The first presidential debate was nearly inescapable. After making it through about forty minutes of back-and-forth between the candidates on September 26, I left a packed bar and walked to The Promontory for their Monday night series, the Corner, which just celebrated its one-year anniversary. Its intimate showcase of local talent is always excellent—best of all, though, no one was talking about the debate.
On this particular night, Mykele Deville took the stage under blue and red lights to perform some of his newly-released mixtape, each one, teach one, which he dedicated to his little niece, Vaniya (she’s even featured on his track “C’est La Vie”). Deville took a break between songs to say, “I know I talk about a lot of structures, but that’s the way the world is set up, and I want her to be set up to understand it.”
Deville grew up on the West Side and cut his teeth writing poetry and acting, and this past year, he started rapping with a collective called Kid Made Modern. Also last year, he and others opened the doors of the Dojo, a DIY space in Pilsen that proved to be immensely popular in a matter of months, and is one of the few places you can see hip hop, folk, punk, visual art, and poetry united under the same roof. If that weren’t enough, he also released his first mixtape, Super Predator earlier this year. He’s prolific and has a lot to say, with politics realer than either of the would-be presidential candidates’. He opened his set with a new poem, “Repetitive Appeal,” over freeform jazz drumming, the strains of violin, and bass.
I hadn’t heard “Repetitive Appeal” until tonight. What’s behind that?
Yeah, “Repetitive Appeal”…I wrote that poem like almost five days ago for a set with Sofar Sounds. And it’s just really a response to constantly seeing black and brown bodies slayed by the hands of police and watching this kind of song and dance which happens right after that, which is a trial. And in these trials, these people go through the motions, getting paid leave, these families are grieving, the mothers are leaving the room. And we don’t really understand, we can’t even quantify the amount of grief and how this affects generations on down the line. When they see something that should be protecting them, the police, dissolve, right in front of them, and then the system backing up the people who are still alive [the police]. And then the trial kind of being turned to me, and saying that I can never really kind of escape this, we can’t really escape this. This is a part of our history now; it’s in the fabric of this country that police will always get off no matter what. They will always be protected, and you have no rights. A thin membrane of protection that only works for few (and also property) does not protect your body and does not protect your grief. And if I always have an opportunity to say that and to call that out, I will always do that, no matter who’s tired of it. I will always call that kind of process out because we know it, but a lot of people treat it as a very peripheral thing, like they’re not being exposed to this kind of grief as well. So, I think it’s timely, of course, but it will always be timely because this always happens. For me, it’s an endless, endless cycle and I want people to feel as exhausted as I feel, going through it and living it every day, grieving for people I don’t know.
You mentioned in talking about this album that it was influenced by growing up on the West Side, and you also spent some time in Pilsen at DIY venues like the Dojo and ECO. How has growing up on the South and West Sides shaped you?
The city treats the West Side and the South Side as peripheries…I think it’s affected me in a very, very positive way because I can’t escape my subject matter. I can’t escape the things that I grew up with and I had to quickly internalize: having constant culture shocks, having constant shocks of humanity, and understanding that the system isn’t for me, isn’t built for me, unless I speak out against it or speak out with it and point out the truth. I notice that in a space of complete and utter duress, the most beautiful kind of art kind of trickles off of the rock right there. And people, so many beautiful artists, so many great geniuses that are unheard on the South Side and the West Side and these places where the city has forgotten about them—I don’t ever want to forget about them. So the West Side has that and the South Side has that. That’s always affected me.
Most striking about Deville’s method, showcased in his album, live performances, and physical spaces he inhabits, is the collaboration that makes it all run. You won’t see a show that doesn’t feature at least five different artists, from fellow rappers like Jovan Landry, Trigney Morgan, and Sid Supreme, to musicians like violinist Adero Knott and drummers Noah Jones and Nick McMillian. Recently, he’s even added visual artist Presley Joy Paget, who paints live on stage during the set. And of course, there’s always his DJ, Tony. The collaborations aren’t just a part of the show—they are the show.
In your performances, there’s so much joy in collaboration, and you talk about family. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an artist as collaborative as you. I mean, there’s always at least five people on stage with you. What’s the importance of collaboration for you?
It’s everything. It’s all of what we do. And that means you’ve got to be patient, you’ve got to listen. Your style has to meld with somebody else’s. It’s like going to one of those concerts and you see your favorite person play, and they bring their hero out on stage and you get to see why they sound the way that they do. I want to do that every day. I don’t listen to mainstream music anymore because all my friends are my heroes. I’ll always want to give them platforms, before even myself, because they’re great, you know?
Is there anything you want to say about the Dojo?
The Dojo’s my baby, it’s my home. I love the Dojo. That’s the space that is necessary for teaching and healing, and artist therapy. Chicago doesn’t need another business, Chicago needs a place where artists can come and price their work if they want to, or say, “No, I don’t want to price it. I just want to show it.” And it can be in the living room, it doesn’t need to be in the MoMa or in the Museum of Contemporary Art. Those spaces are very important, that’s where I came from, so I will always look for those spaces, and the Dojo’s doing that kind of work.
And the Corner, too.
And the Corner as well, the Corner has done that work in an amazing amount of time. And I’m so proud that they brought me on. I’m happy, and my friends are the best! All my friends are the best.
Feels good when your friends are the best.
And you love them! And they are doing great things, and you’re trying to do great things!
From constant commotion on stage, to a freedom of style that integrates poetry, raps, and freeform jazz, the sound of his performance is one best described by Deville himself: “It’s loud. It has elements of punk, liberation rap, whatever the people I’m collaborating with bring to the table…So my sound is the sound of Chicago, the sound of the scene, the sound of bubbling hope.”