$wagg: Life as a Rap Artist During a Plague of Gun Violence


A kid walks into a bar. It’s New Year’s Eve. He’s 18, but this is New York City, where being under the legal drinking age isn’t a problem if you know someone. His name is John Coleman, a/k/a $wagg, a young rapper from Chicago on his first trip to New York.

“It’s different, man. There’s people everywhere, and all the taxis,” he says like any kid would upon seeing Manhattan for the first time. But this kid was in a bar’s back room, surrounded by a New York mix of indie band members, architects, models, some very chill Jamaicans, reporters and producers.

In town to meet with record labels—Universal, Atlantic, Shady—$wagg says he’s never been around such a diverse group of people.

“It’s cool, man,” he laughs, all of 5-8 and looking very teenage in a varsity jacket and high tops. “Those Jamaicans are a trip.”

In many vital ways, $wagg is your average African American kid from Chicago’s South Side, one of the most violent areas of America. He lost his brother to murder this summer, and attended a funeral on January 3, 2013, for the Christmas slaying of a friend.

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But $wagg is not typical. He’s been swept into a national rap beef. Last summer, his brother—a rising rapper named Lil JoJo—was shot to death just hours after a Twitter spat erupted between him and another rapper, Chief Keef, who hit nationally in 2012 with the single “I Don’t Like” and signed a $3 million record deal.

Oh, and the 18-year-old friend of $wagg’s shot on Christmas? Jay “JayLoud” Davis, a fellow rapper, was killed—apparently—for wearing a Lil JoJo sweatshirt.

Chief Keef and Lil JoJo were involved with rival gangs.

“Oh, I can’t imagine,” he says of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School. In mourning himself, the school killings give $wagg pause. “Matter of fact, when I was in Albany, I was at a party, and a guy got shot in the back twice.”

“It’s a lot of gangs,” $wagg says of Chicago. “I mean it’s life. We out here and see this every day. We coping; we just living. You just live and do you.”  Now on the verge of a record deal of his own, $wagg wants people to know his take on Keef and JoJo: “It’s real important to say that I don’t know who did what to my brother. I don’t have a comment.”

Chicago hasn’t had a relevant rap scene in long time. Now, with the rise of so-called Drill Music, the city’s scene is back. Sadly, many of the rappers seem to be shooting each other.

By only a slight stretch of the definition, the South and West Sides of Chicago are war zones. Of the more than 500 people killed in the city last year, the majority died in neighborhoods away from the city’s rich center and North Side, the appropriately named Gold Coast.

Chicago has been called the most racially segregated city in America, and by key metrics is currently more violent than Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, a nation that’s spent the past 30-odd years at war.

Old Chicago gangs have fractured, which has led to increased violence. Critics often blame the gangster rap culture as a major part of the problem. But the voice of that gangster rap seems to come from years of enduring ghettoization of black people, combined with America’s imprisonment culture, which has left many kids’ fathers locked up and has fueled a shadow economy that the gangs are fighting over.

It’s just as easy to argue that the #ChiRaq (meaning Chicago-Iraq, a rap hashtag relating to the violence) culture is a product of the socio-economic imbalances created by segregationist politics.

On his East Coast trip, $wagg stayed with his manager in Norwalk, Connecticut, just 30 miles from Newtown.

“Oh, I can’t imagine,” he says of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School. In mourning himself, the school killings give $wagg pause. “Matter of fact, when I was in Albany,” where he also visited while out East, “I was at a party, and a guy got shot in the back twice.”

Everywhere $wagg goes, children are getting killed by guns; yet he is as hopeful and polite a kid as anyone could dream of meeting.

There’s another African American known for hopes and dreams from the South Side of Chicago who might pay attention to kids like John “$wagg” Coleman. His name is Barack Hussein Obama. His home in the Hyde Park neighborhood borders some of the wildest parts of America.

In the aftermath of Newtown, curbing gun violence is a promised priority of President Obama. Reinstating the assault weapons ban is seen in some quarters as a universally good thing for American life. But the majority of murders in Obama’s hometown are committed with handguns. Any gun reform legislature will be largely symbolic unless the president addresses handgun access as well.

Moreover, he should look at housing policy.

On a trip to the South Side in 2008, I went to a few of the public-private housing developments that Obama senior advisor Valerie Jarrett once ran as CEO of Habitat Co.

Take a few afternoons to drive around Chicago’s public-private housing complexes, and it will be no mystery to you that murder rates are going up. At Grove Parc, one of many housing developments erected by private companies using public funding, people were living in flooded apartments with broken windows—“It takes them a month just to call us back,” one homeowner told me.

Grove Parc is within eyesight of the University of Chicago. Canvassing the area, you see a pattern of disrepair and despair on repeat.

The vaunted public-private housing world also functions as an engine of gentrification. For decades, developers like Tony Rezko (the fedora-wearing Obama fundraiser and donor who went to jail for fraud in ’08) have been investing in public housing—and then using political deals to build market-rate properties on the land, pushing the poor further into isolated ghettos. Multi-acre tracts of land are waiting to be developed while older housing projects fester.

Last week a New York Times cover story analyzed the murders in Chicago. A web commenter summed it up: “The underlying issue here is a broken society. The cycle of poverty, single parent households and limited educational achievement leads directly to the perception that there is no escape.”

If President Obama is looking for an innovative, out-of-the-box approach to curtailing gun violence, a great first step might be to fix his hometown’s broken society of segregation and murder.

In one more sign of just how bad things are in #ChiRaq, Chief Keef’s stepbrother was gunned down on January 7, 2013—while this story was being prepared. Ulysses “Chris” Gissendanner was 19 and an aspiring rapper. Those aspirations were permanently ended by a bullet into the back of Gissendanner’s head on the South Side of Chicago, another deadly spin in the murderous cycle of youths and gun violence.

Is there more to curtailing gun violence than gun control? Talk solutions in COMMENTS.

These are solely the author's opinions and do not represent those of TakePart, LLC or its affiliates.

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Ray LeMoine was born in Boston and lives in New York. He’s done humanitarian work in Iraq and Pakistan and has written for various media outlets, including the New York Times, New York Magazine and the Awl.