What Chance The Rapper Changed For Young, Black Chicago Men

The first time I watched Chance perform "Paranoia" live (with Macie Stewart on synthesizer and background vocals) was penetrating. While his audience consisted of people from various walks of life, his performance of this particular song felt esoteric. The crowd cheered, Macie warmed up the synth, and Chance froze momentarily. He appeared to be transitioning into some familiar mental state that seemed purely reflective at its core. While he had spoken no words yet, I knew exactly what Chance was thinking. He was damaged, like many of us, and had tapped into the sources of that damage just before the lyrics spewed eloquently from his mouth. The apparent pain and frustration that flowed between his words stood as proof that my assumption was correct. The content of "Paranoia" describes a lifestyle that Black men in Chicago are all too familiar with — and not by choice.

The opening lines of the song feature Chance reflecting on his active state of mind as he navigates Chicago’s south side. He describes the inescapable presence of paranoia as he moves through the streets, toting his gun as a means of self-defense should a life-endangering threat present itself (as they frequently do on the city’s south side). Before even diving into the song’s verses, Chance conveys a story that many of us effortlessly empathize with. He speaks of alert preparedness, an essential skill that one must learn when growing up in the depths of our nation’s murder capital. As gun violence perversely increases in Chicago, Chance openly admits to carrying a gun — not for gang-related activities or insubordination, but for self-preservation. In the third largest metropolitan area in America, children feel inclined to carry guns to protect their lives. The war-like environments in some of Chicago’s minority neighborhoods has promoted a “shoot or be shot” culture of mistrust, driving a larger epidemic of emotional paralysis throughout the city. Our representatives have failed to help us, providing symptomatic solutions to deeply rooted systemic issues. Things have only gotten worse.

In some ways, Chance had fallen into the same oppressive cycles that have perpetually imprisoned and killed our people. In recognizing and admitting his fall though, he took the first steps toward simultaneously diminishing the latter of the two aforementioned epidemics: the disproportionate and longstanding internal denial of mental illness in Chicago’s Black male community.

Toward the end of "Paranoia," Chance does something special: he acknowledges the mutual fear among his peers and himself. He is afraid of death, but he is not afraid to share his feelings.

The fear of death stands as just one of many detrimental complexes and insecurities that the average Black boy adopts over time in Chicago. While many of us know these mental illnesses exist, conversations surrounding mental health for Black men are minimal in our community. In Chicago, this silence is driven primarily by an intent to avoid the potential consequences of visible vulnerability. Unfortunately, the prioritization of emotional paralysis in our community has stunted us, ironically encouraging us to operate within the confines of a social structure that was created by the elite to preserve our oppression.

Chance’s admittance of fear was groundbreaking because it proved that we could simultaneously achieve both healthy self-expression and self-preservation. It showed us that being vulnerable could deliver us a pure strength; one that is not sustained by coldness or facades. A strength that could elevate us beyond the invisible ceiling that is reinforced by implicit biases and structural discrimination.

His movement may have begun with "Paranoia," but has expanded to various facets of Chance’s music and platform since. As an artist who made entry during the peak of Chicago’s Drill Rap era, Chance gained immense popularity through offering an alternative perspective. Instead of telling the common story of Chicago’s violence and anger, Chance crafted stories depicting the complexities of a young man who has experienced the hardships of our city, but has not let them define him. He speaks of the beauty in his upbringing just as much as he does the tragedies. He digests the worst in our city and regurgitates the silver lining — and when there is no silver lining, he tells us how he feels about it.

Beyond his music, Chance has become a well-loved national figure, hugely as a result of his ability to unabashedly be himself and honor others for doing the same. Popularizing empowering hashtags like #BlackBoyJoy, he has injected social media with a viral movement that acknowledges the bright sides of Black manhood, depicting an often overlooked narrative of Black male prosperity in America. Throughout his many successes Chance has stayed true to Chicago, consistently organizing free concerts and festivals to encourage community building and social activism. His work has emboldened our voices, conveying the notion that we must speak up and support each other when we are dealt injustices.

Our mental health is important. We have to stop neglecting it. Every interaction that we make reinforces or detracts from our larger mental stability. This stability is key to our prosperity as Black men. With situations like Drake and Kid Cudi occurring on the public stage, it is immensely important that we acknowledge the Black men who have positively influenced our perspectives on mental health in America. Chance has shown us that it is okay to explore our complexities.

We can be happy. We can mourn. We can show affection. And we definitely can freak out (like, a lot) when Beyonce catches us by surprise.

Next month, Chance will be performing at the White House’s Annual Christmas Tree Lighting for President Obama and guests, showing us once again how far we can ascend above that invisible ceiling. If performing for a fellow Chicagoan who happens to be the first Black President isn’t the purest version of #BlackBoyJoy, then I don’t know what is.

Because of you, our brothers in Chicago know that they could be next.

Thanks, Chance.