The reality of being a black kid in Chicago is one of fearful probabilities. There is a 47-percent chance that they won’t be in school or have a job at the age of 24. Of youth who are arrested in Chicago, 79 percent are black, despite being only 37 percent of the population. The city of Chicago doesn’t spend much time or money trying to improve the neighborhood Chance the Rapper came from: Chatham, a small, predominately black community about 12 miles from downtown. And yet, Chance the Rapper dared to smile despite it all.
Not only smile, he dared to produce music that was made to uplift and encounter the black experience in a uniquely positive manner, to explore what it means to be steadfast and survive not because of your city or country, but in spite of it. And he even, like Kendrick Lamar, spoke of God’s role in this process. Now, with Coloring Book, he is set to possibly become the first independent, streaming-only artist to win a Grammy, after waging a long battle against profiteering in the music industry. Coloring Book is a joyous response to institutionalized suffering.
This is black joy. Christ’s joy, considered.
In James we are told, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” Joy in the midst of destruction, police corruption, political jockeying, violence and the retraction of the very laws that should protect someone like Chancellor “Chance” Bennett? How? Why? In an age of scrutiny over any black-led protest against state violence? In an age when black people are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites? In a summer that has seen the killings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling? Yes. Like Job, Chance the Rapper looks at his situation and still praises God.
The first track on Coloring Book, “All We Got,” features Kanye West and the Chicago Children’s Choir and sets the tone of joy despite the statistics and narrative testifying that black life is bleak:
This ain’t no intro / This the entree / Hit that intro with Kanye / and sound like Andre / trying to turn my baby mama to my fiancée / She like music, she from Houston / Like Auntie ‘Yonce. / Man my daughter couldn’t have a / Better mother / if she ever find another / he better love her / man I swear my life is perfect…
“Blessings,” with Jamila Woods, is nothing less than an ode to Christ:
I’m gon’, praise him, praise him till I’m gone / I’m gon’, praise him, praise him til’ I’m gone. When the praises go up / the blessings come down / when the praises go up / the blessings come down. / It seems like blessings keep falling in my lap / It seems like blessings keep falling in my lap / I don’t make songs for free, I make ‘em for freedom. / Don’t believe in kings, believe in the kingdom … Jesus’ black life ain’t matter, I know, I talked to his daddy … he has ordered my steps, gave me a sword with a crest...
This is black joy. Christ’s joy, considered. Music now dubbed as “utopia rap” has taken up political cries and generations of colonization, suffering and disenfranchisement with a smile. This doesn’t lessen the reality or salve the wounds for black youth. But it is a healthy and needed rebuttal. Imagine you are a black child living in a neglected Chicago community and you hear a song like “Juke Jam” talk about going to The Rink — a roller-skating rink on the south side of Chicago that has hosted thousands of memories for black Chicagoans for years. Or imagine seeing a guy from the Chatham neighborhood on The Tonight Show with a crew of footworkers dancing a dance hailing from the basement parties in Chicago back in the 1990s. Or imagine just knowing that a black youth from Chicago is being 100-percent himself on the national stage. This is what music is for. This is black joy. It is happiness in spite of the pain.
Even more, Chance brings the promises of Christ with him. Here is a young man who models Christianity in his own way and asks for us to be patient in his growth and to embrace his happiness. He is not an example of perfection, but of progression. He knows he is moving forward, and in spite of all attempts against his people, they will too. God provides this for us when we need it most: a happiness we can consider “pure joy.”