Heartbeats from the Streets: Exploring the Relationship between Youth and Rap Music in Chicago


By Maureen van de Water

“In reality a black man dies everyday//in Chitown you can times that by trey” – Johnny B, rapper killed January 2013 due to gun violence in Chicago


I moved to Chicago the summer of 2012 after I graduated from Michigan State University with a Bachelors degree in Psychology. I knew little about the extreme violence there but had heard that some neighborhoods were dangerous and no-go zones. Sleeping on a blow up mattress at a friend’s apartment I searched for my next step in life. I knew I wanted to work with teenagers but wasn’t sure if I wanted to jump right into the field after college. An opportunity arose through AmeriCorps, a yearlong volunteer based program designed to help young people enter the work force. The position I took was the Academic Success Coordinator at an organization called Boys Hope Girls Hope.

The BHGH mission statement is “to help academically capable and motivated children-in-need to meet their full potential and become men and women for others by providing value-centered, family-like homes, opportunities and education through college.” To put it simply, I lived in a house in a nice suburb north of Chicago with three other staff members and eight teenage boys, a majority African American. They received scholarships to go to Loyola Academy, a prestigious private catholic school, where tuition is about $15,000 a year. Many of these youth came from these no-go neighborhoods in Chicago that I had heard about. Some experienced gang violence and drug dealings and many came from single-parent homes, low-income families, and/or multiple generations living in one home. They often called it Chiraq because it’s been said that more people are killed in Chicago than at war in Iraq.

My job as the Academic Success Coordinator consisted of holding the youth accountable academically, checking homework, helping them study, meeting with teachers, and going on college visits. After two years of doing this, I switched into a different position as a Residential Counselor which was very much a “parent role” where I cooked, grocery shopped, checked chores, supervised mornings and evenings, maintained contact with parents and therapists and scheduled any doctor’s appointments that were needed.

Through both roles at BHGH, what was the most important to me was building relationships with these youth and helping them grow. Hearing their experiences and being immersed in their culture I was able to better understand them and where they came from. However, I always wanted to know more about how they grew up and what shaped them into who they are today. Rap music, specifically Chicago artists, played a large role in their daily lives. Whether they were doing their chores, working on homework, or playing basketball out back, they always wanted to be listening to this music. I’ve always enjoyed hip-hop and rap music and I noticed there was a different sound coming out of Chicago.

In my research I contacted two male youth that I used to work with at Boys Hope Girls Hope who were dismissed for various reasons. I also spoke with one female youth who is currently finishing her second year in the program. I interviewed them about what growing up in Chicago was like, their personal stories, what they are doing now, and why rap music plays such a big role in their lives. I also asked them about which artists they are listening to now and how the rap scene in Chicago has changed. In addition, I interviewed a friend of mine who works in the music scene and lives in Chicago. Due to the fact my respondents live in Chicago, my research was done through video calls. Moreover, my research involved listening to Chicago rap, both lyrically and stylistically to dive deeper into this scene. I also watched a number of documentaries on the topic of violence and rap music in Chicago. With this I wanted to find out, what is the meaning of rap music for marginalized, African American youth in Chicago?

Due to the fact that I knew most of my respondents very well there were things that they were hesitant to tell me at first because I used to be an authoritative figure in their lives. They also were very enthusiastic about catching me up on their lives and wanted to know what was going on in mine so sometimes the interviews would veer off course a little. That being said, I feel that having a relationship with my respondents was also a very positive thing. Once they started opening up, they were very honest and didn’t leave anything out.


“You want me to send you a picture of my pieces? I’ll send it to you.”

Illustration1Kobe was the tallest 15-year-old I’ve ever met. He was defiant and had a temper at times. He didn’t smile or laugh much because he always wanted to show this tough side but when he did it was heartwarming. He was really smart but didn’t want to put a lot of time and effort into his schoolwork. Now, 4 years later, he answers my FaceTime call in a car dealership. His hair longer and dreaded, his face weathered and his voice much deeper than the last time we spoke. He talks with a lot of slang, sometimes to the point I need to ask him to repeat himself. He said he had been waiting at the dealership for over an hour. He was really distracted and said he would call me back. About 10 minutes later he called me back from inside a car at the dealership and told me he was “finna pay cash for this motherfucker” and proceeded to flash a stack of 20s. When I asked where he was getting all of this money he replied “minding my own business.” His phone died soon after and he called me back about an hour later from his girlfriend’s place. I asked if he got a car and he said, “Nah, they was trying to fuck with me.”

Kobe was dismissed from BHGH due to a violent encounter with another student. He lost the opportunity to go to Loyola Academy and finished high school at Evanston Township High School, a public school in a suburb just north of Chicago. Kobe grew up on the West side of Chicago:

“Yeah, everywhere in Chicago was messed up but the West side wasn’t all that bad. Yeah there was drugs and stuff, but the West side was kinda known as the money side of town. Where niggas get money…money getters, drug dealers, hustlers…”

Illustration2While the West side might not have been known as the violent side of town, there was and still is plenty of violence. Kobe said the first time he saw someone get shot was in 7th grade. The history of violence in Chicago is long and complicated and has many different factors. Starting in the 1920s, Chicago’s gangs were largely made up of white ethnic males. With a large migration of Mexicans and Blacks in the 1930s escaping the southern Jim Crow laws, a shift in gang ethnicity happened. Now the minorities were Blacks and Mexicans. Segregation and discrimination played a big part in pushing these minorities to the outskirts of the city and after WWII the city put up 51 high-rise public housing projects. Arguably, this contributed to the growth of gangs, specifically three major ones: the Vice Lords, the Gangster Disciples, and the Black P. Stones. It gave them a space to thrive in and brought them in direct contact with each other. In the mid 90s, the demolition of many of these housing projects caused a displacement of people, scattering these gang turfs all around Chicago, especially the South and West side (Howell & Moore, 2010). Kobe talks about growing up around these gangs:

“I grew up around Four Corner Hustlers and the Vice Lords so all the people I grew up with are Foes or BDs or GDs, but yeah, I just play my role, I ain’t really got no enemies. Yeah, muthafuckas are haters but I ain’t did nothing to nobody to be looking for me. I just stay out the way.”

He also discusses the kids he grew up with in his neighborhood:

“That’s the thing about these type of neighborhoods, if you grow up on the West side or South side of Chicago you rarely gonna leave that side of town. I remember being in like 6th, 7th grade and talking to kids that never left within like a 5-mile radius of where they live. Never went downtown, never seen the North side, never been to the south side. They literally don’t leave within a 5-mile radius of where they live.”

He goes on to talk about BHGH and that if it weren’t for that program he would be “fucked up like one of these dudes.” Today, Kobe lives with his mom on the North side of the city. He works at Autozone and his life revolves around making money. In order to show me his lifestyle he sent me videos of him counting hundred dollar bills and a photo of his two guns (seen above). Although he didn’t want to go into detail about how he makes all this extra cash because “the feds are watching,” he did, however, explain to me how someone could have a part time job and use the money from that to buy weed in bulk, split it up, sell it, and make a large profit. Kobe credits the influence of his parents as one of the reasons he was never in a gang growing up.

“My dad was into some shit when he was younger… but my mom was never one of those females who ran the streets. We always had that support from our parents to tell us right and wrong, make sure we did the right thing. That’s why none of us are too messed up as far as some other kids you’ll see in Chicago. But everybody ain’t got that type of family structure. Some people have that type of family structure where like all they daddies, they uncles, they granddads, all them was gang members so they all got that mentality of a gang member so they not gonna try to teach they kids to not be a gang member…they kids was gonna follow up behind what they was doing.”

Kobe emphasized the importance of role models, especially male role models for young boys growing up in Chicago.

“A lot of people don’t even have fathers, and even if they do have a dad he might not play a big role in their life. A lot of my friends they know their dad but their dad is kinda like a homie. When you see the way they interact you wouldn’t think like hey this is a father-son relationship…”

A lot of factors play a role in the experience for marginalized African American youth in Chicago today: political history, family structure, environment and role models are just a few. Kobe seems to have escaped part of the structure that others seem to be stuck in but also has chosen parts of that lifestyle. He makes a lot of money and spends it on what is important to him, mostly material things. He isn’t sure he will go to college, although there are people in his life that are pushing him to go. He talked about being able to make a lot of money working at the airport and he wouldn’t need a degree for that but for now he will stay working at Autozone until he takes his next step.


The first person I met at BHGH on the day I interviewed for the position was a sophomore named Usher. He was one of those people who was always smiling while they talked. He was goofy yet sincere and we could have conversations about real things and he wasn’t afraid to open up to me. He told me about his difficult relationship with his mom and her boyfriend and his struggle with wanting to be a part of Boys Hope but also feeling too much pressure because of the rules and structure of the program. I worked with him closely because his grades were really low and in order to stay in the program the students needed to maintain a certain grade point average. I answered the video call to the same smiling face I met 4 years prior. He was sitting outside on the front steps of a house, the sun shining on his face. I wasn’t even sure where he was calling me from. Through social media I had seen that he was in his first year of college but quickly he told me he was dismissed in February for an incident over drugs. Now he was back living with his mom in a suburb West of the city. He was very eager to catch me up on his life. A little over two months after I started at BHGH, Usher was dismissed for a violent encounter with another student. It seems there is a pattern of continual change in his life.

“I did a lot of moving. Every year I went up a grade, I moved somewhere else. I went to a different school every year until my 5th grade year. I lived with my grandma and my mom and my uncle stayed with us occasionally… My grandma had section 8 where the government helps you with a certain percentage of your rent.”

Usher didn’t mention his father at first so I asked what his relationship was like with his dad growing up.

“Every summer I used to go see my dad. My dad lived with his mom his whole life. [She] would go to work and he would go sell drugs. I stopped seeing my pops…I was in 4th grade…he went to go drive trucks and moved to Texas with his 4th baby mother. She started using crack, he started using crack…”

Usher explained that his dad is back in Chicago now and clean from hard drugs but he doesn’t see him.

“I ain’t got no reason to [see him] he’s kinda a dead beat”

This took me back to what Kobe had said about father figures and role models and how important it is for youth to have someone in their life who they can relate to, who shows them right from wrong. Usher didn’t have that. Barber and Eccles researched this concept of father absence and found that adolescents who experienced father absence had lower self esteem and lower general achievements. Furthermore, if there is an additional factor of low socioeconomic status, the results were exacerbated (East & Jackson, 2006). In 8th grade Usher joined a gang and started selling drugs.

“The gang that was by my house was the Four Corner Hustlers and the Vice Lords and I had met this guy they called the big homie and he was like ‘you wanna sell some drugs, its easy’ and I was like ‘yeah.’ They would give us 7 bags and they’d be like, ‘out of these 7 bags you get to keep 20 dollars worth of profit,’ each bag was worth 10 dollars. I’d sell to teenagers, grown ups, anybody that came in my vicinity asking for the good stuff. They initiated me into the gang…I was a kid.”

After BHGH, Usher went to North Lawndale, a high school on the West side of Chicago. His senior year he moved out of his mom’s house into his own apartment with a friend. He described it as the “hoe house”, having parties everyday, girls in and out, and drinking a lot of alcohol and doing drugs. In the spring of his senior year he (mistakenly) tested positive for HIV, broke down and lost his composure at school, becoming violent and uncontrollable. He found out the next day the test was a false positive but the damage had been done and he had to finish his senior year at home, not being able to go to prom or walk at graduation.

Now Usher is working at Sears, a department store, and “staying inside” (his way of saying he is staying out of trouble). He has experienced a lot of setbacks yet remains positive despite his circumstances. His federal financial aid is on hold until 2017, which means he won’t be able to return to school until then. He hopes to return and wants to eventually work with youth in the criminal justice system.


Illustration3Both Usher and Kobe loved music, especially Chicago rap. What they listened to most often back then (and still today) was a newer style of rap called “Drill”. Drill music was born out of Chicago’s South side in the early 2010s. It is characterized as dark, violent lyrics over ominous beats. If you look up drill music, the number one name that comes with it is Chief Keef. At 17 years old, he was signed to a multimillion-dollar label after his homemade music video on YouTube reached 18 million views (Stehlik, 2012). I was working at BHGH in 2012 when Chief Keef was blowing up. Kobe in particular loved listening to his music. Now he reflects back:

“If it weren’t for Chief Keef, I honestly feel like Chicago, it would still be messed up but it wouldn’t be nowhere near as bad cuz now everybody feel like they a savage. He made it cool to be a criminal.”

Usher had a similar view:

“Chief Keef changed the game…he was like really hood, straight from the ghetto, everyone could relate to him.”

Kobe explained to me that for him, it is just entertainment and it always has been, but for some youth, Chief Keef is a role model.

“All the music that these guys make is about violence, drugs, and you know, women, having sex. So if that is all you’re hearing and that’s all that’s going through your eardrums ever day, everybody not strong enough to use that stuff as entertainment.”

I interviewed a friend of mine from my hometown, Charles, who now lives in Chicago. He was in a band for most of his life, writes music for Apple, and is now writing country music to sell to musicians. He has worked on many different musical projects including documentaries and television commercials and has a lot of knowledge about the Chicago rap scene.

“I almost feel like it’s the new blues. It’s about taking this super intense life that is occurring around you everyday and performing it on a stage and it gives you a little bit of distance from your reality. It turns it into a fantasy which is like a way of having power over it versus being stuck with like ‘my life fucking sucks and I could die any day.’”

In his article, We Live This Shit, Patel argues that being able to perform this type of music gives power to the powerless while also reaching a large audience. Rappers provide a first hand account of their lives, which represents a big size of the population (Patel, 2011). Take King Louie for example, another well-known Chicago rapper. In his song “Live and Die in Chicago” he raps:

I smoke dope with the riders

Doors slide when we ride up

Stay inside or get fired up

To live and die in Chicago

Green light it’s a go, if I tell ‘em to blow

I keep that metal close

That’s how we ride in Chicago

King Louie is talking about what life is like in Chicago and many black youth can relate to this. This past December, King Louie was shot in the head and survived. Usher quoted these same King Louie lyrics when I asked him about why rap music is so important to Chicago youth:

“Rap explains certain people’s lives, all the Chicago rappers, they rap about Chicago and what they had to do to survive in Chicago…most people can relate to them.”

While a lot of rap that comes out of Chicago is violent and dismal, there is also a very different rap movement on the rise. The Save Money Crew, headed by Chance the Rapper, gives a message of positivity and hope through not only their music but also community projects they are involved in. The sound of the rap differs from drill in that it is more positive and eclectic. There is even a trumpet player who is a part of the group. Charles weighed in on the Save Money Crew:

“They are about antiviolence and they are about donating clothes to the homeless. I sort of see them as the children of the 70s political movement in a way and I think they kinda are. Chance’s parents are involved in city planning and that kind of stuff. They talk a lot about what they are seeing but they are almost critiquing it. That’s another angle-instead of re-performing it on a stage they are standing back and basically looking at it all and breaking it down.”

Illustration4In 2014, Chance the Rapper was named Chicago’s outstanding youth of the year by the local government. He has actively fought gun violence, raised money to provide coats for the homeless, and began Open Mike nights, a safe space that gives Chicago youth an opportunity to perform on stage (Whelen, 2015). Patel discusses the theory of using “rap as a means of resistance by communicating their frustrations with the social structure that works to confine them to this position” (Patel, 2011). Chance the Rapper is an example of this.In his song Paranoia he raps:

They murking kids, they murder kids here

Why you think they don’t talk about it? They deserted us here

Where the fuck is Matt Lauer at? Somebody get Katie Couric in here

Probably scared of all the refugees, look like we had a fucking hurricane here

They be shooting whether it’s dark or not, I mean the days is pretty dark a lot

Down here it’s easier to find a gun than it is to find a fucking parking spot

As Patel explained, Chance is communicating his frustrations with the social structure and the lack of focus on the issues in Chicago, calling out well-known journalists for not reporting on them. In fact, much of the coverage in the news over Chicago perpetuates a moral panic of African American crime and violence. While there is a big difference between drill and conscience music, both are sending the same message to the world: this is our life, pay attention. Yet, when I asked Kobe if he listened to any of the “conscious” rappers he said:

Hell no…because its boring. Yeah, you actually talking about something but nobody want to hear that, it’s not as entertaining.”

There seems to be a big divide between those that listen to drill versus those that listen to conscious rap. While there can be appreciation for both, preferences seem to sway one way or the other and often can be predicted by the lifestyle of the listener. Kobe is now listening to Lud Foe, a popular drill rapper and gang member from the West side.

“People look up to [rappers] like white kids look up to country singers. Generally black kids look up to rappers because they can relate more with what they are talking about.”

Race plays a large role in the discussion about rap music as Kobe points out here. The history of oppression and discrimination goes all the way back to the times of slavery. Especially in the US, African Americans have long been seen as the lowest rung on the social class ladder. Rap music is a product of this oppression. It is important for these artists to keep it real and authentic, to tell their personal stories and experiences.Clay (2003) references Watkins’ theory that hip-hop culture illustrates black youth agency. Rap is an avenue for individuals to express themselves and gives them agency to make their own choices in a situation where they don’t have a lot options. Clay also sees rap music as a way for African Americans to express their black racial identity. In his ethnographic research he sees a “constant pressure to perform: to have the right clothes, listen to the right music, and speak the right language-all of which were based in hip-hop.” He uses Bourdieu’s theory of Cultural Capital to explain the importance of knowing and listening to rap music within the black community (Clay 2003).

This is very relevant to my days at BHGH. Those years are a critical time for youth’s identity formation and hip hop played a big role in that for Kobe and Usher. To this day they both have extensive knowledge about the hip hop world. In a lot of ways, their lives are a reflection of these rappers. Guns, money, alcohol, drugs, and clothing are all a big part of their lives and hold a lot of weight in terms of cultural capital. Here is Usher talking about his senior year in high school after moving in with a friend who had received a lot of money from a settlement:

“We had girls in and out of there, we had parties every day, we drunk a lot of Remy, we drunk a lot of Henny, we drunk a lot of Patron. We started popping pills, Xanax and Flex and Molly and stuff and smoking marijuana and enjoying ourselves….We were buying a lot of expensive clothes and driving a lot of expensive cars, just trying to live that Chief Keef life.”

Usher sees this as a great time in his life. He even acknowledges the relationship between that lifestyle and rap music although I am not certain he is fully aware of the influence rap has had on him in his identity formation. Similar to Usher, Kobe also lives this lifestyle and whether they are aware of it or not, the power and influence of rap music is very much there.

She’s a Rapper Chick

Chicago rap and gang violence are both seen as a man’s world. There isn’t a lot of space for women. When I asked Kobe and Usher to send me a list of some up-and-coming rappers they are listening to, neither of them had a female rapper on the list. Charles thinks this may be shifting, though.

“I think that’s a little bit changing but also not…there is a whole scene of women rappers but they definitely get pushed into a corner in a way. They are “rapper chicks” like that’s what I hear all the time, ‘she’s a rapper chick’ instead of ‘she’s a rapper’.”

Katie Got Bandz, probably the most well known female rapper coming out of Chicago, is from the South side and makes drill music. Her music is intense and violent, similar to Chief Keef. While other female rappers like Nicki Minaj or Iggy Azalea play off their sexuality, many female rappers coming out of Chicago have a much more masculine approach. Like the homegirls in Mendoza-Denton’s (2008) book about L.A. girl gangs, it is important to dress and act tough, and to have an intimidating reputation. The concept of female masculinity is very relevant here. Berggren (2014) defines female masculinity as “women constructing and performing masculinity.” Many female rappers from Chicago act “hard and violent” as Berggren puts it. It is difficult to say why this happens. Is it who they really are? Or perhaps they are performing masculinity because it is popular and they need to compete with the men in the rap scene (Berggren, 2014).

I interviewed, Shayla, who is currently finishing her sophomore year in the Girls Hope program, about what it is like being a female in this environment. Similar to Usher and Kobe, she grew up on the West side and also loves Chicago rap music. She weighs in on this idea of female masculinity:

“The female rappers…when they rap it’s not light, it’s like hardcore and they talk about some of the same things, like violence, that men talk about and they usually have more of the fast up-beats.”

Shayla explains that most females experience a much different life in Chicago than males do.

“It’s more riskier for the guys just because they’re guys… Girls can get themselves into a lot of stuff also but I feel like it’s more dangerous for boys because of mistaken identity… It’s occurring frequently to a lot of people I know.”

What she is referring to is sometimes guys get jumped or shot at because they are mistaken for someone who is involved in gang violence. This has happened to youth in BHGH. The other differing experience she talks about is her friends going to high school on the West side. While boys are wrapped up in gangs and violence, girls are dealing with social pressures.

“You’re going to school with mostly African Americans that do this and do that, if you want to look this type of way you have to hang out with these group of girls and act this way. Fitting in is a big issue. Everybody want to be like somebody instead of being themselves.”

What was different about rap music for Shayla compared to Kobe and Usher was that she uses it as a way to cope…

“I turn to it when I feel like I don’t have family support, friend support…it don’t really influence me.”

Although their experiences differ, what inevitably is the same, is what rap means:

“When I listen to the songs I try to listen to the lyrics and see how it connects to my life.”

In Conclusion

Chicago in itself is a unique place. A city divided by race and violence with a long history of territorial gangs. It is the murder capital of the U.S. where 24 hours without gun violence is a huge accomplishment. Born out of this is the rap music that provides a first-hand account of what goes on in this hidden world of Chicago. It is a voice for youth who otherwise would be pushed into silence. Chicago rap is cultural capital for marginalized African American youth living there and helps to form their identity, personally and socially. Although drill and conscious rap both come out of the same place they differ in approaching the social issues of Chicago. The battle between structure and agency is very real and while youth who are immersed in this life would say they have agency, I believe that structurally it is extremely difficult to escape.

What was common among all my respondents was that rap music coming out of Chicago was very relatable to them. It gave them pride in where they came from and power over the violence and poverty they dealt with growing up. While there were slight differences in gender, the overall feelings were the same. The meaning of rap for marginalized African American youth can be broken down into three categories. Firstly it is entertainment. Like Kobe said, he listens to Chicago rap artists because it is fun. The things they talk about are “cool”-drugs, money, sex, and violence. Secondly, it is a means of resistance as Patel describes. The rappers themselves, who have the platform to reach a lot of people, can use their lyrics to tell a wider audience what is really going on Chicago. Even drill music can be seen as a form of resistance and those who listen to it are participating in this resistance. Lastly, rap gives power to the powerless. It gives them a voice and an outlet for the struggle in their lives. Its authentic, it’s meaningful and it is real and it will change and morph with the city that it represents.

*Pseudonyms were used in order to protect the privacy of the respondents

(Written for Youth Cultures in a Transnational Context)


Berggren, Kalle (2014). Hip Hop Feminism in Sweden: Intersectionality, Feminist Critique and Female Masculinity. European Journal of Women’s Studies, 21, 3, 233–250.

Clay, Andreana (2003). Keepin’ It Real: Black Youth, Hip-Hop Culture, and Black Identity. American Behavioral Scientist, 46, 10, 1346-1358.

East, L. & Jackson, D. & O’Brien, L. (2006). Father Absence and Adolescent Development: A Review of the Literature. Journal of Child Healthcare, 10, 4, pp. 283-292.

Howell, J. & Moore, J. (2010). History of Street Gangs in the United States. National Gang Center Bulletin, pp. 5-9. https://www.nationalgangcenter.gov/content/documents/history-of-street-gangs.pdf

Mendoza-Denton, N. (2008). ‘Muy Macha’: Gendered Performances and the Avoidance of Social Injury. In Homegirls: Language and Cultural Practice among Latina Youth Gangs (pp. 148-175). Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishing.

Patel, P. (2011). We Live This Shit: Rap as a Reflection of Reality for Inner City Youth. MA Thesis, University of Central Florida.

Stehlik, L. (2012). Chief Keef takes Chicago’s Drill Sound Overground. http://www.theguardian.com/music/2012/nov/16/chief-keef-chicago-drill-rap

Whelen, E. (2015). The Inspiring Story Behind Chance the Rapper and Malcolm London’s Open Mike Nights. http://www.thefader.com/2015/07/17/malcolm-london-interview-chance-the-rapper-open-mikes