On May 14, 2015, the world lost blues legend Riley B. King, also known as B.B. King who wowed the world with his soothing, somber Delta Blues that connected new generations with the lingering pain of struggles rooted in the Deep South. His music aided in popularizing blues, sparking people of all shades to join in singing and playing their versions of blues. And although hip hop, r & b and other popular music genres, have long replaced blues as top listening choice, especially for African American youth, the blues tradition still lives; it lives in popular artist much like controversial Chicago rap artist Chief Keef.
Chicago rap artist, Chief Keef has longed sparked controversy with his gun toting lyrics and his repetitive use of the words "bang bang" on top of his tracks, mimicking the sounds of gunshots. As a teen out of dangerous Southside of Chicago, he rose to mainstream success with his single "Love Sosa", immediately causing him to be labeled as a face of Chicago inner-city gangs and violence, an emblem of what is wrong with Chicago. And while Chief Keef's lyrics are explicit and talk at lengths about drugs and gun violence, the images, activity, and attitudes he expresses comes from a very lived experience that many African-American youth in Chicago encounter daily just outside of their doors--an experience that has been going on long before Chief Keef shared his voice with the world.
Like Chief Keef's gritty words, blues also had an unfiltered, unpopular, and unpolished tone in its beginnings. Blues has roots in Negro spirituals sang in cotton fields, eventually morphing into something more secular, sometimes violent and lively via the Juke Joints that eventually captured mainstream ears. Now popularized, blues no longer serves as a popular tool to musically voice African American social and political struggle.
Long gone are the melodic blue cries harmonizing with a guitar as the popular way to communicate the struggles of black youth and young adults. Yet, the blues mood still exists for people of color. Blues survives in repetitive voices reiterating that black lives matter and in the death tolls on single weekends due to gun violence in inner city Chicago. It lives in the inability of education and socio economic status to save African Americans from scrutiny based on racial stereotypes-- scrutiny that sometimes results in death.
University of California, Santa Barbara Professor Douglass Henry Daniels writes in The Significance of Blues for American History:
"From an Afro-American perspective, the nation's history has been characterized by optimistic expectations followed by disappointment. This is the very essence of the blues experience. The disappointment produces a blue mood and a situation in which blues can aid in our comprehension of the experience and perhaps help us to arrive at a solution."
Rap artists like Chief Keef have turned bluesy cries into bombastic, hard-hitting, and uncomfortable vernacular over heavy rhythms, depicting a life that sheds light on what life is like on some of Chicago's toughest streets. The subjects of guns, death, and drugs may not be early morning easy listening, but there is the option to not listen to Chief Keef's music, while black inner-city youth daily encountering violence depicted in Chief Keef's songs cannot escape it.
And while Chief Keef and historic blues musicians may have different deliveries, they are united in being a voice for their generation, in terms of sharing a black experience. It is an experience that should be voiced and heard clearly because even if gun violence wasn't being voiced through Chief Keef's music, shootings would be still be running ramped in inner city Chicago. Chief Keef did not create the problem; he inherited these blues-- a problem long in need of fixing with help from outside the affected communities and from within. Professor Daniels further writes, "It might constitute a necessary phase in which we realize our mistakes, draw upon the blues experience, and find a means of realizing the ambitions we have for the nation."
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