2016: The Year Chance Stood With The People & Showed He’s So Much More Than A Rapper

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In just under two weeks, we will be saying goodbye to 2016, a year during which the world faced turmoil at breakneck speed. From President Obama’s announcement of a federal state of emergency in Flint, Michigan during the first month of the year to a summer stained with the blood of civilians shot dead by police, and a closing quarter that’s forcing us to envision the world with Donald Trump as Commander-in-Chief, it hasn’t been the easiest year for Americans. Cities like Baton Rouge, Dallas, and Chicago (as well as public restrooms across North Carolina) became the unwitting headquarters for the contemporary fight for civil rights, and other cities across the U.S. hosted some of the most controversial political events in history. While attention to issues like mass incarceration and discrimination in Hollywood have become more visible, the normalization of racism continues to permeate our society. But through it all, a 23-year-old from the South Side of Chicago managed not only to release one of the year’s most restorative projects, but also nab Grammy nominations in unprecedented ways and become a civil-rights icon in his own right.

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Chancelor “Chance the Rapper” Bennett has secured himself a place in the annals of music history, thanks to the seven Grammy Award nominations he has amassed, many of which are for Coloring Book, a self-released free mixtape (the others are for his contributions on Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo). Coloring Book is a contender for “Best Rap Album,” marking the first streaming-only project to be nominated, not just in that category, but ever. Also up for “Best New Artist,” “Best Rap Song” (not once, not twice, but three times), “Best Rap Performance,” and “Best Rap/Sung Performance,” his chances are looking pretty good. His independent streak as an artist has also made him a history maker in television, as he became the first independent musical guest in Saturday Night Live‘s multi-decade existence. Just one year later, he returned to SNL, performing for the third time in 12 months (once as a guest of Kanye’s), an unbelievable achievement for an artist who has never released solo work through a label, indie or otherwise.

And it’s not as if he doesn’t have the opportunity to sign with a major and reap the benefits. In fact, he’s been refusing to sign with a label for at least four years. And he’s also been outspoken about his distaste for the idea altogether. In an August interview with GQ, he said of his decision to remain unattached “It’s like a fucking dick-swinging contest, where they all just brag about who they recently got. And so I’m definitely not trying to be a part of their dick-swinging contest. I’m staying far away from all dick-swinging.” Chance alone has given himself the freedom to make such statements, and in so doing, he is building infrastructure leading directly to self-actualization for young people who otherwise feel confined and suffocated by traditional measurements of “making it big.”

Chance The Rapper Makes History “Coloring” His Way Onto The Charts

His music continues to serve as a salve for the emotional, psychological, and physical wounds inflicted on youth by a system built on their oppression. It encourages young people to feel pride in themselves, to acknowledge the worth in each other. As Chance’s friend, frequent collaborator, and fellow Chi native Jamila Woods explained to Billboard earlier this year, “for young people on the city’s South or West Side, there’s nothing coming from government, from our school system that’s bolstering the kind of pride that comes out in Chance’s work.” Part of that invaluable undertaking was fostered in him growing up as the child of Kenneth Bennett, an activist who for many years worked in the mayor’s office. Part of Bennett, Senior’s job involved “getting the call every morning, updates on how many kids got shot the day before,” Chance explained in the same interview. He continues:

There’s a larger conversation we need to have about the role of police officers, their relationship to the people as enemy or executioner, when they’re not supposed to be either. There’s also not enough pressure on internal organizations that are supposed to police the police and on judges in the justice system who are supposed to make reasonable decisions.

Heads may recall the way Chance stood up for Chicago late last year, as Spike Lee was doing promotional runs for his film Chi-Raq. The youngster called out one of the most iconic directors of all time, calling Lee’s dramedy an “oversimplification” of gun violence in the Chi, a brazen move by anyone, let alone one whose career was just blossoming. In an interview with Chicago radio station WGCI 107.5, Chance explained his position, saying:

The reason that we’re dying isn’t cause there’s two head gang bangers that are into it, we’re dying because we all have PTSD…kids as young as seven and younger than that have seen people murdered in front of them. So that starts a paranoia in your mind that you’re walking around with, and when you’re walking around feeling like people are trying to kill you, you shoot when you get scared.

Heartwarming nostalgia and painful reflections are a cornerstone of Chance’s music, particularly in records which revisit his childhood. There is no doubt he loves Chicago, and what the rest of America is led to believe to be a city plagued with crime and gun violence, Chance sees as the only home he and his community have ever known, and for that reason alone, it’s beautiful. Through lyrical passages like the one below from “Summer Friends,” where happy-go-lucky memories live side-by-side with stark realities, he serves to remind us of the beauty in where we come from.

We still catching lightning bugs
When the plague hit the backyard
Had to come in at dark ’cause the big shawtys act hard
Okay now, day camp at Grand Crossing
First day, niggas shooting
Summer school get to losing students
But the CPD getting new recruitment

These words make him more than a “conscious rapper.” Like so many other MCs, he is as much a sociologist as he is a wordsmith. He is both a product of a neglected environment and a proponent for its protection, a fragile balance to navigate when coupled with international stardom and newly bestowed fatherhood.

Chance The Rapper & Jamila Woods Take a Soul-Baring Ride Home (Audio)

Longtime fans will likely also think of Acid Rap‘s “Paranoia” –  a solemn reflection on a city engulfed in a war nobody cares about (“They murking kids; they murder kids here/Why you think they don’t talk about it?/They deserted us here/Where the fuck is Matt Lauer at? Somebody get Katie Couric in here“) – as one of his earliest works of social activism. Three years later, Bennett has become a central figure in his generation’s political and social movements.

Chance’s longstanding devotion to public service, and the recognition has taken him to some remarkable places. He was chosen to perform a tribute to the late Muhammad Ali at this year’s ESPY Awards, and invited by the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics for an hour-long discussion which included the role of activism in his art. He also was elected to speak at the NAACP’s “The People’s Inauguration Rally” on January 21, Trump’s first day in office, and was one of the few artists to speak with President Obama this year to discuss the My Brother’s Keeper Initiative, a criminal-justice reform platform aiming to restore Black families decimated by the prison-industrial complex and systemic racism. Chance also was asked to perform at the White House National Christmas Tree Lighting this month for the First Family.

It is he who helped make #BlackBoyJoy a trending topic on social media, encouraging people to upload and celebrate those unfiltered moments of glee in life, however rare they may be. It was he who used his American tour dates to register voters at his shows, which he did in conjunction with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, whose President Cornell William Brooks said that Chance “is an artist whose music praises and lifts up our common humanity, and whose call for action speaks to the yearning of this moment.” It is Chance who saw his voter empowerment efforts through by physically leading hundreds of Chicago youth to early polling places through his “Parade to the Polls” event, helping Cook County set a record for ballots cast during early voting. It is Chance who was the face of the #StayWokeAndVote campaign, as well as the ongoing #StayWokeAndFight movement. And it was Chance who launched the Warmest Winter initiative, a Chicago-based clothing drive for the city’s homeless population; with his help, over $100,000 in donations were collected.

But it isn’t just Chicago. Chance embarked on the Magnificent Coloring World Tour in September, a still-ongoing affair that will take him to Australia and New Zealand by year’s end, and which has already brought him across North America and Europe. It’s a testament to his appeal, which is inextricably linked to the sentiments expressed within his music. His message of self love and mutual respect is a universal one, no doubt. But there is something truly triumphant in Lil Chano From 79th’s capacity for global influence in such a short amount of time.

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Chance the Rapper closes Coloring Book with “Blessings (Reprise),” without question a contemporary hymnal much like the spirituals which strengthened the resolve of the enslaved of prior generations. In it, Chance sings:

I made it through, made it through, made it through
And everything I gave to you, I gave to you, I gave to you
You got it, you got it, you got it, it’s coming (Coming, coming, coming)
So are you ready?
Are you ready?

For these and many other reasons, Chance The Rapper is our Hip-Hop Person of the Year. Sounds like 2016 is only the beginning.