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Why Chief Keef Should Be on Your Playlist

During an appearance on the resurrected Arsenio Hall Show last month, Kid Cudi responded in typical fashion to one of those frequently regurgitated questions about saving the “perilous state of hip-hop:”

I think the braggadocio, money, cash, hoes thing needs to be deaded.

I like Kid Cudi alright. A few of his works are sprinkled on my iPod playlist and I’ve seen him live. I cringed when this came out of his mouth. Neither he nor Arsenio said it, but everyone who’s in tune knows Chief Keef has become the poster-boy for “everything that’s wrong with hip-hop” in 2014.

“Conscious” rap is great. Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Common, KRS-One, Rakim, Nas—all their stuff is on my iPod. Take the musical aptitude of Mozart (sans pianos and violins), the poetic aptitude of Poe, give them the experience of being black men in America and there you have it—genius. They also almost wholly eschew the “money, cash, hoes thing” that Cudi implores us to “dead.”

Now—check this out. I’m also the guy who walks around my gym and college campus rapping to Chief Keef and Waka Flocka Flame mixtapes. Loudly. Not giving a damn what you think. Laughing at those of you with that word going through your head, looking over quizzically like “what the hell is this guy’s deal—and what in the hell is he listening to?”

Do you really want to know? Watch Chief Keef’s “Don’t Like” on YouTube. Original, uncensored. This lit up the streets in the summer of 2012. In the opening verse the whole “money, cash, hoes thing” is quite earnestly addressed. If Cudi’s deading it, Keef’s giving it textbook-perfect CPR like the Red Cross meant for it to be done.

Chief Keef is from Chiraq. That's a splicing of Chicago and Iraq, if you didn't pick up on it. Chicago currently holds the crown for most murderous city in America—defending champ since 2008. It’s a land of dysfunctional public school systems, gross income inequality, and sky-high unemployment. Which, of course, sounds like America period. But Chicago really is quite a bit worse than the rest of the country in these metrics.

Keef isn’t educating us about the vestiges of slavery a la Black Star, but his music offers an equally poignant perspective. By conveying a first-person narrative of violence, poverty, and marginalization, we can, within limits, embody the experiences of America’s marginalized minority communities. Everything Keef covers in “Don’t Like” speaks to something attributed to systemic oppression. His disdain for snitches is only natural given the justice system’s history of destroying black communities. His obsession with expensive cars and clothes is a corollary of existence in a racist, classist capitalistic system that constrains his access to these fineries. His focus on appropriating women as sex objects, violently dominating “opps”, and declaring gang loyalty speaks to America’s circumscription of the hated black male identity.

Instead of listening to Keef’s music, America labels. Thug. Gangbanger. Criminal. N*****. If not in your head, certainly in someone else’s. Good ol’ American individualism is what compels us to turn the image and person of Chief Keef—and all the other Chief Keefs in America—into a utility in service to the tenuous self-esteem of the superlative American racial order. Because, after all, if “those people” are just born thugs, gangbangers, criminals–then hey! Don’t fix the schools. Don’t create jobs. Don’t reform the injustice system. Don’t agitate for the equality of opportunity. All that stuff is useless since good jobs, good schools, good justice ain’t gonna make a good you-know-what.

America gives Chief Keef decades-old textbooks, crumbling school buildings, unconstitutional police harassment, murderous vigilante violence, limited economic opportunities, and abysmal living conditions. Then tells him: “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps, Keef—while my kid attends primary, secondary, and postsecondary schools that you’ll never set foot in.”

And, ironically, pays him handsomely to become “gangsta rapper” that it voyeuristically consumes a la minstrelsy—and, in its eyes, justly throws that word at.

Download one of his mixtapes. Have a nice rap-along. Yeah, even with that word. Just listen closely and remember who created him.