The eyes of the country have been trained on our city since last Tuesday, when the Chicago Police Department’s news office released the video of officer Jason Van Dyke unloading 16 shots into 17-year-old Laquan McDonald. Since then I’ve heard few people capture the feeling in the air as well as Harvey rapper Ty Money does on “United Center.” Released last Wednesday, his track burns through the history of the systemic injustices that have devastated minority neighborhoods in the city and made Chicago’s streets a bleak place for the young black kids who call them home.
About a minute and a half in, Money raps, “Older folks stay inside till we lose a child, then the whole town comes alive.” It’s a clear reference to McDonald’s killing, given that the song’s video is an edited version of the CPD dashcam footage capturing the last moments of the teen’s life. But Money does his descriptive work without getting too far into the details, and the shooting is just one of many grim moments he rattles off, despondence clinging to his words. The profound mournfulness in “United Center” isn’t just about the atrocity that befell McDonald but also about the knowledge that it could happen again—and that there might not be anything we can do to stop it.
How do we move forward from this? How do we ensure that everyone in this city is treated with dignity when plenty of people don’t feel they’ve been afforded even a shred of it? Sure, CPD superintendent Garry McCarthy lost his job Tuesday, but that’s a Band-Aid on a body riddled with cancer. I’m not naive enough to believe that, as Spike Lee seems to suggest in Chi-Raq, such huge and deep-seated problems can be neatly wrapped up in a couple hours. But I do believe that great art can have an influence on how we approach the world and carry ourselves in it.
As the days pass, it will be easier for those of us who aren’t intimately familiar with the woes Ty Money raps about to go back to our routines and allow them to continue. But songs like “United Center” can keep the white-hot emotions of the past week burning, rather than allowing them to fade into memory. And that can be vital to the long-term work necessary to enact real change. Money raps about seeing “A body outside the United Center / And they left him in his Jordans.” No one should feel so disposable.