President Donald Trump wants to know, “What the hell is going on in Chicago?” For R&B artist BJ the Chicago Kid, who grew up on the South Side, it’s not so simple.
Trump publicly bemoaned gun violence in cities like Chicago and Baltimore on Friday, but for BJ the Chicago Kid, police brutality against the black population in his city is a critical issue.
“We can talk about Chicago gun violence and the crazy things that happen on the news, but yet police brutality is probably happening right now somewhere. And I mean, police officers get off every day for doing this,” Grammy-nominated singer Bryan James Sledge, better known as BJ the Kid, told CNN’s #GetPolitical series last month. “There still is a huge gap in the conviction rate of officers that kill innocent people, definitely black men, especially.”
In a speech Friday at the FBI National Academy, Trump slammed anti-police sentiments and called for the death penalty for those who kill police officers.
“What the hell is going on in Chicago? … In Baltimore, on average, someone was murdered nearly every day of this year,” Trump said. “Police departments are overstretched, they’re underfunded and they’re totally underappreciated except by me.”
“It’s very mind-boggling how the (officer) conviction rate is so low, but it happens weekly, daily … and it’s swept under the rug, it’s swept under the rug,” BJ said. “It’s no repercussions. These are not tickets; these are people losing their lives. These are families that will never see their loved ones ever again.”
While gun violence and poverty may define Chicago’s heartbreak, for BJ, the church and the people are its heartbeat.
The four-time Grammy-nominee was raised in the Brainerd neighborhood, where he witnessed gun violence firsthand, grew up in the church and fell in with a rough crowd while in high school.
“Getting to know my city through me is hearing the church in my voice, to hearing the slang in my language, you know what I mean? That covers Chicago. Chicago has liquor stores, churches, currency exchanges and restaurants pretty much on every block, almost,” BJ said. “There is happiness in the midst of the progression in life … That salt and pepper has always been a part of my winning recipe to what I cook.”
In songs like “Church,” featuring fellow Chicago artist Chance the Rapper, and “Turnin Me Up,” BJ’s vocals emanate the soulfulness and the depth of worship while reverberating the veracity and the booming energy of the streets — a paradox that reflects the wholeness of BJ’s identity and his experience in the city.
The artist’s first experience with gun violence was in the third or fourth grade, when BJ walked out of his school and directly into a battle zone.
“The guy’s running between the kids. When his arm shoots the gun, I stop because I’ve never seen it before, so it pretty much grabbed my attention. I stopped and I watched it,” he said. “A friend had to snatch my backpack to wake me up because it was something I had never seen before actually in real life.”
CNN’s #GetPolitical caught up with the R&B star following his performance at The Fillmore in Silver Spring, Maryland, last month. The “Roses” singer reflected on how Chicago shaped him, President Barack Obama’s legacy, Trump and his upcoming projects.
CNN: People are always talking about gun violence in Chicago. How do you feel when you hear this dialogue?
BJ THE CHICAGO KID: Gun violence has always been a part of Chicago, but I think social media and other outlets have definitely magnified and helped spread the awareness. But not just the awareness — it’s kind of being used as the bacon a little bit in America. … I just think that that’s not really cool, it’s not appreciative from the people that go to these funerals and lose family members and friends and loved ones — it’s just a sad sight.
CNN: How has growing up in a church impacted your life? Do you still attend church as an adult?
BJ THE CHICAGO KID: Church has just always been an anchor to my family. I realized what church was to me at a very young age. Spirituality is very real with me. I definitely have a relationship with God, and I pray every day, let alone before every show. It’s a consistent thing for me … it’s a big part of my life.
CNN: What do you want people to learn from you?
BJ THE CHICAGO KID: It takes a certain level of confidence to stand up and do anything. I think that’s the first thing you can get from me. I’m from the inner city of Chicago, I’m from the block, I’m from the hood … so to have the confidence to do what you see me do — that’s the beginning of what it takes to make a stand.
CNN: You performed the National Anthem ahead of Obama’s farewell speech last January. Now that he’s been out of office for nearly a year, how do you view his legacy?
BJ THE CHICAGO KID: I think Obama will always have that connection with people because somebody knows when you’re speaking from your heart. I mean, honesty reaches the heart faster than anything … the connection isn’t there with the current President. I try not to honestly even keep him in mind because it will mess up my daily life.
CNN: I’ve noticed that a lot of activists now are kind of looking past Trump and keeping their eye on whatever it is they’re fighting for.
BJ THE CHICAGO KID: Honestly, man, when you handle your daily life, Trump is not there to tell you how to pay your bill, which way to take to work, which right turn to take. … you have to have some type of focus, and I believe if he’s not at your door personally knocking, you have to find some way to get a tunnel vision to get your focus going so you can be straight, even though he’s a little nerve-wracking.
CNN: What are you focused on?
BJ THE CHICAGO KID: I’m working on a new album at the moment. It’s a very exciting time for that. That’s one of the things that has been stealing my focus, that keeps me smiling, keeps me happy. It’s a lot of gems and messages inside of this album that I think will uplift people.