Written and reported by Jake Krzeczowski (@JakeKrez) for Complex Magazine
On June 17, moments after driving away from a courthouse in Skokie, Il., where he’d received a warning from a judge for a speeding arrest, Keith Cozart was stopped by two unmarked police cars. Brandishing automatic weapons, the officers ordered the 17-year-old to step out of his car, and put him in handcuffs—this time for a misdemeanor trespassing charge.
So far in 2013, almost 1000 people have been shot in Chicago. Almost 200 have died as a result of their injuries. Both those numbers are sure to rise by the time this is published. The west and south sides of the city, where most of the shootings occur, are frequently referred as “war zones.” It is in this climate that two cars of South Side police officers made the hour-long drive north to suburban Skokie to stake out traffic court for Cozart, better known to the world as Chief Keef, arresting him for the third time in three months.
Since last year, when he blew up on the national hip-hop scene as a shirtless 16 year old with a Kanye endorsement, Keef has been looked at as the face of violence in Chicago.
To be sure, the notoriety is not completely unwarranted. Keef, who refused to be interviewed for this story, watched his career take off from a couch at his Grandmother’s home while on house arrest for pointing a gun at a police officer. He spent the first three months of 2013 at a youth prison in Chicago’s west suburbs after an ill-advised interview at a gun range violated the terms of his parole.
The crimes are not so uncommon. The level of fame is. “A lot of the things these guys are going through now, I went through the same obstacles, but I was a little more mature about it and I wasn’t famous,” said Chicago artist King Louie. “He’s not really into any violence, he just doesn’t need to be in Chicago. He’s not doing the violence but you definitely have to carry yourself a different way with the spotlight on you.”
For all the legal trouble Keef has encountered, only the charge of pointing a gun at an officer has been more than a misdemeanor, and that happened when he was 15. Other than that, it’s been speeding, weed, tresspassing. The police department’s interest in him is starting to look like a “straw man” argument: build a character to resemble the larger problem and then knock him down. Knowing that it won’t fix the larger problem, but might grab them some positive PR.
Musicians have been on the receiving end of this kind of treatment often. In his 2010 memoir, Life, Keith Richards wrote, “Open season on the Stones had been declared since our last tour, the tour of ’72, known as the STP. The State Department had noted riots (true), civil disobedience (also true), illicit sex (whatever that is), and violence across the United States. All the fault of us, mere minstrels.” After the Columbine shootings Marilyn Manson came under fire for lyrics that were somehow supposed to have inspired Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold to murder their high school clasmates—even though, as it turned out, they were not even fans. In this case, Keef is made out to be the biggest criminal in the city Chicago.
“The media has basically been lying to the city and building up Chief Keef as the main person that is causing all the trouble,” said Chicago producer Young Chop. “He is not in the streets like that, how they maybe used to be. It’s crazy to me that media and police even think that way.”
Chop has a point. Of the hundreds of killings, a total of zero have been attributed to Keef. There was the Lil’ JoJo incident, highly publicized as a Chicago hip-hop beef gone wrong, in which a 14-year-old aspiring artist was gunned down by gang members while riding his bike. Speculation by major media outlets was that the murder stemmed from a diss-filled remix of Keef’s “3hunna” by Jojo and his friends. Famously, stupidly, insensitively, Keef sent out a tweet saying “haha” after the killing. He was investigated by police for any possible involvement, and never arrested.
Rather, Keef’s arrests have been for petty offenses.
“These guys came all the way from the South Side to Skokie to pick him up for some warrant on a misdemeanor trespass,” said Idris Peeda Pan, part of Keef’s management team. “We’re just pissed off. We’re kind of like fed up at this point. We also found out recently that there’s a task force of several officers assigned to strictly investigate our label, GBE, and its affiliates. Supposedly, to my knowledge, these are the same people that had something to do with arresting Lil Durk like a week or two ago.”
The existence of the task force has not been substantiated by the CPD, who did not respond to phone calls and emails for this piece. We know that a similar operation was set up in New York during the last decade—much to the city’s embarrassment.
Chicago’s history of segregation along lines of race and class is well documented. A story as old as the city itself. In the 1940s, in a controversial, large-scale attempt at social engineering, the government started erecting low-income housing projects across the city, dotting the landscape with massive tenement buildings. In March 2011, with the experiment deemed a failure, the last of the high-rise tenements on the famously expensive “Gold Coast” on the city’s Northeast side fell to hungry real estate developers. Residents were pushed to the South and West sides of the city and to suburbs like Englewood and Maywood—out of sight.
The city’s history of pushing minorities and low-income families into increasingly unhospitable neighborhoods creates social problems that recreate themselves. This year the Chicago City Council approved the closing of over 50 schools, mostly in the city’s south and west sides. The closings will cause students to travel further to class, through perilous territory. Walking through unfamiliar gang turf to and from school poses a much larger danger to the youth of Chicago than a Chief Keef song. And with the city’s newspapers failing, an argument can be made that rap artists are doing a better job of reporting on the story than anyone else.
“[There is] no doubt that in this day and time, violence is enforced by popular mainstream acts,” said Chris Patterson, grant manager for Illinois Governor Pat Quinn’s Community Violence Prevention Program. “But on the flip side, those same acts are speaking out about injustices and [we’re] not really seeing it for what it is. A lot of the perpetrators of these crimes are listeners who are poor and … under-educated by our so-called education system, which is letting them down in such a terrible way. If we are to pour our attention into anything, it should be rectifying the core or base conditions that lead one to rap about killing his brother or using excess amount of drugs—conditions such as getting them better schooling and housing.”
As thousands of guns are taken off the streets every year in Chicago, just as many flow right back into the city—most of them coming from the suburbs outside of Cook County which have more relaxed gun laws. Gun owners are not required to report guns missing or stolen. To date this year, almost 3,000 guns have been taken off the street according to Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy and the CPD.
It’s not a subject lost on the city’s rap artists.
“They be shooting whether it’s dark or not,” says burgeoning star Chance The Rapper on his song “Paranoid.” “I mean the days is pretty dark a lot/Down here it’s easier to find a gun than it is to find a parking spot.”
In an interview conducted earlier this year, he reiterated. “The accessibility to guns in Chicago is ridiculous,” said Chance, who turned 20 this spring. “I can take you right now to get a gun for like $150. The fact that kids can get them is the fucked-up part—and music reflects people’s ways of living.”
On July 9th, the llinois state legislature voted in a statewide “concealed carry” law, allowing people to take loaded weapons into any business establishment that chooses to let them. Keith Cozart was 15 years old when he was arrested with a gun.
Had Chief Keef come to national prominence through a crafty dance move or a corny marketing scheme, he probably wouldn’t be facing the legal scrutiny he is today. But Keef burst into people’s consciousness by rapping angrily about things he didn’t like, shirtless, thrusting guns into a video camera. It’s a disturbing image. Veteren Chicago rapper Lupe Fiasco said he was scared of Keef and his generation.
To be sure, Keef is not a model citizen. He was arrested smoking marijuana in Atlanta a month ago, he was accused of being behind on child support payments, and he owns one of the most notorious and raunchy Instagram accounts around.
For all his faults, though, it’s hard to see how he deserves the treatment he has received from the CPD. And until the day he actually does something else seriously dangerous, their focus is probably better served policing the part of the city widely known as “Chiraq.”
“I really just think Keef has become a target at this point,” says Andrew Barber of the popular Chicago hip-hop blog FakeShoreDrive. “Regardless of the content of his music, he’s going to be pegged and singled out—it’s just par for the course for him now. Does he bring some of the unwanted attention upon himself? Of course. But as with most rappers who’ve come from street backgrounds, once they see more of the world their content, attitude and actions change. Can Keef make this transition? Possibly. But he really needs to get out of Chicago, because people are just looking for excuses to bring him down.”
The upper-class North Shore area might not be far enough away. There are rumblings from Keef’s management that he may make a move to Los Angeles soon.
“The fact is a lot of people just know who Chief Keef is and are hating on him for just that reason,” says Keef’s friend and fellow Chicago rap artist Sasha Go Hard. “He’s a legend. He’s 17. He’s on, he’s getting money and a lot of people just don’t like the way he did that.”
In a Vice documentary done on Chicago’s violence problem, Southside pastor and community activist Father Michael Pfleger of St. Sabina’s voiced his opinion on the state of the city. “There has been a conscious decision to let some communities fall apart as long as it’s contained and doesn’t seep over,” he said. “But guess what America, it’s seeping over.”
Chief Keef isn’t so much a legitimate villain as he is an easy face to put to the violent environment he came from. To use Father Pfleger’s example, Keef simply refused to be contained. If the arrest in Skokie last month is any indication, it is obvious the city is willing to do whatever necessary to stop the seepage.