Rapper SG Ali carries a torch for Cabrini-Green | Music Feature | Chicago Reader

Rapper SG Ali carries a torch for Cabrini-Green 

For her new single and video, “Drank on the Block,” she partners with a label for the first time.

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SG Ali - PHOTO BY WILL AZCONA
  • SG Ali
  • Photo by Will Azcona

SG Ali's new video for "Drank on the Block" opens with wistful, wordless melodic vocals over stills of what Chicago's Cabrini-Green Homes once looked like—old photos of the high-rises, the last of which was torn down in 2011, and of the row homes that remain.

When Ali appears, she's meandering throughout the cluster of the barracks-style Frances Cabrini Rowhouses. Drink in hand, she links up with her squad in an open field where the majority of the Near North Side complex—including a playground—once stood.

"People don't be understanding of why we still there," Ali says. "That's where we safe at. They wanna just say fuck the hood, fuck Cabrini. [But] we still here."

Shot by Chicago director A Savage Film, the video re-creates a normal day on Ali's old block. She and her friends shoot dice and pour up—the song's title and lyrics acknowledge her fondness for lean. "No amount of money ain't gone heal all this pain / I said I gave up, but I'm still sipping drank," she sings on the chorus. Though she still has to numb her grief, the song is resoundingly hopeful—as reminders of Ali's personal trauma ripple through the track, she admits she's taking "it one day at a time." Close-up shots of her friends and their infectious smiles reinforce the aura of optimism.

  • The video for "Drank on the Block," directed by A Savage Film

Ali's story is deeply intertwined with that of Cabrini-Green. Born Aujahnee Wright, the 22-year-old grew up in the complex's William Green Homes, referred to as the "whites" due to their pale concrete exteriors. From her elementary school, Edward Jenner Elementary Academy of the Arts, she watched as the Chicago Housing Authority tore down the complex—a process it had begun in 1995, years before she was born. By 2011, the CHA had demolished all the high-rises—the whites and the "reds," nicknamed for their red bricks (and more formally called the Cabrini Extension). Ali and her family, along with thousands of others, were forced to leave.

"I used to ride past, and when the building was breaking down, you can see your room. You lived there. You know whose house that is," she says. "That's what we used to see every day, until it was just nothing."

The Jenner School is also where Ali discovered poetry and rap. In fourth grade she freestyled for the first time, rapping to Lil Wayne's "A Milli" beat during a school assembly. In her teens, she posted tracks and videos on YouTube, Soundcloud, and Facebook, regularly racking up thousands of plays with no promotion. She never dropped a mixtape, though, and she still hasn't—though she's put out nine loosies since 2019.

Ali attended Carl Schurz High School on the northwest side, and she says the experience helped her take her music seriously. "I was a star," she says. "I never embraced who I was. So I come to school and kids [were] walking around with speakers and I'm hearing my songs playing. They treated me like my hood did—like I was somebody. But I never really looked at it like that."

PHOTO BY WILL AZCONA

  • Photo by Will Azcona

Ali began earnestly pursuing music in 2018. "It was my passion. But mostly, my struggle. Waking up every day like that—that's my only way out. It's the only thing I know," she says. "I want to make my life count. So why keep playing? I can give my all to this and get somewhere and feed my family and live a better life than I'm living now."

Her immediate family—her mother, brother, and sister—were dealt a bad hand after they were forced out of Cabrini-Green. After 2011, they moved every year until they secured a Section 8 housing voucher from the CHA. Because the CHA waiting list in Chicago is so long, Ali's mother and siblings ended up living in Memphis, Tennessee, and later Springfield, Illinois, before their number came up here. During those years Ali remained in Chicago, staying with various relatives—a grandmother, an aunt, her father—until she was reunited with the rest of her family.

Ali sees herself as an ambassador for Cabrini-Green, using her music to paint striking stories: she writes about the eradication of her home, the misdirected rivalry she sees among her own people, and the death that's surrounded her. She's made the majority of her videos in the area, including the clip for last year's "No Ending" with rapper Blazo—which he closes by buoyantly proclaiming, "My mama told me hold on, hold on / And put your pain and animosity in every song."

  • The video for "No Ending," directed by Young Will

The 2019 video for Ali's bleary ballad "All the Smoke," also filmed in and around Cabrini-Green, was inspired by the death of her cousin. "We [get] into it with our own people from our hood," she says. "It's about, like, disloyalty shit and snake shit." It might also be a nod to the strife that took place between the whites and the reds in the public housing complex.

Ali's lyrics make it clear how she feels about this corrosive neighborhood conflict: "They'll kill they own before the opposition / Money on your head, that's a proposition," she rap-sings. "So much shit I seen up in these trenches, all these Ls I had to take / All them smiles I had to fake, 'cause I can't let 'em see me break / Only so much I can take, sometimes I be losing faith / Ain't scared to see my day but I just pray heaven can wait."

  • The video for "All the Smoke," shot by Diamond Visuals

Despite the suffering and loss she's seen and endured, Ali has positioned herself as someone who'll carry the torch for Cabrini-Green. She says she's a link between the whites and the reds. "I got that voice that can speak for all of us, 'cause I done been through everything with both of y'all—both sets [are] my whole hood. Everybody know me," she explains. "These my people—they both want to see me win."

On "Drank on the Block," Ali picks up right where she left off with "No Ending." The song is somewhere between a banger and a ballad, and she offers half-confessions in her intoxicating blend of rapping and crooning over a tender loop of acoustic guitar and pulsating bass by producer SephGotTheWaves. She acknowledges her haters—the ones who hate to see her succeed and the ones who've written off people from Cabrini-Green. "Know they scared to see me great, I'ma still make 'em feel it / Turn them ugly project days all into a pretty living / You wasn't with us thugging in them trenches / When you ask about Near North, we who they mention."

Ali also looks to the future—namely to her plans for her rap career. On the chorus, she sings that her life is "changing, can't lie, feel kinda strange." She's banking on this moment, and she knows she has to make it hers—especially since "Drank on the Block" is the first single she hasn't self-released. For her label debut, she's working with Los Angeles-via-Boston indie Steady Leanin.

SG Ali borrowed her name from rapper Juelz Santana—"S" for "Santana" and "G" from the slang term—and from Muhammad Ali. In taking the name of the legendary boxer who proclaimed himself "the greatest," she knows she's raised the stakes for herself. "He knew what he wanted. He was hungry for everything, and I try to keep that same mentality," she says. "Anything get in my way, I could beat it. It ain't nothing I can't overcome."  v

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