When 24-year-old rapper John Walt was killed in River West last February, Chicago’s hip-hop scene shook. A member of the West Side crew Pivot Gang, which counts Saba among its members, the rapper was widely memorialized for his kindness and friendship, and has since popped up in the lyrics of his various collaborators.
This weekend, rapper Saba performs at House of Blues for John Walt Day, a show in memory of his fellow collaborator and friend. The show’s proceeds will go toward the John Walt Foundation, a new philanthropic organization launched by Saba and Walt’s mother which aims to support young artists through mentorship.
Saba spoke with Chicago about his motivation behind his charity and Chicago’s uniquely supportive arts scene.
How will the John Walt Foundation try to support these young artists?
Our main focus is more of a mentorship program. Pursuing art as a career is a bold move, and a tough move, and having some type of mentor able to help you is the difference between actually going for it and falling back. That’s what myself and Walt and a lot of the kids out of Chicago had in Brother Mike, who was at YOUmedia [a youth media space at Harold Washington Library].
Brother Mike and Kevin Coval were those mentors who really believe in your art—even more importantly than believing in it, pushing you. A lot of these places have workshops where you just write, at 16 or whatever, but I would just write and not say anything, cause I was super shy. I used to go there and not rap at all, and Brother Mike, just having a mentor like that, is one of the reasons why I changed. That’s one of the goals of the John Walt Foundation, is to continue that legacy and that creative spirit and encouragement.
A lot of your songs, like “There You Go,” have lyrics related to philanthropy. How do you balance that desire to help the next generation with developing your own career?
One of the things is going to be managing time—figuring out how I can maybe mentor an aspiring artist, but also be on the road, which is something I haven’t been faced with before. But it seems to me to go hand in hand.
Even now, I still go to the Open Mikes [free open mic nights that pay homage to Brother Mike], I still check out YOUmedia, the mixtape links people send me. I still have a desire to discover new art, and I think the spirit of Chicago, musically, right now is to help the next person: Once you get in the door, you leave the door open for the next artist. That spirit is what I want this foundation to stand on—that’s why we’re here, that’s why you want to talk to me, and that’s what we want to keep going.
When you first started out, were you already feeling that desire to give back, or was that something you came to over time?
It was never a real thought, like “I’m going to only play these showcases, or I’m going to give back.” It just happened. One of the most important things I got out of Young Chicago Authors and YOUmedia was when we had “features,” which would have an open mic and a headliner. They would bring people from out of town, and they would just perform for us. I was 16 and from the ‘hood and hadn’t seen a lot of the art that I was being exposed to, for free, at a library downtown. Sometimes they would bring in rappers, clothing designers, all types, and we were just being exposed.
I think that was the defining thing that changed Chicago for a long time; with that happening, it got to a point where I remember going to a Chance feature, seeing Vic as the featured artist. It was like, “damn, we’re not just looking at people from other places, we’re starting to see people from here.” One of the first artists I saw featured was Add-2, who’s an amazing rapper from here, and being a kid and seeing that, you want a feature, you want to do that. It was a crazy energy, and when I talk to any of my friends in art from here, that energy is still alive and well, and it’s thriving now.
There are other artists who do charity—even Pitbull, who gets a lot of a flack, has opened a charter school in Miami. But Chicago’s music scene is so collaborative that it can feel like philanthropy itself. What causes that?
I think a lot of the difference is in accessibility. It’s different to be this millionaire who’s just throwing money at schools and programs, not having any involvement in it. I think Chicago’s different because all of the artists that are standing up for something bigger are also showing their faces at functions, and on the front lines.
A lot of times, it’s like “I’m out for good, I’m leaving the ‘hood, I’m never coming back.” But Chicago is unique in the way that people are so proud to be from here, and the people who are able to make it out want to come back and help it. Chicago is hurting in a lot of different ways, but people want to help. You can look back to 2011, 2012, where it’s a complete 180: A lot of the artists that are successful now are the same artists that were at those places, begging for opportunities. Chicago provided them that, and now these artists want to provide for Chicago.
HOB & React Presents, Saba, 11/25, 7 p.m., $18-20, House of Blues, houseofblues.com
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