High schoolers line up to show their IDs and are immediately sent down a short escalator ride to an auditorium. The students file into each row—and at some point, later on, an announcement is made that an attendance record has been broken: Each one of the 385 seats are filled. “We are at capacity so tell your friends!,” staff member Raych Jackson yells excitedly into a mic.
The kids are attending Chance the Rapper’s Open Mike event, held at Chicago’s Harold Washington Library, in the Cindy Pritzker Auditorium, which you can only get into if you have a high school ID. There hasn’t been an Open Mike since October, so it’s no surprise that the event is packed.
Once inside, the energy is buzzing. Kids settle into their seats and talk loudly. They’re excited to be this close to Chance—to even breathe the same air as him. When he comes out on stage, the teenagers scream, focusing on him as he walks throughout the auditorium, taking photos and shaking hands.
This Open Mike is more significant than others: The day before, December 5, was the two-year anniversary of the passing of Brother Mike, whom the event is named after. Born Mike Hawkins, Brother Mike was a Chicago poet, activist and educator, who was one of the first mentors at the library's YOUmedia Center. YOUmedia was a safe space for kids to hone their creative crafts, and because of Brother Mike, also incidentally became a hub for young Chicago rappers.
Chance, alongside poet, activist, and rapper Malcolm London, subsequently began the series in 2014, after Brother Mike’s death. For Malcolm and Chance, Brother Mike was a father figure—a guiding light. The Open Mikes became their enduring tribute to their mentor.
On stage, local DJ Chanté revs the kids up, spinning cuts like Drake’s “Legend,” D.R.A.M.’s “Broccoli,” Lil Uzi Vert’s “Money Longer” and “JuJu On That Beat,” to which the kids know word for word. Suddenly the music stops and Chance graces the stage once again.
"I want to welcome you to the 18th season of Open Mike, Chicago,” Chance says. He goes on to explain that he and Malcolm put the event together two years ago, and it started with something they learned a long time ago from Brother Mike, about “a sense of community and how important that is to creating a scene.”
The Open Mike was formulated from the YOUmedia open mic that Brother Mike created, called Lyricist Loft, a "weekly Wednesday event where [kids] had a few minutes to go up and make a statement,” Chance recalls. “It was a town hall of sorts, [which] created a sense of community.”
“I learned everything I know about music from that open mic and meeting those people.” A lot of the kids whom Brother Mike mentored got together to create this space today, which is why the people who help run Open Mike are just as important to the event as Chance.
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The people on staff are integral and veteran members of Chicago’s hip-hop and poetry communities. While some came up under the mentorship of Brother Mike, others are just Chance’s lifelong friends: Poet and organizer Ethos; dancer and artist Syd Celeste; DJ Chanté Linwood; producer and singer EB (Eric Butler); educator Raych Jackson; educator Britteney Kapri; Chance’s managers Colleen Mares and Pat Corcoran; singer Kaina Castillo; drummer Eddie Burns; and SaveMoney musician Reese.
Before turning it over to Raych, Chance leads the audience in Brother Mike’s chant, a call-and-response of sorts. He asks them to lift their left fists in the air and says, “Brother Mike would say, ‘Power to the people, and the people would say right on.’”
Chance again says, “Power to the people!” With raised fists in the air, the teens respond with fervor, “And the people would say right on!”
Raych joins Chance on stage to remind them that the Open Mike is a safe space, reciting the mantra that both YOUmedia and fellow literacy nonprofit Young Chicago Authors uphold: No racist, sexist, homophobic, gender-biased, ableist, ageist or transphobic language allowed. Respect the mic, respect the time, respect the space.
The teenagers are given three minutes to perform: There are poets, dancers, singers, rappers and guitarists. It becomes a safe space for kids from across Chicago’s 77 neighborhoods to vent their frustrations, about violence, social injustices, and systemic racism—about their sexuality, about feeling disenfranchised, about being an immigrant, about the concept of the American Dream.
After each performance, the crowd roars, screaming, clapping and standing up. Whereas we routinely see kids bully and tear each other down, this space is inviting, warm and supportive.
Chance breaks up the performances by encouraging the teenagers to get up, shake it out, and dance. In between performances, he also brings out two featured guests to perform: Saba—who grew up in YOUmedia—and Jeremih. The kids swarmed the stage, pulling out their phones to take Snapchat videos and photos.
Earlier, one of the performers, an emcee named Jay the Rapper said, “We do have the power to shine like jewelry.” That line hits close to home for a lot of the kids, who snap their fingers in response.
Indeed, there is no better way to celebrate Brother Mike’s passing than with an Open Mike; this is his legacy. Spaces like YOUmedia were initially created in the spirit of growth, and the Open Mike only further pushes that philosophy.
The event openly accepts the kids’ hopes, dreams, fears and realities, allowing them to be unapologetically themselves.
As Reese says, “This is your stage, your crowd, your community.” He couldn’t be more right.