I have to admit, until recently I didn’t really know who Chief Keef was I recognized his name from the hit “I Don’t Like,” but not much else. I starting inquiring about him more as he feuded with Lupe Fiasco, Lil Jojo got killed, and people started telling me, “Chief Keef is a problem.” The more I learn about him, the more I feel endeared to and concerned for him, as with many of our young Black males. As the rapper gets more and more attention, we have to realize that he is only one person. And like many of our youth, he is trapped in crises of identity, community and opportunity. Until we start to shift those things we can expect to see more loss in Chicago, Philadelphia, and other metropolitan cities.

Identity Crisis

“Know thyself”— two words that can be as simple or complex as we make them. The process of self-discovery is one fraught with benefit and consequences; nonetheless, it is a journey that all must undergo. While we spend a great deal of time telling our young people what to do and socializing them into what to consume, we often miss the chances to help them discover themselves and help them figure out what their role on the planet is, not just what they can make money doing.

Chief Keef, entrenched in a heavy gang culture, is a prime example. To him, Chicago’s Black Disciples is central to who he is and who he should be. Each of his tweets carries #300, a reference to the gang, and he’s been known to only state his age as “300.” A gang, for many, meets a craving for community; however, as this bleeds into an all-consuming sense of identity, the consequences can be large. Gangs are not likely to leave today or tomorrow. Chicago is no stranger to gangs; in fact, they are so much a part of the city’s history that there have been numerous attempts to organize them for progressive social action and governmental intervention to destabilize political alliances.

The violence that Chicago faces is undoubtedly tied to gangs and new cliques, which are emerging each day. Their presence and influence is undeniable. What we have to think about is how we deal with them, organize around and with them, and help young people see the bigger picture of how to break out of the oppression they face. For decades, organizations like the Nation of Islam and other proto-Islamic groups (whether you agree with their theologies or not) dedicated themselves to operating in the poorest of communities and teaching young people to think differently about their place in the world.

We spend more time shaking our heads and “being concerned” than being active in engaging our young people to show them the rich legacies they come from and the even richer ones they can build together.

Community and Opportunity

Without strong identity, it’s difficult to have strong communities. We’ve become quick to identify with places, but not necessarily with people. The term “hood” is not simply a linguistic shortcut; it may represent our collective move from being neighboring and valuing the interpersonal relationships with our neighbors.

In a thriving community there are strong bonds that assure people know each other and can work together for a collective good. Chicago, like many major cities, has not ostracized those who are in gangs, deal drugs, or practice other behaviors that many eschew as dangerous. Instead, people locked into poor neighborhoods often find a way to keep their heads above water, maintain some relative semblance of safety, and make it day-to-day. However, surviving is not thriving. There need to be more buoys in an ocean of hazards.

No matter how many speeches are made about progress and economic booms, the reality is that many of our youth grow up in neighborhoods that lack full access to opportunities. Whether crumbling schools or unsafe streets, finding success in the valleys of America’s inner cities remains a harrowing task. Chicago, like many metropolitan areas, has been particularly hard hit by the disappearance of work and deep levels of Black male unemployment. For young men, the inability to work paired with early fathering and low levels of education is a treacherous combination. Until there are greater opportunities opened in Chicago, Black males will remain haunted by an ever-widening prison industrial complex or worse death.

If we want to re-shape the lives of young brothers and sisters in Chicago, we need to work on developing greater senses of identity, purpose, community, and opportunity. This will take more than the willful engagement of youth; it will require the sturdy dedication of elders and bold movement by political officials and the grassroots. Everyone has a role to play as we try to turn around the problems that Chicago faces, for they are only a canaries in the mine for the rest of the nation.

Dr. R. L’Heureux Lewis-McCoy is an Assistant Professor of Sociology and Black Studies at the City College of New York- CUNY. His work concentrates on race, education and gender. You can follow him on Twitter at @dumilewis or visit his official website.