Conversation About HipHop And Violence Needs Better Context Than Just Chicago

When teenage Chicago rapper JoJo was shot to death last week, his murder set off two separate online convulsions. The first was an alarming string of celebratory tweets from other Chicago teens who were glad of the killing. The second was a less-local burst of essays from hiphop writers on the relationship (or lack thereof) between the “drill” music that bubbles up from Chicago streets and the violence that fills them. Potholes In My Blog honcho Andrew Martin voiced the sickened, sorrowful feeling the response to JoJo’s murder inspired, and asked rap bloggers to reconsider how they talk about the drill scene. Lloyd Miller at Mostly Junk Food took the opposite approach, asking “Would any of the many other non-rapping young men and women in Chicago be in any more danger if they were to pick up a mic?”

This conversation misses a lot, but I share the sense of unease that sparked it. From Tipper Gore to Bill Bennett to suburban PTA meetings, nearly everyone who’s ever called for curbing the cultural output of the American ghetto has ended up looking out of touch or authoritarian. Yet while real-life violence never dinted my affection for emcees like Ice Cube, Big L, or Freddie Gibbs, reading about Chicago’s insanely violent summer has dredged up an internal conflict I’ve somehow dodged through a dozen years of hiphop fandom. It’s worth considering what our responsibility as listeners is; if you like drill, and you introduce a friend to a Chief Keef track, is it incumbent on you to mention the context in which the music’s produced? But surely it’s foolishness to get uncritically caught up thinking that the horrifying new normal in Chicago is in fact novel.

The murder rate in NWA-era Los Angeles was similarly jaw-dropping; 738 Angelinos were killed the year “Straight Outta Compton” came out, and over the next six years the population-adjusted murder rate would jump from about 21 killings per 100,000 people to over 30 in 1992–93. When Big L was killed in Harlem in 1999, the Giuliani administration’s authoritarianism had already lowered New York’s murder rate from its absurd early-90s highs, but he was one of 664 New Yorkers murdered that year. Freddie Gibbs is from Gary, IN (the one thing he has in common with my father), and Gary’s a perennial candidate for Murder Capital of America. Since the early ’90s, “the Guts” has registered a much higher per-capita murder rate than New York, LA, Atlanta, Chicago, or Houston. (These statistics all come from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Statistics, a system that’s vulnerable to stat juking by local PDs, to be sure, but murders are tough to hide. I’m no criminologist, but while murder rates have dropped precipitously, hundreds are still killed each year in our most violent cities.)

Current-ness biases us. It’s easy to mistake things that are happening right now for much worse or much better than similar things that happened years ago. Like Poot said in season 4 of The Wire, “Man every year everybody’s like, ‘yeah these kids out here, they’re a new breed! I ain’t never seen nothing like this before! This the end of the world now!’”


(It’s worth noting, too, that Poot is one of the very few members of the original terrace crew from season 1 who makes it out of the life. He’s as much lucky as anything else, and ultimately his escape involves some pride-swallowing; in season five, he’s working at a Foot Locker. But while all this may have some relevance, The Wire isn’t a good enough stopping place here.)

Three obvious possibilities for why I’m reacting differently to drill than I do to the above-referenced trio of hardcore rhymers: I see thoughtfulness and artistic merit in L’s, Cube’s, and Gibbs’ output that is lacking from the drill rappers I’ve heard; I’m getting old; or the people dying in the home of the drill scene this summer are so likely to be children that there really is a meaningful difference.

Either way, it’s important that we be honest about why this conversation is happening now, and what it really is. We’re not talking about this because there have been over 150 murders in Chicago this summer. We’re not talking about this because nearly a third of those killed have been minors. We’re not talking about it because the conversation about violent culture and actual violence recurs, cicada-like, at fixed intervals.

People are positing or refuting links between Chicago’s drill scene and its bloody summer because the kid who got killed last week left behind an online footprint that provides the raw materials for a conversation about rap and violence. And it’s much, much easier to get lost in arguments about these kids’ lifestyles than it is to grapple with the systemic failure that’s producing such a staggering volume of young, dead brown bodies.

The critical conversation around drill music and real-life murders is a way to avoid talking about how Chicago came to be a place that produces both of those things. Drill isn’t causing killings, the dead-end trap of urban poverty is. Today’s landscape was produced by some combination of failures in education, public infrastructure, social policy, and economic opportunity. (For smart sociology on how the evaporation of blue-collar jobs from urban centers and disparities in social capital helped constrain the ambitions of East Harlem natives, read “In Search Of Respect: Selling Crack In El Barrio” by Phillippe Bourgois.) If we don’t find ways to remedy those failures, likely with policies that will look more like revolution than reform, we’ll continue to see generation after generation of American youth stay stuck and get dead. It won’t be because of the music they listen to. It’ll be because we haven’t done enough to expand the pathways by which social and economic capital flow between the burbs and the block.