On Monday Chicago magazine published the blog post “Six Months After Laquan McDonald Fallout, Chicago’s Starkest Protest Music Is Surfacing,” a headline that might sound true to you if you’ve only been paying attention for the past couple weeks. Assistant editor Matt Pollock found his hook in two recent releases: Vic Mensa’s EP There’s Alot Going On and the video for Jamila Woods’s “Blk Girl Soldier.” Pollock wrote, “That the movement’s sharpest music is surfacing now makes sense. Good protest songs take time to write and disseminate, and their videos take time to film.”

Woods’s excellent song, which isn’t a direct response to the McDonald killing but rather a general rallying cry for black women in the face of systemic oppression, came out in January—only the video is new. Woods talked to me about the track when I interviewed her for the Reader‘s People Issue in November, and we spoke the day after the Chicago Police Department released the dashcam footage of officer Jason Van Dyke shooting McDonald.

I don’t disagree with Pollock’s point about “Blk Girl Soldier”; it’s a powerful protest song. I continue to find new nuances in it all these months later. But Pollock obscures those subtleties by framing it as specifically a response to the McDonald killing. And in his haste to find material that fits his thesis, he doesn’t accurately reflect the quality of protest music that’s come out of Chicago’s hip-hop scene of late.

The starkest protest song released in response to the McDonald killing came out the day after the dashcam footage was released, and Pollock doesn’t mention it: Ty Money‘s “United Center.” Money had written it months earlier, but by pairing it with footage of McDonald’s final moments he gave an unnerving aura of prescience to his lyrics (particularly the lines “Older folks stay inside till we lose a child, then the whole town come alive”). “United Center” was fueled by the violence, racism, and destitution that black people in Chicago face constantly—it’s a protest song for every day that happened to find its moment. 

Perhaps Pollock didn’t mention “United Center” because he doesn’t think Money fits into what he vaguely defines as Chicago’s “activist community.” He doesn’t describe that community very precisely, other than to say it includes Woods and Mensa—and maybe a couple other locals. “With albums on the horizon from Lupe Fiasco and Mick Jenkins,” he writes, “there’s probably more to come.” On the surface those rappers’ reputations align with Pollock’s expectations.  Jenkins released one hell of a protest song a couple years ago: “11,” a response to the death of Eric Garner at the hands of New York police officer Daniel Pantaleo. But, as Jenkins told me last year, he couldn’t continue making such bleak music. On 2015’s Wave[s] he dialed back the overtly political raps to focus on melodic, danceable material. 

Sometimes rappers can make a powerful protest song simply by confronting the racist expectations that society has of young people of color. That’s the case with Who They Wish I Was, a new EP released through an after-school music program called Beats & Bars. Navarro, the rapper formerly known as Scheme, took a break from working on his own music to oversee Beats & Bars at Little Village Lawndale High School. Who They Wish I Was is the program’s first release, as well as the first music that some of the participants have ever made. Navarro sent me some information about the EP ahead of its Tuesday release, detailing the students’ backgrounds:

“Most of the students had little to no previous music making knowledge. Some never wrote a lyric in their life. The fact that they completed this project is a feat in itself.”

The effort that went into making Who They Wish I Was shines through on the title track. The song’s hook says it all: “Bet they wish I was a drug dealer / Or a killer with fingers on a trigger / I won’t submit to nobody, cannot fold.” The teens of Beats & Bars debunk those stereotypes with personality and flair.
Leor Galil writes about hip-hop every Wednesday.