Wil Akogu calls himself the Most Valuable Poet, and the 19-year-old Chicago-based rapper seems certain the rest of the world will too—he wants to use his rhymes and music to change the way we think about self-love, purpose, and our own identities. On his recent second EP, The Language of the Soul, he turns his journey to find himself into an invitation to other lost brethren.
Akogu feels chained by what society expects of him as the son of a Nigerian father and an African-American mother—he was born in Schaumburg but raised in Yaba, Nigeria, with his dad’s family. “It’s an enslavement,” he says. “There are people that accept the fact that they’re supposed to live an oppressed life. That they’re supposed to be slaves.”
Akogu tackles this notion head-on in the video for his first single, “Buried Alive.” At the beginning of the clip, he appears as an escaped slave in the middle of a snowy forest. (Liam Trumble produced the video, while Shlohmo produced the track.) He runs from something or someone as the chorus repeats, “Tell me what it is that you see in me.” Near the end, he’s captured, and a white man dressed in black tells a small crowd, “This is what happens when you go against us.”
The wordless group vocals in the song evoke the singing of slaves around a fire. “That’s exactly what I was going for,” Akogu says. “That pain. That desire for freedom.” He was pursuing that desire himself when he moved to Los Angeles after finishing high school to pursue music full-time, but he only stayed for seven months before returning to Schaumburg.
“It was really hard for me to find myself. I was trying to make a cool record. I was trying to make a summer record,” Akogu says. “Those records are dope, but it’s not me. I don’t want to do what I can do. I want to do what I’m meant to do.”
The idea of freedom sizzles in the background of Chicago, where black youth, men, and women suffer institutionalized oppression from police brutality, violence, and poverty. It’s a struggle so wide, Akogu says, that it goes beyond the tensions between black and white, rich and poor.
“I think that’s why there’s a huge problem with humanity,” he says. “We don’t know ourselves enough to love ourselves.”
Jedidiah Brown agrees. He’s the 29-year-old south-side pastor and community activist who was pulled off the stage at Donald Trump’s ill-fated Chicago campaign rally, shut down before it started as protestors gathered.
“What this video says to me is that the younger generation doesn’t sense they belong,” Brown says. “Society is designed and pitted against their ability to be who they genuinely are. There is no environment that fosters their ability to grow up to be the creative, strong, and diverse individuals that they are.”
Brown believes Akogu’s video might be able to touch lives, and maybe even save some of them. Tio Hardiman, former executive director of CeaseFire, says black youth in Chicago should pay attention to the video’s message.
“We have to break the chains of these old images that are leading us in a downward spiral,” Hardiman says, referring to ugly stereotypes of black men as nothing but babydaddies, drug dealers, drug addicts, or the like.
“By Wil breaking that chain, he is able to liberate himself and hopefully liberate the minds of other young men like himself, where they can say, ‘I don’t have to be what everyone else wants me to be,'” Hardiman says. “‘I don’t have to be what I see. I can just be myself.'”