Last week, a 17-year-old Chicagoan named Keith Cozart was sentenced to 60 days in juvenile detention after violating parole. Both his offenses were gun crimes: the first came in 2011, when Cozart pointed a firearm at a police officer; the second came with a video posted online that showed Cozart handling a gun at a firing range.
Cozart is better known to many reading this column as the rapper Chief Keef. Last month, his debut album Finally Rich was issued by Interscope Records. It was an instant hit, selling close to 100,000 copies in its first month. The album is the most widely celebrated example to date of drill, a rap subgenre whose name and mood is taken from the retaliatory culture of Chicago's innercity gang wars.
Critics often note drill for its sinister qualities. Violence is second nature in the world it depicts; misogyny is rife in its rhymes. But what strikes me about drill is its strange pairing of cacophony and chilliness. Numbness reigns throughout Finally Rich and mixtapes from other drill artists, like Lil Durk and King Louie. It's a music of tiny explosions popping one right after another, each new impact canceling the previous moment out; it is a music of infinitesimal spaces, of shrinking contexts -- a music of deadened nerves, forgotten stakes, and lost meaning. One can easily imagine these were the margins many drill artists were born into; a uniquely American confines from which the only way out is celebrity and infamy. Drill is the sound of social, political, and cultural marginalization. And it holds an urgent message for those of us born a much safer distance from the very same margins: Drill dares us not to look away.
According to Redeye.com, there have been 34 gun murders in Chicago since the massacre at Sandy Hook. That's 34 deaths caused by gunshots in a little over a month. Twenty-six of those murders have come against African-American males, including 13 teenagers. While many of the conversations of late wafting through our bars, living rooms, bus stops, bedrooms, and congressional chambers have centered around the tragedy at Sandy Hook, there is another tragedy, one not so much unspeakable but unspoken for, that has received short shrift in the national discussion on gun violence. The texture of this tragedy, if not its facts, is present in the verses and shrinking spaces I hear on Finally Rich.
Though there are other perspectives, of course. Such as the one offered by Rhymefest, who is another Chicago rapper, one closely associated with that city's tradition of hip-hop sages like Common and Kanye West. In a recent Salon article, Rhymefest lamented drill as a distraction from the city's other non-gang-affiliated hop-hop. "Nobody is giving them attention because no one's shooting at somebody or because they don't have videos brandishing guns," Rhymefest said. "It's very unfortunate that we are fueling [drill artists] by giving the ignorant attention. At the end of the day, it's not about Chief Keef, it's not about Lil Reese, this is about a community being exploited."
Much of the criticism against drill has focused on this exploitation. In the same Salon article, Lance Williams, a professor of innercity studies at Northeastern University, spoke against major record labels' commodification of innercity violence. "It reshapes the culture of the community," Williams said. "These kids are tricked into believing that this is the way it should be, that this is a normal way to think. But Chief Keef is not rapping about what is going on in the neighborhood. There is an element of that, but a very small percentage. But the industry doesn't want to hear anything else but that."
Maybe it's best for everyone if disenfranchised teenagers don't listen to drill. I don't know. What I do know is adults with the power to support gun control measures should listen. And more importantly, we should hear; we should be heeding drill's call. Simply because drill artists depict the lives of a "small percentage" of our inner city populace doesn't mean we should ignore the facts of that minority's daily existence. Yes, the question of major labels' exploitation of a hurting community is a very real concern. But the question of these kids' safety and the stunting of their societal capabilities is without a doubt the more urgent question to pose at this time.
What we talk about when we talk about drill is not music criticism. Neither is it social commentary. Nor is it politics. It is a crisis unfolding in the shadows of the reinvigorated national debate about guns started in the wake of Sandy Hook. When we talk about drill, we are talking about the systematic marginalization and slow mass murder of a cross-section of impoverished African-Americans.
Let's not kid ourselves about drill. It tells us nothing new. Its prevalence of violent imagery is part of a long continuum within the history of American culture. As Rhymefest implied in his criticism of drill, its music represents no substantive or stylistic innovation within the history of hip-hop music. But this is precisely why we must listen more closely than ever before. It turns out gangsta rap was no more a fad than the socioeconomic conditions that inspired it. These things aren't going away. Our responsibility as defenders of the First Amendment is to listen, not excuse ourselves from the exchange because we smell filthy lucre or find its artistry trite.
But this crisis is also not about the "haves" failure to pull up the disaffected "have-nots." This isn't about us-and-them; this isn't 1965 and I'm not Lyndon Johnson. This is about the imaginative space we all share, the parts of our minds and hearts linked by culture. Because drill has crossed over into the commercial mainstream, it raises questions that directly affect every American. Guns are as much a part of American mythology as fire was to the Greeks. By now, that much is unmistakable. It is irreversible, too. What to do then? How do we take responsibility for the life of our collective imaginations from here?
As the Greeks did through their tragic plays, we must bore down deeper into our own culture to find the meaning in this symbol that has enchanted so many of us against our better natures. We must not let these signs recede into the ambience of our everyday lives. We must stare into the ugliness of this imagery and try to understand why it thrills us so. We must not let murder lapse into cliché, either in our earbuds or on our streets. We must thoroughly feel every instance of lost life, imagined or real. And we must achieve the empathy that only art can teach us.
But this is only a start. Those of us who know violence through the filters of popular culture must protect those for whom the filters have fallen away, whether these victims be 20 children in Connecticut or 34 men and boys in Chicago.