Despite the conflicting rhetoric surrounding the culture created by rap music and the often poor character of rappers, one young professional has taken it upon himself to change the industry. Meet Chancelor Bennett, whom you might know as Chance the Rapper.
Bennett was born in the neighborhood of Chatham on 79th Street in southside Chicago (where he gets his nickname “Lil Chano from 79th”). He made a name for himself during his senior year of high school after being suspended for 10 days for smoking weed. Shortly after, he came to the conclusion that his life wasn’t heading in the right direction and that maybe high school wasn’t the answer for him.
Rather than sit around at home, he made a mixtape called 10 Day and released it to the public via datpiff.com, an online mixtape distribution site. His talent was quickly recognized by established rappers like Childish Gambino and it wasn’t long before they were seeking him out to collaborate. He released a second mixtape, Acid Rap, in 2013. Anyone who was even remotely interested in rap music knew he was something special. He prided himself on his unique style and, more uniquely, the fact that his music was available for free. His exclusive commitment to the music platform SoundCloud surprised rappers and the music industry. Chance was becoming ubiquitous in his hometown of Chicago but was still struggling to crack the national rap industry.
But everything changed with his third mixtape, Coloring Book. Chance, grounded in his Christian faith, knew he wanted to make music that highlighted that. He traded in references to drugs for ones about family and started to incorporate gospel themes, both sonically and lyrically. His music was a testament not only to his faith but an affirmation of his commitment to his family (especially his daughter) and the city of Chicago. He rapped about peeling away from drug abuse and the struggles of his childhood. In his song “Angels,” he talks about his hope for a better city, asking future generations to “clean up the streets so my daughter can have somewhere to play.” The music video for the song further exemplifies his idealistic hopes for Chicago, portraying him as a superhero. In the song “All We Got,” he praises his fiancé for being a great mother:
“Man my daughter couldn’t have a better mother, if she ever find another he better love her.”
Coloring Book wasn’t just an album that put Chance on the map, it was an album that challenged conventional rap music and put Chance’s wholesome character on display. Where today’s prominent rappers feature drugs and sex in their songs, Chance challenged that narrative by bringing deeper themes of faith, family, and happiness into his music.
Even amid his rising stardom, Chance maintains his autonomy from corporate labels and remains an independent artist. An independent artist giving his music away for free needs to make money somehow, so tours are Chance’s primary source of income.
The Coloring Book tour sold out almost instantly, and people began reselling tickets for higher prices, specifically for his hometown show in Wrigley Stadium. Most musicians are indifferent toward resale tickets. You’ve already made the money, so what difference does it make if fans are dealing with second-hand sales? But Chance isn’t just any rapper.
In response, Chance managed to open up the entire stadium and offer additional seats at cheaper prices to save his fans the financial burden of resale tickets.
His tour last fall coincided with the 2016 presidential election. But what does a rap music tour have to do with politics? Often nothing, but Chance is anything but traditional. He recognized the delicate political climate and decided it was part of his responsibility to contribute his political opinions openly. He publicly voiced his support for Hillary Clinton. It wasn’t enough to show his own support though, he wanted other citizens to rally behind him. He teamed up with the NAACP to make voter registration forms available at every show, in an attempt to encourage his young fans to be politically active.
Volunteers stood at the entrance to his shows asking people if they had registered and offered to handle the process for them right there. Marquees outside his shows alternated between “Chance the Rapper” and “Stay Woke and Vote”. As registration season closed and voting season opened, Chance led thousands of voters to early polling stations in Chicago in a march that was unlike anything the city had ever seen. His political activism continued even after the election season ended. Chance, after criticizing the governor for inadequate funding of inner city schools, was able to meet with the Governor of Illinois to specifically discuss the funding of education in Chicago. A rapper meeting with a sitting governor to discuss education funding is almost unheard of. Chance also donated $1 million to Chicago public schools, a donation which, at his request, was matched by the Chicago Bulls. He reached out to Jimmy Butler, star of the Chicago Bulls, to build up an army of Chicago celebrities and stars who truly cared about the city. His benevolence and philanthropic attitude are leaving Chicago a better place than it was before him – something other Chicago natives have yet to do (sorry Kanye).
Though the limelight has cooled off following the initial mania over Coloring Book, Chance is far from done. He performed last year at the White House Christmas celebration and is one of the few independent artists who has performed on SNL, Ellen, and Jimmy Fallon. All this while continuing to give his music away for free. He continues his support for Chicago in small ways, too. After the buzz surrounding the hit movie “Get Out,” he purchased tickets for an entire theatre in Chatham. He tweeted out asking people to bring their IDs and offered them an opportunity to see the movie for free, just because.
In a landmark decision made by the Grammy organization, the rapper’s online-only mixtape was included among the 2016 nominations, which were previously reserved for traditional albums. Impressively, he scooped up three awards that night — a boldly inspiring success story for those who wish to pursue non-traditional rap careers.
It’s not what he’s accomplished or how he’s done it that matters to him. Chance is the definition of someone who is driven by the “why.” He delivers more than is asked of him because he believes that success is rooted in the community. He sees it as his responsibility to leave this world a little better than it was for him. Chance the Rapper is winning over hearts and minds and brings new meaning and responsibility to the concept of celebrity. His altruism is not for show, it is genuine. And so as long as Chance is around, Chicago can rest assured that they won’t have “No Problems.”
Featured image licensed under CC BY 2.0. Image cropped by editor.