On June 24th, 9,000 young Chicagoans lined up at Northerly Island for the inaugural Teens In The Park Festival, put together by the Chicago Park District in partnership with Chance The Rapper. The all-day festival featured up-and-coming artists, poets, and dancers, a headlining set from The Social Experiment and an unexpected performance by Kendrick Lamar. The free show was a huge success, a natural progression from the same idea that inspired Chance to launch a series of high school student-only “Open Mike” events that began this past February: create a safe space for Chicago youth to express and enjoy themselves, free of cost, and just maybe invite a surprise guest, like King L, Hannibal Buress, and Kanye West.
For organizing and co-hosting duties, Chance tapped Malcolm London, a twenty-two year old poet, rapper and social activist from West Chicago who also got his creative start at YouMedia. Since his teen years, London has been praised for his writing and performances: his pieces combine stinging criticism of Chicago's engagement (or lack thereof) with Black youth, while maintaining that their potential is limitless—scholar and activist Cornell West has called him the “Gil-Scott Heron of his generation.” We spoke to London about the Open Mike series, how he sees Chicago's narrative changing in recent years, and where he'd like to lead his city next.
How was the Teens In The Park Festival?
It was beautiful. The kids had a great time, and it was more than just having Kendrick perform for a bunch of kids in Chicago. What Chance is doing, and maybe he doesn’t even realize it, is that he’s giving back in a certain way that creates new avenues for equity and access. He’s not just introducing kids to Kanye or King Louie or Hannibal Buress, but he’s doing it for free, for the love. When you bring people like Kendrick or Kanye to a free festival, it’s leveraging privilege in a way. It’s helping young people who may never even go to a Kendrick concert because it costs money, kids who barely have any reason to leave their neighborhood. When we were coming up, if it wasn’t for the [Harold Washington] library we may not have left our neighborhoods. So the same way the library did for us, Chance is using his name and access to do it in a major way. At least a third of those kids would probably never come out to a festival hosted by the Chicago Park District, but with Chance’s name being attached to it, and with the message we’re getting across, they did.
What’s your history with Chance?
I met Chance when I was around a sophomore in high school. We’re in SaveMoney together, and I got connected to all these folks through hosting the YouMedia Lyricist Loft event. This was back in the day when it was 200 strong every week under the leadership of Brother Mike. I also knew Chance from just growing up together, in the squad, mobbing down Chicago Avenue as bad-ass little kids. But it was really the YouMedia space where we connected.
How did the Open Mike idea come about?
So, Brother Mike passed back in November. He was only 38, and he died of heart failure. It was just tragic, and it came out of nowhere. So when I heard about it, I invited people to my crib to really just hold each other and create space to talk about and celebrate Brother Mike. Chance came over, as well as other folks I hadn’t seen in years. We were just drinking, talking, crying and consoling each other. Me and Chance were sitting on my bed talking about how we needed to do something for Brother Mike. We came up with the idea to do the Open Mikes, and to name them after him. From there we started planning, and the first one was in February. Me and Chance hosted it, and there was like 700 kids lined up for it. And we’ve been doing it ever since, we just had our sixth one.
What was the atmosphere like at YouMedia?
Brother Mike really made that space. To me, he was definitely a father figure. More than anything it was the way he taught young people. He wasn’t a teacher, he was a mentor. We were in that space because we wanted to be there. He gave young people autonomy with our lives and our choices and supported us in every way. From teaching us how to use the studio, to buying us lunch when we didn’t have it, or giving bus cards to make it home. He supported young people in a way that wasn’t heavy-handed, but was about lifting us up. He didn’t show us what we could and couldn’t do, he showed us how to do it. Most of the young people you know in our circle that are doing music came through that library like Vic [Mensa], Chance, Me, Nico aka Donnie Trumpet, Fatima [Noname Gypsy], Mick Jenkins and Saba. Because of that space, they believe in themselves, and are able to define themselves for themselves.
How have the Open Mike events turned out so far?
They’ve been great. The first one had 700 kids, but we only had room for 300. The second one was just as big. We’ve been trying to purposefully move it around the city, so we’re hitting every section, but Chance and I actually just had a meeting with the library yesterday to talk about bringing it to the library permanently—bringing it back home basically. One of the first things we were worried about was that it was going to be just a bunch of fans of Chance’s. A lot of people did think it was a free show, but the kids were so supportive of the idea and there were a bunch of kids just genuinely excited to get up onstage. And we’re seeing more of that. Last week, there were about 320 kids there and at least half of them were new. So we’re still getting new kids who are excited to meet Chance, but there are so many returning kids that they’re starting to cultivate that space, and have it belong to them. Chance really doesn’t make it about him. We lucked up on having people like Kanye come through, but after the third time we did it, the kids started to understand that it’s about them creating their own community, and them running with it. There’s a group of about thirty kids that come every time, and now they have their own writing collective.
What’s the format of the events?
It’s just like an open mic. We have about 40 volunteer staff members, who are really just our friends that are willing to help out on any given Monday night to be able to support that many kids. Doors open at 4:45 but most of the kids show up around 3:30. Every kid has to sign up at the door, just so we have their information for future events. Then they go inside the theater where there is the Open Mike sign up. Every time there are about 60 kids that sign up to perform. Then, me and Chance call randomly from the list. We give priority to the kids that signed up early but we still do it in a random order, the same way Brother Mike used to at Lyricist Loft. We also try to get kids who are doing something different. Open Mike isn’t just about rappers and poets, we’ve had comedians, we’ve had young people who have public speeches written, we almost had one kid screen a short film they had directed but we were having problems with the projector. It’s really a creative space for young people to see each other and build with each other like we did when we grew up.
What kind of reception have you gotten around the city?
The kids love it obviously. They’re so passionate. And the adults love it too, they’re just salty they can’t get in. We have a strict no-adults policy, even parents. Because every seat that’s taken by an adult, a young person can’t get in. So from very early on that was our thing, nobody over high school age. But the response has been great, we’ve been getting local press almost every time.
What inspired your emphasis on youth engagement?
I got catapulted into this work. I’ve been working at Young Chicago Authors for about 3 or 4 years where I host open mics and youth poetry festivals, but it’s really fun now to be able to do it alongside my homies. This past year I’ve served as the national director of Louder Than A Bomb, organizing festivals in other cities. Having young people write poems, share their stories and realize that their stories are important is something I’ve been interested in for a long time. Brother Mike taught me that, as did Kevin Coval, who is a mentor to me and Chance. A lot of people who are on our Open Mike staff, like Raych Jackson and Britteney “BlackRose” Conner have been working at Young Chicago Authors for a while.
"If you have a bunch of kids talking about the violence where they come from, it’s not because kids like to talk about violence, it’s because violence is happening where they come from." -Malcolm London
When did you start writing poetry?
I started writing rhymes when I was twelve. I thought they were weak, but the first rap that I wrote someone told me that it sounded like a good poem. But I didn’t start taking it seriously until I was 16, and I found Louder Than A Bomb and spaces like YouMedia.
How would you describe your poetry?
I’m a kid from the West-side of Chicago who went to school on the North side of the city. As a poet and as a writer, it’s my duty to tell the story that’s right under my nose, to talk about where I come from. But also as a poet, I want to not just tell the story, but change the stories that we tell and that are told to us. So, it’s about who I am, what I see and how I feel, but it’s also about the commentary and the public dialogue that art can create.
How do you make art that touches on larger social issues, but maintains an individual perspective?
What I tell my students is to be authentic. When you see young people, even young folks like Chief Keef, talking about what’s going on in their lives, it’s never separate from the larger narrative. If you have a bunch of kids talking about the violence where they come from, it’s not because kids like to talk about violence, it’s because violence is happening where they come from. Where I come from, not many have the opportunity to tell their story, there’s also not a lot of people listening to those stories, and often times there are other people telling those stories for young people and they often get it wrong, or they lie, or tell it one-dimensionally. When young people are honest and one hundred percent themselves, it’s never devoid of the larger social narrative. The city experiences inequity and racist systems, but there’s also a lot of beauty, and I think young people tell both sides.
You were critical of the initial media coverage and response to Chief Keef and Drill music. Now that it’s quieted, do you see still see that scapegoating happening in Chicago?
To an extent, in Chicago that sort of thing has always been happening. When Chief Keef came out, he had all this attention, and there was this idea that this 16-year-old kid who rapped about violence was the reason that violence was happening in the city. As if violence didn’t exist before this 16-year-old did. So it was a bigger issue when Chief Keef was on the come-up, but it’s still happening. You have people blaming the folks who live in areas of poverty, but they were born into these areas of poverty, they didn’t create them. With folks like Chance coming up – I love Chief Keef just as much as any other MC in Chicago, but I think the problem with that time is that we had only seen Drill music come out, so people thought that was the only music in Chicago. Which just isn’t true, kids turn up to Keef, but they equally turn up to Chance and they equally turn up to Hiatus Kaiyote. With the rise of people like Chance, people are seeing that we have so many dimensions to our city just like we have so many dimensions to ourselves.
What do you think of Chance foregoing the spotlight with The Social Experiment?
At the center of the idea of the Open Mikes is that we all grew up working with each other. A lot of older folks say that with the hip hop scene in Chicago, everybody used to hate on each other, and that’s just not how we grew up. We grew up going to each other’s shows and rocking with each other. The days of us being in the studio, kickin’ it, that organic feeling and sound, Chance keeps that with him. With him staying independent, he really can do whatever he wants, but at the same time he knows ‘I didn’t do this by myself. I’ve been making music with all these great people, who have influenced me and I’ve influenced them.’ It’s beautiful. It feels like family. When people see him at the Open Mikes or around the city, cats really feel like they know him. He does a really good job of making people feel like they have a stake.
You blur the line between artist and activist. What's the role of artists in social movements?
I’m going through that teeter-tottering right now. I’ve been organizing a lot lately, especially since the Mike Brown thing. And I’m the co-chair of the Chicago Chapter of Black Youth Project [a Black empowerment activist organization with six chapters nationwide] which is a national organization. When I began as a poet, I felt like some artists were kind of wack, because within the culture of spoken word, it’s so easy to get onstage and spit a poem about injustice. But as I grew up, I saw that there were so many people who wrote poems about it, but weren’t actually about the shit they were talking about. So for me, it was like I’m a poet, and if I talk about it I’m going to be about it. Artistic work is important, but it’s also important to give your poems or your music feet. I believe that making art is equally as important as doing the work, because art creates the culture and transforms the culture and ultimately affects policy change and social movements. You can’t have one without the other. I always look to James Brown. Where would the Black Panthers be without “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud,” but where would James Brown be without the Panthers?
You have a poetry book that will be published soon right?
Yes, it’s supposed to come out in August on Haymarket books. I’m still working on the title. But I’m also working on a small EP that should drop in September. So I’ve been in the lab, in the notebook, getting both those things together. There’s a mini-tour around the Midwest already set-up in the fall for the EP joint. I was just in Cincinnati working with Hi-Tek, but we’re doing some different shit. It’s going to be a little bit of everything. There’s definitely going to be some poetry on the EP but I think it might be a little bit different than what folks expect of me.
Where do you see yourself and Chance taking the Open Mikes down the road?
The hope is really to pass the torch to the next generation. Of course we’re going to continue to see it through, but we’d love to pass the reigns to the next young creatives that come out of Chicago. The next best artist might come out of the Open Mike space. Me and Chance and some other folks are really beginning to talk about starting a nonprofit or a foundation. We have so many ideas for things to do in the city. We have a project in the works with the Field Museum and the Shedd Aquarium over the summer. The possibilities are endless man. We just want to continue to give back, and of course to make dope music.
(This article was updated on October 6 2015 to reflect the fact that Brother Mike died of heart failure, not by choking as was previously reported.)