For almost three years K.SO sat in his prison cell, plotting his future and thinking about his past.
By August, when he was sprung from the state prison at Mount Sterling, he knew what he wanted to do. He rode the Greyhound home to Chicago and went on to Cabrini-Green, determined to revive an old voice: Voices of Cabrini, a community newspaper out of print for more than a year.
He's got big plans too: 5,000 copies, citywide distribution, pages of advertisement; he wants to make it a must read for the hip-hop crowd. "I'm ready to bring this newspaper to the next level," says K.SO. "This newspaper's important. I want to give something back. Cabrini-Green's the motherland of all projects. Our first issue's coming on October 6 and the whole city is gonna want to read what we got to say."
Bold words for a young man two months out of "the joint," without money or publishing experience. But K.SO's an unusual young man. In his own way he transcends race, though his is not the way of an O.J. Simpson or Colin Powell. He goes the other way: he's a white hip-hop artist who's lived half his life in Cabrini-Green. "If you hear K.SO on the phone before you meet him in person, you'll be shocked," says Mark Pratt, the former editor of Voices and a lifelong resident of Cabrini-Green. "You think he's black because he sounds black, and then you see him and he's white. He looks white but he's not white--do you know what I mean? He's just K.SO. He's been living here for years."
How K.SO wound up at Cabrini is a long story that's difficult to track. He's reluctant to release all the details, starting with his age and name. "Just say I'm older than 25 but younger than 30."
As for his name, he says: "I'm K.SO; I gave it to myself because that's who I am. It stands for knowledge, strength, and opportunity. I was 12 when I came up with it."
He says he never met his birth parents and doesn't know their names. He was adopted by a north-side couple who divorced when he was young. "I've basically been on my own since I was five," he says. "I've lived on the street. I fed from garbage cans and slept in parks. When I think about it I just thank God I'm still alive."
He bounced among north-side public schools that suspended or expelled him for crimes of rebelliousness. He joined a gang; he dealt drugs; he carried a gun. He was arrested and jailed several times. "I don't want to glorify what my life has been; I don't want to glorify the negative," he says. "By no means can I forget my life or say I'm proud of the negative things in the past. But I'm working for the future. I don't owe any explanations; I don't live for anyone else's opinions. Everyone knows I'm real."
In 1993 he was sentenced to six years on a drug-dealing charge; from the moment the cell door slammed writing was his release. "I wrote letters, I wrote stories, I wrote songs," he says. "I read books. John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath. That's a beautiful book. The words are fresh in my mind. I can see them. I can hear them."
Mostly he writes hip-hop songs (before he was jailed, he opened for such acts as Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam, MC Lyte, and EPMD); his work is autobiographic. "The Greens Is Deep," his love song to Cabrini, begins with a lyrical litany of the shows and movies filmed there ("From Good Times to Candyman to Cooley High / Hoop Dreams, Heaven's a Playground and Do or Die . . . ") and goes on to describe a community surrounded by predatory wealth:
"Customers comin' from the yuppie neighborhood, / Comin' to cop and shop with our goods, / Yet they criticized the way we live, / But never could they talk when their money they give."
"I don't consider myself a rapper, that's too commercial a word--I'm a lyrical expressionist," he says. "I sit down and write a whole masterpiece in an hour, but really I'm working out everything on the way. You know, before I sit down it's worked out in my mind. I can do brainstormin' too, where I make it up right on the spot. Like this:
"As I look beyond this phone, I see kingdom come, / To say this little rhyme thy will be done. / So evacuate the premises before it's too late / Because the urge behind my word wants to rock this phone straight.'
"That's brainstormin', man. I just made that up."
While in prison he wrote a column called "Hip-Hop Review" for Voices. The newspaper was founded in 1993 by Peter Benkendorf, a north-side ad executive, and Henrietta Thompson, a Cabrini-Green resident. During its 18-month run, Voices featured articles by 70 or so different residents. There was a cooking column by Godfrey Bey called "Come and Get It!" as well as "Shout Out," in which local teenagers posted notices such as "I wanna send a Shout Out to Kidak, Cole, Crybaby and Eastwood. Stay Up."
The publishers also published the works of unknown writers, including "Escape," a haunting poem by an 18-year-old named Keith Smith, who wrote with envy of the birds flying above the high-rises: "To fly away, I don't know how. / Just to get away from this place / Where the feeling of coldness / Is much too often."
A few weeks after that poem ran Smith was killed in a gang fight. "There's so much talent in Cabrini-Green," says Beckendorf. "So many voices trying to be heard."
Perhaps the most provocative essays came from the pen of Jimmy Williams, who lives in Cabrini and runs a screen-printing business called Abstract T-shirts. Williams once wrote a piece called "Dumb $@#%" that lists all the stupid things people do to make misery of life.
"Dumb $@#% is when you piss on the elevator and your mother brings her best friends over to chat and they look at her like, damn!!!" it reads. "Dumb $@#% is when you kick your girl friend's butt, you go to jail, you screw each other, and start all over again . . . "
"I almost got my ass kicked for writing that, but I believe in writing what I think," says Williams. "People said, "If you think you're better than us, why are you living in Cabrini?' I live here for financial conditions; other than Cabrini it's a cardboard box on lower Wacker Avenue."
In August 1994, the paper abruptly folded when Pratt ran out of steam. "I had to let it go for my own sanity," says Pratt, who's a teaching assistant at Byrd Elementary School and a film student at Columbia College. "I was working three jobs, raising a family, and running a paper. I couldn't keep up."
Whether K.SO can revive Voices is a matter of debate. The paper still has a little money left in its bank account and a computer. Benkendorf, whom K.SO calls "my man behind the scenes," will help with the printing, as K.SO and his close friend, a north-side fashion designer named Troy Parham, hustle for ads.
"If K.SO can stay focused and out of trouble, he can do it," says Parham. "The man knows Cabrini-Green and he knows hip-hop like no one I've ever seen."
At the risk of sounding immodest, K.SO concurs. "I could fill up the whole paper with negative shit--shoot-ups, people getting held up at stores--but that's not what we're gonna be about," he says. "There's too much negativity already in Cabrini. The paper's gonna be full of positive stories. Say, for instance, a student who's been suspended several times makes the honor roll; we can write about that so the whole community feels proud."
But he also will run stories, poems, and songs by residents that describe hard lives and dangerous times. There is, he says, a difference between telling it straight and glorifying violence. "It's not negative if it's factual," says K.SO. "Something that's negative is throwing a murder or violence into the light and glorifying it, which is what the media does all the time. Something that's factual is being stated. Something negative would be the hard-core, B.S. rap that these teenyboppers think is the law of the land, which is polluting their minds. It's the difference between a rapper who states a fact and a rapper who boasts about committing murder.
Residents are rooting for the paper to succeed. On a recent walk around Cabrini, K.SO was stopped and greeted with handshakes, hugs, and offers of good luck. One man, Rapper Blue, recently released from prison, said he wanted to launch his musical career. K.SO urged him to write for the paper.
Other residents said the need for an independent voice out of Cabrini has never been more important, now that HUD has begun tearing down vacant high-rises. "People have to stay aware," says Joe Peery, coordinator for Demicco Youth Services, a local group. "The only reason they built Cabrini was to have low-wage workers next to the low-wage jobs. Now those jobs are gone so they want to clear us away. The Gold Coast's closing in and developers want this land. If K.SO can help keep the community informed, more power to him."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.