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Monday, November 19, 2018

Talking about God, the air force, and Britney Spears with Chicago rapper KC Ortiz

Posted By on 11.19.18 at 12:23 PM

KC Ortiz - PHOTO BY JULIA HALE
  • Photo by Julia Hale
  • KC Ortiz

On Friday, November 23, Chicago-based rapper KC Ortiz performs at Subterranean as part of a showcase organized by Chicago label Futurehood, which supports gay and transgender musicians of color. She's no longer actively working with the label, founded in 2015 by rapper Mister Wallace and producer Aceb00mbap, but their parting was amicable—there's a reason the concert is called "Futurehood & Friends." 

Ortiz is originally from Mobile, Alabama, and moved to Chicago in 2006.  She's been writing and recording music for years, but she didn't release any of it until last year, when she put out two albums, Beach Street and Church Tapes. Her rapping is playful and upbeat, with lots of attitude and swagger and a distinct southern flavor—on "Shut Up," a track from Church Tapes, she complains about being underrated in the rap game, but that shouldn't be a problem for long. I had a chance to talk with her about her albums, her dream of writing for Britney Spears, her relationship with God, and what it means to be a trans woman in rap.

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Thursday, November 8, 2018

Chicago-based Saint Louis rapper Smino gets ‘a lot more ass shaking’ on the new Noir

Posted By on 11.08.18 at 06:00 AM

Smino - PHOTO BY JACK MCKAIN
  • Photo by Jack McKain
  • Smino

Chicago-based MC Smino did a lot of singing on his 2017 debut album, Blkswn, but on his imminent sophomore album, Noir, he seems much more interested in reminding his fans that he can rap. Keeping with tradition, Smino has used this album of smooth beats and swift bars to uplift other artists in his circle. It includes features from Dreezy, Valee, Ravyn Lenae, Bari, and Jay2—the last three are all members of the Zero Fatigue collective Smino cofounded, which is based in Chicago and his old hometown of Saint Louis.

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Monday, November 5, 2018

What we learned at the Chicago Humanities Festival this weekend

Posted By , , , and on 11.05.18 at 05:26 PM

Don't forget Ida B. Wells

Ida B. Wells
  • Ida B. Wells

Remembering is hard work, and being the guardian of memory for a famous ancestor is even more taxing. Just ask Ida B. Wells's great-granddaughter, Michelle Duster.

Wells was born into slavery in 1862. She became an investigative journalist, an anti-lynching campaigner, and one of the most influential people of her time. An unapologetic intersectional feminist long before that term entered common parlance, Wells co-founded the NAACP and published prolifically. Yet other civil rights and feminist leaders—both black men and white women—resented her radical fervor and outspokenness and sidelined her throughout her life. In 1931 she died in obscurity without so much as an obituary in the New York Times.

The paper of record is trying to remedy that oversight and published a long-overdue tribute to Wells last spring. But the resurrection of Wells’s memory is an ongoing project.

Wells lived in Chicago for many years, at 36th and King Drive, and became the namesake of the city’s first public housing development for black families. With the destruction of the projects her name was erased from the city’s landscape. For the last ten years, Duster has been fundraising to build a monument in Bronzeville to preserve Wells’s memory—often at the expense of her own identity, since most people want to talk to her only about her great grandmother and seem to overlook that she, Michelle, a writer and lecturer at Columbia College, is her own woman.

This year, boosted by the social media activism of some of today's prominent black woman journalists, educators, and organizers, Duster’s family’s dream came one step closer to fruition. In the span of two months, they raised $200,000 to pay for a commission by sculptor Richard Hunt. The sculpture will stand in a small plaza where the Ida B. Wells Homes used to be; after demolition was completed in 2011, they were replaced by a mixed-income community. Last summer, the city also moved to rename Congress Parkway to Ida B. Wells Drive. And people are eager to do more. When asked how else they could keep Wells’s memory alive, Duster responded plainly: "Vote." —Maya Dukmasova


Tom Hanks prefers his sandwiches breadless

Hanks and Sagal, admiring the simultaneous transcription - DAVID T. KINDLER
  • David T. Kindler
  • Hanks and Sagal, admiring the simultaneous transcription

As Tom Hanks strolled out onto the stage, holding hands with NPR’s Peter Sagal, his interviewer for the evening, the audience was palpably star-struck. However, as the these longtime pals, who are two of the more iconic voices of the last few decades, started their conversation, an equally strong sense of ease swept the crowd, as if we were all listening to our cool uncles sharing advice over a couple of pints. This is an odd sensation to have while in the same room as one of the most acclaimed and successful actors of a generation, but that seems to be Tom: hero to many and friend to all.

Hanks has had his fair share of portraying heroes. It’s through his newest role though, as a first-time novelist, that he finally shares what he thinks makes a hero. After writing and putting together his collection of short stories Uncommon Type: Some Stories he had to step back and ask himself "What are the connective tissues that tie these works together?"
None are grand tales with extremely terrible situations or extremely wonderful outcomes. And yet, to Hanks, they are examples of heroism. They are all studies of people's ability to make it through each day and still feel good about themselves, aided by unexpected allies. That's it, and it's the exact same combination of conditions and attitude that shaped the epics of Jim Lovell, Captain Miller, Robert Langdon, Chesley Sullenberger, Ben Bradlee, and Forrest Gump. For Captain Phillips literally and the rest metaphorically, what made them heroes was the constant thought of, "How can I get these people off this boat" and the wherewithal to see it through.

About the bread thing. When asked, by an audience member, what his ideal sandwich would be, Hanks replied that the nutritionist who helps him manage his type 2 diabetes told him that for his metabolism, bread is poison. But adding an egg is always a good idea. Even to oatmeal.

When Sagal asked what his favorite story in the book was, Hanks said it was the one based on his father-in-law’s escape from Communist persecution in Bulgaria. Until pressed on it by Hanks, he had never spoken about his immigration to the United States. He assumed that no one would be interested. To Hanks, it was the pinnacle example of, again, someone just trying to make it through his day, not knowing he is doing so against great odds, but aided by bravery, luck, and the goodness of fair people.

According to Hanks 90 percent of people are good. And, yeah, 5 percent are assholes (with 5 percent unaccounted for) but it’s that far greater majority that matter. Hanks recounted that while growing up in pre-Civil Rights Act Oakland, California, he rode the bus every day. He rode side by side with people of every color, and day in and day out all that happened was that people got on the bus and people got off the bus. He didn’t realize it at the time, but that was extraordinary. That was the 90 percent in action.

Time was nearly up when Hanks and Sagal realized that everything they were saying was being transcribed and flashed on a screen above them, and we learned that if Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient Tom Hanks can marvel at something he simply hadn’t yet noticed, then we can all look a little closer at something each day and realize there is something new to be delighted by.

Oh, and to always add an egg. —Brita Hunegs


Dessa has to sign copies of her book even at the airport

Dessa - DAVID T. KINDLER
  • David T. Kindler
  • Dessa

Dessa knows how to entertain people. What's more, the rapper, singer, poet, and author understands how to reach a crowd regardless of whether they're deeply invested in her solo work or the music she's made as part of the independent Minneapolis hip-hop collective Doomtree. So as an introduction to her Chicago Humanities Festival talk at the Chicago Athletic Association on Sunday, she read fragments from the second chapter of her new memoir, My Own Devices: True Stories from the Road on Music, Science, and Senseless Love. That section is laid out as a glossary, and it offers a snapshot of Dessa’s rise through the international independent music circuit.

Her reading showed why she's survived in a brutal industry. Witty, easygoing, and magnetic, Dessa didn't so much read aloud as interact with her writing, at one point enlisting a volunteer to act as her hype-man in order to explain the term "hype." Dessa knows how to wrench life out of the dull and mundane. In My Own Devices, she uses the repetitive rituals of tour life to shed light on her Doomtree compatriots or to consider idiosyncratic questions concerning science and nutrition—like how many cashews she’d have to eat in a day to survive if that’s all she were allowed to consume.

Dessa also discussed the peculiar hiccups she encountered as an indie musician working on a book for a big publisher. The Penguin Random House imprint Dutton is a world away from Rain Taxi, the Minneapolis alternative publisher behind Dessa's 2013 poetry book, A Pound of Steam. Now Dessa has a book publicity team encouraging her to sign copies of My Own Devices at every bookstore where she can spot the memoir. Even in airports—yes, on at least on occasion she got handed a stack of her own books to sign in an airport bookstore.

In her conversation with Tribune music critic Greg Kot, Dessa dug deeper on what it’s meant for her to select an unconventional career path and stick with it. She dropped her solo album Chime on Doomtree's independent label in February and turned 37 a few months later, an age that’s conventionally seen as ancient by hip-hop standards. A mixture of her own ambition and stubbornness along with a little luck have helped Dessa, but she also acknowledged that the possibility of failure has been a motivating force. "For me, the idea of having wasted my life is a prospect that pushes me back to the lab, or back to the microphone, or back to the writing desk," she said. "I affirm the idea that we’re more sensitive to losses than to gains." —Leor Galil


Jessica Hopper got through her 20s with a lot of help from her friends

Jessica Hopper - DAVID SAMPSON
  • David Sampson
  • Jessica Hopper

Jessica Hopper looked to her personal journals while writing her memoir, Night Moves, and there's one passage in particular that she can't shake: "If I'm not living my most hopeful politics at the ripe old age of 29, then what the hell am I doing?" Hopper says reading that line at age 40 is what steered her back toward writing.

"That line kicked my ass," she told her interlocutor, poet José Olivarez. "What would 29-year-old me think? It made me take an immediate inventory of my life."

Now a 42-year-old suburban mom, Hopper mostly remembers the period covered in her book—2004 to 2008—as years of being broke and living in a gross apartment, trying to make a living by writing concert previews for the Reader and taking DJ gigs for measly amounts of money. But writing the book has right-sized her vision, helping her appreciate what was really happening at that place and time while still not romanticizing it.

The core of the memoir is about how Hopper came to find who she calls her "forever friends" and how they shaped her time in Chicago. She specifically avoided any romantic arc in the book (though her now-husband is mentioned throughout) because there are plenty of books about women who go through torrid love affairs in their 20s. And that's not what was as important to Hopper, anyway.

"For me," Hopper says, "friendship is really the thing that's evolved my thinking and being more than my romance." —Brianna Wellen


There was a real girl behind Nabokov's Lolita—of course there was

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When I first heard about Sarah Weinman's research project—now a book called The Real Lolita, the research for which was the topic of her CHF discussion with Rachel Shteir of DePaul University in the sanctuary of the First United Methodist Church, I was captivated. There was a real girl behind Vladimir Nabokov’s most renowned fictional creation? Of course there was. A man known as Frank LaSalle—although he had about 20 aliases—kidnapped an 11-year old girl named Sally Horner from her home in Camden, New Jersey in the summer of 1948. (This is mentioned in Nabokov’s text.) If the legacy of #MeToo leaves us with no other lasting lessons, let it leave us with the knowledge that there is always a real crime against a real woman or a girl at the heart of all fiction.

Lolita is the perfect story to consider in this post-#MeToo moment: Weinman says she wanted to "create a portrait of what this 11-year-old girl had gone through," including sexual abuse, repeated rape, and trauma. Because the novel is told by way of unreliable narrator Humbert Humbert, readers aren’t even made aware it was happening.

Of course, the audience was paltry, which gives us further insight into the #MeToo legacy: It'll still be awhile before we learn to give a shit about real things that happen to real women and girls. —Anne Elizabeth Moore

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Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Cardi B and Nicki Minaj are feuding—and these women in Chicago rap don’t see the point

Posted By on 10.30.18 at 11:37 AM

Left to right: Akenya, Chimeka, Klevah and T.R.U.T.H. of Mother Nature, Psalm One, and Sisi Dior - PHOTOS BY SAMANTHA FUEHRING, OPTIC BRANCH, NICCI BRIANN, SERENE SUPREME, AND 10 PHOTOS
  • Photos by Samantha Fuehring, Optic Branch, Nicci Briann, Serene Supreme, and 10 Photos
  • Left to right: Akenya, Chimeka, Klevah and T.R.U.T.H. of Mother Nature, Psalm One, and Sisi Dior

On September 7, when Cardi B hurled her red stiletto at Nicki Minaj during a New York Fashion Week party hosted by Harper's Bazaar, years of rumors suggesting a rivalry between the two artists were confirmed. Ever since Cardi broke out with "Bodak Yellow," which became 2017's song of the summer, she seemed immediately confined to the role of challenger to Nicki's throne. The resulting "Cardi or Nicki?" debate implied that only one could reign—not both. Everyone apparently wants to squeeze the two women onto a single pedestal to fight it out. And the fact that they're women definitely matters—this competition is gendered, and if you want proof, ask yourself why nobody's arguing that there's only enough room in rap for one man to be a star.

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Friday, September 14, 2018

Chicago rapper Noname opens all the doors on the new Room 25

Posted By on 09.14.18 at 02:26 PM

Noname at Pitchfork this summer - ASHLEE REZIN/SUN-TIMES
  • Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times
  • Noname at Pitchfork this summer

Noname's fans consider her this generation's "woke" female rapper, but it's a notion that Noname herself rejects. In a recent interview with The Fader, the Chicago rapper otherwise known as Fatimah Warner insists that her music shouldn't be pigeonholed as "real hip-hop" (shorthand for old-school rap, usually invoked by the same people who think the four elements represent the only true hip-hop culture). "A lot of my fans . . . I think they like me because they think I'm the anti-Cardi B," she says. "I'm not. I'm just Fatimah." And with her debut album, the brand-new Room 25 (2016's Telefone was technically a mixtape), Noname achieves a healthy balance between the serious outlook of the conscious poet-rapper her fans have come to know and the sillier, funnier facets of her personality.

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Saturday, September 8, 2018

Exploring the shock behind Mac Miller's untimely death

Posted By on 09.08.18 at 04:43 PM

AMY HARRIS
  • Amy Harris

I know I wasn't the only one who was shocked when I learned of Mac Miller's death on Twitter yesterday. My timeline was flooded with "RIP" and "I can't believe it." I, along with most of my peers, have been listening to Mac Miller since he released "K.I.D.S." in 2010. We were there for Blue Slide Park, his first studio album released in 2011. We were there for his transition into a legitimate hip-hop artist that was cemented by his 2013 joint project with Vince Staples, "Stolen Youth." And we were there for his 2014 project Faces in which he raps about substance abuse or mental health problems in almost every track. So why were we all so surprised when we found out that he died of an overdose?

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Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Rapper Vic Mensa: Chicago’s newest Black Panther?

Posted By on 08.28.18 at 02:35 PM

Vic Mensa helped give away 15,000 free shoes in Englewood on Sunday. - RICK MAJEWSKI/SUN-TIMES
  • Rick Majewski/Sun-Times
  • Vic Mensa helped give away 15,000 free shoes in Englewood on Sunday.

The timing of Vic Mensa's high-profile response this past weekend to a Chicago police sting operation was more than a little serendipitous.

Remnants of the old Black Panther Party gathered in Oakland on the same weekend of the young rapper's "anti-bait truck" event to mourn the recent death of Elbert "Big Man" Howard, one of the organization's founders. This week also marked the 50th anniversary of Bobby Seale's arrest in Chicago for his role in planning the anti-war protests outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

On Sunday, the 25-year-old Mensa looked ready to assume the Black Panther mantle—and not just because he's got one tattooed on his shoulder accompanied by the words "Free Huey."

Among the many organizations and individuals involved in the giveaway were the New Black Panther Party of Chicago and Fred Hampton Jr., the son of slain Panthers leader Fred Hampton. And over the course of a 15-minute conversation inside a scorching-hot room at the West Englewood Community Center, Mensa quoted Angela Davis and Mao Zedong and dropped the name of Huey Newton. When asked what role he might personally play in police reform in Chicago, he said, "At the end of the day, what we're doing right here is an extension of what we learned from the Black Panther Party, to police the police."

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Soul singer Christian JaLon turns her love inward on the new If You Let Me

Posted By on 08.28.18 at 12:23 PM

Christian JaLon - RAY ABERCROMBIE
  • Ray Abercrombie
  • Christian JaLon

Earlier this summer, Chicago soul artist Christian JaLon released "Getting to Know Vinyled Love," a short behind-the-scenes documentary about the making of her 2017 EP Vinyled Love. On that EP, she'd tried to convey what love means to her—though it was inspired by a specific relationship, she connected those feelings to her understanding of divine love, which has its roots in her connection to the church. But now that relationship is over, and on her latest EP, If You Let Me (released August 20), JaLon is ready to cleanse her musical mind of love—at least romantic love. It's the last project she has planned before her debut album, due in 2019.

"The content that I put into If You Let Me are really just residual feelings from Vinyled Love," she says. "They both came from the same place—I just wanted to get it all out. After this, I really won't have any more love songs in me for a while."

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Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Lyrical Lemonade’s first outdoor festival: scads of Soundcloud rap, thousands of teenagers, and hours of waiting for food

Posted By , and on 08.21.18 at 06:00 AM

Famous Dex: "I own this motherfucking city! I created a wave!" - MATT HARVEY
  • Matt Harvey
  • Famous Dex: "I own this motherfucking city! I created a wave!"

Cole Bennett founded local hip-hop blog Lyrical Lemonade almost five years ago, and on Sunday it hosted its first outdoor festival, the Summer Smash, in Douglas Park. Bennett and the site's editor, Elliot Montanez, planned the event in the spring and announced it last month. Chicago had more than enough festivals already, but the Summer Smash justified its existence with a distinctive 25-act bill that leaned heavily on young rappers who've made their names on the Internet, including Joey Badass, Trippie Redd, Lil Skies, and Vic Mensa. Three Reader writers—Leor Galil, Matt Harvey, and Tyra Triche—were curious enough about it to spend another warm weekend day in another public park, watching live music behind fences. They had this conversation about the festival the next day.

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Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Meet Kidd Kenn, Chicago’s hottest openly gay 15-year-old rapper

Posted By on 08.07.18 at 06:00 AM

"It's a faggot party baby, you cannot get in." - MATT HARVEY
  • Matt Harvey
  • "It's a faggot party baby, you cannot get in."

When 15-year-old Dontrell showed up at the Reader's offices for an interview, he was fresh off a delayed return flight after his first trip to New York. He's better known as Kidd Kenn, Chicago's most popular openly gay male rapper, and he was exhausted—his whirlwind trip east had included a meeting with Def Jam and a music-video shoot. 

"We were there for one day," said his manager and family friend, Sharron Beverly of Family First Music Group. (She asked that we not use Kidd's real last name.) "We had the meeting with Def Jam, and then we had to shoot a video for Kidd's new song."

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