Art Speaks Louder than Words 

Meet Nasty Nate. He is lyrically, no doubt one of our most talented Hip-Hop media lab students in Back of the Yards, Southside Chicago. His talent comes from blending tough personal experience with the creative art of rhyming.

One Tuesday afternoon, I was helping him record his freestyled rap verse in our studio. After he rapped a few bars, I stopped him in the middle of his freestyle because I had heard him describe shooting and killing three people. He sounded proud of it (whether this is true or not, I am not sure).

I asked Nate: “Do you see anything weird about what you just said on the track, and what we have here as a motto at our studio in Precious Blood, that 'Our Blood is Precious’ and thus should be promoting peace and justice?”

He irritatedly took off his headphones and turned to me, saying: “I don’t know peace. I don’t know justice. Why do you expect me to rap about something I don’t know?”

I was silent. My initial disappointment or frustration in his lyrics that “glorified violence” turned into a sad awakening – violence was so real in Nate’s life.

My response to him at that moment was: “You are right. You don’t know peace. You don’t know justice. But that is what we are here to do… to discover and experience that peace and justice together.”

I report with a heavy heart that Nate was incarcerated less than a month ago for possession of an unregistered weapon.

Listening through Art

That experience with Nate was just one way I learned the importance of listening ‘by any means necessary’, even through art. Persons or communities will usually have difficulty engaging certain subjects, especially issues that affect them or others directly: violence, racism, politics, socio-economic status, religion, etc.

Nate was communicating his deep pain and involvement in violence through the rawness of freestyle rapping. But I was having difficulty listening and accepting his pain.

It is clear to me that music has a way of transcending misunderstanding and has the potential to connect people through rhythm and rhyme. This is our premise of the section in our currently developing online component of the Connected Chicago Campaign called: Art Speaks Louder Than Words.

What is the Connected Chicago campaign?

The Campaign aims to foster empathy through understanding “other” perspectives and realities of differing communities in all of Chicago. The online component of the campaign is not a substitute for real-life engagement or proximity with persons, but merely a supplement or launching point for engaging these, at times uncomfortable, stories.

Posting art on our website, and tagging your neighborhood to specific artwork, whether it be songs, graphic design, murals, photography, drawings, etc. would allow users to dialogue – both within and across neighborhoods. Each neighborhood will have the opportunity to be heard. Chicagoans, in all areas of the city, want to be heard and listened to.

Art can be a collective microphone for them to do so. The website will function as a “Living Document/Artwork” that’s gathering testimonies, personal truths, artistic expressions and qualitative evidence.

Hip-Hop is one powerful way of bringing Chicago’s stories to life.

The Prophetic Voice of Hip-Hop

Hip-Hop music, since its origins, has wanted to speak unabashed truth, even when it was difficult or uncomfortable to do so. The rawness of Hip-Hop music was meant to express what people were afraid to share, but desired to. In this sense, Hip-Hop was intended to speak for people and through people.

Hip-Hop is prophetic.

The video to be produced for COMM 405 will attempt to shed new light on Hip-Hop’s role in the southside, particularly in the Back of the Yards community. One of my ministries as a Jesuit scholastic, has led me to Precious Blood Ministries, where I volunteer every week at a Media Lab, developing content and teaching hip-hop music, recording, creative writing, editing, filming, beat production, etc.

When I walk into this Media Lab, I see its potential for not only social expression, but social transformation.

Our first video will showcase that Hip-Hop music can be more than “gangbanging music”, even when sung, composed and performed by current or ex-gang members.

Nate’s lyrics spoke to me in a way that reading a book or report about gang-affiliated youth couldn’t. Our video production will help capture the idea that art -- and in this case, Hip-Hop -- can speak louder than words.

This radical listening or understanding, ‘by any means necessary’, is the heart of the Connected Chicago Campaign.

This is one of our journeys to embracing the vision of a Connected Chicago.

Check Out the song "Word of Mouf" -- produced and recorded at Precious Blood Ministries. Music has the power to give Nate a voice, even in his present incarceration. His freestyle "bars" allow me to be heard, even from behind prison bars.