This August, rapper and actor Mykele Deville dreamed about his dead grandmother. It was the night after her funeral in South Carolina, and he was asleep in the car with his family on their 11-hour drive back to Chicago.
Surrounded by the cornfields of his great-grandmother’s property, a former plantation where slaves once picked cotton, Deville had been able to feel his grandmother’s presence. He remembered when he was 16 and she’d revealed to him that he wasn’t the only artist in the family: she told him that in the 1950s, she used to sneak out of her family’s home in South Carolina to sing at lounges late at night. In the dream, she wore the same dress she’d had on then, and she told him, “Art will make you happy and it will get you out of here and it will get them out of here.” By “them” she meant his family—his mother, sister, and niece. And by “here” she meant the violence-plagued neighborhoods on the south and west sides where the three of them have lived for Deville’s whole life, sometimes together and sometimes apart.
“It’s your niece’s country now,” Deville recalls his dream grandmother saying.
His grandmother’s passing at age 60 inspired Deville even as it drove him to despair. His sister’s daughter, Vaniya Payton, is at the center of his second mixtape, Each One, Teach One, released in late August, less than a month after the funeral. It’s simultaneously an affectionate letter to the nine-year-old girl and a guidebook filled with wisdom from Deville, 27, and from several female collaborators—they share poems, a story, and a song that speak more directly to his niece’s experience as a woman. The mixtape’s central theme is a call to love yourself no matter what the world tells you.
On Deville’s debut, Super Predator, which came out in May of this year, his outlook was much darker and bleaker. The 13-track mixtape opens with an audio clip from the infamous 1994 Hillary Clinton speech where she used the term “superpredators” to describe “gangs of kids” (presumably black kids) lacking empathy and conscience. (She’s since apologized for her remarks.)
“This woman was in her 40s when she said that,” Deville says. “It was not that long ago. It completely invalidated who I was—every thought, every artistic thing I had ever done. It hurt when that clip surfaced.” The mixtape ends with a more recent Clinton clip, this one from the presidential campaign trail—she brushes off a Black Lives Matter activist who confronts her about mass incarceration. Super Predator is an audio essay, Deville says, that repudiates the stereotypes affixed to young black American males.
“I wanted to show I’m not this binary thing,” he says. “She paints a picture of a thug and it just so happens that that picture looks like me, my brother, my dad.”
Deville says he was “on top of a mountain” after the release of Super Predator, invigoratingly busy in Chicago’s underground art and music scenes—especially through the Dojo, an unlicensed DIY venue in Pilsen that he’d helped found in summer 2015. But by July of this year, he’d left the Dojo—his reasons, he says, included “money, depression, and needing a new start”—and the following month, his grandmother’s death gave that new start a direction.
While Super Predator was a way for Deville to explain systemic racial injustice to himself, Each One, Teach One is an attempt to “pay it forward” and shepherd his niece toward self-knowledge—and knowledge of the world. “This structure you see everyday, the blue-and-red lights—they’re not here to protect you, sweetheart. They’re not,” he says. “It’s very easy for this government to destroy you if they wanted to, but don’t let that make you afraid to learn, to travel, to get out of this thing.”
Deville knows it’s a difficult message. “It’s not that I want to hide that from her, because it’s the fucking truth, but I wanted to make something directly talking to her,” he says. “I just had this vision of her being 17 and being frustrated and saying, ‘Hey, I want to be an artist. I want to be a dancer.'”
The neighborhood where Deville’s niece lives makes it tough for him to sugarcoat anything. “[Vaniya] is living literally in a four-block circumference of where I grew up on the west side, which means she’s not a kid no more. She hears gunshots every day,” he says. “She is being blasted by the media about her body, what she’s supposed to look like, what she’s supposed to sound like, what she’s supposed to be listening to about her own identity. And it’s being fed into her way quicker than it was into us . . . and that terrifies me.”
Deville frames the mixtape as a bedtime story he’s telling to Vaniya with the help of his female friends, and he intersperses recordings of his niece throughout—she even sings on the chorus of the final song. Vaniya asks her uncle questions about the stars, shares her insecurities about her poofy hair, and confesses that she’s scared to live on the west side.
“There’s a lot of shootings going on,” she tells Deville. He replies, “We’re gonna try and keep you safe. We’ll do the best we can, and then we’ll get you out of here.”
Mykele Deville, Lovejoy, Amateur, Favvors
Sun 12/18, 8 PM, Subterranean, 2011 W. North, $8, 17+
Featuring Mykele Deville in the role of Chimney. Through 11/20: Thu-Sat 7:30 PM, Sun 3 PM; also Sat 11/12, 3 PM; Mon 11/14, 7:30 PM; and Sun 11/20, 7:30 PM, Broadway Armory Park, 5917 N. Broadway, 773-340-2543, jackalopetheatre.org, $25
Born and raised on the west side—a part of town he knew he wanted to leave even when he was Vaniya’s age—Deville has become an unlikely pillar of Chicago’s DIY music scene, which has historically been a mostly white community. But his work helping run the Dojo represents just a fraction of his contributions. He also plays Chimney in Kristiana Rae Colón’s play Octagon, which dives into the roots of slam poetry; it runs at the Jackalope Theatre in Edgewater through November 20, and may be extended into mid-December. He’ll perform his music this weekend at the second annual Space Opera, a two-day festival of comedy, art, and music at south-side DIY venue RutCorp that’s curated by Deville’s friend and collaborator Presley Joy Paget.
Deville’s original surname was Callicut, but according to his research, it means “one who dwells within cold huts,” he says. “Ain’t no damn cold huts in Africa, man. I’m not fucking with that last name.” His current name has a story behind it too: “I was conceived in a Cadillac DeVille, and I just think it’s cool.”
He grew up in Austin with an older sister, Ebony, and a younger brother, Michael. Deville’s dad had a troubled relationship with their mom, though—he was around when the kids were young, but he’s out of the picture now (Deville says his parents divorced “a couple of years ago”). “We basically moved damn near every four to five years of my life, and they’ve all been on parts of the west side,” he remembers. “The terrain was very rough.”
Deville says he retreated into stories, into poetry and books and television, to escape the reality of his surroundings. “The whole thing was get out,” he says. “That doesn’t mean I don’t have a strange, weird loyalty to [the west side]. This place is beautiful. There are families there. These are people. Romance happens there, and art, and geniuses walk the streets over there on the west side. But they stay in this circumference where it’s acknowledged.”
Deville says he taught himself to play guitar with help from books and a high school Spanish teacher. He listened to music as a teen—Coldplay, Nirvana, U2, Evanescence, Mastodon—that most of his black peers had no interest in. Ebony Callicut describes her brother, who’s two years younger, as “different.”
“He was always into the arts, whether it was music or writing. Even when we were younger, like [Vaniya’s] age now, Mykele always liked to write stories,” she remembers. “He just different. He just have a different way of thinking. He always been like that.”
Teachers at Deville’s high school, Michele Clark Academic Prep, recognized Deville’s narrative talents, and he credits them with introducing him to theater. His senior year he attended Gallery 37, an advanced arts program for upperclassmen in Chicago Public Schools. His fellow graduates in 2007 included singer, songwriter, and poet Jamila Woods and genre-hopping south-side musician + (pronounced “Plus Sign”).
“Gallery 37 was this magical school, like Hogwarts, where every kind of art you could think of existed,” he says.
Actor, director, and teacher Mechelle Moe, one of Deville’s mentors in Gallery 37’s theater program, says the program was designed to pair talented students with arts professionals. Her goal was to teach kids that’s it’s OK “to build your own adventure,” she says. “As an artist you have permission to do so if you give that permission to yourself—you can make your world look how you want it to. . . . I think a lot of times, kids are taught or told that a life in the arts, to pursue your passions versus a traditional job—it’s not looked upon kindly or supported.”
Later in 2007, Deville started classes at Moe’s alma mater, the University of Illinois at Chicago’s School of Theatre and Music, but his path wasn’t smooth. As his sister remembers, when their parents realized that he intended to pursue acting in college, they pushed back, insisting that he develop a more traditional, job-focused plan as a backup. “Mykele was so upset,” she remembers. “He was in tears.”
Callicut pointed out that even if Deville never succeeded as an actor, he’d still be a college graduate. “Most people with a college degree don’t even do the thing they went to school for,” she says. “But they still get a good job.” Her advice assuaged their parents’ fears, and Deville graduated from UIC with a BFA in theater in 2012. But he says the acting grind after college was “disheartening”—he lived with his family on the south side, and because he didn’t own a car he had to haul himself across town on the CTA to audition for parts like “thug number two.”
Deville reached a breaking point in summer 2012, when he lived with his mother, sister, and niece at 75th and Essex, a part of the South Shore neighborhood known as “Terror Town.”
“I had just walked Vaniya to kindergarten,” he says. “It was broad daylight. It was like seven in the morning. It was the week or weekend of [the] NATO [summit], and some dude just ran up and shot another dude right in the head at the bus stop I was standing on, across the street from where I lived. The dude fell. Everybody scattered.”
Deville says he knew people who’d been shot and killed, but he’d never actually seen it happen. The experience shook him so badly that soon after he called his agent and told him he had to quit acting for his safety. He remembers thinking at the time, “I’m risking my life every time I sit at a bus stop and wait for the bus just to get to the Loop and do an audition.”
Deville returned to theater in 2013, after taking two jobs—one at a call center, the other at a coffee shop—so that he’d have enough money to move out of Terror Town and live near UIC. But he dropped back out within a year—he’d grown bored of making art for other people rather than for himself. “The disinterest in the acting work, the anonymity of it, the mind-blowing up-your-own-assness about it sometimes—how I’d work with people I’d get so close to, and once the show was over they’d drop out your life . . . that point of despair led me to seek out another art form,” he says.
In late 2013, Deville’s restlessness led him to start seeing shows at unlicensed DIY venues, where he rekindled his interest in music and met many of the people who’d later collaborate with him on Super Predator and Each One, Teach One. That winter, at his third show, he met Presley Joy Paget, a painter and a regular at some of the same DIY spots—as she remembers it, they were at north-side venue Hostel Earphoria, “singing songs on the porch,” and they hit it off instantly. Deville bought the first jacket Paget painted, and ever since he started performing his music onstage, she’s joined him to paint live during his sets.
“I’ve been creating these energy paintings, and he just really lets me trust my intuition—his music gives me a lot of power,” she says. Her paintings combine frenetic multicolored geometric shapes and swirls with abstract humanoid figures and landscapes poking through.
Paget is a 23-year-old white woman from Sydney, Australia, and she says she’s inspired by Deville’s music despite their dramatically different backgrounds. “I wish I could connect more with it, but obviously I can’t because I’m in this body and I’ve had a different life,” she says. “But the way he composes everything frickin’ hits me and I feel it.”
When Deville helped found the Dojo, he says, the goal of the collective that ran it was to showcase a wide array of artists: visual, musical, and literary. He invited a variety of people he’d met exploring the DIY scene and helped curate diverse bills—not just musicians but also, say, queer dancers and folk poets. People of color, women, and queer people were in charge.
“We were entering [the DIY scene] with a key advantage,” Deville says. “We could access artist pools and programming that lots of these other [DIY] venues couldn’t access because they were homogenous. And the Dojo could do it effortlessly.”
The constant stream of artists passing through the Pilsen space inspired Deville, and in summer 2015 he joined the musical collective Kid Made Modern, founded by actor and singer Daniel Kyri. The group has yet to make an album (they’ve been on hiatus for a bit), but their get-togethers to write, collaborate, and experiment helped give Deville the confidence to strike out on his own as a musician.
Rapper, filmmaker, and photographer Jovan Landry also met Deville at the Dojo. “He knew I rapped and everything, and he was like, ‘We got to collaborate,'” she says. She appears on both of his albums.
On the Super Predator track “Revolt,” she raps, “You know that I’m just, just tryna make a difference in the world, with my talents: For the brown girls.” Deville and Landry, their voices rising in unison on the chorus, call on listeners to “start a revolution” and remind their audience that “the first change takes place in the mind.” Landry says the feature “means a lot to me,” and it’s helped expose her to a new crowd: the Chicago DIY scene.
Landry also appears on the Each One, Teach One track “Monolith,” alongside Deville and rapper-actor Trigney Morgan. She rails against broad-brush oversimplifications of black identity: “Don’t fool yourself to think I have some monolith behavior / Like candy, people come in different kinds of flavors / I favor the ones who ain’t afraid to be themselves.”
Landry says she wondered whether the predominantly white fans who know Deville through the DIY scene would grasp the different resonance those lines might have for black people. “It’s a different audience, but it also helps them understand black culture and black life more. I think it’s a great thing to educate people,” she explains.
Morgan says says that hip-hop crowds often come to shows prepared to pay close attention to what the performers are saying. He describes Deville as a “conscious rapper” in the same vein as Common and Lupe Fiasco, and he says that when hip-hop heads hear substantive, powerful lyrics, “They’re really into it—it’s not something that’s just a dope beat.”
Most of the city’s DIY venues have historically catered to majority-white communities, but Morgan is willing to give those audiences the benefit of the doubt: “They may not be as connected, but they’re trying to connect—they’re trying to understand.”
Deville says he’s spent his life “infiltrating” spaces where few people look like him or share his background growing up on the west side. “I really don’t give a shit who is standing in that audience,” he says, “as long as people are hearing it.” He says the bulk of his fans are white, and “for them it’s education.”
“That’s the flavor for young, woke, white liberals right now,” he explains. “They want very badly to understand things I know as futility and truths. It’s a curious thing, and it’s our responsibility to try to educate. We need to unpack it—and let’s do that through our media, our art.”
Most of Deville’s fans may not directly relate to his experiences, but many want to understand—and some get excited enough about what he’s doing that they want to work with him.
Colin Mulhern of DIY collective Young Camelot helped produce seven of the 17 songs on Each One, Teach One, and he plays bass on “Rained Bow.” (Full disclosure: Mulhern is a friend of the author.) “I don’t know what it’s like to live in black skin. But I have friends that are deeply, deeply affected by the things he’s talking about, and it affects all of us regardless of skin color,” he says. Deville, Mulhern, and fellow Young Camelot member Chris Lee produced Each One, Teach One in a week.
Mulhern, who’s made beats for Detroit rapper Boldy James, met Deville through the Dojo. He says he was so blown away by Super Predator that he wanted to help Deville on future projects any way he could.
“The entire ethos and structure of DIY culture is based on the need to collaborate,” Mulhern says. “One of the main reasons we do this is to find people that may not be getting a lot of play or a lot of love in the greater venue or music scene, and give those people who might be incredibly talented or weird or might have something unique to offer a stage to do their own thing.”
Callicut says she never knew the DIY scene existed until her brother introduced her to the Dojo. “When I came over, I was just like, ‘Wow.’ I couldn’t believe it. I said, ‘Mykele, you the only person I know, and to be quite honest the only black boy I know, who can bring all these different types of people together,” she says. “I always tell him that when your time comes, and you have to leave this earth, people gonna look at you and say, ‘He lived his life.'”
At the Dojo, Deville provided a platform for others to showcase their work in a welcoming, supportive environment, and as a consequence the people who ran other DIY venues extended the same courtesy to him. He describes it as a “quid pro quo thing,” except motivated by mutual respect and a shared desire to create instead of by money.
The Dojo worked like a creative accelerator for Deville, enabling him to finish two ambitious albums in a year. And the many DIY spaces where he’s delivered his sermons—whether denouncing systemic racial injustice or celebrating black family and identity—have served as stepping stones to the legit stages he now frequents. His next aboveground show is at Subterranean on Sunday, December 18.
“A few months ago I’m just playing basements with Super Predator, and a few months later I’m playing venues all across Chicago, from the Promontory to the East Room,” he marvels. “The DIY scene helped me go from there to here.” v