Finding Voices to End Gun Violence

We are at a cultural boiling point in the outcry against gun violence. Even from within the segmented world of popular culture, a powerful call for political and societal change is going out.

Acclaimed actress Julianne Moore is rallying a committee of Hollywood heavyweights behind the Everytown for Gun Safety movement, and the video for Everytown's previous rally cry, "Demand A Plan," has resurfaced to massive viewership. Another A-list celebrity, Amy Schumer, was so personally affected by a shooting at a screening of her film "Trainwreck" in Lafayette, La., this past July that she has essentially transformed her public voice from an always-raw-and-witty comedian to the serious and determined political force behind #AimingForChange, which looks to spearhead an anti-gun violence bill by early next year. The star power behind these initiatives is no doubt a major driving force in the publicity they've received.

While leading Hollywood figures have become deeply commited to the societal call to action, I've been inspired by many in the music industry who are running in parallel, with artists cultivating much more incisive, politically charged viewpoints. D'Angelo's late 2014 release, Black Messiah, is still as relevant as ever, taking a place amongst a new breed of protest records and calling out racial injustice and police violence in the United States. Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp A Butterfly carried that torch forward with intense rhetoric, internal monologue and conceptual delivery. Even Usher and Nas got into the conversation with a Tidal exclusive song and video experience that calls out the public's tendency to look away from the shocking number of minority youth killed by police violence.

While I'm aware of the rallying cries to end the bloodshed, the issue of gun violence resonates in an entirely sharper, more painful manner in my hometown of Chicago. My city has had a nationally recognized open wound, leading the nation in homicides for years now, and the problem isn't going away anytime soon. Someone is shot every three hours in Chicago. Three hours. In the last week alone, a 9-year-old boy was shot multiple times and killed in an alley, while blocks away a 20-year-old aspiring model was also shot and killed, caught in senseless crossfire that claims innocent lives on every side of the city.

Chicago's tragedies provide an opportunity for individuals and groups alike to raise their voices against gun violence. My opportunity came in 2014 when a team at my employer, advertising agency Leo Burnett, began working to develop a simple but powerful idea that could address gun violence in our city with our client, Chicago Ideas. I won't pretend that my inner cynic wasn't challenged early on when our team faced doubts on what an ad agency could actually accomplish as a voice against gun violence in Chicago; after all, we sit in a towering office building downtown, miles from the South and West sides where so many are confronted with perpetual violence.

Our team arrived at an insight: If music can incite gun violence, can it also prevent it? As director of music for the agency, I knew that exploring this idea would require extreme commitment and collaboration both inside and outside the building. We also knew that if we were truly going to connect in any way with the most important audience, Chicago's violent youth, then the lyricists had to be people they'd actually listen to--not only the famous artists that top the charts nationally, but the emerging rappers that are experiencing Chicago's violence right alongside the kids in our most dangerous neighborhoods.

To accomplish this, we partnered with Grammy Award-winning producer Anthony "The Twilite Tone" Khan, who is known for his work producing for Common, Kanye, John Legend, Pusha T and many others. Tone engaged John Monopoly, a legendary Chicago hip-hop promoter, manager and connector who worked with us to identify a unique lineup of emerging and established artists. The eventual track, "Put the Guns Down," includes artists from entirely different subsets of Chicago hip-hop and rap. Some are from the raw, gritty scene that tends to glorify violence, and therefore hold favor on the streets, while others are part of the new conscious, poetic movement of Chicago hip-hop, typically associated with Louder Than A Bomb/Young Chicago Authors.

"Put the Guns Down" features the many different voices from many distinct "scenes" of Chicago music unifying to ask our youth to make a decision against violence. To connect even more with the intended audience, we went beyond the song and music video to create an interactive website for the Music Vs. Gun Violence initiative that allows people to submit their own anti-gun violence verses and star alongside the artists. To date, the original music video has grown from four minutes to over an hour.

In a year with so much discussion surrounding the issue of gun violence, I've learned that it's not just the most prominent public figures that have a right to speak up. Sure, Hollywood stars, Grammy-winning artists, emerging hip-hop lyricists--hell, even advertising agencies--can play an active, authentic role in the movement against gun violence, but it's time for the people on the ground, the people coming face to face with this issue every day that need to take action and be heard as well.