Ellen Hao

Op-Ed: King Von, Drill Music, Parkway Gardens, and South Side Chicago

A memorial

Rest in peace King Von. I wonder if your afterlife will be more peaceful than your Earthly life. Both you and Michelle Obama are from the South Side of Chicago, from the same notorious housing complex of Parkway Gardens stretching from 63rd to 66th Street along Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. But time and place mean everything in today’s world. 

Fleeing the racist violence of the South for Chicago, African-American migrants were confronted with Black Belt housing laws. These Black Belt laws forced seventy-five percent of Chicago’s African-American population into de-facto segregated housing on the South Side. Parkway Gardens was one such residence, and it was built several stories upward as opposed to outward, so as not to infringe upon the boundaries of Chicago’s ethnically white neighborhoods. 

For Michelle Obama, Parkway Gardens was a stepping-stone to becoming our nation’s premiere African-American First Lady. When baby Michelle Obama resided at Parkway Gardens, she had two loving parents, with grandparents just across the hall. Back then, Parkway Gardens was an innovative Black-owned cooperative: a direct response to American structural racism. 

But what about you King Von? Or should I call you Dayvon? What was it like for you in Parkway Gardens? Your songs narrate the dynamics of just one of South Side’s blocks — the now-infamous O Block. Did you have both a mother and father in the home? Were your grandparents just across the way? Did you grow up with children’s books on your shelf? Or perhaps someone reading you bedtime stories? I honestly do not know what your early childhood was like, but I’m almost certain it did not have the same stability. 

But similar to your South Side Chicagoan sister, you too believe in paving your legacy through words. Both you and Michelle understand the power of lexicon. Michelle blessed us with her memoir Becoming, and you recently left us with the lyrical record Levon James.

In the song “Took Her to the O,” you tell us about driving a young woman from Kankakee around the South Side. While making a pit stop at her house, a “goofy” man starts to attack her as she tries to get back into your car. You claim wanting to help, but because she is not your “ho,” you decide to lock your doors and drive away, watching in the rearview as the enraged man continually beats her. 

Suddenly, the same man throws a brick at your car and you decide to “raise your blick and let off two shots” to stop his violence — against your car. The relieved young lady jumps into your whip and you both flee the scene. You apologize to her, stating, “I know you mad cause I smoked your man”, but she cavalierly replies, “Fuck that n***a, he from 63rd.”

I am not here to judge your words or your life, King Von. I am simply reflecting on the words you left us prior to your murder. Words that chronicle what you saw as a young Black man from one of the deadliest neighborhoods in America. Words that reflect a semblance of what your immediate surroundings engineered for your future. But most importantly, words that highlight the violence and separation America intended for you. The 6400 block of South King Drive, dubbed “O Block” in honor of slain twenty-year-old Odee Perry, is indeed a microcosm of the unspoken side of the American Dream.

You and Michelle Obama both used words to forge a new trajectory. Being a lawyer, Michelle used rhetoric and speech to forge her way. Being a rapper, you used rhymes and lyrics. Unfortunately, you would not live long enough to understand the importance of shifting the energy of your work. And your becoming was cut short. Your socially prescribed lifestyle was predetermined by the block in which you were raised. Stoked by a world that glorifies violence against Black bodies with clout and financial gain, you exploited the very system that was designed to exploit you. 

Drill philosophy pushes lines and codes of conduct. As a practitioner of this school of thought, you used your platform to stoke rivalries. In the rhyme “All These N****s,” you boldly rap: “Tooka in my lung, I say that every time, ’cause he got smoked…”. You are also seen coaxing a toddler into saying the words, “Fuck Tooka” in an IG live video that went viral. Consequently, other rappers outside of Chicago began to throw around the phrase “fuck Tooka”, not realizing Tooka was a fifteen-year-old child murdered while waiting at the bus stop. 

Unfamiliar with the historic nuances of drill music, most of these non-Chicagoan rappers were quick to offer apologies to the family of Shondale “Tooka” Gregory upon realizing the error of their ways. But even as a father in your late twenties, you never gained the self-realization or awareness to offer the same. RIP Shondale “Tooka” Gregory, RIP Modell McCambry.

But here, I will not make a mockery out of your life force, because though I do not agree with some of your moves, I hold great respect for the breath God placed into your lungs and I applaud the drive and hustle you utilized to escape the American engineered nightmare that stole your innocence. I only wish more people had encouraged you to use your craft towards atonement, and forging unity between South Side rival gangs Black Disciples and Gangster Disciples. But we all can’t be Nipsey Hussle.

Through music you narrate the underbelly of America’s other dream. And more than anything, people admire your ability to tell such stories through drill trap. I marvel at the resilience of your hood mindset, and I tremble at the hidden hands that contributed to the tragic ending of your own story as a storyteller. 

An urban griot, marked with sharp features of a stolen Fulani prince, your legacy embodies the long forgotten racist laws that built Parkway Gardens; the lenient rules of Atlanta, Georgia which allowed Monaco Hookah Lounge to be open during a deadly pandemic; and the diabolical consciousness often applauded through social media platforms, where violence against Blackness gains more followers than a Kardashian chasing Black men.

I appreciate the telling of your story. Though it’s not neat or peaceful, it hails true. Ultimately, your story is a reflection of our country’s collective consciousness: A consciousness invested in the perpetual death of Black minds and bodies… aka, entertainment. But your demise is not entertainment, it is a foreboding omen of where we are headed if we do not lower our heads for a moment of silence.

King Von, may you continue to seek growth in the afterlife, and may your children be afforded the peace you never fully knew in this life. 

✶ ✶ ✶ ✶

Kulwa Apara is a Spanish-speaking Blaq womxn with Midwest roots based in Oakland, CA. She is passionate about intersections of historical trauma, historical triumph, and mental health. She is committed to using cultural arts as a tool to advance mental health outcomes in marginalized communities

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