Recently, I made a sporadic trip to Chicago this past weekend to cover the Pitchfork Music Festival for CMJ.com, an online magazine I freelanced for in the beginning of this year. I already had the intention of traveling to the city to explore and investigate deeper into the neighborhoods that the nation has declared a part of “Chiraq,” a politically charged nickname that the city adopted after reports of rampant shootings and “gang violence” made their way into mainstream media that simply couldn’t be ignored. I knew this would be impossible between spending all of my time at the festival and simply not having enough time outside of my assignments to find any residents available to help me navigate the South Side. I hadn’t built enough trusting relationships between anyone in the city, so all I had was Union Park to work with.
From my time in Union Park in Chicago, I witnessed the physical process of marginalizing local communities from accessing entry into the park. In relation to white, middle-class festival goers, the folk of the city were barred from a space they normally had access to 362 days of the year. Being frustrated with the lack of curiosity by media makers, photographers and press at the festival regarding this issue, I decided to spend almost half of my second day of the weekend to shoot portraits of locals who were also responsible for the success of the festival. Without these folk, this festival couldn’t have been possible. From mothers and young children hawking water to festival-goers from sun up to sun down, to local rappers hustling mixtapes and CD’s outside the gates of the park, to scalping tickets and flipping them for 300% more of their original worth, these portraits hold more significance than the context they were taken in. So, I dedicate this short series for the real MVP’s of the weekend: The Folk of Chicago. [Click through the gallery for individual narrative captions]
“Children of Chiraq” These were one of the very few local kids that were able to gain access into the park. Though, after the first day, a wave of young locals started hopping the fence into the festival, resulting in the upping of Chicago Police presence and the decrease of local hustlers and hawkers throughout the rest of the weekend.
“Chicago’s Young Black Artists” I approached his young man after seeing him wear a sized leather hat in 80 degree weather. An excuse to speak with him without buying the jewelry he was selling right outside the entrance of the festival, I asked him about the arts community of the city. He replied, “The city doesn’t support the arts, especially the artists here.” I knew he meant artists of color and those dedicated to empowering disempowered communities on the South Side and North Side.
“Young Love and Joy” My first portrait of the weekend of this series, this young boy was completely disarmed from fear and confusion after letting me photograph him for a few minutes. He went from sitting still on the fire hydrant to popping-and-locking on the sidewalk, to finally falling off onto the sidewalk in side-splitting laughter. I saw him a few other times on my route back up North to my temporary residence, and he projected a genuine and loving spirit on those passing him and his family by.
“Young Brethern” This young boy was standing at the bottom of the stairs leading up to the subway outside the festival. Flocks of people blew right by them – patrons and press alike – not taking into account how important their hustle is to the health and success of the festival. He couldn’t have been any older than 7 years old, yet, kids his age in my hometown aren’t seen hawking water bottles on the sidewalks of their neighborhoods. I’m curious where he will be in the next 10 years.
“The Hustle Never Sleeps” J. Miracles, local rapper and MC, hustled his mixtape, “Change ‘Da’ World”, on the corner of Ashland Avenue and Lake St. from the moment lines began to form around the park until cops harassed him off the sidewalk and back into his neighborhood on the Southside.
“Mr. and Mrs.” The only older black couple in the park, these two were running security near the media tents in Union Park and I found their presence encouraging.
“Young Hawkers of Chicago” Another young boy hustling, however, alongside his older sister and siblings on the edge of the park. He was timid of conversation – and rightfully so. I realized after walking away that I, in fact, cut into his hustling time. The term “everybody needs to eat” took on a new meaning after that moment.
“Joe from Alabama”An actual migrant from the Deep South during the great plight of the 50s and 60s, he spoke extensively about the mark up of this city, the South Side, differences between the American South and inner city, his experience as a laborer of the state, and overall perspective of the festival. All he wanted to talk about was my experience so far in Chicago. He told me coming to the city was the best decision he’d ever made.
“Sinista Da Gift” Another local MC from the South Side, Sinista told me proudly that no one in the game had his name. After asking the significance of his name, he spoke of his vision for a better Chicago, achieved through his music. I had no change on me, but I asked if I could shoot a portrait of him instead, stating afterward that I expected him to be on one of those stages in the future. He smiled at my words and took on a new upbeat deposition in his hustle for the rest of the day.
“Sister Soulja” One of the only women I met that wasn’t a mother hustling on the sidewalks along the park with a family, I spoke briefly with her and listened to her testify about the experience of Pitchfork in her community.
“Thug vs. Street Soldier” J. Miracles let me photograph him in between him hustling his mixtape to every person who walked by him. I apologized for “cutting into his hustle time,” and he replied along the lines of, “don’t worry about it. You gotta hustle too.”
“Change Never Changed Much” For the first 5 minutes of speaking with this elderly man, I began to realize after talking so much and receiving no response besides this gesture, he was possibly mute. I gave him change anyway, but I knew nothing could replace the missing dynamics in verbal communication.
Reflecting back on my experience from the festival, I’ve learned that money holds no real significance if it isn’t spent to enhance livelihoods of people in the most objective way possible. The racialization of poverty, violence and welfare has damaged the wellness of communities occupied by the people of the South Side, especially young people of color. While the nation proclaims that gun control will solve the multi-faceted issues webbed within the politics of gang violence in Chicago, fundamental discussions around poverty and affects of structural violence and racism have yet to occur in articles that detail the gruesome narratives of “Chiraq” and police brutality in the city. Where is the academic research and literature on “Chiraq”? The Library of Congress has thousands of volumes detailing the horrors of migrant workers during the Depression Era, testimonies by individuals who experienced American slavery first hand, and even more on Jewish refugees that found new homesteads outside of the United States. I know this series is incredibly minuscule to the sort of work that other photographers and essayists have committed years to providing hard evidence to pressure the state to act. Despite this piece a result of only a three day testimony, they are still three more days adding additional narratives that still remain missing in the vocal objection of injustices experienced by local Chicagoans. And like all things, my work has just begun in breathing life into silent narratives in communities that resemble Chicago. East Saint Paul might be next on my list to discover.
Support your neighbors, build with your community.™
For photographs from Pitchfork Music Festival 2014 and more portraits from the “Folk of Chicago” series, visit www.nmusinguzi.com.