Chief Keef has become a near-mythical figure. As a result of the nineteen-year-old Englewood rapper’s notorious exploits, both on and off the record, he has attracted significant interest from many national news outlets, blogs, and tastemaker publications. Perhaps no publication has done more to advance the cult of Keef than Vice magazine, twhich is known for its voyeuristic, “immersionist” style of reporting.
Now, Vice’s music outlet, Noisey, is filming and releasing an eight-part video series called “Chiraq,” highlighting Keef and his up-and-coming genre, drill. (The series’ last episode airs Wednesday, March 12.) The appeal of the series is predicated on the viewer’s being an outsider to Keef’s world—and the show’shost reporter, Thomas Morton, certainly is. The question “Chiraq” is founded on, that it asks both explicitly and implicitly, is whether drill represents “the real Chicago;” is whether our city is really the war zone that its controversial nickname suggests. During almost every episode in the series, one of the Chicago artists interviewed is asked about how his music corresponds to his real experience. Young Chop: “It’s too serious.” Yung Trell: “That’s how it really is.” But while “Chiraq” does document allegedly dangerous parts of life on the South Side, it does not deliberate about the things it portrays, at least not in the way that South Side insiders have begun to do as they witness the effects of drill music on their communities.
From the very introduction to the series it becomes clear that Noisey is jumping on Chicago’s reputation as murder capital of America (over 500 reported homicides in 2012). Also noting that Chicago is America’s most segregated city, Morton hazards that Chicago is the “perfect breeding ground for anger, resentment, and violence, and the type of awesome music that comes from such an environment.” This statement serves to summarize “Chiraq’s” dubious attitude toward the South Side. Going forward, Morton brings the viewer on a lurid tourist journey through Englewood and a few of the other neighborhoods that drill artists call home.
Though billed as the ostensible subject of the series, Chief Keef really functions as more of a phantom figure looming over the documentary. The day that the Noisey team arrived in Chicago, Keef was sent to juvenile detention for violating parole. Morton never speaks directly with him. Most of the episodes, therefore, focus on getting close to Keef and his lifestyle through interviews with his friends and associates.
The focus of these interviews is, once again, authenticity. Consumers of Keef’s music who don’t share his background have never been quite sure whether to believe the gunslinging swagger he’s built up around himself, although a fatal beef with fellow rapper Lil Jojo allows many of his friends to tell you that it’s based in reality. His manager, Peeda Pan, is shown on “Chiraq” saying that “the reason why [drill music] has become so big is that it came at a time when the music game needed something organic,” and that the videos Keef posted had “nothing fabricated” about them, which perhaps makes them strangely compelling to “people who have nothing to do with that kind of lifestyle at all.” Jo Jo Capone of Chicago rap collective Global Gangsters pulls up the back of his shirt to reveal an entire constellation of names of those who died from violent crimes in Chicago; the largest name, at the bottom, is the name of his fifteen-year-old son.
In trying to convince the viewer of the deeply personal reality of Chicago gun violence, “Chiraq’s” creators operate on the delicate assumption that drill music is as “awesome” as they think it is, without considering the many ways in which the genre might cast a shadow over the South Side. Viewers of the show see that drill is valued in its home communities, its concentration of “blocks,” both because of its relevance and because of the validating fact that, largely because of Chief Keef, it has been recognized outside of those communities. However, to some insiders, the way drill music functions both in neighborhoods like Englewood and in the wider world has seemed far from positive.
At a film screening at the Chicago Urban League in Bronzeville, another film entitled “Chi Raq” was recently publicized; this one was the work of filmmaker Will Robson-Scott. It zeroes in on Chicago violence without the mediating lenses of music or rap stardom. It’s gritty, shot in black and white, with gunshot-wound scars and elementary school pictures of slain sons and daughters bared in front of the camera. The mentions of drill music in the film (“Yes, the music has got to do a little bit with the violence,” says one man in the film) naturally led to drill becoming subject of the conversation that took place at the screening.
High schoolers who spoke out said of Chief Keef that “everybody wants to be like him,” and that, lacking other outlets to better or make a name for oneself, many of Chicago’s young men are turning to displays of “superiority through violence.” The screening’s panel, led by Sun-Times writer Maudlyne Ihejirika and consisting of Diane Latiker, CEO of Kids Off The Block; Alfonza Wysinger, First Deputy Superintendent, and the Reverend Dr. Marshall Hatch, discussed drill in a similar way. Hatch especially spoke about the increasingly prominent position of drill music in Chicago youth’s “tragedy of limited vision.” Like many of the artists who were interviewed for the Noisey series, he conceded that music was an outlet that can “raise you up,” and that on occasion convinces kids to pursue something productive and inspirational. But he was concerned with what he termed the “degeneration” of hip-hop, with a move away from music that interrogates and challenges difficult circumstances to music that glorifies and celebrates the vicious cycle of gang life. He pointed to Tupac and to other 1990s hip-hop artists as examples, challenging those gathered at the screening to stop and think for a moment: how does (or perhaps, how can) drill music stack up against these earlier hip-hop giants? And aside from the easily-levied criticism of the type of role models drill music provides on the South Side, the panel also brought up the equally troubling matter of drill being the area’s primary cultural export during the millennial generation.
As Thomas Morton says to the Global Gangsters at one point, “I’m here to kind of try to learn as much as I can about what’s going on in Chicago, especially through the music, because that’s all the way I hear about it.” Hatch laments the ways in which the South Side’s gang-banging image, as propagated through the music of Keef, Lil Durk, Lil Reese, and artists like them, “keeps people from investing” in an area that, as Latiker said, needs all the attention and support it can get. She said that, for most of the teens she works with, “just caring” abiut them has brought them such a long way. When outsiders dismiss Chicago as “Chiraq,” it drives away those who might seek to invest in community-building projects, understand the people of the South Side, and catalyze positive change, locking residents within an image of their neighborhoods that is very like the “cage” from which Peeda Pan says Keef was just trying to break free. Drill music, it seems, may widen rather than bridge this gap. The most insidious message it sends, according to Hatch, is that “this is all we can be.”