Chief Keef, a Chicago-born rapper notable for his hit “Don’t Like” and his bizarrely-named child, was already embroiled in controversy. The powerful Chicago drill scene arguably rode to national prominence on his back. His lyrics are profane and frequently violent. His debut album was released on Gucci Mane’s aptly named 1017 Brick Squad label when Keef was only 17. A minor spouting gunplay and cocaine fairy tales over music designed to send power surges through the synapses: cue the indignation.
Even with all that manufactured controversy, you could be excused for not knowing quite how to react to the news that Chief Keef’s concert, benefitting the families of a child and a member of his crew who were both killed during a Chicago drive-by, was shut down by the police after one song despite Keef only appearing as a hologram.
Keef had originally planned to hold the concert at Redmoon Theater in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood on July 25. This was the plan until Mayor Rahm Emmanuel, emerging from his summer skin-shedding, decided Keef’s performance constituted a “significant public safety risk”. Even in Chicago, Keef had planned only to appear as a hologram, as outstanding warrants would prevent him from coming in person. (A recent Los Angelese concert was first moved to a parking lot, then shut down entirely.)
With that, Keef and the organizers moved the event to nearby Hammond, Indiana. The mayor of Hammond took Emmanuel’s lead, saying he had never heard of Chief Keef but would cancel the concert out respect for Chicago’s wishes. With the mayor confident that Keef had recorded a lot of songs about “gangs and shooting people”, police showed up after one song (“Don’t Like”, in fact) and cut the power. This occurred right after Chief Keef implored the crowd to stop the violence that was taking away the friends and family of this country’s youth at such an alarming rate.
On the face of this, it appears our old, white, out-of-touch government officials once again saw rap culture as a nothing more than a crowd of rowdy youth to be sent home to their parents. It would be easy to say that Rahm Emmanuel and the police and the city governments are racist and acting like dictators. You might think it is so ludicrous to cancel a hologram that you just laugh at these goofy crackers and move on. And you’d generally be right.
Still, I couldn’t get past the real political implications of it. First, we have Rahm Emmanuel making moral judgments. This is a guy who has gutted school budgets while closing almost fifty, overseen a “black site” of police torture, and taken copious bribes from billionaires to enact undemocratic agendas for profit saying that a rapper is “an unacceptable role model”. Then, we have a show titled “Crazefest; Stop the Killing” shut down for being violent: not because of actual violence, but because of the lyrics of the person performing. Notice that the crowd didn’t even erupt into any trouble when the show was cut short during the main act.
It would also be impossible to overlook the racism of it all. White acts are rarely questioned on their content, or are vigorously defended under “free speech” ideals when they are. Confederate flags can fly, profanity can be spouted, and women can be paraded on stage appearing no more human than those snacks all going to the lobby before a movie. But this is just “pop culture” and “their right”. Now, maybe those artists do have that right. But that means one of two things: either Keef also has that right, or a white crowd at any concert is considered less dangerous than a Black crowd at an anti-violence concert.
I have written on this site previously about how art unapproved by the ruling class must suffer that ruler’s wrath, regardless of that society’s alleged ideas on “freedom”. But this hypocrisy is not unique to art. It’s why Muslims killers are terrorists and white killers are disturbed; it is why white serial killers are brought in safely while Black jaywalkers end up dead; it is why Israelis can build an economy on weapons but Palestinians can’t even pick up a rock.
Since the Civil Rights Movement, it has become next to impossible to pick out laws and policies that are overtly discriminatory. But, as so many point out, it is not difficult at all to find laws whose application carves classes, races, and genders right back into the judicial system. The freedom we allegedly have – not just in the United States, but in all supposedly democratic nations – is built not on solid principles that are fought for regardless of who exercises them. Otherwise, every American would be out in the street fighting for fair wages and racial equality. No, our freedom is conditional: you can live how you want until it interferes with the structures that keep everything as it is. You can be a trans person, just don’t expect the cops to help you if you are attacked. You can rap, but be prepared to suffer the consequences.
This is not to excuse some of Keef’s alleged behavior. He is implicated in several violent incidents that are deeply unsettling. But, it struck me in a sadly metaphorical way: the hologram of a guy from a city rife with violence, himself with outstanding warrants for unpaid child support and a wicked potty mouth, appearing at an anti-violence benefit concert was considered more dangerous and worthy of government intervention than the piles of toxic dust blowing out into the Chicago wind, the kids with no jobs desperate on the hot summer pavement, or a police force with a murder rate nearly tops in the country. There’s a reason: the festering of those problems – not the solving of them – makes a few powerful people a lot of money.
But that’s life in the United States and the neoliberal world. Our problems are more profitable unsolved. And so “freedom” – any real state of justice and equality – continues to elude us. It might dance on stage. It might rap on stage. It is beamed in from some magical time that every generation just barely missed. You can hear it and cheer it. Sometimes you can even forget the show and just let loose as though it’s really right there. But you can’t reach out and touch it. The moment you try, those expensive lights reveal themselves as something that can be shut off by a control board or a police officer. And so the kids go home in Chicago, in New York, in Los Angeles, and in Hammond, Indiana, wondering just who got the benefit.
Allen Arthur is a well-intentioned but formerly lazy fellow, now a writer and socialist in. New York City. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.