Chance the Rapper on Art and Activism with The New Yorker Radio Hour
Check out the original article & transcript. Illustration by Aurélia Durand
Chancelor Johnathan Bennett, better known as Chance the Rapper, grew up on the South Side of Chicago. His father worked as an aide to both Harold Washington, the first Black mayor of the city, and Barack Obama, when he was still a rising figure in Illinois state politics. When Chance was in grade school, he loved the gospel, jazz, and R. & B. music that his parents played at home, but when he came across Kanye West’s “The College Dropout,” a seed was planted. He started rapping and, at the age of thirteen or fourteen, he told Obama that he had ambitions to be a professional. The future President responded, “Word.”
In high school, while on suspension for marijuana possession, Chance recorded a mixtape called “10 Day.” That was 2011. The work to follow––“Acid Rap,” “Coloring Book” and, most recently, “The Big Day”—has established his reputation as an artist of musical and lyrical originality. Chance has also been one of the most politically engaged figures in the business, both nationally and on the local level, where he has been a sharp critic of Rahm Emanuel, the former mayor of Chicago, and of the city’s police force. In recent months, he has marched in Black Lives Matter demonstrations while trying to write and record new music.
There is, though, another thread to Chance’s career, that of a young man—a star by twenty—growing into his art and ideas. That journey has not always been smooth. In 2016, when a mildly skeptical review of one of his concerts appeared in MTV News, Chance’s team pressured the outlet to yank the piece—an odd move for an artist who otherwise trumpeted a diverse, local, and independent press. And, in 2018, when Kanye West voiced his support for Trump, Chance came, perhaps too hastily, to his mentor’s defense. (“Black people don’t have to be democrats,” he tweeted.) He later apologized, writing that his comment was “a deflection from the real conversation,” and was rooted only in his discontent with years of Democratic neglect in Chicago.
This interview, which was edited with Mengfei Chen, was conducted for The New Yorker Radio Hour earlier this month––just before Kanye West announced his candidacy for the Presidency and then, just as quickly, withdrew. During that fleeting candidacy, Chance sort-of endorsed West and expressed his continuing ambivalence about Joe Biden. (As he put it on Twitter, “And yall out here tryna convince me to vote for Biden. Smfh.”) The comments were met with some sharp criticism, and soon Chance was “sprinting down the hill,” acknowledging that “everyone voting for Biden isn’t necessarily doing so enthusiastically.” We talked about his own thoughts on electoral politics, his faith, and more. Our exchange has been edited for length and clarity.
Chance, we’re going to talk about music, I promise. But with so much else going on in the world, particularly in Chicago and so many other cities, it feels like we should start there. Tell me a little bit about what your life has been like for these past several weeks.
It’s been jarring. It’s been very much an awakening. I think everybody’s been struggling with finding out how we’ve all been either affected by, or complicit in, the white male patriarchy that this nation is built on.
As a Black man, though, what have you learned? It’s obvious that many white people have, if they’re not lying about it, been awakened to some degree about many things. But what is it that you didn’t know that you know now, three weeks later?
So many things. One would be starting to understand the separation of the Black church from white evangelicalism, and how different the views on equality, kindness, compassion, and neighborly love are, how intentional some white evangelicals are about not speaking on white supremacy in the country and within the church.
I’ve been reading James Cone, who was one of the pioneers in Black liberation theology. And, in my first read, I didn’t think that he was saying anything that was too outlandish. When I went out and, just among my friends or even on the Internet, spoke on things that I was learning from it, the combativeness that it was met with was just surprising for me. But it was about understanding that the violence that Black males are met with in the country is way more highlighted than the injustices that Black women have had to deal with, even in the recent weeks. And I think we see so many companies are coming out and making statements on prejudices within their spaces.
Do you think it’s sincere?
The thing is, I don’t think a company can be sincere, because it’s not a human being. I couldn’t call it sincere, but what I would say is that I think it’s substantial. All of these events, especially when they’re covered by the media and broadcasted, create a time stamp on things. It becomes a documented thing that these people had to come out and either admit to some forms of racism, or at least admit to the systemic injustices of the United States. Whether it’s virtue signalling or not, it happened. What is the saying? Admitting things is the first step.
You mentioned James Cone, who wrote a terrific book about the many kinds of ways that Malcolm X and Martin Luther King converge. We now have a movement, Black Lives Matter, that’s not led by a Malcolm X or Martin Luther King. In fact, it’s very distinctly and deliberately leaderless. What’s your experience of a movement that’s quite different than the one of your parents and grandparents?
I’m twenty-seven. My generation was taught that the civil-rights movement ended in the sixties with the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., and that the Civil Rights Act put things as they should be. If anything, that belief was reinforced with the election of Barack Obama. We believed that the injustices of America were a thing of the past. I think what this movement has shown us and teaches is that we’re very far from an equitable or equal society, and that we will be the generation that fixes it. I guess the best answer is I don’t see a difference between the two movements. They’re both fighting for the exact same thing.
You, in a sense, grew up into this. Your father worked for Harold Washington, the first Black mayor of Chicago, and also, for a time, a little-known Illinois state senator and then U.S. senator named Barack Obama. I wonder how you thought about the importance of the Obama Presidency then—and maybe that’s changed.
Yeah, like you said, when I first met him, he wasn’t President. He had just lost an election for Congress. And I just thought he was the coolest dude in the world.
Was he different back then?
I mean, he’s been aged by the Oval Office, obviously. But I think he’s always just been a super smooth dude. And in his elections, whether it was for senator, President, or the second term, I don’t think that the energy in the room, in terms of what we thought the outcome was going to be, was necessarily positive. We didn’t think that he was going to be elected, or reëlected. And so, when he won each time, it was a really big deal.
I think I’m instinctively protective about Black men, especially ones that I know and know the character of. I don’t think I was ever critical of the progress of Black America during his Presidency. Probably because, one, I was a fucking kid. I was in high school.
But I think what I really learned, in retrospect, is that systemic racism can get to you in any class. I think Barack, regardless of how popular he became or how well-spoken he was, was stifled in his career as a President.
Are you critical of him at all?
I think I am. I just don’t think I am in white spaces. I feel like it’s always a conversation that has to be looked at with nuance. And, yeah, I think there’s definitely things that he could have done better.
Do you want him to be more outspoken than he has been [during the Trump era]?
I think talk is relative in terms of its effectiveness, and I think hearing from Barack Obama can only do so much. In terms of what I’m critical about, the only thing in the present is the plans for the Obama Library, in Chicago, and how it has already caused displacement of some Black folks that live on the South Side. And how they’re not down to do a community-benefits agreement to get jobs to people that live there.
I don’t think that that’s something that any other President has had to deal with. I think a thing with being Black is you have to look out for each other, and at a certain point that weighs on people, because we’re still just individuals. That’s why I said I don’t want to get that into it, because it’s a very nuanced conversation that I feel more comfortable talking about with Black folk.
What do you think, though, about how Lori Lightfoot, the fairly new mayor of Chicago, has been responding to the protests? You didn’t support her initially. You backed a progressive candidate named Amara Enyia, until she dropped out of the race. And then you backed Toni Preckwinkle. What were you looking for in a Chicago mayor? And how is Lori Lightfoot coming through or not, in your view?
The story of how I ended up working with Amara Enyia is so layered and crazy. I don’t think I ever told anybody this, but I found out about Amara Enyia through Kanye West. He called me right before he was about to move back to Chicago, and he told me that he was thinking about running for mayor of Chicago. [West could not be reached for comment.]
Kanye was thinking about running for mayor?
Would you have gotten behind Kanye West running for mayor? I remember he even talked about running for President at one time. Maybe he was kidding around. I don’t know.
I don’t think so, honestly, because, at the time, I think our views were a little bit—
Yeah. But I think both of us have changed in a lot of ways since then. I think that we do agree a lot more on things now.
Do you think Kanye has moved left?
Yeah, but also thinking about it on a right-left spectrum kind of marginalizes it.
So, at the time, I don’t think so. I think both of us have grown a lot since then. He called me back the next day and said he could not run for mayor, because you have to live in the [city of Chicago] for a certain amount of time. And, basically, he was, like, “I’m looking into other people: Have you ever heard of Amara Enyia?” Amara was not a well-known candidate, and she had some extremely progressive, almost radical ideas about governing Chicago. That included defunding police, and co-op grocery stores and gas stations. It was like a bunch of stuff that I had never heard before.
She didn’t have campaign dollars or any big donors or anything. I met with her, and I just fell in love with her ideas. I completely and totally put everything I could into backing her campaign. And that shit didn’t work out. She ended up having to drop out. And it came down to Lori Lightfoot and Toni Preckwinkle. And I chose Toni because, at the time, given Lori’s history in law enforcement, I didn’t really believe that she could govern a city with so many police-misconduct records and just corruption all around.
So how do you think Lightfoot performed through this crisis?
I hate going back to this, but it’s such a nuanced thing. She’s a Black woman who is governing the third-largest city in America and has a tremendous amount of pressure and a tremendous amount of mistakes to correct from her predecessors.
With respect, Chance, I understand what you’re saying, but isn’t constructive criticism from constituents like yourself, or anybody else who’s engaged, the best way to go, whether it’s in front of a white interviewer or a Black interviewer, in white spaces or otherwise? I totally respect whatever decision you make, of course.
The way publications work is that sentences out of this are going to become the headline, and not necessarily the context or what the entire conversation surrounding it is, and I feel like it’s easy for constructive criticism to become a tagline and become someone else’s argument for something that I might not necessarily be in favor of. I will say that I am sad that Chicago is one of the few recent cities that didn’t decide to end the police contract with the public schools, saddened that she decided not to make Juneteenth a paid holiday, saddened that over seventy per cent of the arrests last year in the city were Black folks.
You have to make decisions based off of your past. I can’t really expect her not to make the decisions that she makes when she has so much belief and trust in our system of governance and the system of law enforcement as it stands. She’s making decisions that align with what she’s represented for a long time. And I believe that some of these decisions are detrimental to the Black community. But I don’t want to bash her. I don’t want to take an opportunity to say she’s doing a shitty job.
I think you’re giving her a nuanced critique. I think that’s completely fair.
We’ve had really, really bad mayors in Chicago.
I’ve noticed. I wanted to ask you about what you can do as an artist. I was thinking about your activism in this moment, and it got me thinking about your track “I Might Need Security,” from 2018. We could spend a lot of time unpacking that song. In about four minutes, you sound off about the former mayor, Rahm Emanuel, you talk about the Chicago Sun-Times newspaper, and about Crain’s, and many other things. The track starts with something really interesting: “I ain’t no activist. I’m the protagonist.” Please finish it for me.
“I ain’t no activist, I’m the protagonist / I don’t co-captain it, I fly solo like one cup in the cabinet.”
Right. So are you an activist, or are you something different than that as an artist?
I think I am an activist at this point. I think that we should all be activists. I think that we should all be active in the dismantling of white supremacy and then creating a real heaven on earth. I think that how I perceived it at the time was that an activist was a person who was absolute in their intentions and in their actions, and that they were so streamlined in their pursuit of justice and equality that they couldn’t really be pushed left or right. And that I, as the protagonist of my story, will have missteps and faulty judgment in places.
In 2016, you started a nonprofit called SocialWorks, which has a number of initiatives focused on addressing homelessness and civic and youth education. One of the first programs that SocialWorks put together, which is still going, is called OpenMike. It gives any young kid who shows up three minutes of stage time to do whatever they want. Why was that the first program, and what’s been the result?
Basically, I knew I wanted to rap since I was in fifth grade, when I got my first Kanye West album. But I didn’t know what steps it took to become that, or how to perform, or how to galvanize an audience or create a buzz, until I started going to this open-mike night that they had at the library, when I was in high school. It was put on by this guy named Brother Mike Hawkins, who was an activist and poet in Chicago. Me, Noname, Vic Mensa, Saba, Nico Segal, Mick Jenkins—these dope artists that are my contemporaries—we all kind of grew up together going to this library program.
I started gaining a fan base. I had a song called “Brain Cells,” about smoking weed—you know, regular high-school content. And they loved it to the point that everybody learned the words. I remember I performed it probably, like, six weeks in a row. Then, one week, I tried a new piece and I couldn’t remember the lyrics. I flubbed it. And so the next week I came back and I performed “Brain Cells” again. And the crowd went wild. Afterwards, Brother Mike pulled me to the side and said, “If you perform that song next week, I’m not letting you perform anymore.”
I thought at first that it was about the content. But what he told me, and what really stuck with me, was that I wasn’t growing as an artist performing the same songs. I was living within this comfort zone.
So you’ve got to push yourself.
Yeah, you got to learn something new. You can’t come in there and try and be the best. You got to come in there and become better.
Well, when you’re thinking about your own music and trying to make sense of this moment, what do you want from yourself, if you imagine putting out songs six months from now about this time that we’re living through? How do you go about it?
I don’t know. For a long time, my heart wasn’t telling me to go to the studio and record. This is prior to the death of George Floyd. This is prior to the pandemic. I just didn’t really feel like I had much to say. And I guess my newer stuff has been—
When you say newer stuff, you’re talking about work after “The Big Day.”
Yeah. I’m talking about the stuff that I’m working on in the studio. I just think it’s tough for me to say it, because a bunch of articles will come out, like, “Chance’s next album is Black liberation theology in music.”
But is that getting close to it?
I think that’s what two of the songs are. But I really don’t know. The second week after there was a big shutdown and shelter-in-place stuff going on, I had a ton of Zoom calls, which I’m sure everybody did. And I don’t know if everybody had the same feeling, but I started feeling like these calls don’t fucking matter. Like the world is ending. And you guys want to talk to me about possible tour dates at the end of the year. Like, fuck that. I need to be praying, you know what I’m saying?
You still feel that way?
I still feel like I need to pray. I also feel like faith without works is dead. I feel like I also need to put my body into it, and my capital into it, and my name into it, and my intention behind it all. I want to make music, but I don’t want to force myself to make music. I like making music when I’m inspired.
You grew up in a political home, and you’re politically involved both as an artist and as a human being. Do you see yourself ever getting even more deeply involved in politics?
No, I’m kind of done even supporting candidates.
We’re heading toward an election in November. How much hope do you invest in somebody like Joe Biden? I’m just taking a wild guess here that you’re not a Trump supporter.
I feel like there’s a fork in the road, like a black hole. I feel like I could change the course of history right now with a certain answer. I’m just going to be honest: I don’t think that Joe Biden will win in November. I don’t. I felt like Trump was gonna have two terms since the beginning of his first term. Just because of what I know about politics. What my dad always used to say is you have to energize the base.
So, it’s not about getting people to vote against something, even though you do want to create a clear opposition and create fear of something, but it’s mainly about getting somebody to vote for something. From his first month in office, Trump was already holding campaign rallies, filling up arenas full of misguided folks. And I think he’s been running his reëlection campaign for three years.
And even though his numbers are bad now, you’re—
Weren’t his numbers bad the first time he got elected?
Not, in fairness, this bad. When you’re saying that Trump will win, are you saying this because you don’t want to tempt fate, or you’re really convinced that he will win?
I’m convinced that he will win. It’s not any one reason. It’s not because he’s some super genius, and it’s not because America is overwhelmingly racist, and it’s not because Joe Biden is the worst candidate that the Democratic National Committee could have picked. A big part of it is we don’t feel represented. The folks who are the most disenfranchised, I just feel like we were not represented by the D.N.C., and we haven’t been for a while. I think we get shamed into voting for people sometimes by the D.N.C.
Would you have been happier with Bernie Sanders?
Yes. But, also, I think part of the problem lies in the two-party system. I just think that there’s a better way. And I’m not trying to be the smart-ass, like I know all the answers. I really just think people are mad. But the people that are mad, that share a lot of the views that I have, don’t have a choice in the two people being presented to us.
Chance, I think I have tried your patience, and you’ve been wonderful to give me all this time. Thank you so much.
Thank you, man. It was awesome.