Magazine Feature

Saving Chicago: Vic Mensa, Common, Jamila Woods & Other Activists Fighting for Their City

A Foreword to Billboard's 'Saving Chicago' package, by rapper, activist and Oscar winner Common:

More than 670 people have been killed this year in Chicago, and more than 3,700 have been shot. That’s not the way our families deserve to live. With all that’s happening, you can’t just walk around and pretend it’s not there. You can’t see a dead body in your neighborhood and not care. 

Growing up, the South Side is where I learned who I was as a black young man and learned to appreciate black culture and black women, and began to develop the dream of uplifting this place.

Austin Hargrave
Common with choral director Richard Nunley at Kenwood Academy High School in Chicago, where the rapper mentors students when he’s in town.

Chicago artists are aware and intelligent on every level, from the street to the academic to the political. We speak up. I’m excited that we have people like Vic Mensa, Rhymefest and Jamila Woods, along with so many other young Chicago artists, doing work in the community. We have a lot of artists rapping about social and political things.

Sometimes in discussion of the violence, we miss the complexities of poverty, ingrained gang culture, drugs, lack of opportunities. There’s a lot of beauty and success and positivity in our city, too.

When people look back at these times, God willing, they will remember this music, and they’ll remember how it affected these times, in the same way that Nina Simone’s music did, or Bob Marley’s, or Marvin Gaye’s, or Public Enemy’s. It’s more important than ever, because we’re at a critical point in our city.
-- Common

Saving Chicago: Inside Hip-Hop's Movement to Make Chicago a Better Place - A Billboard Documentary | Scenes From Chicago Activism: Common, Rhymefest, Vic Mensa, Jamila Woods & BYP100 | How Grammy Winner Rhymefest Sacrificed Fame to Help Chicago Kids | Trump Said Chicago Is 'A War Zone': Activists Are Worried He Might Make It Worse | What Chicago Activism Sounds Like Today: A Playlist Primer

Austin Hargrave
Malcolm London, Charlene Carruthers and Tasha Viets-VanLear, photographed Oct. 27 at BYP100 in Chicago.

THE ORGANIZERS: Malcolm London, Charlene Carruthers and Tasha Viets-VanLear

On the night of July 13, 2013, when George Zimmerman was found not guilty in the killing of Trayvon Martin, Charlene Carruthers was at the first meeting of Black Youth Project 100, a gathering of 100 black millennials — area students, musicians and poets among them — aiming to train and mobilize other young black activists across the country. “We held hands, and some people screamed, some people cried, some people were silent,” recalls Carruthers, 31. She is now national director of BYP100, which has chapters in seven states; high-profile police shootings of young black Chicagoans like Rekia Boyd (in 2012) and Laquan McDonald (in 2014) lend urgency to its mission. “Chicago has a deep tradition of the arts and activism,” says Carruthers. “So it’s no surprise that many of us are grounded in communities that overlap.” Malcolm London and Tasha Viets-VanLear, both 23, came to BYP100 through Young Chicago Authors, an arts organization for local youth that reaches more than 10,000 students each year. “It was writing and performing that allowed me to appreciate and love my blackness,” says Viets-VanLear, a singer, poet and dancer. “I can’t be a good organizer if I’m not a poet, and I can’t be a good poet if I’m not organizing,” says London, who released his first album, the deeply personal Opia, in October. As he sees it, the members of BYP100 help Chicago shine even during a dark national moment.  “It’s a city of hurt and turmoil,” he says, “but also of so much hope, hustle and grind.”

Austin Hargrave
Malcolm London, photographed Oct. 27 near the intersection where he was arrested during a 2015 protest over the killing of Laquan McDonald.

Crossing the Divide: Riding the No. 66 bus to his North Side charter school, “once I passed a certain viaduct, the grass got greener, the buildings got taller, the homicide rate vanished,” recalls London. “Chicago is a segregated city. You don’t know the condition of your neighborhood until you leave it.”
Beyond Statistics: “People who see the homicide numbers out of Chicago don’t see how they stem from widespread poverty on the South and West Sides,” says Viets-VanLear. Echoes Carruthers: “The narrative of black-on-black crime absolves [Mayor] Rahm Emanuel or anyone not in a black neighborhood. It’s just crime.”

Art Awakens: Music has helped London process what’s going on around him — like his arrest at a protest in 2015 following McDonald's shooting. “The magic of spoken word, of hip-hop,” he says, “is that it allows you to get into these areas of your heart in a fresh way.”

— Ben Austen

Austin Hargrave
Richard Nunley’s concert choir sings.


Growing up on Chicago’s South Side, Common was exposed early to music’s power to bring about change. “A good friend kept me in tune with Gil Scott-Heron, The Last Poets, Nina Simone,” the 44-year-old says. “He kept that Bob Marley flag. We had that black pride in hip-hop culture. But I also went to Trinity church, where the phrases on the wall were unapologetically black and unashamedly Christian.” Those dual forces are still strong for Common over two decades into the rapper, actor and activist’s career (which has yielded eight Billboard 200-charting albums, including the 2007 No. 1 Finding Forever). He calls his just-released 11th album, Black America Again, his most politically and socially relevant to date.

“The times require that,” he says. The songs reference Trayvon Martin, Alton Sterling, Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness and the Flint, Mich., water crisis. “This is direct. This had to be said,” he explains, noting that monumental speeches by the likes of Marcus Garvey, Martin Luther King Jr. and Haile Selassie inspired him. “I’m growing as an MC and as a communicator. And I see that my concentration and intention is more about ‘we’ than ‘I.’  It’s more about touching down with the people and affecting them and connecting. I’m not as concerned about being in the top five MCs. I’ve got to be a king of the awakening.”

Playing For POTUS: Performing his Oscar-winning song “Glory” with Yolanda Adams for the Obamas at the White House, “It definitely felt anointed,” says Common. “The way Yolanda was singing and the way the music was connecting with the people, and the spirit I had just being a part of it — it felt like God was there in the room.”

Music With A Message: Common was making “conscious” rap long before its recent re-emergence, earnestly taking on subjects like family, religion and social justice. “Music can inform and teach. It can make you feel the intention to stand up and fight for something, or to bring glory to the most high, or to build joy or to feel pain,” he says. “Conscious music taps into your inner being, and, to me, awakens it.”

Chi-Town Connections: No matter where he is, “I’m not removed heart-wise from Chicago. I’m not far removed from the levels of pain and anguish we’re going through.” Looking back at his history in his hometown, “I’m required to give back,” says the rapper, whose Common Ground Foundation offers inner-city youth educational opportunities. “It’s my duty to bring whatever I can to the city. If you don’t give back to what’s given to you, what is your life about?”

Living The Legacy: Common finds the increasing number of artists rapping about social and political issues encouraging. “I think that’s dope,” he says. “When James Brown said, ‘I’m black and I’m proud,’ he meant it. When I say, ‘Black America again,’ I mean it. I do this to move the people.”­­

— Ben Austen

Austin Hargrave
Vic Mensa, photographed Oct. 22 in Chicago.


One of the most prominent rappers to emerge from Chicago’s young scene (in 2016 he guested on Kanye West’s “Wolves” and joined Skrillex on “No Chill”), Vic Mensa considers himself “first and foremost a revolutionary,” unafraid to directly confront local and national issues in his rhymes. Take his visceral performance the night before the election, on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, of the chilling “16 Shots,” about Laquan McDonald’s shooting. After masked troopers wrestled him to the ground, Mensa, 23, stopped cold to address the audience, calling Donald Trump a racist and declaring, “You don’t know our problems in Chicago, and you damn sure don’t speak for us,” before exhorting listeners to “get out and vote against hate.”

Austin Hargrave
Vic Mensa speaks to the crowd at a rally on the second anniversary of Laquan McDonald's shooting, in Millennium Park on Oct. 22.

Growing up in racially and economically diverse Hyde Park, the son of a white teacher mother and Ghanaian professor father, Mensa never harbored illusions about his home city’s intrinsic divisions. “I had millionaire neighbors, and I had project kids as neighbors,” he says. “It gave me a real perspective on the inequality of society.” When he turned 13, he says he personally experienced police harassment. “Before then, sometimes I was in the white crowd, sometimes in the black crowd, and I didn’t really fit into either,” says Mensa. “Once I became a young black man, it felt like the decision was made for me.” That mixture of cynicism and keen observation now pervades Mensa’s incendiary music. “Now is a time when everything is put on blast,” he says. “Everyone is being forced to see and think about what we’ve been seeing and thinking about in the inner city forever. It’s like, ‘Pick a side now. Where are you going to stand?’ ”

Austin Hargrave
Vic Mensa speaks to the crowd at a rally on the second anniversary of Laquan McDonald's shooting, in Millennium Park on Oct. 22.

Turning Point: Poet-singer Aja Monet, a friend of Mensa’s, inspired him to incorporate politics into his music. “She was giving me Malcolm X, Assata Shakur, Huey Newton,” he says. “That was formative. I started reading them, and then I got a Black Panther tattoo when I was 16.”

Words Of Wisdom: “When we were kicking it a little while ago, Common told me, ‘Man, it’s about more than just what you do with your music,’” recalls Mensa. “ ‘It’s what you do outside that that defines you.’ My words, my conversation can impact the lives of people I meet. I’m trying to get people to wake up.”

The Blowup: Mensa likens the vibrant current Chicago scene to the one around Virginia Beach, Va., that spawned innovators like Pharrell Williams, Missy Elliott and Timbaland. “In 10, 20 years, they’re going to look at us like, ‘Damn, they just came out with all these different angles and really did it like that.’"
— David Drake

Austin Hargrave
Jamila Woods, photographed Oct. 30  at Young Chicago Authors’ performance space. Styling by Whitney Middleton.

THE OLD SOUL: Jamila Woods

You may have heard Jamila Woods’ sweetly sinuous voice on Chance the Rapper’s “Blessings” and Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ “White Privilege II,” or on Heavn, her debut album of politically aware R&B released earlier in 2016. But growing up on the South Side, Woods, 27, didn’t think she had soloist potential. “I don’t sound like other people. My voice isn’t as loud and can’t do certain things athletically,” she says. Then, as a teenager, she came to the arts outreach group Young Chicago Authors. “My mentor made me say a poem over and over,” recalls Woods.” ‘Stop! That’s not your voice. Start again.’ I was sobbing by the end, but it drilled into my head that my voice is important.” Now, Woods is YCA’s associate artistic director, and she says the lesson propelled her — like thousands of other young Chicagoans, including Chance and Donnie Trumpet (now going by his real name, Nico Segal), who came through the program — into activism. “Part of our pedagogy is, you report on what’s going on in your neighborhood and your city,” says Woods. 

Austin Hargrave
Jamila Woods, photographed Oct. 30  at Young Chicago Authors’ performance space. Styling by Whitney Middleton.

Second City: After graduating from Brown, Woods moved to the Pilsen neighborhood. “Part of what I like about living in Chicago is it’s not easy,” she says. “The breath of the city, the everyday challenge of it, is good. It forces you to grow and push yourself.”

Rahm’s Recitation: Mayor Rahm Emanuel visited YCA and read a Maya Angelou poem after “Wreck-It-Rahm,” from a YCA slam team, went viral. “One of our students who lived in the hundreds [on the far South Side] said, ‘I just feel like you should give us a hug, metaphorically, like you care about us,’ ” recalls Woods. “I wonder if it stuck with him.”

Rallying Cry: Four years after the 2012 shooting of 22-year-old Rekia Boyd by an 
off-duty Chicago police officer, Woods sang her own “Blk Girl Soldier” at a rally for Boyd in the presence of her family. “It’s very moving when you feel the tangible utility of a song,” says Woods.

— Ben Austen

This article originally appeared in the Nov. 26 issue of Billboard.