Ballad of the Bullet: Gangs, Drill Music, and the Power of Online Infamy by Stanford University sociologist Forrest Stuart is an essential read for all Chicagoans–especially those who care about Chicago’s rap music scene and the City’s public health crisis of gun violence. The book details the complex cycles of poverty and trauma that produce much of the city’s interpersonal violence. However, contrary to what some City officials might say, drill music does not cause violence. It is a description of violent conditions, as this book demonstrates. Responding by criminalizing rap music–as many police and prosecutors do–only makes the problem worse, further perpetuating violence by destabilizing communities and using up resources that could instead be used to address the root causes.
While it is imperative to transform these structural conditions that produce interpersonal violence, a required first step is understanding the problem as it exists today, which this book helps to do. Stuart follows a rap group named Corner Boys Entertainment, from the fictional South Side neighborhood of Jackson Park–not to be mistaken for the actual park–(the names of all the main characters and their rap group are anonymous). Stuart provides a detailed look into what drew them to rap music and why they believed it was their only way out of poverty. Stuart also details the production and videography techniques, social media use, and the promises and potentially deadly perils of living the life of a drill rapper. Although the most important parts of the book come when Stuart details the larger structures that produce such precarious lives.
Stuart agreed to a conversation with the Weekly to discuss some of these larger themes that he touches on in Ballad of the Bullet.
Q: I figured we could start with why you decided to write this book about Chicago, and maybe situate some of the history in Chicago.
This book… actually started as a project about policing… My first book was about policing. It was about the kinds of spillover and everyday ways that policing seeps down into the social fabric of a neighborhood in some pretty damaging ways. And I focused mostly on Los Angeles. In LA, it’s like I was mostly focusing on broken windows-style policing with homeless folks and street vendors. Kind of like public disorder type of policing. And so I wanted to see how a lot of those things transferred into a city where so much of the policing is more of this, like, jump out crew, gang suppression, that kind of stuff. I wanted to see how that stuff… permeated communities. A quick side note… a lot of my policing academic buddies are like, dude, we thought that you were like a police scholar and you’re writing a book about policing. But I think you can see one of the reasons why I’m writing the book is because this stuff is getting policed so heavily, and there’s so many misconceptions and myths that are circulating [about drill]. So I wanted to put a definitive, on the record, early on, of like, here’s what’s actually going on, so we can see just how misguided the police policies are.
I arrived in Chicago in 2012. Actually, speaking of South Side Weekly [earlier]–such a great forum–I started doing a lot of work with Invisible Institute… right there next door. And one of the things that we were doing, I brought some undergrads with me, and I was working in the Youth / Police Project… eliciting stories from young people about their experiences with policing. I was sitting down and I was interviewing all these students from Hyde Park Academy, and they were giving me a lot of these really horrendous stories about the police.
One of the things that they were talking about was the ways that they had to act–or not act–while moving through the public. And one of the crazy things that they would share with me was that sometimes they would pretend–like if it was like a lone guy walking down the street and he saw a police car, he would go up to young women to kind of pretend like he was in a romantic relationship. Or people would have their sisters walk with them down the street. There was something about the protective factors that young women could provide young men, because the officers thought, oh if somebody’s in a loving relationship, they’re not the kind of gang member that we’re after.
You have all these kinds of creative strategies that young people were using to navigate around police. But then there was this other thing that was going on that the kids really wanted to talk about, even more so than policing… They were like, “No… you don’t understand how difficult this is. Not only do we have to navigate around police, where it’s like in front of the officer I have to pretend like I’m not tough, I have to let my guard down, I have to pretend I’m vulnerable… at the same time, we got cops looking at us, and depending on where we are, we’ve got… the dudes who control that block looking at us [too]. And in their eyes–we don’t want to be seen as vulnerable, we don’t want to be seen as kids who won’t stand up for ourselves.” And so they started really getting into this crazy set of performances and contradictory sets of performances they would have to do… and one of the things that they did, and I loved this strategy, you know when you hear something super interesting and it just gets in your mind and you can’t let it go?
This was probably the genesis of the book, was [when] they started talking about how they would put their headphones in and not turn on their music. And what they would do, was essentially walk through neighborhoods, if they were in a neighborhood [where] they didn’t necessarily know anybody, and they would listen to hear what drill songs people were playing in their phones, on their stoops, and in their cars, and they would listen to try to see, like, who is the drill rapper? Who are they talking about? … And by doing that, they would be able to tell in real time like who the rivals were, who the allies were, of the particular faction’s territory they were in. So they would know… “Do I increase my pace and walk out if somebody walks up to me and asks me where I’m from? Do I lie? Do I tell them the truth?” They were deriving all this amazing intelligence about the status of the gang feuds around them by listening to [their] music, and it’s just like, it totally blew my mind. When I was hearing young people talk about this strategy, immediately a light bulb went off in my head… I immediately was like… no academic I know was talking about this, the media is not talking about this, there’s a way that there’s this… phenomenon that’s moving online and offline that really needs to be unearthed and revealed, that young people know really well, but nobody was talking to young people, so we just don’t have a good handle on it.
As I probed them more, and what became obvious, like, why they’re listening to music to figure out the gang affiliation of someone they’re passing by on the street… One of the things that they hipped me to is, they were like, “Gang colors are irrelevant nowadays.” The old days of like, I don’t know, the Latin Kings wearing yellow or like the BDs wearing red… the young people were like, “That is out the window. Everybody’s wearing black, everybody’s in a hoodie, everybody’s got dreadlocks.” So instead of being able to look at what somebody’s wearing to see what gang they’re in, [they’d] have to resort to some other creative strategies… And that is listen out for the music that they’re listening to. The move away from colors and the move to everyone is dressed the same is very much tied to the kind of splintering and fracturing and balkanization of those major super gangs, right?… Because of these larger structural factors that… are tied to the kind of emergence of this kind of new sonic way of identifying gang affiliation.
The main thing that I think is really important to stress… is that the drivers of this are so structural, even though people like to blame the violence on the music itself. But… the music is really just a reaction to their reality… So could you maybe speak a little bit to that?
Some folks target the music itself, as though if we could just erase that music… if we could just lock up everybody making that music, the problems that are associated with it would just go away. Which I think is just so naive and so pollyannaish. But it almost feels like intentional ignorance because we have to remember that as you mentioned… what we’re hearing in the songs and what we’re seeing in music videos is just the manifestation of the ground-level conditions that are intergenerational, that are reflective of not just, like, state neglect, but state injustices and state violence that have been perpetrated on the communities that this [music] is coming out of, right? And so I think it forces us to ask, why? Why would a sixteen-year-old young person want to engage in this artistic endeavor that could land them in jail, that could in a rare occasion, land them dead… or at minimum, cause some incredible difficulties in their life. Like, what conditions have to be present such that someone would go to these lengths to risk their freedom and their life to make some songs? I think that’s really the question that we need to ask, and this is the question that I’m trying to answer in this book.
What we essentially have is a series of communities, across the South Side, but… obviously on the West Side, and we’re seeing it nationally and internationally, of young people who are looking out at the prospects that they have in their lives, and they’re realizing the deck has been so incredibly stacked against them, that suddenly making an art form that could get you killed or could get you locked up becomes the best option. That in their situation… This is quite a rational decision, right? So we have to remember… At the time when I was writing this book, I think the statistic is still true, it was something like only eight percent of CPS students… would ever go on to get a B.A…. We see the kind of unemployment rates that for folks working in the formal economy, there’s not really a route there, right? So [higher] education… young people know, like, that’s not gonna happen, right? “My schools are underfunded, teachers aren’t necessarily empowered to do what they need to do. There’s not the resources, certainly not resources in my community… I can go off and get a low wage labor service job, but I’m gonna drive for either Uber or for Doordash or… I’m gonna work the counter at a liquor store. I certainly can’t make much ends meet on that.”
And then the problem was that… thanks to… partly mass incarceration, also thanks to our opioid epidemic–which has been in large part pushed by the pharmaceutical industry–the former ways of doing this in the illegal economy have bottomed out… Crack is no longer king on the streets of urban America. Opioids reign now… synthetic drugs now have come in. And so the kind of old school era of, like, you’ll get a pack of drugs and a corner and become a corner boy and work your way up through, like, the crack gang structure, like that’s not even there. So what they’ve done is they’ve kind of looked around, and they’ve seen how the kind of culture industries are changing, right? How… young people are becoming influencers practically overnight. And then they’re looking at that, and they’re saying to themselves, “Wow, well… I don’t necessarily have the resources to do half the stuff that young people are doing online, right? But what is at my disposal?”
It turns out the internet really, really loves stereotypical portrayals of the ghetto. And it turns out the internet really loves conflict, and it turns out the internet really loves… stereotypical caricature-ized images of urban Black America. And these young people quite explicitly, like they tell me these things all the time, they say like, “I’m gonna go on there and I’m gonna give them exactly what they want… I’m going to give them that stereotype, like, hopped up on steroids… So those folks who aren’t from Chicago, who don’t know this life, who want to slum and see what it’s really like inside the ghetto, like I’m going to give them… a hit of exactly what they want.” And so that’s essentially what we’ve got: desperate young people looking for any way to improve their situations. And… they’re turning to drill and they’re turning to… the associated practices.
Could you, on the one hand, maybe explain the rise of Keith Cozart/Chief Keef?… But then also, on the other hand, you start the book with Joseph Coleman/Lil Jojo, who was killed.
For sure. The story of drill starts, of course, a long time ago. You can’t actually tell the real story of drill without going into, like, the Great Migration and segregation and mass incarceration and those things. But… the first time drill kind of gets onto the radar in a way that really makes people beyond Chicago (and even really in Chicago, as in like the Chicago police) take notice, is… Keith Cozart/Chief Keef, a young man on the South Side, who, while he’s on house arrest, posts a series of… homemade music videos, with his buddies in his gang faction… bouncing around shirtless in the kitchen and living room of his grandmother’s house. And through a number of the kind of hype machine dynamics that we see going on on the internet now, it kind of spirals out of control and gathers him all kinds of views and followers. And in a pretty quick fashion, he is picked up by Interscope, and I believe he signed a $6 million record deal.
And they essentially take him and… some of his boys out of Chicago, out of the South Side, and fly them to LA. And he makes it, he becomes the first viral star in the drill world and the first success story that becomes the model that everyone afterward tries to emulate. And they try and emulate his formula. It’s… describing what the hood is like, talking about his opps (rivals), talking about what he does to them, talking about his shooters, talking about dealing drugs, talking about doing drugs. And so this becomes a pretty formulaic way that young people start to do this. So, and I think Chief Keef is probably… like the most financially successful drill artist. There have been people since who I think have become richer than Chief Keef, but they’ve… in the process kind of distanced themselves from drill. Other folks have landed… there’s a guy, Montana of 300, he landed himself a small part on the show Empire. Other folks have landed record deals, but those are really the super duper rare instances…
I want to draw an analogy, as dangerous as this analogy is, I think there’s an important analogy of like… There are a very minuscule percentage of young people who are ever going to become a professional basketball player, professional football player, professional soccer player. But just that small percentage doesn’t stop the millions of other young people coming from their same situations [of] trying their damnedest to be a professional athlete as well, right? I think we see something similar with this… People have often asked me, like, these kids don’t really think they’re going to get big and famous and rich, do they? And I responded, like, they know the odds are stacked against them, but one, what else are they going to do? And two, like, why not try? You know?
For the majority of people, I would say their continued quest for drill world stardom… on a day to day basis, are actually driven by something very different than the kinds of financial rewards that they saw Chief Keef get. Because I think on a day to day basis… participation in drill… like the daily rewards are pretty amazing, particularly for young people living in crushing poverty. So monetarily… one of the ways that you build your own popularity is linking up with someone who has a little bit more popularity than you do, right? … You’re doing some music video with them that, like, when somebody searches in Google for them, there’s a likelihood that it will pull up a video that both of you are in. And once they watch the video with both of you, they now know your name and they’re gonna go looking for your videos. So doing collaborations with people who are slightly more popular is a great way to grow your own popularity, but this comes at a cost. So you can charge people… money, to do what’s called a feature with them… the young people I was shadowing for these few years charged anywhere from like $50 to like $600 a feature. And so… for a young person, unemployed seventeen-year-old who doesn’t know… how they’re going to pay for their next meal, a sudden hit of $700 does a lot for you, you know? Sometimes I’ve seen folks do things for in-kind compensation, sometimes things as mundane as food, gift cards, cellphones, computers, cameras… in some cases guns, drugs, right? Like getting a discount or getting free weed that you can then sell, or you can then smoke, like that matters on a day to day basis.
So there’s that kind of compensation. But one of the things I really want to draw people’s attention to in the book, which I actually think is the main driver for why people continue to do what is essentially a quite risky endeavor, are the emotional and social benefits that you get. And I don’t think we can overstate this, that’s how important it is. So, for young people who have spent their lives demonized, I would argue demonized more than any other group in America, suddenly they are told–sometimes for the first time in their life–that they’re special, they’re worthy, that they’re doing something that is unique and worth paying attention to, right? These are young people that… They’re put up against a wall every day by cops who tell them that they’re menaces to society, that they shouldn’t have been born, that society is worse with them in it. But yet, once they start making real music, once they start getting on the internet, once they start… putting out social media content, people start contacting them saying, like, “You inspire me, you’re amazing. Like, here’s some artwork that I did of you. I went on your Instagram and I grabbed some photos. I’m an artist… I just painted like an album cover… Can you use this for your next album? Can we talk on the phone? Let me send you some money.”… It’s just this, seeing the ways that young men finally feel like they’re human, that they’re seeing that they’re special, is something that I think we don’t often think about. And I think that’s something that we forget about, particularly when we’re thinking about policies or policing around this stuff.
But there’s a way that adults marginalize how important it is that folks get recognition and popularity… Like I’ve heard the police chief and the mayor and other folks throughout multiple administrations say… These guys are going on social media and flashing guns so that people will like their tweets… Or people are going on talking trash about each other so that they could get popular. I think that’s like such a dismissive and ignorant statement to make. Like it’s true, it’s absolutely true that they’re… doing this stuff to get popularity. But I think what they miss is why that popularity matters so much… I think when you have other things to rest your sense of self, or your sense of self worth on, like a job, like a degree from college, like, many family members who are supporting you in great ways, a pet, a house, an apartment, all these kind of trappings of success, like, when you don’t have that, that popularity means a whole lot more to you.
And then I’ll transition to Joseph Coleman, but what’s so interesting about social media is that … It incubates and it puts on steroids this phenomenon where people are looking for recognition of their self worth, because we literally quantified one’s self worth and degree of specialness and worthiness, right, by like, you can see how many views you have, you can see how many likes you have. I can see that like, “Oh… the last thing I did online, which wasn’t very violent, it had no guns in that music video, it only got like 30,000 views. But this one, I called out my opps and I put a gun in the video, it got a million views. And so it’s very clear like, oh, people will respond to me more and better and more intensely–which is exactly what I want–if I do a certain set of practices…” Which… in this case with drill, is like, the more violent you may get, the more aggressive you make it, the more people are gonna tune in.
So I’d say that’s like the big reward. But yeah, the costs are extreme, which… speaks to just the incredible level of, I don’t even know what to call it. It’s not absurdity, it’s a tragedy… It just goes to show how tragic it is that we put these young people in this situation where one of the only ways they can be made to feel special is that they engage in these practices. And then we roll out things like policing and prosecution that use those practices as ways to investigate them, arrest them, get warrants for them, prosecute them, indict them, and sentence them at an even more aggressive and intense pace and level. So that’s one of the very steep costs that’s happening now. Like, any of the stuff that these young people put up online… whether it’s a fake gun, whether you’re bragging about killing someone that doesn’t actually even exist, whether you have fake lean in a cup or you got fake drugs in a prescription bottle. All that stuff… is taken hook line and sinker as if it were real by the criminal legal system. It is used to… lock young people up.
I am actually currently doing a project where I’ve been interviewing public defenders from around the country to ask them about how social media is coming into court and fueling the kind of mass incarceration machine that we have here in America… One of the cases that I’ve been following: there’s a young man who was convicted of possessing a single firearm. The police came up to him… they gave chase, they found a gun on him… There’s the federal sentencing guidelines for firearms. There’s an enhancement if you’re caught with three guns on you. Well, the prosecution found pictures of two different guns on his Instagram account and were able to get him sentenced as though he had three guns on him, rather than a single gun that he was actually found with… So like, because this young man who was doing these practices that I just described in the hopes of gaining some attention, he’s now spending even longer behind bars because he had… pictures of guns on his Instagram. It was never asked if the guns were real, it was never asked whether the guns were his. The content was just seen as evidence of his offline behavior, right?
That’s a massive cost, and then… the kind of Joseph Coleman story… Joseph Coleman, an aspiring drill rapper, calls out Chief Keef and Chief Keef’s gang. This is another way to build your popularity. If you can’t collaborate with a more popular driller, then you insult a more popular driller. And this is exactly the tactic that he tried… He talked enough trash, and gave up his exact location and dared someone to come and shoot him… And a few hours later, he was dead. I mean, that’s a far more rare example… So it’s important to recognize that it is rare that… there is a kind of retaliation that’s like that immediate and that connected to a feud online. But nevertheless… I’m not naive enough or pollyannaish enough to say that like these things don’t stoke some fires that are already raging… These things can help propel feuds that might have simmered out if there were no social media, if folks weren’t participating in drill. It certainly creates these permanent records of the things that people say about each other that are hard to erase, that are hard to squash, even in a truce.
That’s the other difficult consequence… Even if people aren’t in… mortal danger because of the things that they put online, it could certainly make them feel like they’re in mortal danger… It can make them, say, not want to go to school. It can make them not want to walk down the street. It can make them not want to go to work. I had a young man who I write about in my book, who kind of distanced himself from drill, distanced himself from his gang, and he started driving for Lyft. And one of the problems he ran into was that sometimes he would get a Lyft call that was in the gang territory of young men who he used to diss online, and he had to start declining those rides. And so over time, we know what happens if you’re a Lyft driver and you start declining rides… Lyft kicks you off… This is a clear example of a way in which this young man was trying to find some formal employment in like the low wage service economy, and the things that he had posted like five years ago got in the way of it. And he ended up not being able to drive for Lyft anymore, and had to go look for work elsewhere… and for young men who are as precariously employed as many young people on the South Side… that’s a pretty big hit to your monthly income, to your chances of monetary financial survival.
Exactly. And with the caveat that like… That [the music is] just the reaction to their reality.
Absolutely. Just one quick last point… This speaks to some of the issues in the beginning. You want these people, you want these young men to stop making songs waving around guns and dissing their rivals, well then give them something different to make songs about. You know what I’m saying? Like it’s not as though they have many other options. And so my thing is like, oh, you’re tired of this kind of music, you’re tired of this kind of art form, well then… give them something else to rap about and compensate them for it. And I guarantee you they’re gonna stop rapping about that stuff, definitely.
Forrest Stuart, Ballad of the Bullet: Gangs, Drill Music, and the Power of Online Infamy. $27.95. Princeton University Press. 288 pages.
Bobby Vanecko is a contributor to the Weekly. He last wrote about Meaghan Garvey’s short story collection ‘Nowhere Fast.’