Prior to the ascendance of Michael Jordan, if you said “Chicago” anywhere in the world, regardless of language barrier, you’d be greeted with finger guns and mentions of Al Capone. But now the peaceful period of international Be Like Mike-ism has passed—Chicago is once again synonymous with gunfire, thanks in part to a constant media drumbeat (especially from Vice, Spike, and the like) about south-side and west-side youth violence. But to reduce these vast, vibrant communities to tragedies and troubles ignores the fact that the Black Arts Movement in Chicago has remained a fertile talent incubator. Of the scores of amazing south- and west-side artists I’ve seen in 2015, these are the five I’m most eager to watch move forward in 2016.
This young Austin activist (or “abolitionist,” to use his preferred term) gained his biggest spotlight for being arrested in a demonstration after the release of the Laquan McDonald video, but he’s more than just a messenger. In a concert later that week, he deftly danced between hip-hop and poetry, not only consistently expressing a clear, focused point of view but also demonstrating impressive artistry. He even busted out an original house-music song, which for a 21-year-old these days is as rare as getting the charges dropped after you’ve been hauled in for aggravated battery to a police officer.
With only a few shows under her belt, this neosoul songbird is already making ambitious choices that showcase her beautiful voice. I’ve seen a hundred vocalists sing “Summertime,” and I can honestly say that her sparse, chilling version is as fresh and original as any I’ve heard.
This improvisational wordsmith released a new album, I Didn’t Come I Was Sent, in 2015, proving that he’s still as dexterous as he was in his early days as a cipher champ. An MC’s MC, he continues to bring jazz technique to rap, and hearing him nimbly jump between vocal styles can make you feel like you’re getting a free hip-hop history lesson with every concert ticket.
In the late 90s, local teen R&B gospel sensations Youth Edition had a brief brush with major-label fame. One of my favorite ’15 developments was seeing the current not-so-youthful edition of the group reinvent themselves as the Kinsmen, with smooth harmonies and boy-band moves intact. In addition to continuing to sing their 90s classics, they’ve introduced new original songs—and even some Jesus-fied covers of such unlikely contemporary cuts as “Classic Man” and “I’m in Love With the Coco.”
The most likely to succeed of the bunch has to be Bridgeport-based Texas transplant Sam Trump. He transmits a laid-back vibe that combines jazz, soul, and indie R&B, using a hypnotizing voice and sharp instrumental skills (on trumpet and surprisingly soulful ukulele). Throw in his off-the-charts charisma, and it’s easy to imagine the longtime Sidewalk Chalk sideman gaining a national audience. His emergence as a make-the-ladies-swoon front man is my favorite local development of 2015.