The major-label music industry is doing its best to pretend the pandemic is over. Despite an accelerating death toll, high-profile artists and organizations have spent the last half of this long year bringing audiences into indoor venues for award shows (the AMAs), album-release parties (T.I.), and even full concerts (Trey Songz, Chase Rice, Great White).
Thankfully most musicians have respected their fans enough to prioritize the common good above the familiar rush of a crowd. In Chicago, as in so many other American cities, independent artists have watched their neighbors struggle not only with COVID-19 and all the inequities it exacerbates but also with racist police violence and a callous or hostile government response to their suffering. They’ve seen a trickle of government aid arrive, often inaccessible to the people who need it most and pathetically inadequate to the scale of economic hardship caused by the pandemic.
Like many other working Chicagoans, these musicians have decided to step in to help their communities directly. None of them has been able to tour or support themselves with shows, but some have put even writing and recording on hold to focus on mutual aid. Others have continued to release music but used their album cycles to raise funds for vulnerable communities.
Throughout 2020, Chicago musicians started projects to connect their neighbors with the resources they need. Rapper and educator Matt Muse helped launch Washington Park grocery drive the People’s Grab-N-Go after Chicago Public Schools suspended its meal distribution program on May 31. The Grab-N-Go began as an impromptu Costco trip but soon expanded to involve more than 30 volunteers. By the time the grassroots program wrapped up at the end of August, it had provided food and supplies to more than 4,000 families.
Muse had previously coordinated the Love & Nappyness Hair Care Drive during the 2019 holiday season, an effort he repeated this fall. But as he told the Reader this summer, working for the Grab-N-Go helped him realize that “Chicago has a huge resource problem.”
Rapper Femdot, who’s friends with Muse, was inspired by the Grab-N-Go to launch a grocery delivery program called the Scholars Slide By through his nonprofit, Delacreme Scholars. “After volunteering with the People’s Grab-N-Go distribution site, we started thinking about, What about people who can’t get here? How can we make sure that people who couldn’t reach these sites still get food?” Femdot says. “We have a platform—why don’t we use it to help connect some of the dots and work in conjunction with great initiatives already going on?”
Femdot, born Femi Adigun, and a crew of 25 to 50 volunteers delivered groceries “no questions asked” throughout Chicago and nearby suburbs every other weekend from June till September. In total, the Slide By served 457 families, with an average size of four people, buying what each one needed by soliciting shopping lists.
The two rappers used their social media pages to spread the word among their fans. Their mutual-aid projects sometimes shared leaders and volunteers with each other and with Feed the West Side, launched by John Walt Foundation executive director Nachelle Pugh, Pivot Gang cofounder Frsh Waters, and photographer Qurissy Lopez. But Muse and Femdot both refrained from releasing music over the summer—not till late September did Muse drop his first song of 2020, a remix of his 2019 track “Shotgun” that added a Femdot feature.
Many other musicians continued to release music but used it to raise money for community organizations, activist groups, GoFundMe campaigns, and more—especially on the Fridays when digital music retailer Bandcamp passed along its share of sales revenue to artists and labels. (Full disclosure: I’ve written freelance articles for Bandcamp’s editorial site.)
Nnamdï Ogbonnaya, who performs as Nnamdï, released the album Brat in April, but because he couldn’t hit the road to promote it, he just kept recording in his home studio. In June, after protests began in Chicago in response to the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, he began releasing the results as Bandcamp exclusives.
In addition to Brat and July’s instrumental album Krazy Karl, Ogbonnaya released three singles and an EP that he explicitly used as fundraisers. “I was following a lot of activists and Black Lives Matter pages for Chicago, they were always posting resources and ways to help people,” he says.
June’s Black Plight, three hardcore songs about racist police violence, was the top-selling item on Bandcamp for an entire week, and Ogbonnaya donated the proceeds to Assata’s Daughters and EAT Chicago. Other beneficiaries of his releases include the Chicago Community Bond Fund, the Illinois Prison Project, Brave Space Alliance, and grassroots food drives run by his friends on the south side. Ogbonnaya estimates that he raised $12,000 “for different organizations that I think are doing amazing work.” Sooper Records, the indie label he co-owns, also gave $1,500 to My Block, My Hood, My City in June.
Macie Stewart and Sima Cunningham of art-rock duo Ohmme likewise had to cancel their tours when the pandemic hit the U.S. in the spring, but they soon began livestreaming performances as fundraisers, starting with a March 24 performance to benefit the KC Tenants mutual aid fund in Kansas City. The group released their sophomore album, Fantasize Your Ghost, on June 5 (the first Bandcamp Friday to fall during the current wave of Black Lives Matter protests) and donated all proceeds from the day’s sales to Assata’s Daughters.
Ohmme have also used livestreams and merch sales to raise funds for Chicago Community Jail Support, Brave Space Alliance, the Montessori School of Englewood, voting-access groups, and Kooyrigs, an organization that supports Armenian women and refugees from the recent armed conflict in Artsakh (Cunningham has Armenian heritage). The duo estimate they’ve raised between $5,000 and $6,000 in 2020, as individuals and together. “It’s been an intense year to say the least,” they say. “We focused primarily on young Chicago-based organizations that are building up a team to do really impactful work in communities we think are important and deserve more resources.”
Ohmme also contributed a track to this month’s compilation Warm Violet, which benefits Chicago Community Jail Support’s efforts to winterize its post outside Cook County Jail. Stewart, a CCJS volunteer, was also one of several curators for the 46-track compilation (along with Avery Springer of Retirement Party), and its packed roster of local indie talent includes Fire-Toolz, Ariel Zetina, Bill MacKay, Angel Bat Dawid, and a collaboration between Nnamdï and Post Animal. Two runs of 90-minute cassettes quickly sold out, but digital sales continue; so far the compilation has raised more than $8,000.
Ogbonnaya also appears on Art Is Love Vol. 1, a similarly scene-spanning comp released in May by indie label and rap crew Why? Records and benefiting the Chicago Community Bond Fund. “We wanted to donate locally, because we’re firm believers in starting at a community level,” Why? member Ruby Watson told Chicago magazine. The release has raised around $2,000 to date.
Regardless of their approach, Chicago’s activist-musicians had to improvise in 2020—even old hands were forced to adapt to the evolving pandemic. The Scholars Slide By learned as they did the work, coordinating volunteers for purchases and deliveries while raising funds for their wholly donation-based program. “It was kind of made on the fly, so all logistical adjustments had to be made on the fly as well,” Adigun says. Meanwhile, Ohmme faced challenges unique to fundraising livestreams: they had to find work-arounds to link to organizations that aren’t 501(c)(3) certified, due to limitations built into Instagram.
Ogbonnaya notes that donations slowed down as the year progressed. “Like most announcements, the initial reveal garners the most attention, and then donations dwindled as the days went on,” he says. “But I was lucky enough to have some good donation days right at the beginning.”
All the artists interviewed for this story hope to continue their activism next year, but they’re still figuring out how to do so sustainably, without exhausting themselves or their potential donors. “The unfortunate reality is people will always need help with food, at least based on the way the world is currently set up,” Adigun says. “So it would be great to continue the Slide By next summer and every summer, but it depends on funding.” In the meantime, Delacreme Scholars has turned its attention to its annual scholarships and a holiday toy and coat drive, which ended December 15.
Ogbonnaya is prioritizing consistent donations in the future. “I read a lot of places love consistent monthly donations, even if they are smaller, because it’s something they know they can always rely on,” he says. “Big donations are also good, obviously, but the consistency really helps organizations budget better, so I’m finding places to donate to every month.”
Many other musicians worked for their communities in 2020, at every level. Sen Morimoto and Tasha played an August 5 livestream to benefit the Prison + Neighborhood Arts/Education Project, for instance—and too many artists to count made unpublicized donations to individuals and organizations in need. Some focused on supporting unemployed musicians and venue staff, via livestream performances such as the CIVLization series (which raises money for the CIVL SAVE Emergency Relief Fund) and compilations such as July’s Situationchicago. Ravenswood’s Experimental Sound Studio hosts the Quarantine Concerts, an ongoing livestream series that between March 21 and December 1 presented 182 shows and distributed more than $87,000 in fan donations to 1,100 or so artists.
Like many other Americans faced with a uniquely difficult year, Chicago’s musicians are looking for ways to make a long-lasting positive impact, to help their neighbors when existing structures of government and business fail them. “We had been talking about how to make fundraising, social justice, and accountability sustainable parts of our band before this year, but are certainly taking a deeper look at it going forward. It’s a balancing act, but it is well worth the effort,” say Stewart and Cunningham of Ohmme. “We know we won’t always do it quite right but know that the right thing is to continue doing, learning, listening, and uplifting our community.” v