Chief Keef's sentencing: The view from the courtroom

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It's been a humbling day for Chief Keef, who was sentenced to 60 days in jail for violating his probation during a video interview with Pitchfork at a gun range last summer. Keef's popularity and infamy have made him an inescapable presence in the rap world, and as such any news outlet with a vague interest in covering hip-hop has been keeping tabs on this court case.

And yet the scene inside the Cook County Juvenile Court Building was fairly modest; a group mostly made up of journalists, legal professionals, and Keef's family filled three wooden benches in a small, off-white courtroom. The room's sparse decor—a clock on one wall, a calendar on the other, and a droopy American flag behind Judge Carl Anthony Walker's seat—was hardly reminiscent of the lavish lifestyle Keef enjoys rapping about. The rapper himself walked in wearing a navy-blue sweatshirt and sweatpants that bore the letters JTDC ("Juvenile Temporary Detention Center") instead of his usual Louis Vuitton and Salvatore Ferragamo gear.

Outside the courtroom he has an outsize, violent persona, but inside he was a 17-year-old who goes by Keith Cozart. Lately the online conversation about Keef has focused on white cultural tourism via violent music by African-Americans, but it didn't come up in the conversations among cops and court officers that I overhead in the courtroom prior to Judge Walker's entrance—I heard more about young Chicagoans who are grappling with real violence. In the courtroom Cozart's rap career was almost of no consequence—except for the fact that it was used as evidence to keep him behind bars (and a reason to let him go).

After a brief history of Cozart's legal trouble leading up to the Pitchfork interview, the prosecution played the role of courtroom Rap Genius, using the lyrics to "Love Sosa" (the first song on the recent Finally Rich) as evidence of his alleged gang involvement and to suggest that he hasn't changed his ways. Cozart's attorney, Dennis Berkson, responded by acknowledging that the video interview that violated the rapper's probation was "stupid," but he also insisted that Cozart's rap persona is just that—a fiction, not an accurate reflection of its creator's attitude. "There was a commercial success in talking about these things on the streets," Berkson said. "It doesn't mean he was doing it." When Berkson said that Cozart would still rap like this if he were living in Alaska, someone in the back of the courtroom scoffed under his breath and whispered, "Yeah right."

The back-and-forth about Cozart's music and lyrics and their relationship to his actual identity echoes the argument about him that's been happening online for a year, only this one had legal consequences. Cozart took the floor to read a speech to Judge Walker that he had scribbled on a piece of paper. He pleaded not only for himself but for his two daughters and said he's trying to improve. "My GED is almost complete," he said. "And the person people are trying to make me out to be is not who I am." Cozart had to pause in the middle of the speech and when he picked things back up his voice began to tremble and it sounded like he was holding back tears; though his back was to the crowd and it was difficult to see his face, Cozart was clearly upset.

After the ruling, the hip-hop world immediately began debating (of all things) whether or not the famously dead-eyed rapper had actually cried in the courtroom. Tonight Keef's team will release a new song from his forthcoming mixtape, Bang Part 2. Its cover art shows a cartoon of Keef brandishing a gun, a sign that his persona will live on, at least for now. Just before Cozart was taken away he embraced a few family members, showing another side of himself that the public almost never sees.

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