Whew. It’s been a helluva year for 17-year-old South Chicagoan Chief Keef, the breakout star of the city’s teenage rap scene. First, he was put under house arrest for pulling a gun on a cop. Then his incredible single, “I Don’t Like,” went viral, introducing the world to his icily depraved thug rap — which Kanye rightfully remixed. A $3-million record deal followed, with labels rushing to scoop up anyone in his entourage. Then, last week, Keef, born Keith Cozart, dominated music-media headlines when his local rival, MC Jojo, turned up dead — and he nonchalantly laughed about it on Twitter. Try searching the hashtag “#300” for more — that denotes Keef’s alleged gang, the Black Disciples; JoJo, meanwhile, was allegedly associated with Brick Squad, another gang. (Keef’s grandmother, Margaret Carter, has denied her grandson’s gang ties outright.)
That’s when his story — outside Chicago, at least — blew the fuck up: Pitchfork withdrew a video they’d posted of him at a gun range. Rhymefest, in a post describing the latent violence of his songs, called him not a musician, but “a bomb.” Lupe Fiasco said that Keef “scares me. Not him specifically, but the culture that he represents.” Then added: “We kings not fucking savages and goons.” Chicago’s alt-weekly, The Reader, echoed that sentiment, calling Keef not “rap beef [but] gang beef in a rap setting.”
Keef — especially his icy nonchalance in the face of death — has spooked plenty. And certainly, his detachment is disturbing (especially coming from someone who hasn’t yet reached the age of majority). But this talk of being a “savage,” a term loaded with racial prejudice? The idea that MCs are “kings not… goons”? That he’s not a rapper with criminal leanings, but a criminal who just happens to rap?
There’s two problems with how pundits have handled Keef. First, he has ignited a fear of the unknown — like Marilyn Manson, quite laughably in 2012, did post-Columbine — that’s exposed genuine racism, classism and an ugly sensationalist streak from his detractors. Keef is neither a “bomb” nor a “savage”; he’s a loudmouth, if talented, teenager who lives with his grandmother in Chicago’s impoverished south end. His songs are aggressive, ugly and minimal — perfectly reflective of his home in Englewood, a neighbourhood that has seen a 78 per cent increase in fatal stabbings since last year. (Keef might be the antithesis of Beach House’s denial rock, which wilfully ignores the material conditions that produced it.)
Yet Keef’s detractors have been nothing if patronizing. Lupe told an interviewer that “the murder rate in Chicago is skyrocketing, and you see who’s doing it and perpetrating it — they all look like Chief Keef.” Then, in a colossal moment of conceit, he threatened to retire from rap because, ostensibly, this wasn’t how things were supposed to be. The Well Versed chimed in, too, arguing that Keef’s success was “rewarding ignorance.” Cue the conversations about what constitutes “real hip-hop.”
Now, Lupe and The Well Versed’s intentions make perfect sense: They’re rightfully concerned about the violence that’s sweeping South Chicago. And they’re certainly coming from the right place. At best, they see Keef as a violence-glorifying thug; at worst, they see him as a nefarious influence on popular culture. Think of the children!
But here’s the thing: Music is not PR, and Keef has no responsibility to toe the socially responsible line. He produces precisely one measurable thing: art. And Lupe, The Well Versed, The Reader and Fader have no authority to call him less of an artist, more of a thug. They have no authority to dismiss his music as simply “criminal.” Because that’s patronizing.
See, music doesn’t need to be didactic to be forceful. It doesn’t need to enlighten listeners, instruct fans or create social change. Heck, it doesn’t need to be positive, and it certainly doesn’t need to be critic-adored. (It is for this reason, for example, that hardcore fans don’t strictly listen to youth crew, or that singer-songwriter types appreciate Elliott Smith’s soul-crushing content.) All it needs to be, to borrow Lupe’s words, is representative of a culture. And it is.
See, Keef comes from, by all accounts, a war zone: As The Daily Beast notes, Chicago has reached 250 murders so far in 2012, a figure that’s rapidly rising. (By contrast, New York, a city dwarfing Chicago in size, has 193 murders this year; Edmonton, declared Canada’s murder capital, had 47 murders in 2011.) In July, Chicago saw 26 people get shot over the course of a weekend, largely attributed to gang-related activities. And Englewood, Keef’s home, boasts the city’s highest murder rates — with a 40 per cent increase in homicides since 2010.
So, yeah, Keef’s music is violent. Keef himself might be cold-blooded. He is, undeniably, a product of his environment. But it’s unfair to place the burden of Chicago’s criminal problems on the shoulders of one (arguably very talented) teenager.