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"End of the Ghetto."
That's how The New York Times referred to the impending demolition of Chicago's infamous Robert Taylor Homes, once the nation's largest housing project, two decades ago. Michael Eagle II, not yet the art-rapper known now as Open Mike Eagle, was just a Windy City kid on the cusp of manhood at the time. Raised on the Southside, he'd spent much of his formative years in Robert Taylor, where his aunt and first cousins lived.
The 28 high-rises, 4,321 apartments and 11,000 bodies occupying them in 1998 were more than stats and figures to him, they were his people. Now, 10 years after the completion of its demolition, he's resurrecting Robert Taylor, brick by living brick.
On his forthcoming concept album, Brick Body Kids Still Daydream (out Sept. 15 on Mello Music Group), Open Mike Eagle humanizes the victims of one of the largest urban renewal — a.k.a. negro removal — projects in the last half century of America.
The idea to record an album that serves as "a vivid, comic book-style reimagining of the Homes," as Eagle tells NPR, came to him out of thin air. During an airplane flight, he pulled out his laptop and felt compelled to watch a couple of documentaries about the life of the Robert Taylor and its demolition (similar to The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, a film about the 33-building St. Louis housing project torn down in the mid-'70s).
"I watched it and was transfixed by it, and hurt," Eagle, who's resided in L.A. since the late-'90s and was part of the Project Blowed collective, says, explaining how similar feelings of darkness resonated with him throughout the 2016 presidential election. "I thought about the policy of erecting and destroying housing for black people, and the link I perceive between what happens to those buildings and what happens to black people's bodies when they are murdered by the police. It all hurt a lot and stressed me out. I decided to go harder at it with my writing."
Rappers have rhymed about housing projects since hip-hop's beginning, to be sure. When it comes to the politics of place, there is no home base more synonymous with the birth of the genre. For the better half of the twentieth century, these brick monstrosities served as warehouses of poverty and inequality in urban centers throughout the country; hip-hop provided a voice for an otherwise forgotten demographic.
On "Brick Body Complex," Open Mike Eagle fuses the source and its voice, literally becoming the building as he delivers a defiant blues.
"Don't call me n**** or rapper / My motherf****** name is Michael Eagle / I'm sovereign / I'm from a line of ghetto superheroes," he raps over drum-and-synth track as angsty as his survival narrative. "I will never fit in your descriptions / I'm giant / Don't let nobody tell you nothing different / They lying / A giant and my body is a building, a building, a building, a building."
Both the song and Eagle's fifth solo LP comprise an ambitious attempt to deconstruct and examine a warped mythology that reduces housing project residents to violence-prone, drug-addled subhumans.
The equally conceptual video, directed by Nikki Born, is another entry in Eagle's "Dark Comedy Television" video series, in which each visual accompanying the album serves as a TV short on an imaginary network. This one features Eagle portraying a traumatized superhero who tries to save the building from demolition by an unknown villain, who seems to represent the nefarious market forces or nameless bureaucrats that represent the system. However you interpret the faceless antagonist, it embodies the idea that gentrification is violence.
"This is about trauma. It's about how 30,000 residents were displaced and only one-third of them are accounted for — and there are no AMBER alerts for the other two-thirds," Eagle says. "This is about the pain of that. And how black life in America seems to run parallel with painful events that we're not supposed to talk about, because America doesn't really want to hear it. This song and album is about how those buildings were torn down and replaced with nothing — not a new highway or a football field. Nothing at all."
The promised redevelopment of the land where the Robert Taylor Homes once stood remains behind schedule. But the large-scale dispersal gang members and criminals that occurred during the Robert Taylor upheaval proves that the one thing missing from national conversations around gentrification and the crisis of violence in inner cities like Chicago is the humanity.
"We are missing people," Eagle adds. "We are literally missing 20,000 people. A lot of them died. Some of the ones that didn't were young gangbangers and hustlers that got moved into rival territory or maybe across the street from their enemies. A lot of hardened people moved to soft places. That hardening is a very difficult process to reverse. It's like a living rigor mortis."
Brick Body Kids Still Daydream comes out Sept. 15 via Mellow Music Group.