Your Favorite Chicago Musicians All Started Here

Chicago's poetry community is an incubator for hip-hop talent.

I was a Young Chicago Authors stan before I even knew I was a stan.

YCA is a Chicago-based nonprofit aimed at cultivating youth literacy and writing. It’s also been elemental to the growth of many of our favorite Chicago rappers and musicians. Yesterday (October 10) was YCA’s 25 year anniversary, which got me thinking about how vital Chicago’s poetry community has been to its hip-hop community. The two go hand-in-hand.

Last spring, I interviewed Chicago rapper Saba for Complex. He mentioned that YCA was an integral part of his development as an emcee. I wrote, “What single-handedly became the driving force for Saba’s evolution was Chicago’s poetry community, where he participated in open mic events hosted by organizations like YOUmedia and Young Chicago Authors. This is also where he met fellow Chicago rappers Mick Jenkins, Chance the Rapper, NoName Gypsy, Vic Mensa, and Alex Wiley, among others, all of whom also participated in the open mics where they watched each other thrive.”

Besides Saba, artists like Chance, Mick, Noname, Donnie Trumpet (of The Social Experiment) and singer Jamila Woods all got their start at YCA’s Wordplay, which is the city’s longest-running youth open mic. YCA and YOUmedia have had some overlap of artists who’ve attended both; some, like Vic Mensa, were more involved in YOUmedia.

YOUmedia is another Chicago-based organization with a similar goal as YCA, and began in 2009 in Harold Washington Library. Mike Hawkins—or Brother Mike, whom you might be familiar with if you’re a Chance enthusiast—was involved early on in YOUmedia’s birth as one of the program’s first mentors. Also like YCA, YOUmedia became an incubator for Chicago rappers. A few months after the tragic passing of Brother Mike, Chance and poet, activist, and rapper Malcolm London started the now-famous Open Mike for high school students, as a tribute to the mentor who raised much of Chicago's hip-hop’s youth.

In this city, it’s no secret that the poetry community has had an immense effect on musicians, but this is a part of Chicago's hip-hop’s story that outsiders are only just beginning to recognize.

Why is that the case? I personally believe that that is largely due to the “Chiraq” trend, which, at its outset, was openly embraced by many drill rappers. Since drill’s inception, outsiders almost exclusively associated Chicago with drill, and drill with violence, purporting that drill begot more violence. While that argument isn’t valid, the violence is indeed a somber truth and one that has continually outweighed the great parts of the city’s hip-hop community—until now.

Pigeons & Planes recently wrote a piece on the making of Noname’s debut Telefone. The story upholds the theory that her project’s essence is based on friendship. That is undoubtedly true—and something that sits at the core of Chicago’s hip-hop community. Indelible relationships, both old and new, have allowed newer friendships to form through older friendships, the end result of artists struggling together in spaces like YOUmedia and YCA.

Even with a considerable amount of violence, Chicago is resilient. If I could personify the city’s hip-hop community in any way, I’d call it a visionary. Organizations like YCA and YOUmedia have been central to that vision, one of ingenuity and boundless creative synergy.


By Tara Mahadevan. Follow her on Twitter.

Photo Credit: Instagram