Chicago adds police to cut gun violence. But can drill rap be ‘policed’?

Homemade drill rap videos feature weapons, gang signs, and threats -- are seen by millions.

Homemade drill rap music videos feature weapons, gang signs, and threats — and have gone viral.

The city of Chicago is proposing to add nearly 1,000 more personnel to the Chicago Police Department over the next two years in an attempt to tackle the overwhelming gun violence plaguing the South and West sides of the city. The increase in police power is one of several proposals from Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. His anti-violence prescriptions may be thorough, but they might be missing some of the unique problems Chicago faces in its gang culture.

In an at-times emotional speech as he described some of the shooting victims, Emanuel spelled out the details of his initiatives with a three-point approach of enforcement, investment, and prevention. Besides the boost in law enforcement, the mayor called for stricter gun safety laws and stricter enforcement of gun-trafficking laws; longer prison sentences for repeat violent offenders; a three-year program to mentor eighth-, ninth-, and 10th-grade boys in the most at-risk neighborhoods; and more job opportunities in those neighborhoods. “The best anti-crime program is a job,” Emanuel said.

Cost estimates for these proposals are about $135 million for the expanded police presence and $36 million for mentoring. Emanuel gave no details on how anything would be paid for except to say that corporate partners were donating funds to pay for half of the expanded mentoring.

Emanuel has made many of these kinds of proposals before and his new anti-violence blueprint received mixed reviews, especially from those calling for more economic development in the city’s neighborhoods. But the sharp upturn in gun violence that gave Chicago the nickname of “Chiraq” is giving the city national negative attention. The high rate of violence has spurred Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump to call for a return to the practice of “stop and frisk” by police, even though the technique has been widely (and correctly) criticized for disproportionately targeting African-Americans and Latinos and has been ruled unconstitutional. Not exactly the most successful method of outreach to minority voters.

Various groups keep a running tally of shootings throughout Chicago. To date in 2016, the total number of shootings is more than 3,100, with more than 500 homicides. In 2015, the total for the entire year was 2,988. August alone was the most violent month in nearly 20 years, with 90 homicides. Both fatal and non-fatal shootings are much higher in Chicago than in other U.S. cities. Why?

There’s neither a simple root cause for the spike in shootings nor a simple solution to quell the violence. High unemployment, poverty, a disappearing manufacturing base, lack of new business development and job opportunities, gang prevalence, too-easy access to out-of-state guns (and not enough punishment for gun trafficking), a decline in gun seizures, overall distrust of police, and a drop in proactive stops by police are all factors.

But a University of Chicago sociologist brings some new understanding to the depth of the violence and how it’s often tied to locally produced music called drill rap that can provoke and glorify shootings between gangs, even block by block. When gang members are shooting at each other, too many innocent bystanders get caught in the crossfire.

In a recent issue of Chicago Magazine, sociologist Forrest Stuart describes the 18 months he spent on research while embedded with members of one Chicago gang. Stuart, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Chicago, gives a first-person account of his time with the gang in a story titled, “Dispatches from the Rap Wars.” Stuart talks about how the overwhelming presence of social media and, specifically, drill music shared on social media, amplifies and glorifies gun violence by gangs. At first, he writes, he was surprised at how thoroughly the kids he interviewed knew the gang boundaries block by block (gangs today are much more localized than the large gangs of the 1980s and ‘90s). But they told him what they saw as the obvious reason why: “Music.”

In a relatively recent phenomenon, many of these gangs produce drill music—a Chicago-born low-fi version of gangsta rap, full of hyperviolent boasts and taunts. (Think NWA, but grittier and without the hooks.)

By keeping their ears open, these kids I was interviewing can quickly figure out whose territory they are in. If they are walking through a neighborhood and hear a certain kind of drill coming from a passing car or a phone speaker, they know that corner belongs to the gang Diddy Grove. If they’re in Diddy Grove territory and notice songs by O-Block, that tells them Diddy Grove and O-Block are likely cliqued up. …

I met Zebo the next day, and we talked for hours. He told me how drill perpetuates gang wars, how it’s an engine of both truces and feuds. He told me how CBE members will retaliate violently if a song by another gang insults their friends or relatives. He kept returning to a refrain, one I would hear many times during my field research: “This is not just music. It’s not just a game. This shit is for real.”

(Stuart says he substituted names such as “Zebo” and “CBE” of both the gangs and gang members so his subjects would open up to him without fear of being prosecuted.)

Forrest Stuart

Forrest Stuart

Stuart appeared on the local Chicago public television station, WTTW, explaining the growth of drill rap and how it has saturated gang life in Chicago—and, by the same token, spread gun violence. He talked about how prolific the use of social media is within the poor African-American community. The interview includes clips from homemade drill rap videos. You can see the whole video by clicking on the link below.

Stuart describes how gangs produce their own music videos, which are often done cheaply with a cell phone camera and an inexpensive computer. These videos and songs are then posted to YouTube and SoundCloud, often on the same day. The videos can attract new gang members and issue threats to rival gangs. They also are seen as a way to meet women. Many of these videos are seen nationwide by millions of viewers. One early drill rapper, Chief Keef, went on to stardom and a lucrative recording deal. Stuart says many young gang members want to emulate his success (despite the notoriety Chief Keef has gained with his long arrest record and other legal problems).

As I’d soon find out, CBE makes three kinds of videos. In one, they talk about nameless, faceless rivals, or haters. In another, they specifically target a rival gang with lyrics like “So-and-so’s a bitch” or “So-and-so’s a snitch.” And then there’s an in-between kind, which to an outsider sounds like generic disses but is actually very targeted, with the rapper flashing a rival gang’s hand signs upside down. ,,,

For the gang—and other gangs like it—the rappers are designated as the ticket out of poverty. It becomes the responsibility of the rest of the members to support and protect them. Each rapper has one or two “shooters.” These are the members who make good on the threats the rappers dish out in their lyrics and on social media. And, yes, that means shooting—and sometimes killing—people. …

One afternoon A.J. and I were in his apartment talking when he stood up and said, “I’m going to show you why I do this.” So he went on Facebook, Snapchat, and Twitter and wrote, “I’m on FT for the next 20 minutes” and gave his phone number. FaceTime calls immediately started coming in from across the United States and Canada—male and female, ages 12 to 40, white, black, Hispanic—all like, “Oh my God, I love you. Your music is so great.”

He got so many calls that his phone ended up crashing.

As a suburban white woman, I’m obviously not the target demographic for drill music, and this is not a screed against rap music. The particular drill rap that Stuart describes is different from the music of Chicago artists like Chance the Rapper, whose Magnificent Coloring Day tour has partnered with the NAACP to register voters and provide community engagement resources at concerts. Chance’s Chicago tour stop was a reduced-price music festival that also benefited kids on the South Side and featured a wide array of musicians such as Skrillex, John Legend, Alicia Keys, Tyler the Creator, and Lil Wayne.

But hyperlocal drill music is different. It is ubiquitous and spreads like wildfire, especially among teenagers. Drill rap actually has been around for more than a decade, originating with the late Chicago rapper Pacman, but it did not reach real prominence until 2012, with the stardom of Chief Keef. Coincidentally, 2012 was the year Chicago’s murder rate started rising again.

From Stuart’s account:

When I started my research, I had this simplified notion that members of one gang would tweet something or make a video taunting their rival, and immediately members of that other gang would see it, get mad, grab a gun, jump in a car, and go in search of retribution. That’s not the way it works most of the time. … The CBE guys often [compile] intelligence about their rivals from YouTube and Snapchat and Instagram—what they look like, what houses they tend to hang out in front of, what cars they drive. They put together a mental log before they strike.

Stuart’s research into drill rap actually was an outgrowth of a project he helped design called Story Squad, a violence intervention program with support from the Chicago YMCA Youth Safety and Violence Prevention Office and other groups. The program aims to get youth to analyze the causes and impact of violence in their communities. It combines training in audio production and storytelling to produce audios in which kids tell their personal stories. Those stories are available to listen to at the website.

Here’s a video further explaining the Story Squad project.

Stuart has written a new book, Down, Out, and Under Arrest: Policing and Everyday Life in Skid Row, about his fieldwork experiences in Los Angeles. The book is described as “a close-up look at the hows and whys of policing poverty in the contemporary United States.” It was written about Los Angeles, but it certainly can apply to any big city grappling with issues of gun violence and poverty and the struggle to contain it. His new research about Chicago gangs, including the material in Chicago Magazine, will be incorporated into another book.

Rahm Emanuel hopes that adding police officers and implementing his other proposals will put a large dent in the city’s gun violence. He admits that such changes will be hard and will take time. But it sounds like there’s a long road to understanding why that violence is occurring in the first place.

Originally published on Daily Kos on Sept. 25, 2016.

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