TV: Play a Game of Pretend With Viceland’s Chicago Doc

Willie “Rookie” White is a Chicago-based artist who does a lot of dope shit and occasionally does dope shit with WARR. 

From the author:

Hello, my name is Rookie, and as a journalist I feel like taking a moment to speak from another point of view for a few. Please bear with me, and if get ready — if you can — to revisit some of what I say in this piece from yet another view toward the end. You’ll find for a while, this will be close to a game of pretend to say the least!

At the very beginning of Vice Media’s latest project based on Chicago’s South Side the viewer sees the image of a woman whose passion to express herself emerges broadly through words which propel from her mouth.

Her confidence given from the cadence of her prose and the strength of delivery. She could be a singer, or a poet, or maybe even a concerned parent that lives in Chicago, one that’s managed to string her words together specifically to evoke feelings. Her feelings. But first a greeting — “Welcome to Chiraq!”

She booms her monologue from the middle of a street in her city, her figure framed by the warm lens afforded to Vice’s Noisey department, those who delve into the nooks of so many urban areas where electrifying musical culture emerges.

The hired hostess of this show puts into words what so many of us have witnessed on the nightly news so often. “…he’s got more bullets in his gun than years he’s been here…he walked into the school with heat, and he back on the block for bread, for cheese, and for meat. Welcome to Chiraq!” A musical choice from Syl Johnson emerges on the soundtrack and it is apparent that the stage has been set for the next hour.

At this moment I’d like to warn all those who have yet to see the piece on Chicago, which premiered on Vice’s new cable network, Viceland, on March 22nd that if you continue to read, that a moderate amount of spoilage will happen for you. (ed. note — feel free to watch here and come back to us)

Prior to Noisey’s cameras coming to Chicago and using the city’s proper name for its latest network offering, the border-less approach of on the ground cinema verite journalism from this team prroduced a controversial release of a documentary called “Welcome to Chiraq.” Many times, what you think you’re known for in other places is not an actuality. For example, in the mind of the rapper Young Thug he may believe with all his heart that he is known most for his music, when in most cases the average person interested in the so-called “Thugger” may find more direct references online to his fashion sense (if you would like to call it that) and also his off-stage antics.

In our city, Noisey consistently steels its focus on the subject of Drill music. Drill music is a sub-culture within the genre of hip hop that Chicago made a staple just a few short years ago under a new generation of rappers and producers who first appealed to their immediate peers in schools and on blocks throughout the city. According to the specialDrill is in demand right now from Chicago airwaves to the clubs of Brazil in some cases. 

People keep an eye and both ears on Chicago, with certain sounds travelling as free as any Freebandz transmission from Atlanta and the most popular of homemade videos from “over east” or thereabout following the exploits of the scene’s most popular rappers, Chief Keef and Def Jam signee Lil’ Dirk. The two may both be popular Chicago rappers but as I will explain further later, their on-camera personalities make them polar opposites within Vice’s glare.

At the time of the filming, Keef was living a seemingly happy life despite some legal troubles and a bit of beef in his old hood. In contrast, Dirk was living a life that seemed more focused on the work aspect of the rap lifestyle, going from a hotel, to a photoshoot, then from his interview to only end at a live show all in one day. 

Noisey does a good job of showcasing its subjects within the framing of a documentary. Most journalists familiar with the “rock doc” format knows that such productions needs to have several to many different interviewees within the same subject in order to speak from the eyes of those who witness while also showing diversity among views as well. In this piece we go from the conceptual minds of Vice Studios, to the South Side of Chicago and many spaces and places in between.

Vice deserves credit for portraying an experience that is very realistic in that the meetings/filmings with the local subjects reflected a certain energy with their documentarians that reflected the way that a normal meeting with someone from out of town goes. The first meeting may be more of an introduction and a dismissal of stereotypes and a quiz on fact or fiction for the host and the viewers. This process remained true in this sense as many questions and myths about the violence in Chicago were answered and others were debunked.

It seemed that much of Vice’s latest Chicago piece was dedicated to these ideals, but far less — just as in a second visit with new friend — do you try to go a bit deeper into things, as the ice metaphorically has already been broken through your prior experience.

I must say, however, that at times Noisey Chicago did feel like a commercial with rather shameless product placement happening pretty much non-stop during the piece. I may be a bit biased when it comes to my opinion of America’s newest toy (at least they were new at the time of filming) — the hoverboard, but I know I am not wrong when I say you saw at least one person on one of those “nerd chariots” for every scene change! Speaking of marketing, we all know Chicago won’t touch the likes of Chief Keef with a ten foot pole, but we do however get to hear from a man named Alki David that would, and has, messed with Keef.

ALKI: Put this pussy on your face, yes! On your face! (laughter)

ZACH: No, thank you mister David! 

Zach, the interviewer, laughs uncomfortably as businessman and Keef supporter Alki David literally puts his hairless Sphynx cat in the journalist’s face. Mr. David owns a media company and is responsible for creating and setting up 3D performances of popular artists fit for mass consumption for their fans even in person’s absence. Here, the two chat about a live show that featured Keef’s likeness in a local concert where the show was stopped by police who insisted that even the image of the young artist was just as banned as his presence.

ZACH: Mayor Rahm Emmanuel disrupted the show, he wanted to put an end to it?

ALKI: He doesn’t want Keef to exist.

ZACH: Why not?

ALKI: He doesn’t like rap music, he doesn’t like black people, who knows?

Alki says over and over that Keef is a “good kid” and just doing kid things. It is at this point where Zach decides to test how much of a supporter he is of Keef and his next question would have stumped most but Alki answers it without a hiccup.

ZACH: “Have you been to the South Side?”

ALKI: “I’ve avoided it, thank you.”

You get the impression that the people of this city are used to the attention of onlookers like you and I no matter who from the city is shown, there seems to be a common frustration. The frustration of people seeing the cries of help from a city but viewing in a sort of outsider looking in sort of way. The way we can watch an animal going through a stressful situation in a zoo but instead of alerting zoo officials we grab our cell phone.

Vic Mensa

Vic Mensa

When we first saw newcomer Vic Mensa, he had just signed with Jay-Z’s Roc Nation management and was newly thrust into the game via one of its most popular major labels and his new hair was being given a test drive. Now, we see that he has not only gotten used to his new du’, but has formulated some rather poignant views upon the producers that converge on his city to interpret the story of gun violence abroad.

VIC MENSA: I don’t like the fact that people thus far have been eating offa violence…people with cameras been eating offa niggas killing each other…All of that shit is noticed, noted, and its not cool.

In a contributing blog for Huffington Post, Chicago journalist Evan F. Moore adds his angle on this particular subject in a blog entry titled Inner City Blues: Chicago Style.

In Moore’s piece, TeQuila Sahaya Shabazz, CEO and Founder of BRIJ Fund, L3C, a cooperative of stakeholders who work collectively to tackle the issues concerning the black community, says that someone is profiting off of the violence.

“Profits are being made every time a black male is portrayed as dangerous. The media profits and the journalists now becomes an expert who in turn a profit from appearances across the country on his/her findings,” Shabazz says.

Getting back to Noisey’s piece, by the time Chicago humanitarian Diane Latiker is given the broadcast’s soap box, she is standing in front of her famous homemade plaques dedicated to the fallen youth of Chicago. Interviewer Zach engages her with a few questions:

ZACH: What sort of attention is this (Latiker’s shrine made of plaques) getting?

DIANNE: It’s gotten a lot of attention. It’s been featured around the world. As far as the attention I am looking for though…hasn’t happened.

The plaques that surround the two are nothing more than yard bricks you can purchase from Home Depot in a variety of colors, shapes, and designs, stacked very neatly in what looks like a tent or a small greenhouse. Each brick airbrushed with the name, and timeline of yet another Chicago youth killed, many in their pubescence.

ZACH: It hasn’t been the type of attention that leads to change.

DIANNE: Right…at ten years old you’ve seen maybe three people you know get killed. You come to school and the person that sits next to you is gone, and he’s 10! And then you tell me to get A’s and B’s? I’m a kid. Im thinking grown-up stuff how can I make it home safe?

For others, the frustration centers around no longer living in Chicago! According to a recent article in DNAInfo, “the Census Bureau released data recently showing Cook County — the second-largest U.S. county — lost 10,488 residents in 2015.” People are leaving this city, and fast!

The article continues — “People have blamed weather, taxes, crime and the impasse in Springfield for choosing to leave the city behind.” It was quite interesting to see how Noisey tried to make sense of these facts, and get answers as well through interview questions.

Because of past offenses and prior convictions, Chief Keef has been banned from Chicago, and likewise has had very limited contact with people in Chicago since the last time Noisey visited. Usually dismissive, the 20 year-old — who usually speaks with a hasty series of sentence fragments — actually spoke more fluently in this interview than I have ever seen him speak before.

ZACH: Why’d you come out here?

CHIEF KEEF: To get away from…Chicago.

ZACH: What did you want to get away from, then?

CHIEF KEEF: The police! It’s dangerous!

Lil’ Dirk may be cut from the same cloth, but in his interview his differences from Keef and his allegiance with the stereotype of Drill rappers as a whole seems to falter. The environment the rapper surrounds himself with as of late includes close members of his team, a small number of trusted friends and his children, all shown in the piece often.

Suddenly, the close-up lens is engaged and Dirk is asked about his manager, who recently died in a well-known Chicago shooting this past year. Interviewer Zach asked about how its been to move on after such a tragedy takes place with a close friend and business partner.

ZACH: What’s it like to be trying to make a change and for that to happen and sorta be just a barrier?

LIL DIRK: It would be crazy! That would really tick somebody off and make them want to go back to their old ways.

We gonna kill em with success.

Let the streets be the streets…Imma do this music stuff.

As we follow attentively, we are given a nice amount of possible reasons for the violence that has put Chicago on-the-map sort of speak. Father Michael Pfleger speaks on some of these possible indirect reasons for the ongoing violence in the city where he runs his parish, St. Sabina, in the heart of one of the city’s hottest areas.

FATHER PFLEGER: I can’t walk a block without someone asking me for a job….It’s the worst I’ve seen it here in a long time.

I have to break character here and go on record saying that Father Pfleger has a big presence in my life both professionally and personally. To many of you who are reading this right now it may surprise you that not only that I am from Chicago, but I am also a filmmaker working on a film about Chicago. Ironic, right?

I have been looking to get Pfleger on my film for a while now as I currently scout for interviews, so to see him on this piece is a pretty complex thing for my emotions to decipher. To add to my revelations in this piece, I will add that the very job I have now loading boxes into trucks at a well-known facility here in Chicago came from me attending a job-readiness course here in run by Father Pfleger. The program is set up to help people of the inner city get jobs in a time where jobs are far from plentiful at all!

After speaking on the special about the recent budget cuts that happened in the city as of the past few months, Pfleger then said something that I believe was rather prophetic.

FATHER PFLEGER: In a community where there are no options, money, and guns, become power tools.

When speaking of gun-violence, I know this to be a huge contributing factor! I know what you’re thinking and YES I do have a degree in communications of all things! I am essentially typing from the belly of the beast and not just as a by-stander. When you hear about the stats coming out of Chicago daily I am literally within that number.

Remember Evan Moore, the writer I cited from the Huffington Post article? Not only is he in my film speaking upon the same subject as an expert, but I went to high school with him as well.

Reflect back with me to the woman I described at the beginning of this piece, she who kicks off the Vice show, her name is M’Reld and she is one of the most well-known poets here in Chicago, with tons of traveling experience performing on stages and shows like Russell Simmons’ Def Poetry Jam under her belt. M’Reld is also is a friend of mine and I have fond memories of attending parties she invited me to back in the day full of Chicago’s artists and poets, eating, drinking, and doing “Chicago shit!” This is my city and I no longer want to play pretend with it.

Also, remember Dirk’s manager? He who was murdered in Chicago recently? Well, the place he lost his life was at a restaurant by the name of Stoney Sub, a well-known Chicago greasy spoon that sells everything from Italian beefs to subs and usually stays open late to take care of the after-club crowd. Ironically, when I shot my first tv show (Rookie TV) here in Chicago I chose Stony Sub as one of the places I set up my camera to tell others about Chicago restaurants and their stereotypical inch and a half thick bullet proof glass that makes it difficult for the cooks to hear your order. This is not just tv for me, this is life for me here.

Stony Sub

Stony Sub

You see, as Chicagoans we see the news everyday just like everyone else, but the difference is much of the time we know personally the people and places on the screen that to so many others are just factoids that make up a seedy story.

Whether it is world news or local, we often end up a part of the newscast as subjects of a new angle on the same ol’ story, one that absorbs and surrounds you the more you identify with it

The other weird thing about being a Chicagoan is sometimes you have to jump out of your own skin and “walk in different sneakers” as someone else for a short period of time just to survive. It makes it easier when dealing with traumatic events, and there is ample proof that this is often used as a coping mechanism for many.

To be honest, I took that approach with this piece for a few different reasons. First, it was called for in dissecting a Chicago piece shot by an out of towner (a trend in recent times). Being the Chicagoan I am there was a chance I could approach Vice’s coverage unfairly, or with a healthy bias. I stepped outside of my own skin in order to look at it a bit more neutrally, and actively bring my observations and opinions from a less biased place.

Secondly, when I began writing this piece it was Wednesday, March 23rd of 2016, what can now go down forever a very sad day in hip-hop — the day we lost Malik Isaac Taylor bka Phife Dawg, co-founder of A Tribe Called Quest, commonly known as a rapper but nothing less than a musical pioneer” to me. Emotionally, I didn’t feel able to finish the review at hand as, Rookie. Continuing to live and move forward is something many of us Chicagoans do on the daily functioning through the pain and confusion of losses of all kinds.

Likewise, I simply borrowed the life of another less-stressed individual via my imagination and rode that until I could effectively get my thoughts out without interruption. The third and final reason is the film that I referenced before that I am in the process of making, a film on the violence in Chicago from my perspective. I didn’t want my feelings about shooting a doc upon the same subject Vice has got to famously tackle twice to conflict with the goal to review the work as I was called upon.

All in all, I feel that Vice/Noisey’s piece was done rather well, covering many of the reasons violence occurs randomly and systemically, though some of the reasons presented feltmore stereotypical than others. I like how they didn’t largely rely on the “point-the-finger syndrome, where the goal is to effectively find where the blame is to be placed by the end.

Balancing out voices in the doc, the special showed people working toward resolutions and offered time to Grammy Award-winning artist and Chicago native Common among many other local activists (again, some I knew personally). These voices showed a community participating actively in changing the community that so many who don’t ever reside in it feel is beyond repair. Still, I feel, that this was the all too familiar view of the standpoint of the outsider-looking-in. As soon as possible a new view must be represented.

The view of a Chicago film maker that currently lives on the same Chicago streets that are constantly being deliberated on would be a view coming from someone dedicated to telling the story honestly and professionally. What is missing from the average Chicago tales we’ve seen is to have someone tell the story from the belly of the beast.

Furthermore, my feeling is that as corrupt as Chicago politics are and continue to be, that there is a larger picture that has not even been touched as of yet. If corruption is ingrained within the culture here, then why not also question this more within your Chicago piece? I turned my lens on this issue back in 2012 and ever since then it has been a struggle to keep that lens looking forward.

Right now my goal is to solidify ample funding to get more of the tools needed to properly report through the imagery and numbers I have to back my story up, while still locking down more interviews. As the special ends and Chicago recedes from its Viceland spotlight, the viewer once again takes in the song played in the introduction, written and performed by Syl Johnson. I am reminded of one of his most popular songs, one which emerged in 1987, called “Is It Because I’m Black?”

Seeing this piece, after having years of experience filming my own, I am lead to hope that these things I see around me aren’t merely happening because most of us are black, but if such is the truth, may the truth set us and this ailing city free. My hope is that everyone in my beloved Chicago and all over the world as well had a safe and prosperous Easter Sunday. It actually was one that produced a small miracle in town.

Maybe the tale of the Easter Sunday without a homicide will make a good chapter in Noisey’s book on the Chi, but at this point they can stand to the side, please, it’s my turn now!

Follow Regal Radio on Twitter @regalradio1 and on Facebook under Regal Radio; Follow Rookie on Twitter @Rookie_Chi and his production company @AHINAH_TheMovie

One response to “TV: Play a Game of Pretend With Viceland’s Chicago Doc

  1. Pingback: Hip-Hop: ATCQ’s Ali Shaheed Muhammad Rocks Chicago’s East Room | WARR - We Are Regal Radio·

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