This past December, rapper King Louie, one of the acts on the multi-artist rap campaign Music Vs. Gun Violence, was shot in the head in the Southwest Side neighborhood of Ashburn. For the campaign’s music video “Put the Guns Down,” King Louie, who has since recovered, is joined by rappers Common, Lil Herb, Katie Got Bandz, and Saba, among many more—all contributing verses that urge citizens to take a moment to think before they pick up a gun.
The initiative was forged from conversations between artists, engineers, activists, and other professionals at the annual Chicago Ideas Week conference last October. Eventually, the group that formed partnered with Chicago-based advertising agency Leo Burnett and began work on a campaign.
Music Vs. Gun Violence hopes to capitalize on the ability of music—specifically rap—to accomplish social change, according to Brian Shembeda, creative director of Leo Burnett. “The issue [of gun violence] is on the news every night, and people can turn off the news, so we had to find a way outside of the news for people to have this conversation,” Shembeda says.
Shembeda and his team purposely recruited rappers who were born, raised, or lived in Chicago for this campaign, thereby giving the artists a personal stake in the project. One such artist, the producer Anthony “The Twilite Tone” Khan, lost a cousin to gun violence just a few months ago.
Khan signed onto the project immediately because he thought this campaign could be more effective at reducing the number of shootings than a call for gun policy reform, he says.
“I think music, particularly the rap genre, is an effective method in instigating change because its message can serve as a vehicle to motivate and inspire conversation, which will ultimately cause a call to action for change,” Khan says.
In producing the track, Khan knew he wanted to use a drill-inspired beat because it was a soundtrack “that exemplified the streets” with its “progressive, conscious rappers acting as trusted reporters,” he says.
From an advertising standpoint, however, the decision to use rap was not just about its connection to Chicago or its people, but instead about the genre’s tempestuous relationship with guns. “The drill scene was born in Chicago,” says Shembeda. “And since the drill scene is so pro-gun, we wondered: if music [has been blamed for] gun violence, then we can use music to stop gun violence.”
The forces behind “Put the Guns Down” hope that the four-minute drill song eventually comes to last hours, Shembeda says, since the campaign is asking Chicago residents to submit videos of their own verses. These, they hope, will stand shoulder-to-shoulder with “Put the Guns Down” and contribute to the ongoing dialogue of trauma and resilience.
“We want to get as many people [as possible] to submit their verses, which means the conversation is growing and people are listening. Then people are putting guns down,” Shembeda says.
This is not the first campaign that has used the popularity of rap music, or even the star power of a Chicago-based rapper, to raise awareness about gun violence. Last year, Chance the Rapper, along with his brother and fellow musician, Taylor Bennett, launched the online Twitter campaign #SaveChicago. The campaign gained a huge amount of traction online, and there were no shootings in Chicago for forty-two hours.
It is difficult to say whether the participation of multiple rappers in one project will get more media coverage than a project with just one big-name rapper, but the people behind Music Vs. Gun Violence don’t see the two campaigns as opposed. “I don’t believe there is any one thing that can be done that can affect this problem,” Shembeda says. “It is something that is going to have to be tackled on multiple fronts.”
“Put the Guns Down” centers around one video hosted on YouTube, which makes it (intentionally) easy to share. The video itself assumes the expected role of a music video, featuring each artist on the track rapping his or her own verses. The video takes a turn toward direct activism with the juxtaposition of images of families affected by gun violence: they look straight towards the camera, all appearing solemn and strong. As the video progresses, the number of family members that appear together also increases—mirroring rising rates of violence, more names becoming hashtags, and more young people caught in the crossfire.
The choice to include these families was both necessary and obvious to Leo Burnett and its creative team, Shembeda told me: “You can’t divorce this topic from the people who have been affected by it, and in my humble opinion, it would be wrong to do that…it would mean taking away the pain and suffering of gun violence, and honestly a lot of [those affected] have the strongest voices right now.”
With gun violence claiming more victims with every passing day, many find Music Vs. Gun Violence’s strategy insufficient. The South Side rapper GOD told me recently, in reference to the campaign, “It’s going to take way more than that. Most people…might ignore that type of movement anyway.
“A lot of what’s going on out here is personal, so they won’t stop until they feel like they got payback,” he continues. “It don’t matter what movement somebody else is on…it’s just a vicious cycle that probably only jobs, money, and extra activities can slow down.”
With this project, a large obstacle to the goal of creating ongoing participation is the fickle nature of the Internet, especially considering that community participation in the campaign requires a greater commitment of time and creative energy than many viewers are willing to give. The music video has garnered roughly 52,000 view on YouTube, but with only about eighty submissions in total and a waning submission rate since its premiere, it seems the stamina produced by the video’s star power is not very sustainable. “I’m hoping that we can get more momentum moving forward and getting people to submit,” Shembeda says. But of course, if people aren’t getting interested, we are going to have switch up our tactic here.”
If Music Vs. Gun Violence hopes to capitalize on music and the public’s heavy investment in the industry, then participants are going to have to be more vocal about the issue than they have been. However, it would be unfair to call the campaign ineffective, especially since it does not aim to instigate a real-life change in gun violence numbers. While it lacks a self-sustaining narrative, the initiative has contributed to an overarching dialogue of creative activism that has picked up momentum in Chicago over the past few years. For now, giving voice to those affected by gun violence is a good start.