“Please don’t pick me. Please don’t pick me”
These are the words swirling in the head of 20-year-old Columbia College student CJ Young as he sat in his chair, avoiding any kind of eye contact with the host, Naira, on the stage.
“She threw us a curveball! I thought we were going to be picked in order, and I was 7th on the sign-up sheet. But she’s telling us that performers will be picked at random. I’m keeping my head down, thinking, “There’s no way I get called first. Please don’t make me go first”.
Young(In) is CJ’s pseudonym when he is performing. And, of course, it was the first name out of the Naira’s mouth to kick off the 66th OpenMike, presented by SocialWorks.
“That walk to the stage felt like the longest walk of my life. My head is spinning. I’m sweating so much that my glasses are starting to fog.”
He takes the mic from the Naira.
“I’m choking the microphone so hard my veins are popping out of my arms. It felt like an electric current was running through me. To make matters worse, I didn’t even know how to adjust the mic stand.”
Despite his nerves and the brief mic stand setback, CJ addressed an audience of his peers and the other students there to take in the show. He’s still hesitant to raise his head and look at the crowd. “My name’s Young(In)”, he mumbles into the microphone with a mouth that’s feeling more dry with each word. “I’m an up-and-coming artist in the city. I know we’re at church on a Sunday, so if I end up messing up or cursing by accident, please forgive me”.
The crowd laughs, and he finally looks up. As ready as he’ll ever be to overcome the sweating and trembling, and he raises the mic to his mouth.
“I don’t have a name for this piece, yet. I don’t have a beat. It’s just me, myself, and a microphone”
Then, he does his thing.
This is Young(In)’s first time attending an OpenMike, but it isn’t a first for CJ. His introduction was about five years ago. It was this evening that planted the seed of his dream that one day, he’d harness and share his own creativity. Pushing his dream into overdrive was the fact that two of CJ’s childhood heroes, and the childhood heroes of so many other young and aspiring artists, were there that day – Chance the Rapper and Childish Gambino.
“I was so excited when Chance brought out Childish as a special guest. Before my mind can catch up with my body, I’m tearing through the rows of chairs, trying to get close to the stage. I tried jumping over two rows, and I wiped out badly, taking a bunch of chairs with me. It hurt a lot, and I was also very embarrassed. Luckily, nobody was paying attention to me.”
CJ is a massive fan of Chance the Rapper and has been since he was a 13-year-old kid growing up in Chatham on Chicago’s southside.
“I followed Chance for a minute, but once he dropped Coloring Book, that was it. That was all I listened to. Every day, to and from school.”
It’s through this fandom that CJ discovered Chance’s charity, SocialWorks.
“I would be on his website every day, looking through every page. I was looking at his merch and came across this hat I loved, one Chance made for SocialWorks in collaboration with the White Sox. I wish I bought it then, since it’s not available. I’d do anything to get that hat now”, he laughs.
So began the deep dive into SocialWorks and its many initiatives. The role SocialWorks played in the community – its goals and aspirations – spoke to him. “Community involvement has always pulled me. I love what SocialWorks is doing for Chicago”.
CJ was especially interested in OpenMike and what it was doing for young people in the community.
OpenMike is a free event put on by SocialWorks, open to people ages 14 to 24. It’s a talent showcase for teens and young adults to express their art in whatever medium fits within a three-minute allotment. A shorter set time ensures more people get their chance to perform, and that the audience gets to hear many unique expressions of Chicago’s up-and-coming talent, from first-timers like CJ to legends like Chance. After the last of the performances, the night often concludes with professionals sharing stories and ideas about the creative process, performance, and getting your name out there. The name of the event, “OpenMike”, is named after the late “Brother Mike” Hawkins.
“He was Chicago’s mentor,” says Justin Cunningham, Executive Director of SocialWorks and OpenMike facilitator. “He made the library the coolest place to be. He wouldn’t tell you anything, but he would show you everything. Fashion, video games, music…whatever the interest, he encouraged students to engage in what inspires them, to discover themselves through creativity. He embodied the values SocialWorks promotes, and so we honor him and continue his legacy through OpenMike.”
Originally hosted at Harold Washington, underneath the space Brother Mike taught, OpenMike has partnered with prominent Chicago institutions and venues, such as the Chicago Public Library, Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, and others that has led to 66 OpenMike events over 8 years and has reached an estimated audience of over twelve thousand guests between repeat and first-time audience members.
Snap back to CJ walking through the doors of OpenMike Night on June 25, 2023, an hour or so before he would take the stage. As he walks from booth to booth (multiple vendors come to the event) he spots Justin, who waves him over and convinces him to put his name on the sheet, despite CJs inner voice telling him all the reasons not to.
“I was real wary of performing. I just kept thinking, ‘I don’t have a beat. I don’t have a piece that fits the three-minute time limit. I’ve never performed on stage by myself. I’m going to stumble or get stuck on my words”
Days later, Justin recalls spotting CJ walking around at the start of the event. “After doing this for so long, I can spot the first-timers from a mile away. I get that it can be intimidating, but I believe that once you walk through those doors, you’re no longer a stranger. You deserve praise and encouragement. So I made sure to engage him and exalt him. Amazing things come when you express yourself, and I wanted him to feel that.”
Justin’s encouragement was enough to help CJ overcome his strong hesitations. Suddenly the voice saying “I can’t” or “I shouldn’t” was replaced by another voice.
It said “I’m here. I’m here now. So, why not?”
CJ put his name down behind the 6th name on the list, inspiring a small bit of confidence that he’d at least be able to take in a few performers and get a sense for the show and what works with the crowd.
We know how that turned out.
Fast forwarding to the moment after he speaks the last word of his piece.
“I still felt numb, but then the applause hit me. It kept on coming. People were rocking with it. I never thought I’d have this many people feeling my words. It was completely surreal.”
“How you gonna say how nervous you are and then come up and do it like that?,” Naira said with a laugh as Young(In) walked off the stage and immediately started looking for a bathroom, needing a moment of solitude, as well as feeling the remaining nerves in his stomach could themselves make a physical appearance.
“I spent the rest of the night trying to catch my breath and take it in. People kept coming up to me saying “Man, you did your thing. You really did your thing. Other guests and performers were coming up to me after, asking if I wanted to collaborate, asking if I wanted any beats, or photos. I just kept thinking ‘so that’s what can happen when you put yourself out there'”.
In the weeks following OpenMike, CJ is already waiting for his next chance to perform. But he won’t be waiting very long.
Inspired by his years of following SocialWorks and OpenMike, CJ is paying it forward to other artists from in and around Chicago. Collaborating with friends and other artists from his time at Columbia, he has launched a collective of artists and shows called Cleva Cyphers, a Chicago-based series that highlights up-and-coming artists of all ages. “We want to provide a space for others to find their identity and hone their craft. We have artists come up on the stage all night to do their thing – and at the end of the night, we invite anybody on stage, artist or audience, to come and put a verse over our beats”.
CJ’s initiative is exactly what SocialWorks and OpenMike hope to inspire.
“I hope CJ’s story helps push more people over the edge, when it comes to creative expression,” says Justin. “You don’t have to be Chance or Drake to come and perform at OpenMike. We want to help you work on your talent until you get there! We want people to know, this isn’t an intimidating space. You’re welcomed with open arms, and feel encouraged to be your best self”
In addition to paying it forward in the community, OpenMike encourages more young artists like CJ to conquer their nerves and share their voices to inspire more and more people to do the same.
CJ / Young(In) have the same advice to anyone hesitating to sign-up because of that pessimistic voice in their head.
“It’s just you vs you at the end of the day. That’s it. Please don’t listen to that voice in your head. I know I’ve missed out on things because of that voice saying ‘You aren’t meant for this”. He pauses for a second. “But I am”.
“And so are you”.
You can find Young(In) and the rest of Cleva Cyphers at Subterranean in Wicker Park on July 18. Follow them on social media at @clevacyphers to keep up with their upcoming performances or to reach out to get time at your next event.
As for SocialWorks, come join us at the next OpenMike this Saturday, Jul 15, 2023, at Contextos. See the flyer and registration link below.