Things are starting to calm down and it looks like “the Revolution” didn’t come to Ferguson, M.O. after all, and maybe that’s ok. But a lot of other little revolutions did. I’m not going to get too Immortal Technique on you guys today, I’m not the most qualified person to discuss complex race relations or authoritarian abuses, but I do want to talk about some things I’ve been thinking about when it comes to social change, the idea of revolution, and the place technology and pop culture takes in that dialogue.
Gil Scott-Heron famously said “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” and I’m inclined to agree with him. The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, but we will Instagram the absolute FUCK out of it. People talk a lot about the idea of “information technology” as being empowering but I want to flip that concept a little bit, it’s not the “information” part that’s nearly as powerful as the “communication”
A lot of smart-as-fuck well-read motherfuckers posit the notion that the American Revolution *couldn’t* have happened without the spread of the printing press, as leaflets and newspaper stories gradually connected Americans together into a shared, national identity. It was never so much about the “information” – the nuts and bolts bits about taxation and foreign control, as the “communication” – the fostering of a brotherhood between men who had never so much as shaken one another’s hands. Many say the same of television and the civil rights movement: Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t have any new “information” to give the country – racism wasn’t new, wasn’t a secret, wasn’t a surprise. But the personal connection he was able to make with people by speaking right to them – not just the inspiration behind his words but his tone, his body language, his confidence – motivated millions to finally *do something* about it.
Whenever I start to think really big, it makes me think really really small, too. The Arab Spring popped off the way it did because social media technology made it easy for people to communicate with one another. As much as the Ferguson, M.O. riots revitalized my battered-faith in our News Media (shout outs to The Washington Post, and all the other outlets who did some damn fine journalistic work this week) but ultimately the most important, deep-hitting messages were bleeding out from ordinary people’s Twitter feeds, Vine accounts, and Instagrams. I was thinking about how these are the exact tools that a modern rap artist must master to meet their market. Zooming into extreme close-up, I’m fascinated by the potential revolutionary capacity of this overlap. I’m not even necessarily talking about civil or social revolution, something more individual and unique, the capacity for micro-revolutions in the way one person communicates to another, and how we all think and see things as a by-product.
Let’s switch gears a little bit so I can explain what I mean here. Something is going very, VERY fucking wrong in the City of Chicago right now. On Independence Day weekend alone 82 people were shot in Chiraq. Sixteen of them died. This sort of sheer savagery seems at stark contrast with Chicago’s biggest mainstream rap exports: soft-spoken intellectuals like Common and Lupe Fiasco, fast-rap technicians like Twista and Do or Die, or the city’s biggest star to date, the high-art minded, iconoclastic Kanye West.
As the City of Chicago has catapulted itself into active-warzone body count status, though, a new artistic movement has bubbled up from the same South Side streets that have fueled the carnage: drill rap. For the uninitiated, drill rap is a hyper-violent Chicago mutation of the Atlanta trap sound championed by artists like Lil Bibby, Chief Keef, King Louie, and others. The music is disseminated almost entirely through bedroom-recorded free mixtapes, and low-quality homemade music videos shot guerilla-style and uploaded to sites like YouTube and WorldStar Hip-Hop. The beats are chilling, bass-heavy Fruity Loops concoctions, and the vocals lean heavily on machine-gun adlibs and deep, aggressive, simplistic chants. This isn’t the conflicted “another day another struggle” sort of hustler moralizing the T.I’s, Jay-Z’s, Biggie’s, and Raekwon’s of the world have given us. This isn’t even the hyper-aggressive firebrand gangsta-gangsta of N.W.A or the Geto Boys. Drill rappers operate with an ice-cold, detached nihilism that borders on the mechanical and inhuman. They operate in a space in which their crimes aren’t moralized, or justified, or even fucking explained; treated as forces of nature divorced from the bounds of ethical self-analysis. According to the music, Lil Bibby doesn’t sell crack because he has a family to support, or because there are no job opportunities, or because his mind has been corrupted by gang influence, or because Ronald Reagan destroyed the hood, or as a stepping stone to a greater future, or even because of an avaricious lust for the finer things in life. According to the music, Lil Bibby sells crack because Lil Bibby sells fucking crack.
It’s important to point out that, while certain drill artists (Keef, foremost among them) have attained a level of mainstream success, and signed deals with major record labels, the overwhelming majority of this material is coming straight from the source. The drill rap movement bypassed the pop culture gatekeepers entirely and a brief scroll through the comments section of one of these videos will reveal responses full of cryptic, jargon-ey gang slang and Chi-town street references. The videos themselves, low-quality and often poorly edited, feature gut-wrenching scenes of children as young as fifteen years old brandishing automatic weapons or packaging narcotics for sale with a blasé casualness that is truly frightening.
A decade or two ago, all we would’ve known about what was going on in Chicago was what the Sun-Times felt like telling us, and the only perspective we would be able to see it from was the perspective the Sun-Times felt like showing us. As horrifying and heart-breaking and overwhelming as this violence is, there’s something very empowering about the fact that these kids are actually able to tell us their story themselves. In a world of pretty little liars, sharing ugly truth is a revolutionary act, and in a world that values smooth polished edges maybe all it takes is pointing a camera at something that’s a little bit rough or uneven to be an artist. Maybe revolution is just refusing to be ignored any longer. Maybe the most revolutionary act anyone can commit is just sharing their real with the rest of the world, so they can fold it all into their own. Maybe that’s how we all fold together.
And the revolution didn’t come to Ferguson, Missouri, but thousands of little, personal micro-revolutions did. And maybe that’ll be enough. And the revolution hasn’t come to South Side Chicago, but thousands of little, personal micro-revolutions have. And before long, maybe that will be enough, too. And maybe after 6 or 7 billion little personal micro-revolutions we won’t even need the big one anymore, either.