"Keef has done more to publicize the fact that Chicago has a crime problem than the crime problem has publicized Keef," says hip-hop journalist David Drake.
"Keef has done more to publicize the fact that Chicago has a crime problem than the crime problem has publicized Keef," says hip-hop journalist David Drake. Credit: Aundre Larrow

Back in April east-side rapper Keith Cozart uploaded a video to YouTube, “Chief Keef Tweaking Off Soulja Boy Gold Bricks *SONG*,” that would help make him the most polarizing teenage cultural export Chicago has ever seen. Filmed with a computer camera and set in a room littered with clothes, the video features a dreadlocked 16-year-old brandishing a messy stack of bills, peeling off one after another and waving them in front of the camera—first the Benjamins, then the Grants, then the Jacksons—as Soulja Boy’s Auto-Tune-plastered track leaks out from the computer’s speakers. Cozart half mumbles, half sings his way through the song, taking breaks from flashing his cash to show off his white tank top and iPhone, and to strike a variety of hard-looking poses. This kind of flaunting is pretty common in an age when any kid with an ego and Internet access can upload braggadocio to his preferred social media site; what sets Cozart apart is that just a few months after recording the video he swung by the Pitchfork Music Festival for a cameo performance—in front of a thunderous crowd of thousands of surprised attendees—that became a highlight of the weekend.

Cozart has actively invited and engaged controversy on his rise to fame thanks to his violent and anarchic songs. On his breakout hit, “I Don’t Like,” he boasts that he’s “pistol toting and I’m shooting on sight” and “I done got indicted selling all white.” The backlash against Cozart reached new heights after his flippant and reckless (alleged) response to the death of 18-year-old Joseph “Lil JoJo” Coleman, who was gunned down earlier this month while riding double on a bike with a friend on 69th and Princeton. This was hours after Coleman publicized his whereabouts on Twitter—and months after he released “3hunna K,” a track that disses Cozart and his GBE crew. The next day, a series of tweets in response to Coleman’s tragic demise showed up on Cozart’s feed (he claims he didn’t type them), sparking a police investigation into a possible connection between Cozart’s crew and Coleman’s death, jump-starting rumors of an intense rivalry between the pair, raising speculation that Interscope might drop Cozart, and launching a new wave of anti-Cozart fervor. One of the tweets on Cozart’s feed particularly captured the public’s attention: “Its Sad Cuz Dat Nigga Jojo Wanted to Be Jus Like Us #LMAO.”

Cozart is now a radioactive figure whose name draws vitriol from across the country. It’s easy to find angry rap fans attacking Cozart on social media sites. One observer bluntly tweeted, “Chief Keef is whack and he should dead kill himself.” About.com hip-hop writer Henry Adaso put it more vividly when he called Cozart “garbage wrapped in human skin.”

Sure, it’s easy to find Cozart’s music objectionable, and detractors have asserted that his cold, nihilistic persona is poisonous to the youth of America, particularly those who live in areas where violence is rampant. But those perspectives lose sight of the fact that Chief Keef is actually good for Chicago.

Chief Keef, second from left, in a surprise performance during AraabMuzik’s set at this year’s Pitchfork Music FestivalCredit: Andrea Bauer

Yes, Cozart’s songs are cruel and treacherous, but so are the Chicago streets that inspired them. A loyal legion of young fans from the city’s most blighted neighborhoods took to him long before Kanye West and Interscope came calling. This time last year Cozart’s name didn’t register outside of the south side, but he was a superstar to the thousands of Chicago Public Schools students who listened to him on YouTube. Tremaine “Tree” Johnson, a 28-year-old rapper who lives in Englewood, works outside the drill scene—the locally grown, apocalyptic spin on the gangster-style trap music that Cozart and company are known for—but he understands why the sound is popular among south-side teens. “He looks like us, he sounds like us, and his lingo is what we say and how we talk,” Johnson says.

It’s important to recognize that Cozart resonates with a large, young portion of the city if there’s any hope to understand—or maybe even overcome—the issues plaguing those parts of the city (and, by extension, Chicago as a whole). To many Chicagoans, Cozart is a peer who has suffered through the troubling systemic issues that have crippled entire neighborhoods. These kids see themselves in Cozart’s imagery—that’s obvious even to outsiders. Unfortunately, rather than trying to understand those who connect with Cozart’s music, many Chicagoans are pointing fingers—and the divisiveness appears to be getting worse. Twitter has become a hotbed of ignorant comments about Cozart’s fans, fueled by stereotypes about class and poverty. For example: “Chief Keef makes music for niggas who struggle to read out loud in class.”

The culture of violence that’s seized Chicago existed decades before Cozart was born, but some of his critics appear to believe that his music somehow is to blame for the rising homicide rates. Instead, violence plagued a generation of young people who then pushed the rapper into national prominence because he accurately channeled their experiences. Influential rappers including Rhymefest have opined that the work Keef and other drill rappers create is “the theme music to murder,” but that violence would exist regardless of whatever song is playing in the background.

The fact that so many people are enraged with Cozart is actually a testament to his strengths as a rapper, according to hip-hop journalist David Drake, who says Cozart has reshaped his reality into a carefully crafted persona. “It is a performance,” says Drake, who wrote the in-depth Gawker profile that introduced the world to Cozart. “He’s just doing a more convincing job than anyone else.”

The sensational parts of the Chief Keef narrative—getting arrested on gun charges, living under house arrest at his grandmother’s place, wearing a court-ordered ankle bracelet to performances—are very much real, though, and his popularity has become a jumping-off point for national discussions about violence in Chicago, forcing more people to seriously look at the issue. “Keef has done more to publicize the fact that Chicago has a crime problem than the crime problem has publicized Keef,” Drake says.

Last month Gawker’s Cord Jefferson asked why Chicago’s deadly summer had largely been ignored by the country. Now the national media has found a hook—and a face—for its coverage of Chicago violence. And as Cozart has exposed the bleakest parts of our city, he’s lifted himself out of obscurity. His ascent has been stuck in hyperdrive, and as a result, more eyes have fallen on Chicago’s rap community—eager to find the next big thing.

Johnson describes Cozart as more of an attraction “than Lupe, Twista, and Kanye combined.”

“Never before has one artist brought so much attention to one scene,” he says.

Perhaps Cozart isn’t the poster boy most people would choose to represent Chicago’s hip-hop scene, but he’s what we’ve got—and for more reasons than one might expect, that’s not a bad thing.

Correction: This article has been amended to reflect Cozart’s age at the time he released the video “Chief Keef Tweaking Off Soulja Boy Gold Bricks *SONG*.”