Chief Keef vs. Chicago: Why the Rapper Has Become Public Enemy No. 1

Chief Keef's hologram concert
E. Jason Wambsgans/TNS via ZUMA Wire

Chief Keef's hologram concert was stopped midway through the first song at Wolf Lake Park Saturday, July 25, 2015 in Hammond, Indiana. 

For three minutes on July 25, Chief Keef succeeded in his quest to give a Chicago-area performance.

Sure, it was 20 miles from the city in the neighboring state of Indiana; yes, Keef appeared in hologram form, beamed in from California; and it was almost-immediately shut down by local police. But it happened.

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The concert had become the flashpoint of an ongoing outsized battle between 19-year-old Keef and officials in his hometown of Chicago. The gang-affiliated rapper from the rough Englewood neighborhood -- a hard-edged figurehead of the drill music scene who skyrocketed to fame in 2012 on the back of his viral hit “I Don’t Like,” later remixed by Kanye West -- has released just one album, and yet he has become a magnet for outrage over the city’s well-publicized epidemic of violence. His songs regularly glorify guns and murder (“Pistol to his throat/ Blow this motherfucker, he gone choke,” he raps on “Faneto”), and he knows what he raps: Keef has a long criminal record that includes drug and felony gun charges, along with parole violations. Both his cousin, Big Glo, and, on July 11, 22-year-old Marvin Carr, an associate of the rapper’s better-known as Capo, were victims of gun violence in the Chicago streets.

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Recently, however, Keef (real name: Keith Cozart) has changed his tune. He has been a vocal advocate for the “Stop the Violence” campaign in his native city, and his new single “Ain’t Missing You” preaches a message of anti-violence. To that end, Keef and his team -- which now includes Greek billionaire heir Alki David, who recently signed Keef to a two-album deal with his company, FilmOn. TV, after Interscope Records dropped the rapper in October 2014 -- attempted to stage a benefit concert in Chicago for the families of both Capo and 13-month-old Dillan Harris, who was killed by an automobile as Capo’s alleged shooters fled police. Keef and David, who paid for both victims’ funerals, planned to donate all proceeds from the show to the victims’ families. Keef was set to perform via hologram due to outstanding Illinois warrants for his arrest (on charges including child-support and probation violations) that have kept him out of the city for more than a year.

Chicago officials, however, weren’t buying Keef’s message of renunciation. Under pressure from Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office -- which issued a statement calling Keef “an unacceptable role model” whose music “promotes violence,” and that the hologram performance “posed a significant public safety risk” -- the benefit was promptly canceled, and after multiple attempts to find a venue in the city, ultimately shoehorned into Indiana’s already scheduled Craze Fest. (Emanuel’s office declined Billboard’s requests for further comment.)

Brian Nguyen/TNS via ZUMA Wire
Police shut down the concert due to an appearance by Chief Keef on Saturday, July 25, 2015, in Hammond, Indiana.

“I was really shocked,” Keef tells Billboard over the phone from California, adding that he first realized his performance had been shut down when color bars appeared on his TV monitor. “[City officials] just be hating. They don’t want to see a young black man be successful and try to do something good. It’s crazy.” He has harsher, more-colorful words when asked for his opinion of Emanuel: “If you ask me, man, f--- the mayor with a sandpaper dick! Say it like that.”

In fact, on July 27, he announced on Twitter that he plans to run for mayor. Is he serious? “Hell yeah, I’m running!” he says. “I’m going to get all the ballots and everything. Chief Keef for mayor! Vote for me! They’re going to love me when I get into office. I’m going to make everything right.” (His 2011 gun charge, however, would disqualify him from running.)

Hammond Mayor Thomas M. McDermott Jr. tells Billboard that Emanuel had “nothing to do with” his decision to shut down Keef’s concert on July 25, and that it wasn’t “censorship” but rather a matter of public safety. “I don’t even know Chief Keef,” McDermott admits. “But in my opinion, he glamorizes gang-lifestyle, anti-cop, anti-women, pro drug-use. This was a public venue and surrounded by a residential neighborhood. We don’t want to invite the possibility of some of the gangs that are terrorizing Chicago right now to come to Northwest Indiana.”

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However, Hammond’s decision to shut down Keef’s performance could come with legal consequences. “That seems to me an example of a First Amendment violation,” says Northwestern University constitutional law professor John McGinnis. “There would have to be a danger of violence in the [following] few hours. I’m skeptical that the mayor could show that.”

Chief Keef’s manager, Idris Dykes, a.k.a Peeda Pan, says Keef has been unfairly relegated to the role of Chicago’s resident “demon” and is being blamed for promoting gang violence of which the manager believes is not only systemic and institutionalized but long pre-dates Keef. “These problems were here way before Chief Keef was popular,” he says. “Keef is a product of the inner city. It’s an endless cycle and it’s set up that way.”

Chicago’s murder rate dropped in 2014 to 456 homicides from its 2012 peak of 514, but the city continues to be one of the most gang-afflicted in the country: So far in 2015, there have been nearly 300 homicides. While Keef’s lyrics are undoubtedly explicit, Northeastern University associate professor and longtime Chicago community activist Lance Williams says Keef is unfairly targeted as a scapegoat for the city’s violence. He notes that the rapper fits the “perfect prototype for how elected officials and law enforcement view the problem of young African-Americans.”

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In fact, sources in Keef’s camp say that prior to the hologram performance, “the legal department of the Chicago Police Department called the guy producing the show from L.A. and said, ‘Tell us where it is, or we’re going to make your life incredibly difficult.’ They were frustrated they couldn’t find a way to shut it down.” (Asked about the claim by Billboard, CPD chief spokesperson Anthony Guglielmi said, “The chief legal counsel’s office said, ‘Absolutely not -- there was no contact between the CPD and the [hologram show] promoter. There was contact between city hall and the [originally scheduled] venue, but that is all.’”)

David, who also owns Hologram USA, the company behind Keef’s performance, continues to be one of the loudest voices in Keef’s corner. “We’re most definitely going to pursue this [in court],” he says, adding that he plans to involve the ACLU in the fight. “Municipal leaders are dictating what young people can listen to. It’s absurd. There is zero justification.”

Of course, it’s no coincidence that the controversy comes as Keef is set to put out his long-awaited Bang 3 album on Aug. 18, which David says will be released on his MondoTunes digital label, distributed through Universal. The two met through mutual associates shortly after Keef was dropped by Interscope; the rapper’s 2012 deal reportedly could have netted him $6 million if he hit certain sales targets, but sources say the relationship soured over Interscope’s tepid reaction to the follow-up to Keef’s 2012 debut album, Finally Rich, which sold a solid but hardly blockbuster 244,000 units, according to Nielsen Music. (Reps for Interscope did not respond to Billboard’s request for comment.)

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Keef and David also are planning more hologram shows in the near future. “I would love to do something in Los Angeles at somewhere like the Staples Center and simulcast it to other locations,” says David, adding that he and the rapper are hoping to arrange another benefit in Chicago despite their recent roadblocks. Keef, for his part, is choosing to look ahead, saying simply, “There’s a lot more to come.”

An edited version of this story originally appeared in the Aug. 8 issue of Billboard.