This story first appeared in the June issue of Ebony magazine.
By Adrienne Samuels Gibbs Adrienne Samuels Gibbs or @adriennewrites
CHANCELOR BENNETT IS NOT one of those stiflingly religious types who answers every question by saying he is “blessed” or starts every sentence with a “hallelujah.” Yet the presence of God is stamped all through his Grammy-winning album, Coloring Book, and his positive spiritual vibration is palpable the moment he hits the stage. The 24-year-old MC is happy he learned to listen to that still, small voice. As a young Black man in the entertainment biz, he could have lost his mind after relocating to Los Angeles to further his career, but the Chi-Town native returned home, where he felt a connection to the divine.
“There are a lot of spaces where you feel like God isn’t around,” he says of his brief time in LA. “I got some vibes. You have to listen and be aware of your discernment, and if somebody tells you to leave? Then get the f**k out of there. You’ll feel it … . You have to just listen to God.”
Discernment, eh? That word seems to describe exactly how Chance the Rapper has gone as far as he has. Despite his deep faith, he’s not a gospel rapper trying to turn mainstream and failing. He’s not even a mainstream rapper looking cheesy by shoehorning a deity into the lyrics. Hell, he won’t even sell his soul, ehem, sign a contract with a record label. Instead, Chance is a music and social activist hybrid who is accepted by die-hard hip-hop heads, lauded by old folks and is even making headway in the rock world. Just ask Eddie Vedder’s daughter. The classic rocker and Pearl Jam alum gave a shout-out to Chance, on behalf of his daughter, at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in the spring.
Is Chance the world’s most popular rapper? Possibly. He is definitely one of Chicago’s favorite sons (next to President Barack Obama, of course. And maybe Kanye West, depending on your perspective.) And his story in a nutshell, for those who don’t already know it, is that he makes mixtapes and gives them away for free online. He shuns record labels and taunts them in his music. And while most music executives would give their left eye to sign him to a deal, Chance refuses, instead insisting on retaining ownership of all that he creates and total control over who’s in his circle.
His unconventional choices have paid off. Chance is so successful at curating his life that he signed a contract with Kit Kat in 2016 to sing the candy company’s latest jingle, he raised at least $2.2 million for the Chicago Public School (CPS) system earlier this year, and last fall he played the pied piper of elections by hosting a Parade to the Polls concert and leading thousands of Chicago millennials to a voting site. And that’s on top of becoming the first artist to ever win a Grammy Award for a streaming-only album. What’s next? Funding arts education for CPS and headlining Lollapalooza. And that’s just the short list. According to Chance, 2017 is the “year of seven,” of completion.
“This is God’s year,” he says, haltingly at first before finally finding his rhythm. “You know, every year is God’s year, but this is a moment of awakening for a lot of people. I’ve just seen a lot of stuff in my own life that has pushed me toward being closer to God and closer to my faith, and it has materialized into success.”
He isn’t lying, either. In the first half of 2017, Chance joined the board of the DuSable Museum of African American History. He won three Grammys. He challenged Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner to fully fund CPS and met with him to find out how to support the city’s schools. (It didn’t end well. As of this story’s deadline, they hadn’t met again and don’t plan to.) The rapper teamed with the Chicago Public Library system to bring standing-room-only, teen-only poetry slams and open mic nights plus classes on music production. Chance bought back Magnificent Coloring Day Festival tickets from scalpers to give them away to his fans. And he paid for a theater’s worth of tickets so residents could see Get Out for free. There was one hiccup in the timeline in March, however. Mary Mitchell, a Chicago Sun-Times columnist, wrote an article detailing a so-called “child-support spat” with his former partner, Kirsten Corley. Chance didn’t think the timing of Mitchell’s piece was pure happenstance.
“Sometimes people fall under pressure to provide narratives that align with negativity and confrontation,” he says, noting that the front-page column came out just three days after he donated $1 million to 10 beleaguered public schools. He doesn’t know the writer, and Chance says she never contacted him, even after his fans reacted, Beyhive-style, to her article. Mitchell did not respond to a request for comment on this story. He shrugs. “It was timed pretty well, right? It was, like, a week after I had met with the governor.”
Although he doesn’t directly address the issue, Chance does speak, a little, about his young daughter, a lively, smiley child who frequents her daddy’s Instagram timeline. Kinsley Bennett is cute, smart and her father’s twin. Though she’s not even 2 yet, she’s already into engineering and has some kids’ books on aerospace stuff. Chance wants her to grow up and be herself, just like his parents let him be himself. But he is a proud dad and does offer this tidbit about her tiny personality and perhaps of things to come: “She’s very musical.”
ALL IN THE FAMILY
Chance’s dad, Ken Bennett, is a longtime political operative who once worked as an Obama aide and also as a deputy chief of staff for Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Now, as his son seems to put Chicago on his back everywhere he goes, theelder Bennett works for the tourist board. Chance’s younger brother, Taylor, is an artist in his own right. Like Chance, Taylor was touring this year, and will play a few summer festivals. His mother, Lisa Bennett, started out as a hairdresser and through her shop was one of the first people to welcome the city’s storied Egyptian hairstylists to the area. Chance’s parents met in her salon, actually. Ken Bennett came in to get a haircut, and the rest is history.
“We both grew up in a household full of music, and you know, I am not surprised [by Chance’s success],” says Taylor, whose album Restoration of an American Idol dropped this year. “Anything that Chance puts his mind to? He does it, and there’s nobody who can stop him. I know these things shock other people, but these things come as natural to me.”
Chicagoans take their celebrity sons seriously, and Chance is a hallowed person right now, especially after donating such a large amount to public education. He represents the South Side of Chicago in ways that balance out the narrative of a city that is often unfairly portrayed as overridden with Black thugs who are overpoliced by White cops. Even if you aren’t a fan of his music, if you live in the city, you’ve heard of Chance or seen him work or are Facebook friends with someone who benefitted from his generosity.
“The crisis is real,” says Westcott Elementary principal Monique Dockery, who made headlines by helming the South Side school where Chance showed up to make his big donation. “The financial piece is huge, but then also it has shifted some people’s outlook on what students could actually do and be in using their own creative talents to move forward.”
Chance and his manager/friend Pat Corcoran worked on the deal that led to AEG, LiveNation and other independent tour promoters to donate the proceeds of their processing fees to SocialWorks, the charity through which Chance donated the cash to CPS. The initial $1 million donation, spread among 10 schools, including Westcott, led the Chicago Bulls and Windy City native comedian Hannibal Buress to pony up some dough as well.
“I wanted to show what I believe to be right,” says Chance, reflecting on why he made a financial statement. “I fully respect my platform to impact social change.”
Common, the veteran Chi-Town rapper turned actor, agrees. “He is inspiring our city to be better, from the political to the people themselves.”
But is saving Chicago too big of a goal for the rapper? Maybe. Maybe not.
“I believe God has had his hands on me and put things in place to make sure what got done is done,” Chance says. “God and my dad gave me the gift of gab. I know how to finagle.”
Friend and fellow Chicago artist Hebru Brantley, whose paintings are collected by Jay Z and whose 2-year-old daughter plays with Chance’s daughter, sums it up like this: “[Chance] has been on point. He’s a nonpolitical politician,” says Brantley. “The money he has been able to raise won’t fix the [school] budget, but it’s a step in the right direction. Everybody else who has had the ability to do something hasn’t.”
He goes on. “Chance will be a beast in five or 10 years.”
Byron Cage, whom Chance called up last year and requested to sample a part of the Grammy nominee’s 2005 song “Holy Holy Holy,” agrees with Brantley’s assessment that the rapper is something special.
When Chance first reached out, Cage didn’t know who he was, but he agreed to let the MC use his song even though other gospel artists chastised him for working with a secular artist. “They said, ‘Why did you go on Jimmy Fallon with Chance? Did you listen to his album?’” says Cage, who adds that he tires of hypocritical church folk. The gospel artist felt that vibration everybody talks about when they first meet Chance. “I’d never met him before, and it was in his posture. He came into rehearsal, and we were talking about church and how religious he was. Until then, I didn’t even know.”
Cage brings up a Bible verse, Samuel 16: 14–23. It’s essentially about how David played his harp and in so doing, helped King Saul find mental relief from torment. No pressure, but Chance is kinda like that, Cage notes. His music soothes. His tweets mobilize.
“He sent a whole industry scrambling,” says Cage, taking a break from watching the Masters Tournament to talk about his new friend. “He’s making a huge difference in the lives of people, and he’s got the music industry people scratching their heads. He knows there’s a calling on his life.”
Yet Chance says the call definitely isn’t for him to run for office, even though his fans have started a petition to encourage him to do so. Some of them created the chano4mayor.com website and Twitter account that uses the rapper’s own lyrics to make the case for a political bid. Consider this verse from the 2015 song “Somewhere in Paradise,” in which he quips:
“They say I’m savin’ my city, say I’m stayin’ for good
They screamin’ ‘Chano for mayor,’ I’m thinkin’ maybe I should.”
Chicago’s next mayoral election is in 2019. Website creator Bea Malsky says this, in part, on the site she made to encourage Chance to run: “We know you don’t think of yourself as a politician, and we respect that. But this election is an opportunity that we don’t want to miss.”
And what would happen if people wrote him in? Would Chance serve his beloved city, even if he didn’t run?
He chuckles before cracking a smile. “I would never run for any office or government position,” he says, plainly.
“I’m not into it. I think politics is a reason why a lot of stuff doesn’t get done. There’s a lot of favors, and a lot of people are held back by their intentions of being re-elected or the things that they owe their party or constituents,” he explains. “I think when you’re in my position as an artist, I can say what I want and talk about the issues that matter.”
ADRIENNE SAMUELS GIBBS IS A CHICAGO-BASED WRITER.