The Exploitation of Chicago's Chief Keef


(The Root) — Chief Keef is an Internet rap phenomenon. Hailing from Chicago's South Side, he raps about guns, gear, girls and the usual R-rated subject matter of street hip-hop artists. His music is more closely related to the "turnt up," ign'ant, yet undeniably energetic trap music of Waka Flocka Flame and Young Jeezy than the socially conscious stylings of fellow Chicagoans Common and Lupe Fiasco. A series of low-budget music videos have helped make him very popular on YouTube, WorldStarHipHop and music blogs.

In a matter of months, he's gone from local celebrity to viral video star to being courted by Kanye West and Bryan "Baby" Williams' Cash Money Records. Keef recently signed with Interscope Records, the juggernaut behind acts like Eminem, the Black Eyed Peas and 50 Cent. He now has a label deal for his Glory Boy Entertainment imprint, a movie deal through Interscope's film division and his own signature Beats headphones on the way.


Earlier this year, while Keef was buzzing on blogs, he was also on house arrest and home confinement at his grandmother's South Side apartment — punishment for the aggravated unlawful use of a weapon. The incident that earned him a GPS monitoring device on his ankle took place on Dec. 4, 2011, when he may have pointed a gun at a police officer.

His criminal background and alleged gang affiliation have added to his mystique. The kid, known for threat-laced songs like "Bang" and "I Don't Like," is not only entertaining — he's real. I call him a "kid" because he's just that. Chief Keef, as colorful as his story may be, is just a 16-year-old boy.

That last part is important because sometimes we in the media forget this fact. Or at least we don't give it enough weight.  We want to be first. We want to be provocative. We want the most clicks and views. We want your attention, and sometimes we seek it with no regard for the ramifications of what we do or the subjects themselves.

On Monday the music site Pitchfork premiered a video interview with Chief Keef that it shot for its "Selector" series. Whether Pitchfork thought it clever, ironic or just fitting, the interview with the 16-year-old took place at a gun range.  

Let's examine that. Pitchfork interviewed a teen rapper with a recent gun charge who is from Chicago — a city now notorious for its youth violence and surging murder rate — at New York City's Westside Rifle & Pistol Range, of all places. (The gun range's site even states that patrons need to be at least 21 years old.)

The video shows Keef and the interviewer getting a brief tutorial on the Ruger 10/22 semiautomatic rifle, then some video footage of the two of them posing with their rifles aimed at the camera, set to the aforementioned "Bang." After some questions about Keef's music and newfound success, we get an awkward freestyle session interspersed with footage of Keef firing a .22-caliber rifle at a target.


It is ridiculous, which is usually a plus in the world of Web content because that translates to traffic (see WorldStarHipHop's success). In the real world, however, away from our computers and cubicles, taping this segment with young Keef at a gun range was in poor taste at best and unethical at worst. 

The line between reporting and exploitation was crossed. Did the segment's producers consider Keef's legal status? Did it occur to them that they might be trivializing the plight of kids like Keef who live in a city where there have already been more than 250 murders this year?


But wait; Keef appears on his mixtape covers and on his Facebook page brandishing guns. His lyrics are full of gun references. His management and his label gave this the green light, so aren't they to blame, too?

The answer is yes, they are all complicit. As for Chief Keef himself, Chicago rapper Rhymefest put it best when he said that Keef "represents the senseless savagery that white people see when the news speaks of Chicago violence." The sad thing is, some people find that savagery entertaining, and they put that entertainment before a kid's best interest.


Timmhotep Aku is a freelance journalist and cultural critic living in Brooklyn, N.Y. Follow him on Twitter.