Everybody from Chicago spends damn near every waking minute of their life engaging Chicago in some way. You either live there and engage it simply by existing, or you’re living somewhere else and constantly thinking and talking about the city. It’s like a tick. A reflex. I feel that little hammer thing hit my knee and I just blurt out things like “I USED TO GO TO CHANCE FREE SHOWS” or “SURE IT’S GOOD BUT IT AIN’T HAROLD’S”. As happy as I am to be spending the foreseeable future two thousand miles away from home, Chicago is mad resonant, madder relevant to every thing I do.
I’m a touch homesick, and last night Pomona College managed to bring home to me for just a little bit.
For our annual Spring concert, an American college experience staple, the highly capable Pomona Events Committee secured one of Chicago’s brightest young stars, Noname, as the headliner. Needless to say, once I saw the fliers circulating around Facebook, I was T’d. I haven’t seen enough live music since coming out here. Back home, I would go to at least three or four concerts a month. From little $10, intimate (read as: shitty) venue shows to the multiple hundreds I’ve dropped to see Yeezy (twice, worth it both times) at the United Center, seeing live music became an integral part of my social life.
I’m mad broke, so my budget doesn’t have the same room for live music it once did, especially after factoring in costs of travel to and from Los Angeles. Having Pomona bring Noname to me meant a lot, and I knew from jump I was finna be front row, basking in her glow like the lizards I hang out with in the courtyard by my dorm.
So my best friend/senior editor Mike and I slide through to the function flee as hell, peacocking hard for Chicago. We got the city on our chest because you gotta represent, gotta rep the set. We’re upfront, vibing innit, and surrounded by people that are not quite matching the energy.
We weren’t the only ones that noticed.
Noname tore her set apart. Her band was sick, guitarist killing it, drummer going hard, and keyboardist/bassist/backing vocalist/flee nigga holdin it down. Noname herself was downright ethereal. She had amazing stage presence, was dripping head to toe in a very rare Polo rugby and plaid skirt, brown skin poppin and hair on point. Her vocals were incredible, engaging the audience with her packed, dense, poetic lyrics. It felt more like seeing another one of Chicago’s legendary daughters; Gwendolyn Brooks with a beat. I was in awe. It took me back to Louder Than a Bomb, Chicago’s phenomenal youth poetry slam festival. Mikey and I were geeked up, geeking out, but characters like us were few and far between. Noname was pressed. When she would hit the chorus on tracks like Diddy Bop or Shadow Man and do that cool thing that musicians do when they point the mic at the crowd and feel the love, she was met instead with about seven or eight hoarse voices trying their best.
Nothing makes you really miss home more than having a bunch of interlopers fuck up your memories of rocking Chicago shows.
That’s harsh. The crowd loved Noname. They were bouncing up and down with the irresistible melodies and percussion, and begged her to do an encore when the set ended. They engaged her with every call-and-response, and let out applause and whistles every time she flexed her dope vocals. They were excited to see her and most definitely appreciated her incredible presence and musicianship. There were plenty of fans doing their absolute best to sing along. Knowing every word to every song is by no means a prerequisite for concert attendance, but knowing half the words to at least half of the hooks is courteous.
The crowd’s peculiar relationship with Noname parallels a greater puzzle about Chicago’s emergence as a force in hip-hop, and hip-hop’s evolution into America’s premier musical export. With the globalization of a cultural art form like hip-hop comes some unexpected patrons that will have to access the art in a much different way than natives do. Chicago has been dictating national conversations lately. From crime to education, and now, rap music. As people are drawn to the city’s vibrancy and deep cultural importance, they will not enter the discussions with the level of information we would like them to have.
Chicago is finally getting the attention it deserves. Hip-hop buzz makers, a la XXL’s annual freshmen list, have been sweeping up the hottest names from Chicago’s bountiful cornucopia of musical talent. Albeit, a little (read as: glaringly) late. Prime example: G Herbo was named a freshman last year, despite having 2-3 years of national buzz and decent exposure under his belt. Guess the kid just had to change his name to be noticed by the ever attentive arbiters of taste editing those lists. Chief Keef was, rightfully so, the first of Chicago’s new guard to make it to the industry “who’s who” lists, and in doing so, started what the don dada of Chicago rap media, Andrew Barber, refers to as the Chicago Gold Rush. Since this frenzied period of talent curation around late 2011, early 2012, the city has been the hottest breeding ground of young hip-hop talent not named Atlanta.
Chicago’s influence is even felt here, in ever-sunny, very white Claremont, California. When you get lucky and encounter someone bumping rap music, you’re liable to hear some Chicago talent. Chance has deservedly become a force to be reckoned with, popping up as idiosyncratic as ever amongst rap’s elite, traditional superstars. Chief Keef is quietly the biggest influence to the new wave of Soundcloud trap stars and is well respected amongst those with an affinity for the genre. This year, Pomona has hosted two young Chicago stars; the aforementioned, incredible Noname and the bouncy, energetic Joey Purp.
And as Chicago begins to matter to my peers as it has always mattered to me, I find myself caught between divergent images of what cultural appreciation is. I love the big upping the city is getting; I hate the ignorance that can birth it.