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Hawkins came up in Chicago's youth-friendly poetry scene in the 90s. Teh’Ray "Phenom" Hale, who cofounded a south-side mentoring organization called L.Y.R.I.C., remembers meeting Hawkins during a poetry event at a club called the Clique. "I was floored by the way he wrote, and he had a commanding voice," Hale says. Hale had been working his way up in the hip-hop scene at the time and joined forces with Hawkins to create a genre-bending performance outfit called POETREE Chicago. "They were super powerful and I used to love to perform with them," says poet Kevin Coval, a local youth mentor who is the artistic director for Young Chicago Authors and founder of the Louder Than a Bomb festival.
POETREE, which is an acronym for People’s Organized Entertainment Teaching Righteous Education Everywhere, had upwards of 11 members, though Hale says he and Hawkins were two of the four people at its core. The group went on to release an album in 2004 called Positive Pollution. "We dedicated ourselves to making a project that was not just likable but actually inspired and impacted the youth to make the music," Hale says of the album.
Around that time Hawkins would help cohost weekly open mikes at a west-side space he lived in called Lyricist Loft. Hale recalls they'd screen revolutionary B movies and cook people food in addition to hosting performances. "It was a real hippie-type spot," he says. "We had parties and it was free art just exploding everywhere." In a 2005 Columbia Chronicle story on POETREE J. Diamond Weathersby described the layout of the space in detail:
The "Lyricist Loft" space is just as nonconformist as POETREE's mission, content and performances. Nontraditional forms of artwork are sprawled all over the loft, including a mattress suspended from a wall containing an abstract, multi-hued representation of a human face. Handcrafted, designer T-shirts are spread all atop couches and posted on some of the loft's support beams. There is even a massive film projection screen in the middle of the loft's seating area, as well as a host of signs and hand-written messages, two of which read: "Beware of artists—they mix with all classes of society," and "Excuse the f**k outta my language."
Lyricist Loft lived on after the physical location closed—it became the name for the weekly YouMedia open mikes where a generation of local rappers found their voices. Hawkins came to YouMedia through the Digital Youth Network, which was founded by Nichole Pinkard, an associate professor at DePaul's College of Computing and Digital Media; Hawkins was hired on as DYN's first mentor. "He taught himself every digital media there is," Pinkard says. "He could teach anything to kids." DYN supplied mentors to YouMedia when it opened a space in the Harold Washington in 2009; Hawkins was among the first to mentor at YouMedia.
"There wasn't a teen that he couldn't connect with," says poet Jennifer Steele, YouMedia's Partnerships coordinator. Steele says Hawkins was a mentor to her in addition to the scores of young people he worked with—Chicago Public Library director of government and public affairs Patrick Molloy estimates some 5,000 teens have come through YouMedia since it opened. It's hard to calculate just how many young people Hawkins personally worked with, but he left a deep impression on those he mentored.
"Brother Mike—he was an incredible listener," Coval says. "He was also brilliant and could synthesize really complex, difficult ideas and conditions young people live through despite the city's and country's efforts to not have them live and he was pushing people to be their optimal selves." Hawkins gave aspiring MCs and poets time and space to perform and the encouragement to stand in front of people. "He [would] always call us kings and queens and treat us with so much respect," Chandler says. "We weren't always these revolutionary artists . . . our influences and surroundings shaped us into us being this, and he was one."
Hawkins was a spiritual father to a generation of Chicago rappers, but his influence extended beyond the world of hip-hop. He also mentored young educators, activists, and even the poet Malcolm London—he's the cochair of the local chapter of Black Youth Project 100 and has helped organize local protests in response to the unrest in Ferguson. Hawkins had also been working with Steam Studio—a pop-up design studio for youth—which threw a show in the fall featuring Chandler and Noname Gypsy. Hale says Hawkins was also an accomplished photographer. "For about 15 years Chicago has been given stellar art and inspiration," Hale says. "We just had our sunset."
Read some of the public tributes to Hawkins below.
He would say "Power to the People" and Youmedia would say "Right on!" and know exactly what it meant. Rest in peace Brother Mike
— Chance The Rapper (@chancetherapper) December 4, 2014
Brother Mike saved so many of us. YouMedia changed so many lives. Rest in peace Brother. Thanks for making me believe in myself.
— LEGENDARY SABA (@sabaPIVOT) December 4, 2014
#BrotherMike put his life into making #Chicago a better place for young people to be themselves. daily dedication to serve, educate & uplift
— Kevin Coval (@kevincoval) December 4, 2014
There would not be a Chicago music scene right now if it wasn't for Brother Mike.
— BLACK POWER ranger (@MalcolmLondon) December 4, 2014
We lost a true hero to Chicago youth today. Rest In Peace #BrotherMike
— Indigo Purple (@JoeyPurps) December 5, 2014
Mike Hawkins You Saved My Life. I Love You.
— Taylor Bennett (@_TaylorBennett) December 4, 2014
"Look at all the lives you saved" #brothermike We love you 😭 pic.twitter.com/cSCYZ8QpMl
— SOULAR SYSTEM DEC 17 (@ThatsJeanDeaux) December 5, 2014
— The Water[s] (@mickjenkins) December 5, 2014
Brother Mike Hawkins WAS the revolution & left a piece of it with everyone he encountered. #RightOn #Revolution #BrotherMikeHawkins
— Donda's House, Inc. (@DondasHouse) December 4, 2014
Thank you Brother Mike for showing us how to 'turn a moment into a movement'. You will missed. #BrotherMike http://t.co/NbnSXC16KJ
— DYN (@digitalyouth) December 4, 2014
Update: Since the publication of this post, the Cook County Clerk's Office has contacted the Reader to confirm that Hawkins died on Wednesday, December 3.