The Block Beat multimedia series is a collaboration with The TRiiBE that roots Chicago musicians in places and neighborhoods that matter to them.
Written by Tiffany Walden
Photography by Pat Nabong
Video by Jiayan “Jenny” Shi
Shot at Ellis Park, 3520 S. Cottage Grove
The projects taught Katie Got Bandz how to survive. Born in 1993 as Kiara Johnson (a name she hates to use), she grew up on the Low End on 39th Street, in the Ida B. Wells Homes—which used to stretch from Martin Luther King Drive to Cottage Grove. The way Katie tells it, back then everybody looked out for each other. When it wasn’t no bread or butter or milk in the house, your momma sent you next door to borrow some from the neighbors. If somebody on the block caught you disrespecting an elder, they’d snatch you up and whup your butt before taking you home to your momma for round two.
And the guys on the block respected women and kids. They’d give the neighborhood a heads-up about wars with rivals, so that parents could keep their kids home from school, safe from stray bullets and crossfire. Right before a shooting, Katie remembers, they’d tell the women and children: “Go in the house. Lay down. Turn the lights off.”
“The projects molded me into who I am. It had a big impact. Like, I learned a lot,” Katie says. The TRiiBE is interviewing her in Ellis Park, just north of the former site of the Ida B. Wells Homes. “Everybody family, too. I love it. I am honored and I am grateful and thankful for growing up the way that I did on 39th Street.”
Unfortunately, not everybody saw the projects that way. That’s part of why Chicago started demolishing Ida B. Wells in 2002, tearing down the last building in 2011.
Katie sees how much the Low End has changed after the projects were destroyed and their residents dispersed. Many of the after-school programs and Park District programs she went to are no more. She says there also used to be a free breakfast program for the kids, but it’s gone now too.
“Actually, with the projects being gone, the crime is worser,” she says. “Everybody split up. Majority of the people still down here, but it’s like people branched off and went to all these other different neighborhoods and getting killed over nonsense. I feel like if the projects was here, a lot of them people would still be alive.”
Katie’s mother still lives in the area, and when Katie visits from her current home in Atlanta, that’s where she stays. The city could scrub the Ida B. Wells Homes from the map, but it couldn’t take the projects out of Katie Got Bandz. The spirit of her childhood community lives on in 2012’s “I Need a Hitta,” 2013’s “Pop Out,” and 2014’s “Lil’ Bitch”—the tracks that helped earn her the title “Queen of Drill.”
When the drill scene took off in 2012, its guerrilla-style videos introduced the rest of the world to the lifestyles of the Chicago streets, raw and uncut. Drill artists—and not just Chief Keef—caught a lot of flak from outsiders. Local and national politicians blamed drill for the city’s murder numbers, which were relentlessly sensationalized in the news. But artists are products of their environments—things rarely work the other way around. Were they not supposed to rap about what was happening around them?
“A lot of people try to judge me off my music,” Katie explains. “I rap about survival and experience. I tell stories. I’m not out here riding around with no gun, shooting up nobody, but I used to be real trigger-happy growing up.”
By trigger-happy, she means playing with guns, not shooting them. In the early social-media days of Tagged and MySpace—probably in the mid- to late 2000s, though she’s not sure—Katie took a photo of herself playing with a gun in the house when her mom was out of town. She put the picture on the Internet, and her auntie saw it and called her mom. Katie tried to lie her way out of it, but her mom had evidence: she’d found the picture online herself and printed it out. “She showed me the paper. I was like, aw, Lord,” Katie says with a laugh. “It wasn’t nothing else I can say then.”
- A clip of Katie Got Bandz from Shady’s 2011 video for “Go In” has become an enduring meme.
That early mischief was just the beginning, though. It eventually led to the famous clip—swiftly turned into an enduring meme on Twitter and elsewhere—of Katie brandishing what she calls a “deuce, deuce” in the video for “Go In,” released by Chicago rapper Shady in 2011. In a game where women rappers are often pressured to sell sex appeal, Katie took a path she felt was truer to herself—and she was not only accepted but celebrated for it.
“Some people give me my respect, some people don’t. And it don’t hurt to salute or give recognition,” she says. “Shit. I paved the way for females to start toting pistols and start talking this street shit from my generation. A lot of people give me respect, but the people who ain’t, I’m coming for it—and I’m gon’ apply pressure, by any means.”
For the past four years, fans have been anticipating Katie’s next project—since Drillary Clinton 3 in 2015, she’s released only loosies. When she dropped “All Talk” in September 2017, she said she was nearly done with Drillary Clinton 4, and the May 2018 release of “Work It Girl” was supposed to have been followed by her first EP, Sista Bitch. But neither of them ever came out.
- Katie dropped these two videos in May to preview Rebirth.
The next chapter of Katie’s career has finally arrived, though, and she’s excited about where it might take her. In May, she dropped two music videos on YouTube to build hype around an upcoming project: one for the hard-hitting single “Errthang” and another for “Verified,” a radio-ready track with emerging Chicago star El Hitta. She also says there’s a documentary about her life in the works.
“I’m back out,” she said. “I hope to see drill as big as these arenas. I want people to have platinum and gold records—me especially, because I don’t wanna just be an artist performing in clubs. Like, I wanna sell out arenas and everything, internationally.”
- A full stream of Rebirth posted by DatPiff
The project Katie Got Bandz was teasing this spring, a mixtape titled Rebirth, came out July 23—it’s available on platforms such as DatPiff and MyMixtapes. Because Drillary Clinton 3 includes the head-knocking banger “Make Me Rich” (featuring go-to Chicago R&B collaborator Jeremih), which has been in regular rotation on radio and in the clubs for four years, Katie knew she had to follow up with something just as dope.
On Rebirth Katie flexes her versatility as an artist. Her roots are in drill, but she doesn’t want to be pigeonholed. “Do It Better,” which also features Jeremih, trades in the haunting, heavy-handed drums of drill for dreamy beats with an R&B feel. The hypnotizing flute banger “Wife That” is also worthy of radio attention. Of course, she still gives her fans the confident street vibes they crave, most notably on “I Like That” with FBG Duck.
Katie also uses Rebirth to suggest reasons for the long gap since Drillary Clinton 3—in her lyrics, she alludes to problems with record labels stifling her creativity. “Fuck a label, what the fuck I gotta sign for,” she raps on the heartfelt “Deserve It,” which features Atlanta singer Monea Giovanni.
“I was going through depression for the last couple of years. I was ready to work. Then I couldn’t,” she says. “You know the industry will fuck you over if you let them. I started rapping when I was 18, but I didn’t know the business.”
In her talk with the TRiiBE, Katie hints at a business situation that led to her bout with depression. Rebirth was released with little fanfare, which suggests that heavy things happening behind the scenes could be hindering her shot at stardom. It’s hard to imagine that she wouldn’t have wanted her first full-length in four years to get a bigger push, but so far the new mixtape has received scant media attention.
Whatever has been going on, Katie prefers not to discuss it. “I got music and it’s hot,” she says. “I got big features and everything, but I let the situation get to me—but that’s why I don’t speak on it.”
Katie says the difficulties that got her down have also helped her mature. In Chicago, she says, too few rappers work together. All the little quarrels and beefs between artists and their camps block progress for the city’s scene as a whole. “Ain’t nobody trying to be a leader. Everybody following each other, and then they feel like, ‘Oh, if I do a song with him, I’ma look like a goofy because we into it.'”
But from the time Katie has spent in Atlanta, she’s learned a lot about the spirit of reciprocity and collaboration. She sees their artists sticking together and working toward a larger goal—to build a thriving space for all musicians. In some ways, the Atlanta scene follows the same code Katie learned growing up in the Ida B. Wells projects, with people looking out for each other no matter what. She hopes to help Chicago get back to those village vibes.
“Look at Atlanta rappers. They ain’t the best of friends, but they come together when it comes down to the business,” Katie says. “I’ma do a song with a female who feel like she don’t like me. We don’t gotta see eye to eye. This is business, though. The more and more I grow and mature, though, it’s just like, why be mad when we can get some money?” v