In early August, the Growing Concerns Poetry Collective played two back-to-back sold-out shows at Steppenwolf’s 80-seat 1700 Theatre to celebrate the release of their self-released debut album, We Here: Thank You for Noticing. Two months earlier, the members of this Chicago trio—beat maker Jeffrey Michael Austin, poet McKenzie Chinn, and rapper Mykele Deville—had hosted a house-show fund-raiser in Pilsen to help pay for the recording. After the second Steppenwolf gig, they knew it had been worth the effort.
Growing Concerns’ set had just ended when a white fan approached Chinn to tell her that he planned to play We Here for his bigoted family members in downstate Illinois. He hoped that its blend of emphatic spoken word, conversational storytelling, and vivid rapping, all set to dreamy ambient beats, would help them begin to grasp the reality of black folks’ lives in America.
“‘They’re good people,'” Chinn remembers the man telling her. “‘But they hold so many prejudices and are bigoted in a lot of ways. It makes me uncomfortable, and I don’t really know how to talk to them about it.'”
In that moment, Chinn says, she realized: “We did our job.”
Chinn just finished a gig as a summer teaching artist at the Goodman Theatre, and she’s also in its new production of Lottery Day. Deville is an actor too, while Austin is a prolific visual artist. But as Growing Concerns they come together to talk about issues that affect them personally, not just professionally: gentrification, displacement, police killings of unarmed black men, the financial challenges and intangible rewards of a young artist’s life. And the thread linking them all is love—specifically black love and black self-love.
Deville, who’s already released two full-length albums under his own name, has the most experience imagining an audience fom inside a recording studio. “I’m always first and foremost talking to black folk,” he says. “When I say ‘We here,’ I’m speaking about the contributions we’ve made that are historically forgotten or historically appropriated.” With their debut, Growing Concerns want to provide an affirmation for people of color who feel hesitant to express themselves against a backdrop of white supremacy.
“I can only speak from my own body. And my body says, most of the time folk of color feel under attack. And when you feel under attack, your voice can feel swallowed up into your throat, like you can’t speak,” Deville explains. The members of Growing Concerns try to remind listeners of the beauty and greatness in communities of color, he says, “even in spots of great destitution on the west side and south side and the peripheries.”
MCA Prime Time: Off Rack
This multimedia after-hours arts event features Le1f, House of Diehl’s Style Wars, the Growing Concerns Poetry Collective, DJs Rae Chardonnay and Cqqchifruit, and others. Sat 9/23, 7 PM, Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago, $25, $20 in advance, $15 for members, 21+
The collective began when Deville and Austin teamed up in late 2016, combining the former’s poetry (as opposed to his lyrics) with the latter’s beats. At that point Austin had already been carrying the name around for more than a year, ever since he saw the words “Growing Concerns” spray-painted in black on a white wall near some train tracks in Fulton Market. The tag was gone the day after he spotted it.
“That phrase resonated with me, seeing it as this public calling-out on that kind of platform,” Austin says. When he and Deville began brainstorming names, it was the first thing he pitched. “I was reflecting on what I felt drew Mykele and I together in this pursuit. And I think it was the fact we were both very sad, concerned men.”
Deville says it was his intention from the start to bring another perspective into Growing Concerns—he and Austin are both straight, cisgendered men, so they knew there were ways they could never speak truth to power.
He met Chinn in 2012 while they were acting together in Bud, Not Buddy for the Chicago Children’s Theatre. They stayed in touch and occasionally saw each other around, and Mykele would sometimes tag Chinn on Facebook notes that contained bits of his poetry.
“I remember noting that—’Oh my God, Mykele is kind of deep,'” Chinn says. She ran into Deville in fall 2016 at a Salonathon event, and they got to talking about their creative pursuits—especially poetry. “We had a lot in common in terms of our vision and decided we wanted to collaborate,” she says.
Chinn says she began writing poetry seriously about a year and a half ago, in part because she enjoyed having an outlet separate from her acting career. “I love that I can tell my own story and not be interpreting someone else’s,” she says. “And to have it land and resonate and move someone—that is such a gift.”
Late last year, Deville invited Chinn to Austin’s apartment in Pilsen, which the two men now share. (It was previously home to volunteer-run arts group the Chicago Perch, founded by Austin’s brother Matt in 2012—its free programs included book publishing, symposiums, and public education.) Chinn read a poem called “Renaissance Blk,” which Deville says “blew me back.” In January, he invited her to join the nascent collective. As they performed and wrote together, they also became a couple.
At that first meeting of all three eventual members of Growing Concerns, they’d already combined “Renaissance Blk” with some of Deville’s writing to create the seed of the track “Rise Up,” which appears on We Here. “We occupy / We galvanized like some new steel,” Chinn sings. “Some superman steel if superman was black and Clark Kent rocked a fitted and fresh kicks along with those corny-ass glasses / We hoody-up proud / We tear down Confederacies.”
Chinn believes we’re in the middle of a remarkable renaissance in art, specifically in black art and work by other people of color. That outpouring is in part a response to tragedy and oppression: Grand juries choose not to indict police officers who kill unarmed black men and boys, including Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice.
“You can shoot us in the street and not be indicted for it, but we are still here,” Chinn says. “We are still here. There is nothing you can do to silence us completely or make us go away. We’ll still be here.”
What drew Chinn to poetry and to collaboration with the collective is the immediacy of the work, she says. A play might be workshopped, reshaped, and rehearsed for years before it ever makes it to a stage, which makes it a less flexible instrument for responding to current events.
Poetry, on the other hand, is ready to share with an audience as soon as it’s written. And by the time Growing Concerns played their first show in February 2017, they had a lot to respond to. The new Trump administration seemed poised to take the problems near to the collective’s hearts—police brutality, racism in the criminal justice system, inequities in representation, the erasure of the contributions of people of color—and make them all suddenly, dramatically worse. The president and his enablers and supporters have since proved these fears justified, targeting immigrants, nonwhites, women, Muslims, Jewish people, and the LGBT community.
“In my role as someone who frequently has a platform to share ideas and shape thought, it’s important for me to do that as unequivocally as possible now,” Chinn says. “We can’t afford to wait. It feels very critical.”
Deville and Chinn say they can only speak for themselves, but in speaking for themselves they hope to normalize affirmation, self-love, and black pride—and perhaps to inspire oppositional artists, people of color, and other marginalized folks to feel the same.
“Black love is real—our existence, our realities are real,” Deville says. “We will shout it, we will make it so it doesn’t feel uncomfortable. We should feel comfortable affirming ourselves. People can learn from that. Feel that.”
The members of Growing Concerns aren’t the only people telling these stories, of course. They invited Jill Hopkins, cohost of Vocalo’s The Morning AMp and storytelling series the Moth, to open for them on the first night of their Steppenwolf party. She decided to tell a story from high school about her ostracization from the Mormon church. At first, she told the audience, she thought the church was slut-shaming her for making out with a teenage white Mormon boy. Years later, she learned that racism was at the root of the shunning.
“I wanted to bring something to the table that spoke to the black experience and to the social justice issues Growing Concerns talk about,” Hopkins says. “I wanted to set a tone that bridged the gap between levity and racism, I guess.”
Hopkins insists she’s never seen anything like the collective’s performance chemistry. She compares Deville and Chinn to Marvin Gaye and his late-60s duet partner Tammi Terrell. She says Growing Concerns channel the magic of storytelling to humanize what might otherwise feel like a didactic message, minimizing the risk of alienating listeners. “I like to think of this storytelling thing as the spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down,” she says.
Lily Be, the Moth’s first Latina Grand Slam champion and cofounder of a storytelling series at Rosa’s Lounge called the Stoop, compares the collective to eclectic Chicago hip-hop band Sidewalk Chalk, but “I’ve never seen it done in poetry with music—this is different.”
Growing Concerns asked Be to open the second night at Steppenwolf, and she told a story about waiting for the police to arrive while she tried to break up a fight between two kids in Humboldt Park—one of whom, improbably, appeared to be trying to beat the other with a bicycle. It took the cops eight minutes to show up, she says, while Be stayed on the phone with them the whole time—and a bystander later told her that an undercover officer had watched the entire situation unfold without lifting a finger.
These kinds of stories, though they may be difficult to digest or unwelcome in some settings, are truthful and necessary, Be says. “What they’re doing with that album is letting people know we’re not sitting here trying to be preachy or standing on soapboxes,” she explains. “We’re letting you know: this is what we deal with and how we deal with it, in hopes you learn how to navigate around us.”
Chinn theorizes that much of the wariness and tension that separates different ethnic groups and economic classes comes from ignorance and fear of the unknown. Growing Concerns’ storytelling can serve as a bridge between understanding people as stereotypes and understanding them as themselves.
“We’re hardwired for empathy as human beings. That’s how we’ve survived as a species, and if we can access that some way through artistry, then we’ve done our jobs,” Chinn says.
Deville thinks that connecting people with this empathy amounts to a call to action. “You can’t blame people too much for their parents’ mistakes or their grandparents’ mistakes. But the one big mistake you can make as an affluent white person or ‘woke’ white person is to hear these things being expressed and not do shit about it,” he says.
Growing Concerns don’t see it as the sole responsibility of the oppressed to dismantle the structures and beliefs that perpetuate white supremacy. It’s probably not even possible for POC to do so without help from white folks, who benefit from racial inequality even if their hearts are pure and radiant. In Growing Concerns’ view, America needs thousands if not millions more people like the white listener who wanted to play their album for his relatives.
Changing minds is a frustrating, difficult task. Even when the collective are invited to perform (as opposed to setting up their own shows), they’re sometimes the only nonwhite act on the bill—leaving open the possibility that their booking is a token gesture intended to provide a facade of equity in representation. But Growing Concerns usually accept anyway: “Sometimes you’ve got to Trojan horse that shit,” Austin says. “Sometimes you’ve got to dress yourself up, smile and nod at the opportunity, and then get inside and take it apart from the inside.”
Deville adds, “I call it infiltration work.”
The collective don’t have immediate plans to make another album, but they do want to release a book of Chinn and Deville’s poetry, designed by Austin. In the same way that their output can’t be confined to a single genre, Chinn says, their choice of media shouldn’t be one-dimensional either.
“Mykele and McKenzie’s work is so good and so powerful,” Austin adds. “It’s going to be an important step to get those things on paper and out in the world and let people read them and reread them and sink into their consciousness.”
Whatever form their work takes, the collective will continue to tell their stories, aiming to inspire self-love, self-inquiry, and reflection, depending on the listener. “All we can do is tell our truth right—tell our story and hope it lands and changes the people it needs to change,” Chinn says. “That’s not quantifiable at all. But I know when we’re in the room with folks, it feels like something special and important is happening.” v