TAKE #4: Decentering Whiteness in Black Resistance

As Steve Biko describes in “Black Souls in White Skins?,” it’s easy for white people to take a paternalistic role in the movements for black liberation, and this is especially true for white people who hold marginalized identities.[1] However, there are many examples of white allyship that focuses on the horizontal work that white people can do with black people, and Nico Segal, Chicago-born trumpet player and frequent collaborator of the city’s up and coming hip hop artists, is an example of how to do that work. In songs like Chance the Rapper’s “Angels,” J. Cole’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” and Kids These Days’s “GHETTO,” Segal works to use his presence to support his fellow musicians in a way that allows him to stand side by side with them, rather than placing himself at the head of their efforts.

Before his work with Chance the Rapper and J. Cole, Segal flexed his trumpeting prowess in the band Kids These Days, a group of Chicago musicians that included Segal and Vic Mensa that described its music as “traphouse rock.” The band’s song “GHETTO” is an exploration into life in Chicago, through a sample of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” The song focuses on aspects of Chicago life, including the violence that Chicago, particularly black Chicago, is known for. Segal finds home in the middle of the song, where an interpolation of Curtis Mayfield’s “Move on Top” feeds into Vic’s second verse, where he reflects on black death, both historically and contemporarily. It’s in this reflection that Vic finds similarities between the “slave ship” of the past and the “grave ship” he finds himself on currently, finding the need to dodge death in his sleeping and waking moments.[2] Segal and Vic’s contributions to the song work to ask the question of whether or not the black condition has really changed from how it was during U.S. chattel slavery and if there’s a way that black people can move forward, taking the lyrics and title of Mayfield’s song literally, in search for moments of ascension from the rank of second class citizen.

“A hundred niggas laid to rest beneath the slave ship

I see ’em in my dreams on a grave ship

They say the ends coming soon

I can’t stop watching it with my eyes closed

Lined up presidents wearing blindfolds underneath the black ditches”

Kids These Days, “GHETTO.” (via Genius)

In the three and a half minutes that “Angels” occupies on Chance’s mixtape Coloring Book (2016), Chance’s verses and Saba’s hooks take turns introducing the listener to Chicago lingo, juking and footwork, and WGCI-FM and Power 92.3, two of Chicago’s hip hop stations; the song also acts as a tribute to the “young angels” who have been lost to neighborhood violence on the South side.[3] Coming in primarily during Saba’s hooks, Segal uses his trumpet to continue to anchor the multicolored scene that the lyrics of the song work to paint. It’s the signature sound of Segal’s trumpet that listeners who are familiar with Chance’s music consider a mainstay; it’s an almost essential part of any Chance record. While Chance’s lyrics do the work to invite listeners to think of Chicago in a fuller and more human way than we are taught to through the news, social media, and academic scholarship, Segal stands side by side with Chance in that journey of self-determination, agency, and completeness of story.

While J. Cole’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls” is on the opposite side of the spectrum, as far as the emotion the song elicits, Segal is, once again, there to offer his services of sound to the story that J. Cole is painting. The song, from J. Cole’s 4 Your Eyez Only (2016), continues the work that the album does to focus on “[taking] the listener on a track-by-track journey of a black man’s experience of growing up in our nation, from encountering ghetto violence at a young age, suffering inescapable racial prejudices in real life and in the media, and dealing with death and mortality.”[4] The song – and the album – does this by offering up a telling of the experiences of one of J. Cole’s childhood friends who is only referred to as “James McMillan Jr,” a pseudonym used to protect the identity of the friend and his family.[5]  Although we are never formally introduced to “James,” the album is J. Cole fulfilling his promise to share “James’s” story with the world, and particularly “James’s” daughter, upon his death. “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” the first track on the album, offers up a story of helplessness and hopelessness; “James,” through J. Cole, expresses his loneliness and the utility of death, wondering if dying is better than living a life of sorrow and frustration.[6] The song is claustrophobic, a variety of sounds creates the backdrop of isolation, as the “bells [get louder and] louder,” engulfing both the listener and Cole in their unyielding grasp.[7] Throughout the song, Segal’s trumpet adds moments of tension, intensity, and strain. The trumpet, at times, almost sounds like screaming or crying, like moments of agony, as Segal and Cole create this moment of solidarity in acknowledging and responding to black sorrow and black pain.

One of the important pieces of Segal’s inclusion in these three songs, other than his talents on a trumpet, is his ability to be a part of the work that each of these songs attempts to do, without taking up too much space. While not just in the background of the songs, Segal occupies a position where he is allowing his musical voice to amplify the voices of the artists with whom he shares musical space, without overwhelming them. These artists know what problems plague black communities in Chicago and Fayetteville, North Carolina, and as a result, could do the songs completely on their own. But music and activism are both about collaboration, and the movements that they hope to push forward are only strengthened by having as many hands on deck as possible. So, while Segal may not carry with him the same identities as his fellow artists, he is able to understand the importance of building community across differences and across struggles. And it very well could be easier for him to do this work because he isn’t singing or rapping on any of these tracks, I think his commitment to the work outside of the music solidifies his intentions and the time and energy he’s willing to put in.[8]

This kind of coalition building has been essential to the history of Chicago as far back as the creation of the Rainbow Coalition, a multiracial, cross-neighborhood, cross-organizational entity that was dedicated to strengthening community ties and holding the government accountable, in the late 1960s. I think for a city like Chicago that is often seen as existing in a permanent state of segregation, it is important to remember that there have been and will continue to be these moments of different groups coming together and working towards a common purpose. I do think, though, that we have to be careful about putting white allies on a pedestal just because they aren’t shouting obscenities at black folx. That creates the same power dynamic that Biko describes as “superior-inferior white-black stratification.”[9] Having the ability to recognize another person as such is normal and something we learn to do as children; as a result, we need to be mindful of not forgetting the normalcy of a person seeing someone of another race and not having the urge to shoot or shout. As Biko presents in his writing, working for “the full expression of the self…for all people” is something that we should all be fighting for, without asking for recognition in return.

  1. Steve Biko, I Write What I Like (Johannesburg: Heinemann, 1978), 20.
  2. Kids These Days, GHETTO, 2012. https://soundcloud.com/kids-these-days-band/ghetto.
  3. Chance the Rapper, Angels, Self-released, 2016. https://open.spotify.com/track/0jx8zY5JQsS4YEQcfkoc5C?si=E6fTNNL2SCyHe7CvvZgvNA.
  4. Casey Miller, “J. Cole addresses race in America with ‘4 Your Eyez Only’” last modified December 14, 2016, https://www.dailyemerald.com/arts-culture/j-cole-addresses-race-in-america-with-your-eyez-only/article_1ff53c2e-5f95-560c-acf1-b5a6d261ba69.html.
  5. J. Cole, Change, New York: Dreamville, Inc., 2016. https://open.spotify.com/track/3pjUyVbFmM96tYhSaKJwTt?si=eeUFfowqTPCRLiRS8nVN0Q.
  6. J. Cole, For Whom the Bell Tolls, New York: Dreamville, Inc., 2016. https://open.spotify.com/track/3MWlVSkoLS1e66nlZ2tuWJ?si=we1sK7oNT5a_TVSeJrt2lQ.
  7. J. Cole.
  8. In December 2018, Segal worked with Fulcrum Point New Music Project to put on a show dedicated to recognizing the history of struggle and violence in Chicago, focusing on violence towards indigenous people and black people over the years. https://thirdcoastreview.com/2019/01/17/review-nico-segal-hosts-a-night-of-incredible-chicago-talent/
  9. Biko, 24.

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TAKE #2: Why Are All the Black Folks Standing in the Back of the Hip Hop Concert?

At the ripe age of 23, I’ve been to a bunch of concerts. A lot of them happened while I was in college, a few more once I graduated and was forced to choose between a slightly fuller bank account or seeing Tyler the Creator on my birthday this past September. There’s always a rush … Continue reading TAKE #2: Why Are All the Black Folks Standing in the Back of the Hip Hop Concert?

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