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Attack on Chiraq: Activists want the word to die

Updated: July 2, 2014 6:03AM



Chicago, aka Chi-town or The Chi. Or Chiraq. That latest nickname might not be as popular as the others, but it caught on in pockets here and across the nation as the city’s killings and shootings made headlines. Blame it partially on the pundits: They’ve long suggested, often erroneously, that Chicago’s violence is similar to that found in Iraq during the war. And to those who use the word, it embodies the attitudes that have created a Chicago where shots fired are commonplace and shooting deaths are expected to climb as the weather warms up.

But some people are ready for the word Chiraq (pronounced Chi-rack) to retire.

High-profile rappers such as Che “Rhymefest” Smith have spoken against the word. And, true to a legacy of protest politics, the sentiment can now be found in T-shirt shops from the western suburbs to the South Side and all points in between. One popular shirt carries the image of the word Chiraq with the “raq” crossed out and the word “town” scribbled in its place. Beneath it: “We don’t embrace that.”

A small but growing army of social media activists are fighting back with hashtags including “antiChiraq” and “no mo chiraq.” But they have a long way to go. In the past 30 days ending Thursday, the #Chiraq hashtag was used 454,207 times on Twitter compared with 2,382 for #antichiraq and its hyphenated and capitalized variants.

And if shootings increase as summer swings in, “Chiraq” is likely to once again trend in social media and pop culture circles.

It’s difficult to ascertain who was first in wanting to bury the term, but it’s clear that several people had the same idea at nearly the same time.

“Nowadays words can kill people and words can get you killed,” said Aaron “YdotGdot” Pierce, 24, a Chicago party promoter who grew up in Avalon Park, now lives in Matteson and started the #antichiraq “Save our City” campaign.

“Now as soon as they call you the B word the reaction is ‘oh I gotta kill him . . . ’ I can’t be Superman and stop everything. I was just tired of the violence, and I wanted to bring people together. I want to put the Chicago back in Chicago,” Pierce said.

“Chiraq” was created in 2009 by King Louie, a rapper who wanted to highlight his similarly coined word “Drillinois.”

It was a politically tied nod to fallout from the war in Iraq married with the popularity of a war-based video game juxtaposed against the soundtrack of the then-new, heart-thumping music spilling out of some South Side neighborhoods. It’s in Chief Keef’s lyrics. It’s the title of a new hit song by Nicki Minaj, featuring the city’s own Lil Herb. It also riffs off of the city’s nefarious reputation as the home of Al Capone, Cabrini Green and dirty politics.

And because true crime and video of gritty gang-bangers are the catnip of cable TV and the online world, a number of documentary filmmakers and news outlets put their own spin on Chicago’s violence, and Chiraq gains traction.

But in the spring, the slow build of a digital backlash became more visible with a growing number of Twitter, Instagram and Facebook hashtags: #nomochiraq and #death2chiraq among them.

Fashion designer Alonzo Jackson, whose 16th Street shop Fashion Geek has a large following, has sold about 350 of his anti-Chiraq shirts, and not just to Chicagoans. He plans to find a charity to which he will donate proceeds.

“I’ve had the design for about six months but dropped the T-shirt around Easter, after one of those bad weekends when the news reported a lot of foolishness,” Jackson said. The sought-after designer has friends in the Drill rap scene, so he takes care to explain that he isn’t disrespecting their use of the word, but voicing an alternative outlook.

“It could’ve gone sour easily. You finally get a big record with Nicki Minaj and my T-shirt comes out the same week. No disrespect at all, but it’s just something I feel like we needed to do,” Jackson said.

King Louie is neutral on the social media push to drop Chiraq.

“I called it Chiraq, but I wasn’t caring about the Chiraq part. I was caring about the Drillinois part; I was caring about the drill movement,” said the 26-year-old, who is one of a handful of men credited with popularizing the musical style.

“We were making the drill movement and [the video game] ‘Call of Duty: Black Ops’ was big back then. . . . When I came up with that I was a shorty. I never would’ve imagined the stuff going on now would be going on,” Louie said.

But it is. News reports are filled daily with information about shootings and funerals. Since January that’s 134 murders and 658 shootings as of midnight Thursday.

Fighting the glory

Rapper Kesha “K-Valentine” Miles is fighting back with some vicious rap lyrics and has since joined YdotGdot’s #antichiraq team. She created a response, via a remix, to the song that Herb and Minaj released in mid-April.

In her remix, she in part tells the shooters to, at the very least, commit to target practice and not kill little kids in the process.

“I love Nicki and what she doing, but this ain’t nothing to glorify,” said Miles, who, like many interviewed for this story, is careful not to disparage Herb.

“Nicki’s on this pedestal where she could help. And I’m happy for [Herb’s] success. This brother is getting a chance. But it’s like, damn, don’t you understand that with this music stuff, these kids don’t look at it as entertainment? They look at it as instruction.”

Words and freedom

Though the word choice might be in poor taste, supporting its official retirement steps into the uncomfortable arena of challenging the First Amendment, says Harvard professor Charles Ogletree, also the director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race & Justice.

“I think words can hurt, but I don’t think there’s really any sensible way to stop them,” Ogletree says. “It’s a part of our vocabulary and it’s a part of our culture and it’s a part of people who don’t know any better. Instead of attacking them, the whole point is to educate. Everybody looks at Chiraq as a reminder of how little progress we’ve made and how far we need to go.”

Still others want city residents to organize around creating a public relations strategy to deal with the fallout from the word.

“The word ‘Chiraq’ is a brand that has stuck because of the media’s impressions about the killings,” said Rita Lee, president of NuFace Entertainment, an entertainment consulting firm and a brand strategist for Chicago-based artists and clothiers.

“We’ve always tried to brand Chicago for different things, but this is the only thing that (has recently) stuck because the media portrays the violence in sound bites,” Lee said.

Lil Herb did not respond to inquiries for an interview, but he did respond via Instagram to the anti-Chiraq push. In it, he says he doesn’t condone the attitudes of killing, but then, in a reference to spirituality, he says that shooting is the same kind of “sin” as some sex acts. In part he says: “THE MURDER RATE IN CHICAGO WAS HIGHER THAN IRAQ FOR TWO YEARS IN A ROW ITS KILL OR BE KILLED I’M FROM CHIRAQ.”

Not just ‘the media’

Some people blame “the media” for making the term go global. But Andy Capper, the Britain-born producer of the online-only, eight-part Vice documentary “Chiraq,” says that’s not the case.

“It describes the drill music. They use it to make T-shirts,” says Capper, whose “Chiraq” garnered 8 million views. “The young people are feeling that they’re surrounded by a war zone. White college girls are latching on to it. Keef’s music has transcended. Some people think [the so-called Chiraq lifestyle] is exciting; I think it’s very crass. Unfortunately with hip-hop music, I think they trade on their ‘legitimacy.’ ”

Aiming for change

Turning the corner requires community work and jobs, says Julien Drayton, the creator of the RIP Chiraq Foundation, a nonprofit group created in 2012.

Drayton’s not sure how he’s going to do it, but he wants to employ the men and women who are doing the shooting. “We want to peacefully kill the connotation of Chicago being Chiraq,” says Drayton, 24, who lives in Naperville but was raised in Ashburn and is working out partnership deals with several South Side social work organizations.

“People aren’t going to stop using the word, but I want to give them jobs to put the guns down,” he said.

Drayton is new to the 501(c)(3) game and still working out details of how to get funded and reach his intended audience. He also says he’s having meetings with key stakeholders so he can learn the best next steps.

“I’m gonna figure it out,” he says. “The point is, there will be no enemy to get shot because they’ll all be working together. Chicagoans are much more powerful than we think we are.”

DJ Bam, known for spinning out south at Adriana’s nightclub, is hoping the city jumps onboard with his #nomochiraq campaign. His message is mostly aimed at the 20-somethings he spins for every weekend. He also wants them to stop using the word “savage” to describe themselves. (Savage is another social media phenomenon helped along by certain musical crews.) He gets his word out via Instagram memes of Martin Luther King Jr. and a program he recently started, called the “Man Cave.”

“I hate it. I hate it. I hate that [Chiraq] ever started. It’s embarrassing,” Bam, 34, also a security guard at Ace Tech Charter High School, says.

“It’s a lot of grown folks getting shot by grown folks. It’s not just the kids doing this. We in bad shape. We gotta do something before it gets worse.”

Email: agibbs@suntimes.com

Twitter: @adriennewrites



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