words by Eamon Whalen
photography by Bryan Allen Lamb
Mick Jenkins hasn’t always called Chicago home. Like many in the section of the city the 23-year-old rapper now lives in, his roots are in the South. He was born and raised in Hunstville, Alabama until he was ten, when his mother fell ill with Lupus and they moved to Chicago to be closer to family. “We came on the Greyhound and I just vividly remember looking up at all the buildings like, wow, this is crazy,” says Jenkins over the phone from the studio apartment he shares with his girlfriend in the South Shore neighborhood, on the city’s south side. Jenkins also remembers noticing the city’s deep segregation. “It was shocking,” he says. “But I liked Chicago better [than Alabama] very quickly. My mother really encouraged me to go see the city when I was like 13 and 14, riding the train by myself.”
But it took a move back to Alabama for college for him to realize his true path. Though at the time he was interning at a boutique with hopes of entering the fashion industry, he made a compromise with his mother and took a tuition cut afforded to him by his father who worked at Oakwood, University, a historically-black college in Huntsville. While at Oakwood he reluctantly studied journalism, but quickly took to writing poetry in his free time. One can tell he’s a bit embarrassed about this phase, admitting with a laugh his poems were “seventy percent about love, thirty percent about anything at any given moment, but they were mostly about women.”
He didn’t consider rapping as a reality until he won a “Who Got Bars” competition at a nearby college, tailoring his poems into raps with simple hopes of winning the grand prize, a pair of Dre Beats headphones. After the competition he started recording music regularly, and soon after his father was fired from his job, spiking Mick’s tuition. A few months later he and his then-girlfriend broke-up. Two days after that he packed his bags for Chicago, again.
It was the end of 2012 and the city was percolating with so much talent Jenkins worried he may not get noticed. “I seriously thought about not going back,” he recalls. But he was committed to finding his voice and traveled around the city to open mics, quickly gaining a reputation. But it wasn’t for the same lover-boy poems of his early days. “If I was gonna rap about something, it was going to be introspective, encouraging and empowering, more than anything else,” he says.
This new Mick Jenkins has made a name for himself in the past year, delivering acute social criticism with a precise lyrical bent. “For so long music has pushed the wrong agenda,” he explains. In the song, the guitar from Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” is chopped over a ticking hi-hat and rattling snares. The corresponding video shows Jenkins with a noose around his neck, incisive and sarcastic, critiquing the materialism, over-wrought machismo and a lack of morality that he saw amongst his peers in Chicago. “It was me talking to people of my likeness to say, what are we doing?” says Jenkins.
“I pray it’s never too preachy,” he raps on “Martyrs,” making note of the common critique of rappers that position themselves as socially-conscious. He assures that the balance the song strikes between education and entertainment is one he plans to help drive his career, likening the approach of a song like “Martyrs” to that of “Swimming Pools” by Kendrick Lamar. “You could just mistake it for a song that’s just really catchy but at the same time if you do pay attention, they’re giving [listeners] some real shit, and I think that is the kind of music that can be the most effective at reaching the most people,” he says. With a recent signing to indie label Cinematic Music Group, and upcoming project The Water[s], he’s going to do his best to make those essential nutrients as accessible as he can. “It’s just what I want to do as my art. I have a responsibility to give people more than the bullshit.”