In July, Chance the Rapper’s announcement via song lyric of his purchase of the recently-folded news site Chicagoist was, for many, further confirmation of his savior-like status. Chance serenades puppets, weaves gospel harmony and conviction into his tracks, and fundraises for arts in Chicago Public Schools (CPS), all with playful but earnest flair. Now, he had swept in and saved an Internet-age institution in order to (and I phrase it more delicately than he) counter one-sided portrayals of Chicago and the majority-black South Side as a violent and overlooked hood.
Within the civic journalism circles I’ve recently started working in, people were more cautious. What exactly would Chance’s impact be on the local news landscape? Could that high-profile of a figure resist the urge to control a media empire? What was his end game?
Last Thursday, news broke that the FBI had raided the office of Ed Burke. Burke is the alderman of the now largely Latinx 14th Ward. The word alderman has Anglo-Saxon origins: a noble (serving the king) as ruler of a local district. Quite literally it means “old man,” and the etymology sums up why the alderman is a notorious and unknown creature: the most powerful aldermen have been in office for decades and wield great influence in City Council. While there are always constituents who know their alderman well, if you’re unfamiliar with the ward system it’s challenging to understand what an alderman does on a day-to-day basis, what they do in City Council, and how it traces back to your home address. Burke is the figurehead of the Chicago Democratic machine, its longest-running (since 1969) and most powerful (chair of the City Council Finance Committee, among other things) alderman. Burke has been investigated in the past but they’ve never turned anything up, so for now the city waits.
That very night, my boss forwarded me a vague invitation to a press screening for the first Chicagoist video. He had been interviewed for a portion of the video a few weeks back. I had been asking pretty much every week when the video was going to come out, and though he suspected his scene had been cut, we decided to go anyways.
Watch the video if you haven’t yet. Chance plays Champ Bennett, a suited and bespectacled TV reporter determined to understand the role of aldermen in Chicago. It’s puppets (of course) meets man-on-the-street meets Schoolhouse Rock! plus young aldermanic hopefuls, Hannibal Buress, and some nebulas for good measure.
Chicago aldermen are certainly getting a lot of attention lately. The bleak heist drama, Widows, takes place in Chicago and features an aldermanic race for an economically disinvested, largely black ward. Colin Farrell, son of the current alderman, lives on an upscale block on the edge of the ward, pitches an extension of the Green Line train and initiatives for women entrepreneurs (then forces the women to give him kickbacks), but privately feels trapped in an unwanted political legacy. Brian Tyree Henry is his opponent, a more representative resident of the ward with a gang past who is trying to get into a questionably more honest line of work.
This proliferation of media on aldermen is well-timed, because on February 26, Chicago will vote on a mayor for the city and an alderman for each of its fifty wards. For my job, I’ve been writing up a report on an interview project gauging Chicagoans’ awareness of the upcoming elections and the news sources that inform them. The interviews were conducted in the summer, before police officer Jason VanDyke was convicted of the murder of Laquan McDonald, before the midterms, before current mayor Rahm Emanuel decided not to run again, before many of the strongest mayoral contenders had thrown their hats into the ring, and before most Chicagoans had even begun to think about aldermanic elections.
As I weeded through the mostly uninformed responses, it took me a while to find a narrative. People felt inundated with information—be it by email, social media, traditional newspaper, or carrier pigeon. They didn’t know how to sort through it. When asked what sort of news or information about local politics and the upcoming municipal elections they would find helpful, interviewees described resources that would summarize, contextualize, and follow up stories over time. In many cases, interviewees described a resource that exists.
- If you want to look up every piece of legislation a particular alderman has introduced or track the status of a resolution, you can search on Legistar.
- Whether you want to follow the candidates as they campaign or just read a concise summary the day before you vote, the major papers (Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Tribune) as well as the smaller weeklies publish ongoing coverage, candidate profiles, and voter guides.
- You can try to make sense of campaign donation records on Illinois Sunshine.
- On BallotReady IL, you can type in your address and build a list of who to vote for based on candidate platforms, endorsements, and quotes.
A fair number of interviewees named at least one of the above resources but many obviously did not actively follow local politics in the news. When questioned they could articulate what would be helpful, but in practice they weren’t seeking out the information and it wasn’t making its way to them.
Many weren’t actually sure what an alderman does, though alderpeople (or the less-fun title “city council member”) exist in some way in all American cities. If you poke around on the detailed but maze-like City of Chicago website, you might learn that they sit on City Council and vote on “all proposed loans, grants, bond issues, land acquisitions and sales, zoning changes, traffic control issues, mayoral appointees, and other financial appropriations.” But the page does not go into much detail on an alderman’s responsibilities to their ward or their annual “menu money” for ward improvement.
Sitting with this dataset has overwhelmed me with questions of how we can ever know all that we ought to in order to be a good citizen. There’s so much important information that’s never going to come your way unless you that you make a point of seeking it out or you have the luck to stumble across it. But things like Widows and a video of Chance the Rapper in a goofy disguise give me hope. They mix the nutrition of civic engagement in with the flavor of drama, action, and humor.
After the credits rolled, Chance answered a few questions about the video and his vision for the Chicagoist. He said that until he spoke before City Council on the topic of CPS a few months prior, he hadn’t really understood what an alderman was or that they sat on City Council and had a say in major decisions for the city. While a lot of Chicagoans can relate to this, it’s a little harder to believe coming from Chance. His father, Ken Bennett, is a verified @rappersdad on Instagram but his real life is more impressive: he’s worked as an aide to Harold Washington (the first black mayor of Chicago), Barack Obama, and current Mayor Rahm Emanuel. He’s now the campaign manager for Toni Preckwinkle, Cook County Board President and a strong contender in the mayoral race.
All this makes it hard to believe that Chance had no prior understanding of Chicago politics, but it gives you an idea of where he gets his strong sense of civic responsibility. Chance himself has endorsed policy consultant and progressive long-shot candidate Amara Enyia for mayor, and spurred Kanye West to donate $73,540 to Enyia’s campaign, the exact amount she needed to pay off fines accrued for not properly reporting funds from a previous short-lived bid for mayor. In a crowded field of sixteen confirmed candidates, these high-profile moves have helped Enyia stay in the game.
We can’t yet know the long-term impact of Chance’s moves or how he will navigate the power of his fame and his relationship with the Chicagoist, but I resonated with what he said at the press screening. One of his visions for the Chicagoist is that it will be “old news,” breaking down the history, bureaucracy, and conflicts of this city for a younger generation. It’s a lofty goal and Chance was quick to say that they were still working out how to go about this. But for a new player on the Chicago media landscape who already has a loyal following, it’s not a bad place to start.
India Daniels graduated in 2017 with majors in history and English literature. Her first year out of Calvin, she moved home to Chicago to serve as an AmeriCorps VISTA at Turning the Page, a nonprofit promoting parent engagement and literacy in North Lawndale schools. She now assists Turning the Page’s used bookstores and coordinates a citizen-reporter program for City Bureau, a civic journalism lab on the South Side.