Interview: Open Mike Eagle is Giving a Face to the Erased

By | Posted September 18, 2017
'Brick Body Kids Still Daydream' isn't an album about gentrification, it's an album about erasure.
2017-09-18-open-mike-eagle-giving-a-face-to-the-erased
Photo Credit: Emari Traffie

Open Mike Eagle is stressed out and doesn’t know what to make of things. As the Los Angeles-based native of Chicago looks around at those closest to him, he knows he’s not alone.

A lot has changed since Eagle released his 2016 album Hella Personal Film Festival 18 months ago—both personally and across the United States. On his new album, Brick Body Kids Still Daydream, released this past Friday, September 15, Eagle works to process his feelings and the emotions of those around him. The palette of colors he uses to paint his new album is darker, heavier and less whimsical than any previous release.

As the world around him has rapidly changed in an evolving landscape best understood through news delivered on Twitter, Eagle looks back to the past to better understand the present and the future.

Rather than rap directly about politics, where he often feels he does not know the right thing to say, on BBKSD, Eagle directs his writing in a manner that exudes confidence. The stress Eagle feels now is similar to how he felt about the destruction of Chicago's Robert Taylor Homes. Some of his closest family, including his aunt, lived in the public housing projects that were demolished.

“The erasure of this place and the displacement of the people in there, that’s violence, that’s trauma,” Eagle told DJBooth. “Part of the reason that trauma is able to happen is because people were not thinking about the actual lives of the people who lived there and what would happen to those people. Nobody was thinking about that. They’re not thinking about people who have had families rooted there for two or three generations.”

At one time, there were 4,321 apartments in 28 high-rises in the Robert Taylor Homes. Roughly 11,000 people occupied those dwellings. It was once home to many familiar faces for Eagle as well as some the public would recognize, too, including actor and former professional wrestler Mr. T and late Baseball Hall of Fame outfielder Kirby Puckett.  

To be clear, Brick Body Kids Still Daydream isn’t an album about gentrification. It is an album about erasure. The land where the public housing projects once stood is now empty. In 1993, policymakers decided to demolish it, one building at a time. Apartments, too, were condemned one at a time. Those who lived there watched, heartbroken, and by 2005, everyone who once called Robert Taylor home was gone.

The distinct empathy gap for those who lived in these units is one of the reasons why Eagle cleverly raps about himself as a building on the album. The apathy many felt towards the Robert Taylor Homes reminds him of a similar kind of violence.

“That’s what happens when a police brutality situation results in the death of a person of color. There’s a lot of people in this country whose first thought is that the person was a thug or they did something to deserve it,” Eagle explained. “They don’t think about that person’s family or their mother or if they had children or close cousins or friends.”

On the flip-side, throughout BBKSD, Eagle recalls some of the beautiful moments and memories that he had growing up on the Southside of Chicago. “Daydreaming in the Projects” is about a park district location called Promontory Point, where a long-running city-ordained hip-hop program was once held. It became a meeting place for rappers and breakers and graffiti heads and DJs—anybody and everybody who practiced the art of hip-hop. That’s where Eagle started rapping.

Eagle also personifies himself as a building because of the way people can become callous when living in housing projects. This is a survival mechanism and the origin story of the superhero character we see in the “Brick Body Complex” music video.

“They live in danger in those situations perpetually and that’s the origin story of the superhero character. But you see the negative sides of that,” Eagle says. “It can also put a wall between a person and their real emotions. In some cases, that might be a cool thing to do. But in some cases, that might severely fuck with your quality of life.”

This is one reason why, sonically, Eagle wanted to employ a softer sound for the new album. The foundation of the music is a skeleton of big, concrete beats, but the flesh is the organic live music that producer Jordan Katz provided.

Best exemplified on “95 Radios,” the instrumentation provides a beautiful background that will remind a listener of hanging out with friends on a long, hot summer afternoon. It’s the most melodic, relaxing answer to the stress that Eagle is experiencing.

On “Hymnal,” Eagle enlisted a killer guest verse from Sammus, who has a PhD in Science and Technology Studies. “She should be running all of this,” he gushed. “That’s the nature of the underground rap that I came up in. You would know about somebody and you would hear the features on their album and that would put them onto new people and collaborative records and all of that. It was audio networking.”

Inside of music, Eagle is about to embark on a tour with Sammus, milo and Billy Woods. Outside of music, Eagle has plenty up his sleeve, including pre-production for a TV show entitled New Negroes that will air on Comedy Central.

Eagle, a former schoolteacher, never saw a network television show coming when he first started his music career. “All of that shit is cherry-on-top for me,” Eagle says. “I feel so fortunate to even be in that position. But it’s something I work towards. I never thought it would be in the cards, I’m in a position to be able to really sit in the awesomeness of the opportunity.”

Opportunity, created one brick at a time.

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By , a sports, arts and culture writer born in Los Angeles who lives in Brooklyn. He has published with Noisey, LA Weekly, Okayplayer and various other publications.
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