Before the coronavirus pandemic, Lyk Se7N had a plan.
“Right now, the goal is: make this music, make these hits, make whatever and touch others, touch the community and keep the community moving, and go to college at the same time, come back and deliver the same thing,” he said one afternoon back in mid-February.
Lyk talked from a crowded Build Coffee, where a mix of lunch-goers and Bernie Sanders organizers prepping to canvas Woodlawn had us sitting shoulder to shoulder at the bar overlooking South Blackstone. Still fresh off the November 2019 release of his debut EP, Outcome, on Soundcloud, the seventeen-year-old Washington Park native spoke excitedly about the year ahead. He was ready to write, record, and release music; book shows and do open mics; enjoy his junior year at his dream school—the Chicago High School for the Arts (ChiArts)—and perform in the school’s production of Chicago.
Across the seven tracks of Outcome, Lyk asserts himself as a lyricist, rapping over driving, boom bap beats packed with more metaphors than bravado. In songs like “LeftOvers,” What Defines U,” and “KeepSake,” the young emcee describes his view of life on the South Side and grapples with topics like PTSD, intergenerational trauma, and what it means to take care of and empower your family, your friends, and yourself. Clocking in at just over twenty minutes, “Outcome” features the occasional hook and soul sample, but operates primarily as a vehicle for Lyk to cram lyrics into bars with striking cadences. He cites as influences great storytellers like Bas, Chance the Rapper, and J.Cole.
“Outcome” is about being intentional, understanding the consequences of your decisions, and moving forward, Lyk said in February. That’s why it was important for the songs to be both personal and relatable. “It’s a shoutout to everybody that’s going through the same thing that’s from the South Side, [but] you don’t gotta be from the South Side to live this type of pain,” he said of “LeftOvers.”
“Nobody showed us how to deal with it, nobody gave us a book, nobody gave us a hand guide to deal with pain,” he said. “People deal with pain in the way of drugs, of addiction…They don’t know what to do, they blame others for their mistakes. We don’t know how to [cope]. God never came down and showed us what to do with this pain.”
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His preferred response to pain is to meditate, which often looks like listening to music and focusing on the sky, or writing over a beat. “You know what a monk do? They meditate—they focus the energy,” he said. “That’s something we all need to do, is take our time to calm down, do things that’s more important. Love ourself before we love anybody else. Find ourself before we find something in somebody else.”
On his Instagram account, @lykse7n, Lyk maintains a stream of videos of his performances, shares his friends’ music, and posts motivational quotes—all deliberately positive. “It’s a lot of negativity that happened throughout this year, so every time I say stay positive, it’s like, keep it up,” he said. He considers social media an opportunity to reach his generation, who he said doesn’t know how to communicate or resolve conflict. “What happened to us walking away?” he asked. “We don’t know how to even say, ‘I ain’t fitting to fight you, bro’ and like three days on say ‘Hey, man I apologize, let’s go play ball.'”
Born Malyk Singleton, the seventh in a family of eight boys, Lyk grew up not far from where he lives now with his grandmother in Washington Park. ”My mama always called me ‘Number Seven,’” he said. “Seven is just a number that represents me as a person.” Lyk was creative and driven early on, drawing and writing dozens of his own comic books.
When Lyk was seven years old, his older brother Christian introduced him to music. Working with a little keyboard, Lyk would rap whatever came to mind while they used an MP3 player to record. It was his first opportunity to discover his voice, he said. Christian also tried to give him a lesson on the music industry by drawing up a mock contract. “I was Jay Z and my little brother was Nas,” Lyk said. “We signed our names, saying ‘We’re stuck with y’all.’ They’re our managers, our A&R—they own the business.” Christian, now 23, would go on to advise Lyk as he started his music career, and works as an A&R rep for him today.
Lyk started out singing on the city’s open-mic circuit. After performing a few times at the KLEO Community Family Life Center on Garfield Boulevard, his trajectory changed. Local artists and poets Teh’Ray “PHENOM” Hale, Toni Mono, and K. Love The Poet reached out and began mentoring him, encouraging him to try poetry and rap. He said watching them perform along with others was inspiring. “When I was exposed to poetry and rap, it was something big. Like, ‘Damn, I could really do this,’” he said. Open mics would become a key way for him to make connections with other artists and feel involved in the community.
By 2015, he was thirteen years old and had a full list of goals—among them, to get into ChiArts and become a successful rapper. He had attended StoryArts Summer Camp that year, and stayed in contact with cofounder and director Bess Cohen, who helped him apply and book tours for prospective schools. After watching her coordinate schedules and connect with different schools, he asked her to be his manager. “I’m still young, I don’t got responsibilities—but I’m gonna have responsibilities, so I gotta prepare for the responsibilities,” Lyk said, explaining why he asked both Cohen and his brother Christian to work for him, even though he couldn’t pay them. “I ain’t famous. But when we get there, you will definitely get paid.”
Cohen, then an executive editor for the Weekly, quoted Lyk in that year’s Interviews Issue, where he touched on his goals, family, and creative drive. At the time, his grandmother was considering moving the family out of Chicago, “because life was so hard back then,” Lyk said. But then, a chance to attend ChiArts became a reality. “We realized this could be something.”
After auditioning with an August Wilson monologue, Lyk was accepted into ChiArts and began making the nearly hour-long trek from Washington Park to the school in Humboldt Park. Although exhausting, the commute gave him time to write music and get his day focused on the train and bus.
“Being at ChiArts is an amazing opportunity,” he said. The school gives him the tools, he said, to recognize what diversity, gentrification, and segregation look like in his neighborhood. “Coming back and seeing your community—seeing what’s wrong, [you are] seeing what needs to be put in, seeing what needs to be grown,” he said. “I feel like I got enough power to say something or change something.” The school was also a chance to connect with other musicians around the city and collaborate.
In the spring of 2019, he released his first single, “Born Knowledge” on SoundCloud under Lyk Se7N, to a warm reception from family, friends, and teachers. It’s a song that is still so important to him. “I was trying to get my first song to be defined as who I was,” he said. “When I dropped that it was like, alright bet—you’re in the game now.”
Lyk turned seventeen shortly afterwards, and released “Play the Game” in July 2019. The track speaks to how he sees himself as a lyrical rapper in a landscape where trap and drill are thriving. “In the hip hop game, it’s like lyricists are not being accepted, it’s not looked at as art no more,” he said. “This music industry wanna tweak. There’s other artists that need to be accepted. There’s real talent out here and the label don’t see. I’m not looking to be signed, but I’m saying that y’all don’t see talent.”
He spent the rest of 2019 running all over the city to perform at open mics and events, competing in Young Chicago Authors’ “Louder Than a Bomb” poetry slam and cutting the Outcome EP at a friend’s studio in Evanston. By the start of 2020, he was ready to continue working with the momentum he had garnered.
Then the coronavirus pandemic hit. Chicago began enforcing Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s stay-at-home order as virtually everything ground to a halt. Schools were closed. Lyk joined the millions across the country forced to abandon plans and adapt.
In mid-May, Lyk spoke from his home through Zoom. “It’s been rough—I’ve been trying to get a job,” he said, mentioning an interview with a hardware store in a few days.
Save for a walk here and there, Lyk is staying home, writing, reading, checking in on family, and reconfiguring the plans he made for 2020 and looking toward 2021. With his brother Christian home too, they strategize career moves and share their writing, as he is also a musician. “He’s helping to guide us, make sure everything is safe—make sure everybody’s safe, make sure everybody eats,” Lyk said.
He is still meditating, posting uplifting content and freestyles on Instagram, and trying to see the positive side of things. Though he noted the disproportionate impact the virus has had on the South Side, Lyk said he is seeing it bringing some families together. “I see fathers walking around with their mothers and daughters as I walk through the park,” he said. “And that’s a beautiful thing—I don’t normally see that. You don’t normally see that where I’m from. You see that a lot right now.”
Lyk also said he has seen more people trying to communicate with each other. “I’ve seen a lot of people calling their loved ones, saying they love them. Same people calling my phone like, ‘Yo, how you been?’ People I ain’t talked to in years calling my phone,” he said. “We’re taking the time to talk to our loved ones, spend time with our loved ones,” he said.
The stay-at-home order has sidelined plans to get into the studio with collaborators. If things had gone according to plan by now, he would have been two songs into his goal of dropping seven singles this year. “That is the hardest part, man, to even think about,” he said. For now, he’s listening to his EP, writing to beats producers send to him, and working to become a better storyteller. He said his new material will be less about the pandemic and instead touch on broader patterns of unequal distribution of resources in communities and dying young.
Circumstances feel unfathomable at times, but for Lyk, his mantra remains the same: Focus on taking care of your loved ones today, set new goals, and always be mindful of the outcome.
“You going through what you going through can be big, but this is a whole ‘nother thing that we all are going through,” he said. “So how can we get through it together?”
Correction, Friday, June 12: The story has been updated to reflect the fact that Bess Cohen is the cofounder and director of StoryArts Summer Camp, not a counselor.
Matt Moore is a contributor to the Weekly living on the South Side by way of Maryland. A copy editor by training, he’s worked in newsrooms from the East Coast to the Midwest. He last edited a review of Laurence Ralph’s book The Torture Letters: Reckoning with Police Violence.