Posted by StreetWise in Magazine ArticlesAs keynote speaker for the inaugural Chicago Music Summit, Grammy Award-winning rapper and TV/film actor Common had his audience from the moment he said, “It is an honor to be here in my hometown of Chicago, the place I am most proud to be from.
“This city is so beautiful, so powerful and what goes along with that is a responsibility,” Common continued. “We have a rich history in art, culture – even a President. I know I have a rich history to honor.”
Born Lonnie Rashied Lynn Jr. on the South Side in 1972, Common regaled his audience in Preston Bradley Hall of the Chicago Cultural Center with his first simple rap and he fed off the energetic response. He described working with Kanye West, watching him jumping on a table, sweating and spitting as he spun words. He partnered with West in 2004 for the Grammy-nominated “BE.”
But mostly Common used his experience to urge his listeners to plumb their own depths. “I want to encourage each and every one of you who strive to achieve greatness to find your path. Kahlil Gibran said, ‘Work is love made visible.’ That’s your love, your passion. You can turn that into your work.”
Finding your path is only the first step, he said. You also have to believe in it and then you have to live it.
Common spent two years as a business major at Florida A&M University. In 1992, his first album, “Can I Borrow A Dollar?” “arguably put Chicago hip-hop on the map,” with its three Billboard Hot Rap singles, according to Grammy.com.
When that album was released, Common said he started to believe in himself. As a result “things started happening in other aspects of my life.” He got his first callback for an acting audition.
Since then, he won a Grammy for his seventh album, “Finding Forever,” released in 2007, and was nominated again for “Universal Mind Control, “released in 2008. He appeared in the recent movie, “Now You See Me,” and stars in the AMC-TV series “Hell on Wheels,” where he plays a freed slave who went West after the Civil War to work on the transcontinental railroad.
He also started the Common Ground Foundation, headquartered in Chicago. Its mission is to empower and develop disadvantaged urban youth by mentoring their character development, creative expression and healthy living. In order to do this work, it sponsors an annual weeklong summer camp for 30 Chicago Public School kids, followed by three years of mentoring through high school. The goal is the Chicago Scholars program, which supports them through college.
Common told his Music Summit audience that feelings of inadequacy are the biggest fear, but “greatness is in each and every one of us. You are a child of God. Find your path. Believe in your path.”
Kristin Lanning and Jai Shawnee were attendees at the September 20 Music Summit.
Lanning is a Northwestern University journalism graduate and indie rock band member. She said what stood out most for her was Common’s message to hold onto feelings of self-worth in the face of challenges such as a record contract that doesn’t happen. And in terms of his pride in being a Chicagoan, “I like that he said ‘don’t play small, play big’ and Chicago is ready to play big.” She praised Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s support for the arts.
“I started out as a freelancer working under the person I wanted to be like. It was just my faith, my dreams and my ambition that got me to the next level,” Shawnee said.
Chicago hip-hop sounds like the city, she said. “It is a mixture of stories, experiences, a lot of different worlds that coexist in the city. It’s intuitive, introspective, the fresh new face of what as a country our demographic –18 to 24 — is experiencing, how we relate to the larger world.” The Chicago style in particular reflects injustices, politics and corruption, but also the quest for the 2016 Olympics and having Rahm Emanuel first in the White House and then as mayor, she said.
The Music Summit supports Chicago’s Cultural Plan in its attempt “to attract and retain artists and creative professionals, foster arts education and lifelong learning,” Emanuel said in the summit brochure. “This will undoubtedly contribute to the overall growth and prosperity of the Chicago music community.”
Dylan Rice, who is the City’s director of creative industries for music, said the summit showed him there was a demand for music professionals to connect with each other and with national industry leaders as well as to learn best practices and trends. The Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE) presented the summit (which was sponsored by Google) free of charge as professional development.
“The music world is changing and musicians need to keep up with it, especially if they are DIY,” Rice said. “Chicago has a strong [Do It Yourself] community of people who can grow businesses and hire people,” Rice said. “We want them to succeed as well.”
The music summit also supports the mission of the City’s cultural plan, which is to help artists to excel and stay in Chicago, Rice said. “We don’t want musicians and other professionals to work in silos but to share ideas. We’re stronger as a more unified industry. Someone who is hip-hop talent can talk to an independent cellist and probably have more in common than they realize: how they promote their work, distribute their recordings, register with ASCAP or BMI or SoundExchange.”
Sessions at the conference covered technical innovations and how to build an effective web site and network effectively as well as album release strategies, licensing and royalties, how to connect with regional or national tours and how to profit from You Tube, mobile music, advertising and video games.
Common’s message to follow one’s God-given path echoed throughout the summit. During a session on independent and major distribution deals in gospel music, an audience member described three of her testimony songs where the lyrics discussed God’s blessings triumphing over despair. Yet the song had a definite dance beat. The panelists decided she could label it “progressive dance” but still under the gospel umbrella.
“We struggle when we listen to what everyone else is saying, you’ve got to put the blinders on the best you can. If God gave it to me, somebody out there has got to hear it,” said Percy Bady, moderator of the panel. Bady is a Grammy-nominated producer who added horns to Chicago gospel in the 1980s to create its unique sound.
“What is your story, what do you have to say that makes you stand out?” said James Robinson, a founder of GospelFlava.com, which has 800,000 page views per month. “A lot of people can sing but some people are not anointed. It is the heart. It is the gift.”
Robinson also counseled one event planner that if she was getting corporate sponsorships, she was expected to give them an audience with a certain demographic. She should bring in a star like fellow panelist Anita Wilson and then introduce local talent as the opener.
Part of “answering the call,” Robinson said, was to “invest in the people behind us: those 22-year-olds running the company. It’s important to include all people.”
During the Hip-Hop Peace portion of the summit, Jabari “Naledge” Evans, who is the MCing half of the progressive rap duo Kidz in the Hall, said “this music is from a very real place…a lot of these narratives are very real.”
Family structures are broken down, said Mikkey Halsted, an Atrium and Def Jam recording artist. He used to teach in the South Side community where Chief Keef became known for the gritty and deadpan “drill rap” subgenre.“They were doing this music before it became popular,” Halsted said. “They don’t want to live like that but they want to be seen like that.” Individual artists gain popularity at their respective schools and spread their message via You Tube, Evans said. Artists gain fame as reckless youth with nihilistic songs. They begin to live the story they are telling and the lifestyle feeds itself.
Media will “go with the more salacious story,” said Andrew Barber, blogger/owner of FakeShoreDrive.com. By putting emphasis on drill music, other rappers with a more positive message are missed by the media and according to Halsted, “are pushed to the underground, are called crazy.”
Evans and Barber (as media partner), raised $2,400 through Kickstarter last winter to create a hip-hop album with students at the Options Laboratory School. Their intention with The Brainiac Project was to teach the youths about the music industry so they would go on to college or technology careers.
Malik Yusef Jones, aka “The Wordsmyth,” is the winner of five Grammys who contributed to several tracks on Kanye West’s latest release, “Yeezus.”
“I started off with rough beginnings, then became a poet,” Jones said at the panel on Success, Authenticity and the Music Industry. “I think my philosophy is that you are born with all the tools to be whatever you are supposed to be when you start to activate your imagination.”
Jones was joined by other heavy-hitters on this panel: moderator Gabe McDonough, who said he chooses only “authentic music” as vice president and music director at Leo Burnett; Joe Shanahan, owner of Metro and Double Door; Chris Kaskie, president/CEO of Pitchfork Media; David T. Viecelli of the Billions Corporation; Nan Warshaw, co-owner and co-founder of Bloodshot Records and Alderman Proco Joe Moreno, whose Bucktown/Wicker Park 1st ward is home to the Double Door and Empty Bottle clubs.
During the Q&A, several people said they were having trouble getting booked despite respectable volume. McDonough and Shanahan asked for their cards.
Some part-time musicians noted also later that the Friday conference barred them from attending since they were at work elsewhere. The 100-member Legends of Chicago Hip-Hop suggested a Sunday conference, and an online contest for each genre that would allow the public to select three top groups and reward them with a show at the Cultural Center. They also asked for an “old-school panelist” for each genre.
Rice said the Chicago Music Summit was inspired by the CMJ Music Marathon, “which put New York on the internet music map,” and Austin’s South by Southwest. The latter started 20 years ago with local country and rock bands and has now turned into a “destination conference” with world music, pop, rock and hip-hop.
“Chicago hasn’t really had a conference that has really united all sectors of the music industry across genres,” Rice said. “We are the third largest music industry in the nation. We deserve to have a destination conference to shine a local spotlight, connect the industry with each other and with local leaders.”
With 500 attendees, the summit achieved its goal of connecting the music industry, teaching best practices and tools, and making contacts with people from out of town, he said. After panels ended at 5 p.m., there was a networking reception, then performances by people doing innovative work who had not yet been licensed for TV, film or advertising. They received the desired attention from music buyers.
“We want to make it better every year, look at which panels had better attendance than others but also listen to communities, honor these legacies like blues and gospel and jazz, look at what was a success, what could use improvement. For the first year, it was a calculated experiment. We think it worked.”
By Suzanne Hanney