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To Be Rare, True And Free

Tom Vin
Courtesy of the artist

When I first spoke to Saba in February, he was in North Riverside Park Mall outside of Chicago, talking to me on the phone while he shopped. His tour started in a few days and he needed a suitcase.

At that point, the then-22-year-old rapper and producer was best known for singing the hook on "Angels," the lead single on Chance the Rapper's album Coloring Book. Though it may have been overshadowed by the anti-label anthem "No Problem," "Angels" is equally expressive of Chance's artistic mission: It's an ode to Chicago, featuring a fellow unsigned artist he'd been collaborating with since his Acid Rap days.

When I asked about Coloring Book's big night at the Grammys a few weeks earlier, Saba told me he had gotten a lot of congratulations texts. "I don't think people realized Grammys don't work like that," he said. Nothing about Chance's wins surprised him, though. "I expected him to win. He was supposed to win."

But during that time, Saba says, his mind was in a different place: "My cousin had been murdered." John Walt — Saba's cousin, close friend and collaborator — was killed near their home on the West Side of Chicago on Feb. 8, four days before the Grammys. "I actually haven't even texted [Chance] to say congratulations," Saba added. "I should do that. You just reminded me."

In the past year, Chance has flourished as a public figure, extolled as a symbol of black boy joy and an example of thoughtful civic engagement. Like anyone else, he undoubtedly had private struggles. But to the outside observer, who saw him Instagramming adventures in fatherhood and starring in Kit Kat commercials, he was aglow.

Saba's past year was also one of professional ascent. He packed venues every night on his first headlining tour. XXL nominated him for its Freshman Issue. Chance tapped him for a live performance of "Angels" on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. But he also spent this year mourning his cousin and trying to make enough money to move out of his grandparents' house. Saba's indie rap success story might be rougher around the edges, but it shares something important with Chance's: Both articulate a quest for sovereignty, personal and artistic.

In Toni Morrison's foreword to the 1973 Black Photographers Annual, a collection of photographs taken exclusively by and of black people, she says the work is liberated, the way all art should be. "Not only is it a true book, it is a free one," she writes. "It is beholden to no elaborate Madison Avenue force. It is solely the product of its creators and its contributors. There is no higher praise for any project than that it is rare, true and free. And isn't that what art is all about? And isn't that what we are all about?"

To a generous and idealistic observer, artists like Chance and Saba represent a Black Arts Movement reprisal of sorts: They're unsigned and unbossed, ready to take on any elaborate music-industry force that dares to stand in their way. Of course, the growing influence of corporate streaming giants complicates this conviction, but there is a certain political weight, even if only symbolic, to these black-owned indie rap businesses. They ask what it means to live up to Morrison's standards — to be rare, true and free — in 2017.

The ceilings at Songbyrd Music House are notoriously low, but Saba made a cathedral of the place in March, when he led the intimate D.C. venue's sold-out crowd in a chant to honor his cousin and friend: "Long Live!" "John Walt!" "Long Live!" "John Walt!"

It was a ritual Saba repeated every night of tour — alongside fellow members of Pivot Gang, the hip-hop collective he formed with his older brother Joseph Chilliams, John Walt and other friends. Their presence on the trip was an unexpected gift: Days after Walt's death, one of Saba's openers had backed out. Working quickly, he and his managers were able to fill the vacancy with more close friends. Saba, Chilliams, MFnMelo, Squeak Pivot, Dam Dam and daedae of Pivot Gang were all on the tour.

"This was at a time when the sadness was in our stomachs," Saba says. "Just having a thought, having a dream, breaking down in the bus and having one of the guys right there to support you through that ... I don't know, it was just a super-emotional time for all of us. To be able to go together — it felt like it was one of the breaks that we got. We needed that break."

Left to right: Dam Dam, Saba, MFnMelo and Frsh Waters of Pivot Gang
Evan Brown / Courtesy of the artist
Courtesy of the artist
Left to right: Dam Dam, Saba, MFnMelo and Frsh Waters of Pivot Gang

The album Saba was touring, 2016's Bucket List Project, is a concept record. It transitions from track to track with voice mails from his family, friends, collaborators and fans, who all respond to a single prompt: What do you want to do before you die? The idea, as Saba told Sway in the Morning in January, came in part from an earlier loss in his life — in 2014, his uncle died suddenly in his sleep just weeks after returning home from a stint in prison. The day of that D.C. show, Saba and Chilliams also lost their grandfather. "It's damn near ironic that we're on the Bucket List tour and this is the type of things that we're dealing with," Chilliams tells me on the phone. "We're just trying to hold these people's memories as close to heart as possible and let everyone know that these were legends. These were great people."

Chilliams is quick to crack a joke, even when discussing a close call of his own. Last fall, on his way home from a recording session, he was mugged and got hit in the face with a gun. "The funny thing about robbing someone who's broke is it's never worth the effort," he says. "In my bookbag, there was a broken umbrella and some Altoids. And they got my wallet, which had 25 dollars in it." He had multiple fractures on his face and ended up needing reconstructive surgery.

Saba says he has urgent objectives. "We still live in the f***** hood," he says. "That s*** is ridiculous. If we're talking about goals, that's really the main focus for me, because you would think once you're in a certain position, you don't have to worry about your family or somebody that you rap with every day getting murdered."

On his album's closing track, "World in My Hands," Saba raps, "Sometimes I wonder what my life would be like if I didn't try to take my whole life and put it in writing." Bucket List Project is full of this kind of meta-reflection: He shares his life story, then comments on what it means to tell that story. In person, he is honest about what's weighing him down — and open to sharing that experience. A fan approached him after his Santa Ana show to tell him that multiple members of her family had recently been killed. "We had a mini cry sesh together," he says. He's also an open book when it comes to lighter things. He wears his glasses around, and after his show, I ask how he was able to see without them onstage — wondering if perhaps he prefers not to see the crowd. But it's not that deep: He tells me they have no prescription and he wears his contacts underneath. "I'm that person," he says, laughing.

After the show, Saba and his tour go to a diner down the street from the venue. He orders the herbed lemon chicken and drinks a ton of water. He says he never wants tour to end.

"I was probably 8 or 9 my first experience with music, as far as recording and really deciding that's what I wanted to do with the rest of my life," Saba tells me matter-of-factly. He started building a studio in his grandparents' basement on Chicago's West Side when he was 9, and still has all his old elementary school recordings. "None of it has real words, honestly," he admits. "I was really into Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, and so I was just going into the studio and mumbling a bunch of stuff, because that's what their stuff sounded like to me when I was young." He came up with a rap name, "Saba-Tahj" — a play on his government name, Tahj Malik Chandler.

That same basement became the home base for Pivot Gang. Frsh Waters, the social butterfly of the group, eventually got incarcerated — and Pivot dedicated its 2013 debut tape, Jimmy, to him. But before he went away, Frsh started taking Saba to weekly open mics at the Harold Washington public library in Chicago.

A nonprofit called YouMedia organized the series. Its roster of alums includes fellow Chicago poet-rappers Chance, Noname, Vic Mensa and Mick Jenkins. "It was definitely a teen, kind of poppin' place," Saba says. "It was weird 'cause it was at a library, which was the last place you'd expect to see teens, but I don't know. I can't really compare it to anything. The energy that was there is something I'd never witnessed before in my life."

After the open mics, Saba and the rest of Pivot Gang would invite YouMedia friends back to their studio. "We had one of those houses where everybody in Chicago ... knew our door was open to them," he says. "If it's six people down there, then there's six people on a song."

Saba attended St. Joseph High School in Westchester, a suburb about 20 minutes away from his Chicago neighborhood, and graduated at 16 with a near-perfect GPA. He went on to the local arts-focused Columbia College, but left after three semesters when his scholarship was dropped (he says he still doesn't know why) and decided to keep pursuing music without the help of school.

Melo, Saba's fellow Pivot Gang member, has known Saba since he was 13. "If you ever had a chance to sit down with him, he'd probably tell you that he was gonna be a rap star," he says. "He know what he doing, man. Sometimes he be tucking it away — and that's understandable. You want to be humble, you want to be respectful ... But people should just know that he ain't for the mess around."

Last summer, Saba and Noname rented an Airbnb in L.A. They were joined by two producers — Cam O'bi, whom you'll find in Chicago hip-hop liner notes dating back to Acid Rap, and Phoelix, who's also known for his work with artists like the Chicago singer Jamila Woods and the St. Louis rapper Smino. Both Cam and Phoelix are multi-instrumentalists who build beats from scratch and tend not to sample much, or at all. Together, the four artists worked on two albums — Bucket List Project and Noname's 2016 debut, Telefone. Saba lent his production skills to both projects. "I think L.A. kind of reminded me of ... when the Pivot Gang was first invented," Saba says. "It was back to just creating every day and whatever happens, happens ... It was magic in the house."

Chilliams says that for Chicago artists, independence rose partially out of circumstance: "The industry ignored us for years," he says. But it also arises from a shared philosophy – and a shared skepticism about the promise record deals offer.

"Independence is just being as in control of your music and your art as possible," he says. "So for as long as we can, we would like to have as much control over what we're doing. Now, there may come a time where it makes sense to sign with a label, assuming that the deal is cool and it's not anything janky ... We've seen hella people get a buzz, sign a deal and go nowhere."

"It doesn't really seem like there's any label that's super on us every day or trying to be involved with what we're doing," Saba says, noting he's had a few introductory talks with A&Rs but isn't pressed to sign with anyone. "Being independent, sometimes it takes way longer to actually start to see a return, but that's a matter of patience. You could be more popular than a lot of signed artists and just be on the Internet, touring, selling merch and stuff like that, so I think the rules have kind of changed a lot. But yeah, I don't know. We've just been kind of winging it, honestly, and it's been working out for us."

Everyone on Saba's tour got their own bed at SXSW this year, and that was a milestone. He says his ability to finance records on a shoestring budget comes down to the robust relationships he's built with people: "Instead of simply, 'I'm gonna pay you X amount of dollars to do whatever,' a lot of times it's just, because of me and whoever's strong relationship, you can ask for something and it's just done with no question." The engineer for Bucket List Project was a close friend of a close friend, who offered a heavily discounted rate, and they recorded in the basement studio at his grandparents' place.

"I think in Chicago right now, most people are worried more so about the art than the money part," Saba says. "Because we care so much about the art, we're starting to see that money back. And I think that's what a lot of people working now with me and the people around me are believing."

The producers working with Saba have revenue streams that are considerably more opaque than those of touring artists. Cam O'bi, who Saba says might be his "favorite producer ever," has experience both inside and outside major label infrastructure: He was Vic Mensa's main producer for a while, and he recently produced a track on the latest TDE release, SZA's Ctrl. Getting paid for work as a producer is "like the wild west," O'bi says — but making sure he's looked out for is easier when he feels close with his collaborators. "I know I could come to Saba with anything and it would just be an easy conversation," he says. "I'm not walking on eggshells. It's absolutely easy."

O'bi's now working on a solo album, and he's keeping a list of everyone who helps him with it. "Always credit everybody for their contribution, no matter how big or small," he says. "Credit the studio that let you record at their studio. Credit the engineer who sat for that eight-hour session recording your ass. Credit the bass player who came in and played on your record for you. If you can, pay him. If not, communicate. Keep a record of everybody. Figure out what they need and, based on what you can provide, do your absolute best to meet them at their needs and make them happy."

Of all of the artists in Saba's circle I spoke with, Phoelix, that second producer who worked with Noname, Saba and O'bi last summer in L.A., voiced the most direct insistence on independence. He put his first solo project up on Soundcloud in July. Over the phone in February, he explained to me why working outside the major label framework matters to him.

"I feel like anybody that creates something — if you have an idea and that's your idea — you can't give me an amount of money that can make that idea yours," he says. "That's something I don't want to be a part of. And I can't imagine, at this point, any reason to be a part of something like that, where my idea, the masters of my album, are literally yours: You own them, you have the rights to them. That leaves a bad taste in my mouth."

As Morrison wrote, art's freedom can come from the economic arrangements that surround it — the "Madison Avenue forces" it rebukes and the autonomy an artist refuses to relinquish. These days, streaming's growing dominance helps enable the existence of indie rappers — but it doesn't help us avoid questions about true artistic freedom. "Digital real estate is not so different from physical real estate. After it is colonized by artists, capital follows, as do legal strictures that favor the capital," Sasha Frere-Jones wrote in The Village Voice in January. "Coloring Book winning a Grammy would be a triumph ... simply because it's an exceptional record. It wouldn't say much about the nature of the immaterial, which is subject to some pretty material relations."

Frsh Waters joined Saba in Pivot Gang's basement studio not long after his return home.
Jay Caves for Heart of the City / Courtesy of the artist
Courtesy of the artist
Frsh Waters joined Saba in Pivot Gang's basement studio not long after his return home.

The day after Saba's 23rd birthday in July, his friend Frsh Waters returned home after four and a half years away. He's stayed in touch — and stayed on his Pivot Gang associates about their work. ("Every time he call he want to hear something ... and if we ain't got no new s*** to let him hear, then he letting us have it," Saba says.) For Frsh, it was a way to continue an old routine. "While I was out, I always called everybody," he told me over the phone. "I'd wake up in the morning and then I'd go through the phone book and just give everybody a ring."

But Frsh's hometown has changed. Before he went away, Laquan McDonald was still alive. So was John Walt. Frsh says he hasn't really gotten the chance to grieve yet, but Pivot Gang will get another chance to commemorate their friend as a group on Nov. 25, Walt's birthday. That night, they'll host a benefit show in his honor at House of Blues in Chicago, and all of the proceeds will go to a foundation they're starting in his name. They're still working out all of the details, but the John Walt Foundation will support young people in Chicago who want to pursue the arts. On that day, Frsh says, all of the emotion is really going to hit him. "I'm ready for it, though, because John was a great person," Frsh says. "He was like a ball of energy just wound up in a little body."

We assign a unique pressure to black art. It must tell us something about liberation, carve a way forward, bust through the economic confines of an oppressive industry. In doing so, we often miss the revolutions right in front of us: a 23-year-old realizing a childhood dream, building his life in the midst of so much dying, taking the people he loves on tour right at the moment when they needed each other the most — and now, building a foundation to honor a dear friend's memory.

The day Frsh Waters (bottom center) got out of prison, he met up with Pivot Gang and friends in Chicago. "We played basketball like it was just a regular day," he says. "It was like nothing ever changed."
Jay Caves for Heart of the City / Courtesy of the artist
Courtesy of the artist
The day Frsh Waters (bottom center) got out of prison, he met up with Pivot Gang and friends in Chicago. "We played basketball like it was just a regular day," he says. "It was like nothing ever changed."

When we last spoke over the summer, Saba was still staying at his grandparents' house, but he told me he was looking to move into a new apartment with his girlfriend. He wanted two bedrooms – one for sleeping and one for a studio — in a decent neighborhood. "I don't want to talk too much about it and jinx it, but we're waiting to hear back from one right now," he said. (Later, I circled back to ask whether he got the place. The news was good.)

"So many people, myself included, want to be stars and be huge rap dudes or whatever," Saba says. "It's maybe a little more humble, but ... I know a lot of musicians who aren't necessarily on tour or anything like that, but are able to pay for their food and able to pay for their home and go out and everything like that, just off of doing music. And I think that is the goal as a musician.

"Fourteen years and I'm just now reaching that point," he adds. "A lot of people give up before they get here."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jenny Gathright