Winter Block Party celebrates local hip-hop

Categories: Chicago Sun-Times

By MARK GUARINO | Chicago Sun-Times

January 23, 2013 4:46PM

Summer block parties are often a chance for people who share the same street to get outside and get to know each other as a community.

Take that scenario and stage it in a rock club in late January and you have the “Winter Block Party for Chicago’s Hip Hop Arts,” an all-day festival Saturday at Metro featuring musicians, rappers, artists, performers, and filmmakers that represent the past, present and most likely future of Chicago hip-hop.

Kevin Coval, a poet and leading advocate in Chicago for young writers, is curating the festival for the fifth year in a row. Since it first launched in 2009 at Victory Gardens Theater, Coval says the city’s hip-hop scene has become part of the “national conversation,” not only for the ascendency of local stars Kanye West, Twista, Common and others, but also for emerging blogs Fake Shore Drive and Ruby Hornet that have played a major role in exposing local talent outside the city, groomed by an abundance of open mic nights, poetry slams, festivals and venues, which have allowed disparate voices from all pockets of the city to be heard.

“There’s been no better time for Chicago hip-hop than right now. It’s undeniable. The artists are beginning to respect and see each other,” Coval says. “The scene is closer.”

The block party is produced by WBEZ 91.5-FM, which is splitting the day into two halves: a free daytime schedule of events featuring DJs, dance battles, slam poetry sessions, a graffiti art gallery, and screenings of hip-hop videos and documentaries, including “Benji,” last year’s film about the 1984 murder of 17-year-old Chicago prep basketball star Ben Wilson who was gunned down the day before his senior season at Simeon Career Academy.

The nighttime event is ticketed and will feature performances by female rapper Psalm One, whose 2006 debut came out on the respected indie hip-hop label Rhymesayers, the eight-piece band Sidewalk Chalk, and emerging rappers ADD-2, Saba and NoName.

Coval invited NoName to participate after seeing her perform at several open-mic events hosted by Young Chicago Authors, an advocacy organization that he leads as artistic director. “Her presence is sweet and humble, but she’s also a fierce lyricist. I don’t know if there’s another writer right now who is as conscientious about craft than this young woman is,” he says.

NoName, the stage name for Fatimah Warner, 21, says she tends to write about what she sees around her in Bronzeville, where she lives, and also about transitioning to adulthood. She is a student at Harold Washington College and plans to enter nursing school while also continuing to develop her music through performances and working on mixtapes with friends.

“Through my music, I’m more honest than I am normally with myself. Writing allows me to self-reflect and just be at peace with myself,” she says.

Before stepping out three years ago to perform at her first open mic event, Warner realized she needed a name, but soon realized not having one might allow her more literary freedom.

“I started liking the concept,” she says. “You can do anything without a name. I can be a nurse and a rapper. I can allow myself to not get boxed into a label.”

The block party will also help blunt the public perception that the current hip-hop scene in Chicago is strictly Drill music, the hardcore sound popularized by Keith Cozart, the 17-year-old rapper known as Chief Keef who made his Interscope debut last month but whose legal troubles recently resulted in a 60-day jail sentence. Drill, which rose to prominence last year, is darker and recognized by sinister keyboards, brittle beats and voyeuristic tales involving primarily street violence.

Coval, 37, says Drill is “an unfortunate perfect soundscape to reflect the abhorrent conditions the city is at for some young people right now” but its popularity alongside more conscious rappers like the Cool Kids, Chance The Rapper and B.J. The Chicago Kid can be compared to the early 1990s, when gangsta rap coincided along the alternative Native Tongues crew represented by groups like De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest.

What the block party is showing is that, in addition to the diversity of sound, perspectives and backgrounds in Chicago hip-hop’s current scene, artists from all parts of the city are performing together rather than rooting themselves to their own neighborhood.

In much the same way that jazz and blues clubs from early last century integrated musicians and their audience in the face of the city’s entrenched segregation, events like these are designed to create a “new vanguard” for how the city will look years from now.

“That intentionality is about having a diverse audience. These events bring people from all around the city together because as segregated as Chicago is, folks are not going to meet,” Coval says. “We are creating a new culture to create a new city.”

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