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Chance The Rapper at Vocalo: “You Can’t Thrive Without Community”

Written by on July 20, 2022

It’s a Thursday evening, and Chance the Rapper walks into Vocalo Studios at Navy Pier, wearing his signature “3” hat. It’s his first visit here since 2013, when he was about 19 years old and on the verge of stardom with his breakthrough mixtape Acid Rap.  The title of his follow up release, 2016’s Coloring Book, is quite fitting for the Chicago native, whose career has been defined by coloring outside the lines – perhaps most famously never signing to a record label, but achieving exceptional fame as an independent artist nonetheless.

Within minutes of stepping off the nearby elevator, the Jones College Prep alumni is standing in the middle of the foyer, tearfully reading an excerpt from Energy Never Dies: Afro-Optimism and Creativity in Chicago, the 2021 book by Vocalo’s content director Ayana Contreras. Ayana served as a mentor for Chance while he was still a teen, and they hadn’t seen each other in a decade.

“That November night on North Wells Street, LDRS was packed with young fans, and at least one hundred people stood outside in the pouring rain just to see him. This was well before Acid Rap, and 10 Day had not been officially released.

I was inside for some of the show but decided I wanted to be outside on the rain slicked asphalt, where the energy was palpable. In that instant, I felt like something important was happening. Something was in the process of being born. Perhaps even reborn.”

from Energy Never Dies: Afro-Optimism and Creativity in Chicago

Emotions flood the room for both him and Contreras.

For the next hour and half, the Chatham musical genius sits down with Contreras, along with on-air hosts Bekoe and Nudia Hernandez, exploring a wide range of topics, including his recent interdisciplinary work, his growing interest in Ghana and his non-profit work.

Well-known for his sense of “Black boy joy,” Chance has helped launch the careers of a constellation of fellow musical stars. His own most recent work is a series of interdisciplinary pieces that speak to a global Black perspective, including “Child Of God” and “The Highs and the Lows.”  Both were deeply inspired by Chance’s January trip to Ghana with friend and collaborator Vic Mensa. In his sit-down with Vocalo, Chance delves into the creative process behind his latest work, his connections to Ghana and a chance encounter with an R&B legend that was simply life changing.

Chance on Helping Anita Baker gain her Recording Masters and on Artists’ Agency

“I think we’re in the middle of a radical revolution, especially as people in the workforce. Every workforce is industrialized and every worker is commodified. As an artist, we’re the best communicators. So, it’s going to be on us to be able to communicate to everyone else what our issues are, and where our freedom lies…”

Chance The Rapper

On May 29, iconic soul songstress Anita Baker, while onstage during her Las Vegas residency, shouted out Chance the Rapper for helping her to gain the rights to her masters. Chance was in the audience at the time. Vocalo host Bekoe asked him about the significance of that moment, and how Chance used his platform to help Baker regain her agency.

Bekoe: Anita Baker. She’s a little before your time.

But you’ve done something that helped her, and that’s ownership over her masters.

Chance the Rapper: Yeah.

Bekoe: For you, how important is that Chance? For you to help someone of her stature get her masters back?

Chance the Rapper: It was a deep learning experience for me. Let me tell you a story, years back, I was in Los Angeles for the Grammys. There’s pre-parties before the Grammys where everybody goes to and meets, and you talk and you get people’s numbers and stuff like that.

Chance the Rapper: So, me and my mom went to this one Grammys party, where Anita Baker was there. Me and my mom were standing in line for something, and Anita Baker noticed me, and walked over and started talking to me. That’s a big deal. I don’t know how many of you guys have ever been noticed by Ms. Anita Baker, but it was pretty crazy.

Ayana Contreras: No one in here, I don’t think.

Chance the Rapper: It’s okay. You live vicariously, through me. So, Anita Baker notices me and my mom and comes over and starts talking to us. Sharing really kind words… she took pictures with us. It was a highlight of my life, basically. Afterwards we exchanged numbers, and she became a huge supporter in my life. So, any time I would drop music, or I would post a picture of my kid, she’d be in my comments like, “Oh, the baby is getting so big.” It was like I had an extended…

Ayana Contreras: Auntie.

Chance the Rapper: Yeah! I already loved and respected her, but in the time since then she’s just always been in my corner from afar. So, fast-forward to 2019, Ms Anita Baker put out a tweet basically outlining that she’s being done dirty by the industry, like so many other people have, but this is obviously a queen of music. She basically said that her contracts had expired, and that many people on her record label, which is Elektra, had had their contracts expire, and had their masters returned to them.

Chance the Rapper: Ms. Anita Baker was one of the few people that wasn’t afforded that luxury. She had noticed that her white counterparts, these rock dudes, and everybody else was getting out of their contracts and that she was stuck. So, after going through all this legalese and back and forth, she went to Twitter and asked her fans around the world to do her a favor and boycott music, from streaming it, from buying it, in order to show the label that she was deserving of autonomy around what happens with her music.

Twitter being Twitter, they messed it up, the conversation devolved into people making jokes about how they needed her music to clean their house, and sorry auntie I can’t, blah, blah, blah. That probably shouldn’t have bothered me as much as it did, but it did. So, I just put out a couple of tweets that [were] just basically saying, “You all are bogus as hell. This is one of our elite iconic living legends who’s speaking to us as a group. Mainly probably to Black folks. Saying, “Hey, can you help me get back my agency?” And we’re taking the opportunity to joke about it.

Whatever happened there ended up trending and it became a little thing, and I honestly forgot all about it. Fast forward, a couple of months ago I was in Vegas for a show, and I heard after my show that Ms. Anita Baker was doing a residency in Vegas. I was like, “Why would I miss that?” So, I go, I bring my friends, we sneak in. Hop in our seats midway through the show… we’re a little late. I didn’t hit up anybody and [tell] them we’re coming, and out of nowhere Ms. Anita Baker stops one of her songs and makes the announcement to the crowd that she has won the rights to her masters back, and also takes the time to point me out in the crowd, and said that she wanted to thank me for helping her get her masters back.

I immediately felt impostor syndrome, because the way that the story began circulating was, or at least the way that people were taking it was like that I bought her masters back, or that I came into some label office with a baseball bat or something like … I talked to my mom about it, and what my mom was saying was that, “You never know how powerful your voice is until you use it. So, regardless of how you feel right now, the facts are that Ms. Anita Baker did get her rights, and Ms. Anita Baker did thank you for what you contributed in that fight.” 

She told me to take it as a lesson, and just understand … Like I said, you never know how powerful your voice is until you use it, especially when it’s one of few, when you’re the single person of an opinion, or you’re the first person to speak up on something. Shout out to Ms. Anita Baker.

RELATED: Reclaimed Soul Anita Baker Primer Playlist

Chance the Rapper and mornings host Bekoe outside of the Vocalo studio, in front of a custom Vocalo mural by Chicago street artist Sentrock.
Photo by Morgan Ciocca / Vocalo Radio, Chicago Public Media.

Chance on Child Of God, Ghana and Recent Interdisciplinary Work

Since the beginning of 2022, imagery of Chance the Rapper, Vic Mensa and collaborator Peter CottonTale (among others) in Ghana have been bubbling up on social media. Both their January and July visits have been artistically fruitful for the artists; in fact, Chance the Rapper invited fellow Chicago rapper Chief Keef to join them on their July excursion.

On July 16, during their latest trip to Ghana, Chance announced plans to launch the Black Star Line Festival next January. The music festival’s name simultaneously highlights Black American history and Ghanaian history. The Black Star Line was initially a Black-owned and operated shipping company instituted by Marcus Garvey in 1919 with the intention of connecting America, the Caribbean and Africa. 



Chance noted in his June 30 conversation with Vocalo that, “Basically, I found out very recently on a trip to Ghana, that there are many, many parallels, between the subjugated artist… and the subjugated artist: [meaning] the visual and the recording artist. Both of us are constantly stifled by issues with platforming our stuff, issues with not having the capital to create, or to distribute our works.”

Chance the Rapper: I guess the biggest difference is that music, especially hip-hop music, is highly visible. Our words will make it to places where, if they were able to see us, and look at us, they’d be like, “Oh, we don’t trust you. Don’t come into our country club.” But in the car driving, you might be able to catch somebody’s ear if you rap. Then a visual artist is like, the communication, the actual work, it’s buried a little bit deeper. I was making this point before like, when you’re a visual artist, it’s hard to communicate the ideas that you’re trying to communicate because of the audience.

I’ve been trying to figure out ways to work with artists to make the communications of ideas that we have be as clear and concise as possible, as beautiful as possible, and also not controlled by anybody. 

I had this idea years ago to try and do a project where I linked individual art pieces with individual songs, as opposed to how we always know music to be. It was basically the opportunity to make singular pieces of art that would be a part of a larger show, a larger collective, but rather than having an album cover, where one image is supposed to represent all these different songs and feelings and lyrics. Having a very intentional piece to go with each song.

Chance On Ghana

Chance the Rapper: I think what some people don’t know is that Ghana is the capital of global Blackness, and the idea that we’re all interconnected as diasporans, or continental Africans. The first president of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah, who actually spent time studying in the U.S. went to a HBCU, came back to Ghana, which at the time was called the Gold Coast. The English named it that, because they said there was so much gold there they could just walk down the beach and collect it.

This place had been colonized for like a hundred years. He came back with this radical idea that they could be their own nation and they didn’t need some foreign powers to be in charge of their way of life, or dictating their culture. Just like most African leaders in the ’50s, and ’60s, he was jailed for trying to do what was right, but eventually, he got out, he became the first president of Ghana.

He changed the name to Ghana, after the Ghana Empire, and made it very prevalent that this country was the beginning of black revolutionary thought, and the connection of black people across many nations. He was inspired by Marcus Garvey’s UNIA, and the Black Star Line Shipping Company, that used to take Black folks from the Americas to the islands, all the way to Ghana, and created a workforce, and taught people in trades.

Marcus Garvey always had this idea that Black people, anywhere in the world all have a home within each other and there should be some interconnectedness. So, when he started the country, he made their flag to have the black star in it as a representation of this global Blackness. When you go there, when you get there, the comfort that you feel from complete strangers, and the celebration of yourself, and the lack of authorization. I’ve never felt so regular in my life. It was an awesome feeling just to be in a space that’s filled with pride, and love, and culture and also not feel like I’m doing something else.

I don’t even know how to describe this. It’s something that you got to go there to feel it. Yeah, I want [Chief] Keef to come out there. I want everybody to come out there. Something that I want to make sure is understood is that, I think this new revolutionary Black thought is not intrinsically tied to land, or owning spaces in other places, or a physical move back to Africa, but it is an understanding that connection is needed, and empathy is needed across nations and across seas. I think whether you get to go to Ghana, that is not what it’s all about. But it is about understanding that we are all one people.

Ayana Contreras: This is really great to hear. I’ve actually been to Ghana before. So, what you’re saying to me is bringing back a lot of memories. The thing about Chicago is that it’s also a center of Pan-African thought. But I think a lot of people who grew up here aren’t tapped into that. They don’t know about the Betty Shabazz School, they don’t know about the South Side Community Art Center. They don’t know about the Carruthers Center, and all these other spaces and places. They don’t even really understand what Ebony and Jet [Johnson Publishing] contributed to people’s understanding of what it was to be Black in the 20th century. All of that came from Chicago.

RELATED: Devin Mays of Rebuild Foundation on the lasting legacy of black media giant Johnson Publishing

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