like “Little Weapon” off his album The Cool. In my opinion, Lupe is most concerned with love for all people and speaks against anything that he feels compromises that love. In Lupe’s songs such as “Superstar” or “Hip Hop Saved my Life,” you can feel Lupe’s yearning for his fans to dream big and maintain unwavering persistence.
Another commonality between these artists is their ability to analyze and be introspective about the level of privilege enjoyed during their upbringings. Kanye’s mom had a doctorate in English, as did Common’s mom. Lupe’s parents were politically active and educated, and Chance’s parents both have worked in government at some point. They are each cognizant of their places as individuals in the broader context, and the responsibility they have to spread positivity to those with less fortunate backgrounds.
In the last year or so, there has been resurgence in the youth movement of artists within Chicago, first with rapper Chief Keef and now with Chance the Rapper of the Savemoney Army. Both Chief and Chance have put out critically acclaimed mixtapes, and each of their popularity has spread rapidly through social media and the Internet. Chance has grown in popularity due to the diverse range of topics he delves into, much in the way his self-proclaimed hometown hero Kanye has. They share the verbal mastery that intrigues their respective fanbases to look critically at one’s self and their interaction with the world around them. Chance says in his song “Paranoia,” “they deserted us here”–pointing the finger at an apathetic society and media outlets that largely ignore chronic violence among Chicago youth. Meanwhile, songs like “Family” demonstrate that he hasn’t lost sight of the simple yet important things within life.
While Chance has not quite distanced himself from the “drill movement”–a gritty, trap-influenced style of Chicago rap that has become wildly popular among Chicago youth–his music is inarguably more positive than that of Keith “Chief Keef”Cozart, who is often unanimously mentioned with the drill subgenre. Still, it can’t be denied that rappers of the drill movement like Chief Keef speak to their own reality–even if the overarching message is negative, their self-expression is valid.
This past summer I was able to travel to Indianapolis and watch from backstage as Chance performed as an opener for The Space Migration Tour, with Pittsburgh rapper Mac Miller as the headliner. I observed as a kid from the South Side of Chicago was able to captivate a room of mostly rural teenage boys and girls. I wondered, in what arena could this phenomenon realistically take place, other than that of music, and specifically, hip-hop? In this moment, hip-hop served as both an art form and an educational tool — both and entertaining and educating a “foreign” audience on the harsh realities that Chicago youth experience. But what really captivated this audience was his charisma and stage presence — it was clear that he made them feel good. As a young person, he was able to connect with other young people who might otherwise be completely disengaged from the issues of which he spoke.
It is encouraging that young people are able to witness their influence in the world, and for them to see their capacity for impact. It is even more encouraging that their music has garnered national and global popularity that brings more visibility to issues that Chicago currently faces. While Kanye has moved on to gain massive superstar success, Chance has become the undisputed new “prince” of Chicago hip-hop. We can only hope that more youth of Chicago will follow in his footsteps by gaining a platform for expressing their identity and experience, and inspiring a new generation of youth–and later, people around the world.
Would you like to contribute or volunteer for I Speak Chicago and help spread positivity across Chicago? Shoot us your info and well be in touch within 24 hours.