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How Open Mike Eagle Made a Memorial of Robert Taylor Homes

…and patched his relationship with his family along the way.

Photo: Emari Traffie

The night before his homecoming show at Schubas Tavern last month, Open Mike Eagle wasn’t quite sure what to expect. The South Side native, who’s lived in L.A. for more than a decade, has often struggled to figure out his musical relationship to his hometown.

“I have a difficult time being labeled a Los Angeles rapper,” he says. “But I understand that I can’t necessarily be a Chicago rapper. I feel like a Chicagoan, but I don’t expect a hometown kind of love when I come back.”

That conflict is central to Eagle’s sixth LP, Brick Body Kids Still Daydream, released last month. On the album, Eagle reckons with a key part of his hometown’s past: the Robert Taylor Homes that towered over Bronzeville until their demolition in 2007. Though the buildings were often condemned as a failed experiment in public housing, they were also home to a tight-knit community of Chicagoans, including Eagle’s grandmother, great-grandmother, great-aunt, and several cousins.

For Eagle, writing Brick Body Kids also became a way to think through his own complicated feelings about that family. After a problem with his financial aid left him homeless at Southern Illinois University for a semester, Eagle made a decision: “I was crashing on people’s couches, and I had this moment where I was like, ‘My friends are more important than my family.’ In retrospect, I feel like, damn, that was kind of immature. I’m just starting to unpack those feelings,’” says the 36-year-old. A year later, he moved to LA. 

Brick Body Kids contains some of Eagle’s most introspective material to date. On the defiant “Brick Body Complex,” he raps, “My motherfucking name is Michael Eagle,” only to pivot a verse later to, “my other name is 3925,” the address of his aunt’s tower. Elsewhere, he gives voice to the building’s displaced residents, many of whom are still on waiting lists for replacement housing. “There’s an apathy to the way those buildings get erected and destroyed,” says Eagle. “I wanted to personify how buildings can be knocked down, and how black bodies can be knocked down, and there are people who just don’t care.”

Eagle says the album was a visceral response to researching the Homes’ demolition. “I knew they’d gotten knocked down, but it never occurred to me to check what had been put in their place. I started watching demolition footage. And I felt a real sharp pain I wanted to unpack.”

Eagle watched documentaries about the projects on YouTube, reconstructing parts of his childhood from online breadcrumbs. By design, the end result is more about capturing myths and moods than telling an exact history. “When I was a kid in those apartments, I was an introvert—watching TV or reading comic books,” he says. “I’m not trying to write a documentary about the homes so much as romanticize them.”

When asked what became of his aunt, Eagle says he doesn’t know, and he has no plans to look her up. “I never do,” he says. “That’s part of why I’m fucked up. My immediate family lives in Gary now, and I drive through there two or three times a year and never stop. I distanced myself from my family, and I paid a certain cost for that. It’s a lot to unpack, and I’m just starting to feel it now.”

But on the night after we speak, about 15 minutes into his set at Schubas, Eagle tells the packed crowd that his mom is there, standing toward the front in a formidably wide-brimmed hat with his sister. “I think this is the first time I’ve ever said ‘fuck’ in front of my mom,” he says. “We might smoke a blunt together tonight.” The muted, contemplative sound of Brick Body Kids comes across as a full-throated drone live, confronting the crowd with some of the power of a wrecking ball. 

Toward the end of the set, Eagle brings his mother onstage, where she thanks the audience for selling out the show. It’s a redemptive moment: the sweaty, ecstatic son, arm around his mom, closing out a performance for a hometown crowd. 

And though it’s true that the buildings he’s rapping about no longer exist, Eagle’s demonstrated that remembering them still matters. “When you go see those empty fields now, you feel like there should be something to commemorate all those lives,” he says. “A plaque, or something. Something should be there.”

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