Black Harvard's Newest Member: Chance the Rapper Comes to Visit
That night he would sing “everyday it could be wonderful”, and it was a wonderful day when Chance the Rapper and the Social Experiment visited the Harvard Hiphop Archive and Research Institute. The band was in town for Converse Rubber Tracks Live, a concert series at the Sinclair in Harvard Square marking the opening of Converse’s new headquarters in Boston. We were lucky enough to be able to seize this opportunity to have an illuminating conversation with one of the brightest young stars in hiphop today.
Throughout the Q&A session, Chance was remarkably honest, leading to what was a uniquely engaging conversation for all involved. Many attendees left satisfied in their newfound understanding of who Chance is as an artist, while he was also clearly impressed with the depth and insight of the questions asked. The conversation spanned across a number of topics, covering everything from the events in Baltimore to streaming services like Spotify and Soundcloud.
We came to understand that Chance has a very clear sense of how race works in his art and life. While absolutely affirming his identity as a black man, he made clear that he cannot generalize his experience, and truly cannot speak for black people as a whole. When asked about the events in Baltimore, Chance took a careful position - his first priority was to educate himself, and make sure he had all the facts about the injustices occuring. He often said he was unsure whether he was better suited to be a loud voice, or another body marching in the streets, but in order to do either he had to make sure that he was properly informed. At a time when many either choose to remain silent or speak loudly based on a knee-jerk reaction, he chooses to maintain a thoughtful distance.
Another topic he had clearly put a lot of thought into was sexism in rap music. One thing many appreciate about Chance is how he raps and sings about women in his music, often as romantic partners rather than sexual objects. In further pushing the boundaries of the conversation, he was asked why he continued to use words such as bitch in his songs. Again, he helped us understand his thought process. He described how he has created misogynistic songs in the past but said, “I dug a deep hole and put them in there, you’ll never get to hear that.” He also highlighted the way misogyny in music is often aimed at black women specifically, something that isn't often recognized. Ultimately, while acknowledging that he wishes he could abandon using certain terms he said, “maybe someone somewhere will stop saying bitch”, but it wouldn’t be him. While some may argue with this conclusion, it’s refreshing to hear an artist delve into the issues he struggles with and be transparent with his progress.
As the conversation progressed, we learned more about the organic formation of the Social Experiment, as well as Chance’s views on streaming services (he absolutely loves Soundcloud) and religion (he is an unabashed Christian and draws musical inspiration from Kirk Franklin). He also shed light on his relationship with Childish Gambino ("another left black boy"), as well as his recent encounters with Kanye West. He gave us a unique perspective on how music played into the violence in Chicago, not as a cause as many would like to argue, but rather as a product and often a catalyst for strife.
At the end of the more than hour-long conversation, Chance was given the parting gift of a Black Harvard 2015 sweater, which he appeared really excited by. He expressed joyful surprise at the number of black students in attendance, cautiously labelling us “specifics” before realizing he could say “black” without causing offense. The fact that the crowd was all similarly aged to Chance made this a special experience, and at the end of the day everyone was reminded that the rapidly rising star was absolutely still one of them.
Later in the day, many of us at the Archive had the unique opportunity to go down the street to the Sinclair to watch Chance and the Social Experiment’s concert, which also featured Michael Christmas and Action Bronson as openers. The diverse crowd drank in an intense, intimate experience with artists whose ever-increasing popularity guarantees such an event to be a rarity. The night began with widespread anticipation and promise bursting through the excited expressions of eager fans. A forced evacuation due to a fire alarm only heightened the positive anxiety. As we shuffled outside and across the street, many frantically hoped to catch a glimpse and maybe even interact with the artists. Action Bronson used the exodus to socialize with fans, signing autographs and taking photos.
When we finally returned inside and fought our way to the upstairs balcony, 20-year-old Boston native Michael Christmas had already launched into his set. Fitting to his name, he gave the audience all the charm and delight associated with opening a present, his fro flopping around with the same degree of enthusiasm he expressed in being back in his hometown. For those unfamiliar with his music, by the time he headed off stage you were ready to go download his mixtape.
Next, Action Bronson strolled on stage with unbridled cockiness. Loyal fans thoroughly vibed with him as he tried to demonstrate his New York-style lyrical finesse. However, his antics may not have won over those unaccustomed to his swaggering persona. Bronson chucked many free boxes of Converses and $50 Converse gift cards at the crowd, setting off this generous throwing spree by tossing his own right shoe and later wrapping up with the left one. As he wandered across the stage in his socks, he performed tracks from his recent project Mr. Wonderful. In keeping with his brash delivery, Bronson exited with a dramatic mic drop.
Finally the night’s main attraction came to the stage and it was worth the wait. The roughly hour-long spectacle began with a blast of excitement, and Chance launched right into the performance. On the two-year anniversary of Acid Rap, Chance’s set was analogous to an acid trip in itself, surfing (also appropriately enough) through a sensory explosion of light, sound, and emotion. Though promoted under Chance’s name alone, the experience is flattened without mention of the remainder of the Social Experiment. Donnie Trumpet, Stix, Peter Cottontale, and Nate Fox each brought their own zeal, uniting with Chance’s animated style to emote an infectious vitality that was nothing less than captivating. Having the live band allowed the tracks from 10 Day and Acid Rap to be revamped, but more so it restyled what you typically expect of a hip hop show.
Although Chance’s dynamic theatrics contributed to the show’s aesthetics, he was more than a marvel for the audience to take delight in as we would a caged lion at the zoo. Chance purposefully engaged the crowd, reminding them that they had had to search for and uncover his music, rather than just hear it on the radio. He emphasized that the show belonged to the fans – it was their time to freely enjoy themselves and the music. Beyond the songs from his mixtapes, Chance performed a few features as well as 2 songs from the upcoming Surf project. This included gospel-influenced “Sunday Candy” and the newer “Paradise” whose hook he taught the crowd so they could sing along. It went along the lines of “I believe that if I try, I’ll probably end up somewhere in paradise” – a sunny message mimicking the positive energy he and the rest of the band exude. The playfully weird exhibition wrapped up with Chance expressing his gratitude for his fans, singing “I love you” while pointing to audience members in all sections of the venue. The final song was “Chain Smoker,” the penultimate track on Acid Rap, reminding us to continue to love what he, as well as the Social Experiment as a whole, gives us through his music because it represents part of him. After such a coherently crazy whirlwind, how could we not?
Brionna Atkins is a junior at Harvard studying Sociology. Conversing with her guarantees obscene amounts of adjectives, the use of "bae" in reference to anything she likes, and maybe something about reality being socially constructed just because. She thinks we must anchor our social consciousness in revolutionary love and understanding to fight the power, however that doesn't mean you can't turn up to Migos and Fetty Wap one time. (I mean "Trap Queen" is obviously a love song so it all connects.) Follow her @gotbri.
Nafisa Eltahir is a senior at Harvard studying Sociology. She is always ready to give a detailed defense of Kanye West (yes, even the VMA incident), and very much believes in the need to take rap, rappers, and black art in general seriously. She's an appreciator of many things deemed "ratchet" and like Brionna can speak at length about how Trap Queen is probably the most romantic song of the year (and feels very similarly about Kiss Me Thru the Phone). Though born in the '90s, she is very much a child of the 2000s and thinks we need to spend more time appreciating the now. Follow her @nafufa.