Spike Lee is up to something.
The working title of his next film is “Chiraq,” and TheWrap reports Lee hopes to cast at least three prominent Chicagoans: Common, Jeremy Piven, and Kanye West. When I contacted Lee he declined to talk about the movie, but I do know this: the title is loaded.
Chicago rapper King Louie coined the term back in 2009. Pronounced “shy-rack,” it’s a riff off of how some people pronounce Iraq as “eye-rack.” The mispronunciation is purposeful and intended to link Chicago’s violence with the warfare in the Middle East.
Some are assuming the worst about Lee's use of the word. The term “Chiraq” has come to describe and characterize certain neighborhoods, corners, socio-pathological behaviors, and everything else affiliated with the intersection of violence and poverty in Chicago.
Some are assuming the best. Lee is a socially conscious black man, so chances are great that this film will have a twist and make a point about society, or gun laws, or discriminatory housing policies. (Lee also has an ironic sense of humor, so I wouldn’t be surprised if the film was something totally unpredictable but no less political, like, say, a musical about the closing of Chicago’s Public Schools to make way for charters.)
In early 2014, Louie and I talked extensively about how he came up with the word. It had been a stroke of rap genius. At the time I was working on a Chiraq origins story for the Sun-Times. Louie, who also created the term “Drillinois,” another nod to Chicago’s drill music scene, said he had no idea the moniker would go on to become the title of movies, documentaries, and hit songs, such as the one released last year by Nicki Minaj and Chicago’s own Lil Herb.
Then came the anti-Chiraq movement, which emerged last year just as the Herb/Minaj song was released. The anti-Chiraq crew opposes both violence and the usage of Chiraq as a synonym for Chicago.
Local promoter Aaron “YdotGdot” Pierce is one of many who has worked to bury the word and to fix the conditions that lead to violence. To raise awareness, several store owners and local fashion designers made anti-Chiraq t-shirts. Hashtags were made. People rallied. And I agreed, in part.
I absolutely believe in free speech, but I’m sensitive to the effects of language and how language—when used thoughtlessly or with a negative agenda in mind—can marginalize people or a neighborhood or a situation.
If you talk about the so-called Chiraq lifestyle, I think you should also talk about the city’s problems and potential solutions. I’m from the South Side. I went to Morgan Park High School. My church is on the West Side. My friends and family live in this so-called Chiraq too, and we all have to be careful how we self-describe. Do we want to be a self-fulfilling prophecy? Is Chicago really like a warzone? Does it make sense to link black communities with warfare? Is that even fair? Should we be about the business of changing the narrative and promoting a safe Chicago? (I just got back from North Carolina, where cousins said they were too afraid to come visit. They asked if Chicago was really as bad as people say.)
Violence includes more than shootings, but when people refer to Chiraq, they don’t mean rapes, robberies, or people who get hit by cars. They mean gun violence, gangs, and perhaps the drill music scene. Yet it needs to be said—again and again—that the Chi is not the murder capital of all time. Murders here have actually decreased over the years.
And Chicago in no way resembles a war-torn country. Meanwhile the word has become nationally known with the potential to impact tourism and create movie buzz. It’s just too bad it’s become more a mark of cool instead of a hallmark or a reminder of problems that need fixing.