Chance the Rapper’s Grammy nominations are a win for his community

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Chance on the red carpet (take our word for it) outside Metro on Tuesday night - ROSARIO ZAVALA
  • Rosario Zavala
  • Chance on the red carpet (take our word for it) outside Metro on Tuesday night

The Recording Academy announced the nominees for next year's Grammys on Tuesday, and Chance the Rapper racked up seven nominations—including Best Rap Album for May's Coloring Book. It's hardly unprecedented for Chicago rappers to get a little extra love at Grammy time—Kanye received eight nominations this year—but there is something new about the Coloring Book nod. It's the first streaming-only release to be nominated, a milestone made possible by an Academy rule change in June that granted such albums eligibility. (Bill Freimuth, the Academy's Vice President of Awards, told Billboard in October that the change wasn't in response to Coloring Book and had been in the works for months.) Tuesday night Metro hosted an invite-only party to celebrate Chance's nominations, and when the man of the hour finally arrived onstage with a bottle of what appeared to be champagne tucked under his arm, he still looked surprised by the news. "I don't know—Coloring Book, that shit was a mixtape," he said.

I was a little surprised myself. The Academy calls the Grammy ceremony "music's biggest night," but for as long as I can remember, its sensibilities have been stodgy and hopelessly behind the times. Year after year, lots of the nominations do little but demonstrate the Academy's inability to find the pulse of contemporary music, and the 2017 list is no exception. My "favorite" example is in the Best Rock Performance category—south-side nu-metal survivors Disturbed are in the running for a cover of Simon & Garfunkel's "The Sound of Silence" that they played on Conan. I know that plenty of music critics think rock's time is over (and Grammy nominations like this certainly support that idea), but some of my favorite albums of 2016 were made by young musicians expressing something vital and otherwise intangible with bass, drums, and a couple guitars: Mitski's Puberty 2, the Hotelier's Goodness, the 1975's I Like It When You Sleep, for You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware of It.

I'd be lying if I said I cared about the Grammys. But I do care about Chance getting nominated for those awards, because I care about what he's doing and how. He's earned recognition from the highest levels of the music-industry hierarchy while brushing off record labels and conventional methods of distributing music. Chance has openly confronted some of the industry's ossified habits and still won its praise. A backward-looking institution is still an institution, and lots of people who don't make a living following music look at the Grammys as a compass. Now their arrow is pointing at Chance, and that's something worth celebrating.
Tuesday at Metro, Chance made it clear he feels the same way: "Tonight we won because I got nominated for a Grammy. And I don't plan on waiting till February to find out if I won or lost. I decided tonight that—because I'm surrounded by my best friends, by my family—that tonight was the winning night, and I wanted to celebrate with you guys here in Chicago." Note his choice of words: "we won," "my best friends," "my family," "you guys here in Chicago." As much as Chance talks about his love of God, he loves Chicago too, and you can feel it in everything he does.

Chance spent little time addressing the crowd, preferring to hang back and let his friends entertain: soul group the O'My's and knockout singer Eryn Allen Kane performed, and Knox Fortune, Peter Cottontale, and DJ Oreo took turns playing tunes. Servers circulated with trays of hors d'oeuvres—now every time I go to Metro, I'll be hoping for someone to walk by every few minutes offering me pigs in a blanket or bite-size pumpkin-pie cups. Folks who've accompanied Chance on his rise mingled and danced; at one point I noticed activist, poet, and rapper Malcolm London stepping with designer Emma McKee, who'd cross-stitched the lion on the jacket Chance wore onstage during his Magnificent Coloring World tour. Euphoria sparkled in the air, and the event felt like a celebration of a community, not of just one person.

Community is something I always return to when I think about Chance the Rapper. When CBS 2 reporter Vince Gerasole interviewed me about Chance's Grammy nominations, I talked about his continued involvement in the community—something I'd had a fresh opportunity to see for myself just the day before. On Monday evening I went to the Harold Washington Library with freelance journalist Tara Mahadevan to see the 18th installment of Open Mike, an ongoing multidisciplinary series that Chance cohosts for teenage performers eager to show their craft to their peers. "Me and a good friend of mine, Malcolm London, put together this event two years ago," Chance told the audience. "It all started with a sense of community and how important that is in becoming a creative."

The name Open Mike pays homage to Chance and Malcolm's old teacher, Mike Hawkins, better known as Brother Mike. He was one of the first educators to work at the library's YouMedia Center, the creative learning space that's served as an incubator for many of the biggest young rappers to come out of Chicago in the past few years—Chance among them. "Yesterday actually marked the two-year anniversary of Brother Mike's passing," Chance said Monday. "It speaks volumes that a lot of the people he mentored are able to put this on today."

Only students with a high school ID are allowed to attend Open Mike. (I got in as a member of the press, but event volunteers stopped Mahadevan and me three times on our way to the Pritzker Auditorium, telling us that only high schoolers were allowed.) Unannounced guests frequently pop up at the Open Mike, and Monday was no exception; Saba performed a cappella, and when Jeremih nonchalantly walked onstage the crowd stood up out of their seats and swarmed forward. But the real stars of the evening were the teenagers who shared their work onstage. As students filed into the theater, Chance walked between the rows of seats with a clipboard, inviting them to put their names on a sign-up sheet to perform and often stopping to kneel next to someone and chat. Before ceding the stage to the kids, Chance told the crowd, "You have three minutes to come up here and make a statement."

Chance of all people knows the value of forums such as Open Mike. He's reached a level of pop stardom that's impossible to describe without hyperbole, but he still makes sure he can provide young people like him—young kids of color—with opportunities to express their creative drive and build communities on their own terms. I've long seen the Grammys and the people who win them as belonging to some distant, not-quite-real world, but I'm happy to be proved wrong by Chance's recent successes—and his continued investment in community.

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