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It has been a whirlwind year of ups and downs, joy and pain, triumphs and daily tribulations. Yet, many of us are still here and standing strong. As we review 2017, from a Chicago perspective—we understand national occurrences have affected us locally but hey, we love our beloved home despite what the little orange man in the White House says, right?

Thank God for the arts. The importance of the arts is what fuels the soul of our being whether it’s music, theatre, film, visual art, comedy or the beauty of spoken word—it lights a burning flame in each of us. This is why evidence of maintaining and building STEM and arts related educational programming is essential to maintaining our public and private schools.

No one could be a better poster child for bringing economic stimulation to our CPS schools than Chancellor Bennett, better known to us as Chance the Rapper. Chance has taken incredible strides for “putting his money where his mouth is” or in other words utilizing people’s money to make an incredible impact. A graduate of Jones College Prep High School, his nonprofit organization he formed with friends, SocialWorks, has raised nearly $5 million dollars for multiple CPS schools throughout the year.

Prior to the New Year, SocialWorks made a bold and productive statement, hosting a free outdoor concert at the Petrillo Band stage entertaining hundreds of attendees the day before the presidential election. Without missing a beat, the 24-year-old led nearly 700 young people to the voting polls on foot, in telling style which reminded me very much of the scene in the film “Malcolm X” where Denzel Washington, with the flick of his finger, dismantled the crowd from protesting in front of the police station. The scene was beautiful, and some are wondering, “Is this too much influence or power for one person to have?” Nope because without stating his political alliance with any one candidate—this young man encouraged his peers to take civic action in our duties as American citizens.

Bennett kicked off the year at The Grammy’s by bringing home four awards and becoming that “it” kid that proved to other independent artists that crème rises to the top without the machine politics of a major record label.

Then the award-winner made a bold announcement to donate the initial $1 million of his own money at Harper High School in response to a major shortfall as a result of the state budget stalemate; he showed a level of maturity beyond his years. This philanthropic move would invite other donors and corporations to step up to the plate, identifying schools that would be impacted the most in both Black and Brown communities. From Chicago Bulls, Google to Jewel Osco and others, Chance has created a movement out of “paying it forward” in the hippest sense.

He said at his initial press conference at Harper High School, “As a parent and a proud CPS graduate, I’m committed to helping Chicago students have quality living experiences and a quality learning space. As an artist and After Schools Matter teacher, the arts are essential…. To ensure more students have access to the arts and enrichment education, I’m excited to announce in the collaboration with the Children’s First Fund—the New Chance Arts & Literacy Fund.”

Growing up in Chatham, a Southside community of working class families—his parents, Ken and Lisa Bennett, both worked in local government. His father once worked for Mayor Harold Washington, then-Senator Barack Obama and for Mayor Rahm Emanuel. His mom, a business owner for years, eventually worked in community outreach for Attorney General Lisa Madigan on real estate matters.

Chance and his younger brother Taylor are both aware of the significant impact of having people that look like them as examples of success because they were raised by two individuals who exemplified this every day.

In addition to his philanthropic efforts, Chance and Ken Bennett are on the advisory board for the DuSable Museum of African American History.

Following in the footsteps of his musical idol, Kanye West, Chance was one of the main headline acts for Lollapalooza. This makes him the second Chicago rap artist to do so. A week later, he would lead the largest African American parade in the country, the Bud Biliken Parade, as its Grand Marshall—giving away over 20,000 backpacks filled with school supplies. Later, personally making trips to various nonprofit agencies on the West and Southside with the remaining 10,000 bags bringing a taste of celebrity at their doorsteps.

Both President Obama and Michelle Obama recruited him for the Obama Foundation Summit in November to curate a special concert at Wintrust Arena. A guest at a White House before he left, President Obama acknowledged Chance’s impact on the arts and how he will be a major part of his Presidential Center’s programming.

Yes, our publication like others have repeatedly featured this young’s man stellar achievements and contributed to the social media feed of his latest endeavors because he’s earned it.  We named him our 2017 Newsmaker of the Year not because of his hit songs and his repeated appearances on SNL, but for what he has done with his fame and fortune—what he has done and continues to do for our people. Nothing is by “chance” or “fate,” but his works have proved he is called by God.

Independent Music

Chicago is the soul of Black music embodied by swag, skill and plenty of attitude. Almost in every genre, artists dominate and captivate audiences around the world—making Chicago a musical mecca for visitors.

The Chicago Defender featured some of the best indie artists throughout the year and in our Chi Def Black Music Month supplement in June.

Taylor Bennett

Taylor Bennett has made some impressive moves and debuted his new project, Restoration of An American Idol, traveling on tour with Tory Lanez. His announcement on twitter of his bisexuality was bold and gave many young people battling their own sexuality the courage to shed their fear. He immediately stepped out into his own spotlight and away from the glare of big brother, Chance the Rapper. Bennett’s mission to help homeless teens has helped organizations such as LaCasa Norte.

Other featured artists making national moves are K’Valentine, The Boy Illinois, Solow, Ravyn Lanae, Lowdown Brass Band, Todd Dulaney, Jonathan McReynolds,  and Bump J. Our candid interviews included South Side natives Ty Money and 600 Breezy, who were gradually making a name for themselves before they both had to serve sentences for past charges.

Antonio Valentino King, known as 600 Breezy, was full of hope and on the cusp of having a successful music career, touring with Drake—granted The Chicago Defender his last interview before he was retained in Iowa county corrections center the day after. Speaking candidly about the street hustle, he talks about why it’s important to use music as a legitimate way to help his family.

600 Breezy

He says, “My kids are number one. Everything I do, I do for them and my mom. It’s just family—family is important to me. My grandma saw me on the Billboard Awards and called me crying tears, screaming at the top of her lungs. I didn’t even win an award, I was just there, but I’m her baby. Family is the most important thing to me.”

Film and Television

If you didn’t know about Chicago outside of the mainstream media coverage, any one of the following reality shows represented Chicagoans.

Premiering on Lifetime network, “Bringing Up Ballers” was an inside look at several mothers of middle school to high school students excelling in basketball.

Not based in Chicago but featured two Chicago natives, Larry Sims and Jermaine Britton— “Invite Only Cabo” on Bravo had social media tongues wagging.

The WE Network premiered “Livin’ Large,” which featured a Chicago family who is funny, lively, confident in their approach to living heavier and happy.

“Black Ink Chicago” stars, Ryan Henry and Van Johnson.

Returning for a third season is “Black Ink Chicago,” the hit VH1 show series; we follow 9 Mag Tattoo shop owner Ryan Henry and his cast mates’ daily drama with shop life, relationships and newfound fame.

Over the summer, filming for the Showtime series “The Chi” could be seen throughout the city. Premiering in January, the drama is based in Chicago and centered around African American youth who face challenging disparities on the South Side. Written and created by Chicagoan and Emmy-award writer Lena Waite, the show is executive produced by Common and business partner Derek Dudley—both South Side natives.

Other young filmmakers sharing our pages included Rhyan LaMarr, who finished filming

“Canal Street.” Bringing life to the big screen was film director LT Hutton’s biopic of Tupac Shakar. Although, the film didn’t last long in theatres, the Chicagoan said it was a “labor of love” and took years to bring it all together.

Veteran music retailer George Daniels wrote a commentary describing the impact of Tupac on the music industry.

“Tupac had this ability to connect; you have to recognize it just doesn’t happen. It was a process. It’s like preparing gumbo. There are different things that make people special. We are products of our environment. There’s no way around it. You could be born to a drug addict but if you wind up being raised by a Harvard professor, you likely may end up doing something in that lane. Tupac’s mother being a Black Panther and the social arena that he was placed in as a child did influence him,” he said.

Former co-host for the “The View” Sherri Shephard sat down with The Chicago Defender to discuss her new television show, “Trial and Error” and reflected on a point in her life when her father had to check her ego.

“Probably my grandmother and dad. My dad told me early on, I was on a show with Scott Baio and I think I was feeling myself. I quit my job, and everybody runs and do what you want, and I was really feeling myself. I flew my dad out there, he and my grandmother, and he didn’t like what he saw. I was getting Hollywood and he came and said, ‘Let me tell you something little girl, a hundred girls can do what you do — you ain’t no different,’ said Shephard.”

Social justice took front and center this year with documentaries making their mark recognizing major milestones in America’s racial divide.

Filmmaker Raoul Peck’s “I AM Not Your Negro” highlights prolific writer James Baldwin’s words documenting his viewpoints on race relations in the 1960’s. Peck does an incredible job delivering a compelling narrative of Baldwin’s timeless analogy that resonates in current times.

The film “LA 92” highlighting America’s civil unrest after 25 years brought back so many memories that captured the country as millions watched six LA police officers be released free of charges from beating Rodney King. The documentary recounted the rage and disappointment felt by African Americans and the mounting racial tension between the community and the Los Angeles Police Department.


Some of our best and brightest talent hail from the theatre community and many make Chicago their stop and often their home. Thanks to our wonderful columnists Brenda and Rick McCain, who provide weekly theatrical reviews of productions all around the city.

‘Hamilton’ producer, Jeffrey Seller moderates Chicago ensemble cast of ‘Hamilton’ for a special Q&A.

In addition to the “Let’s Play!” reviews, our features also highlight interviews with the stars of some of the productions as well.

Broadway in Chicago and the stellar hit musical “Hamilton” continues to entertain audiences and educate thousands of CPS students with one-on-one panel discussions from the cast members. The program is great because it allows students to create their own versions of the production’s songs and perform them in front of an audience of their peers as well as cast members. Students are bused in, treated to a brown bag lunch and receive a complimentary ticket to see the show.

“The Phantom of the Opera’s” star Derrick Davis talked about taking on the lead role that opened up the doors for other Black actors. Singer and songwriter Guy Lockard starred in “Chicago” at the Drury Lane in Oakbrook. “Five Guys Named Moe” was billed as one of the best musicals of the year along with the return of “Motown,” which continues to showcase new talent singing catalog hits.

Breon Arzell (Zaza Workolo), Director Chuck Smith and Daniel Kyri (Shedrick Yarkpai) in rehearsal for Objects in the Mirror by Charles Smith at Goodman Theatre (April 29 – June 4).

Playwright, Charles Smith teamed up with theatre director, Chuck Smith to produce “Objects in the Mirror” at the Goodman Theatre, a rendition of Charles Smith’s original production.

A longtime director and former actor in Chicago theatre community, Chuck Smith admitted there is no particular style to his passion and work.  “I don’t know my style. I just work the same way. The way I put a show together was the same way I was taught at Loop College. With Sidney Daniels, who taught me, this is how you mount a show. Whenever I directed a show, I just followed the steps he took. You do this first and then you do that. That’s what I do,” he says.

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