Love, trauma and the complexities of black life in America are at the heart of Chicago rapper Mykele Deville’s latest album Maintain, released on No Trend Records this year.
“Maintain itself is like a call to black and brown people to continue to survive through systems of oppression,” Deville said. “The album is an encouragement to help motivate people to keep pushing through and do their best to survive.”
Deville was born and raised in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood and went to the prestigious Gallery 37 arts program with fellow artist Jamila Woods. From there, Deville became what he calls a “chainbreaker” in his family — he was the first to graduate from college and the first to pursue art as a full-time career.
While Deville now lives in Hyde Park, he says he tries to stay connected to his West Side roots through art and storytelling.
“Once I got out, I realized that I wanted to show a little bit more reverence to where I had tried for so long to escape,” he said. “Now I have a level of ease, privilege and comfort to be able to write and reflect, which I don’t think a lot of people who come from the West Side are afforded.”
Rapper, poet, actor and teacher
Deville, 30, trained for years as an actor, first at Gallery 37 and then at the University of Illinois at Chicago. In addition to releasing music, he’s the lead poet-in-residence at the nonprofit Foundations of Music, which provides free music education to children in Chicago. He’s also a teaching artist at Edward H. White Career Academy and Joseph Kellman Corporate Community Elementary School.
Frustrated with the lack of acting roles for black men, he said he stepped away from the stage in 2015, turned to Chicago’s DIY arts scene for support and found the confidence to “give it a shot” as a musician.
“I spent almost 13, 14 years training to be an actor, and having stars in my eyes, and getting an agent and auditioning, hitting the streets with headshots and things like that,” Deville said. “Facing crowds helped me to become a more compelling rapper.”
Tackling sensitive subjects through rap
Deville doesn’t shy away from the controversial. He released his debut mixtape Super Predator amid the 2016 presidential election. The title is a reference to Hillary Clinton’s 1996 speech on gangs in support of a law signed by her husband, then-President Bill Clinton.
“I wanted to show as a rapper that it’s our job to be critical. It’s our job to pay attention,” he said. “I think it's important to use hip hop as a tool to not only educate, but to reveal.”
Deville also leans into the personal and the emotional. His second album, Each One, Teach One, is dedicated to his 9-year-old niece, Vaniya, who lives three blocks from his childhood home. He said he wanted the project to be a “time capsule” that was strictly for her.
“I don’t inhabit the same body as her, I don’t inhabit her memories or her experiences,” Deville said. “But what I can do is give her my roadmap and my terrain of what I had to go through and what I was feeling at her age and currently navigating this world as a black person.”
On Maintain, Deville draws on the music and stories from his childhood to explore themes of community, blackness, vulnerability and survival in the face of generational and systemic marginalization.
Tracks like “Free Soul” and “Loosies + A Poem For Us” are love letters to the West Side of Chicago, the latter featuring a spoken-word poem by his creative and romantic partner McKenzie Chinn.
“We wanted to connect this idea of the struggle and the hardships that we face and the beauty that we endure quietly ... it’s all for us,” he said. “Some people grow up without this instinct of survival, never having any kind of oppression in their lives. It’s something to be honored and revered.”
Mykele Deville is scheduled to perform June 17 at the Soho House and June 29 at the Logan Square Arts Fest. For more information, visit his website.
Nereida Moreno is a producer for The Morning Shift. Follow her on Twitter at @nereidamorenos.