At the start of The Chi, Coogie bikes down the South Side neighborhood, riding past street art and portraits of Barack Obama splattered across abandoned buildings. Chance the Rapper’s voice spills over trumpets in “All We Got,” the song chosen for the show’s opening scene and trailer. There’s a redemptive quality in hearing Chance’s vocals against Coogie’s image. Instantly it feels different than the visuals of Chicago we have come to known, one that became synonymous with its relationship to drill music. Its optimism is reflected in the 16-year-old’s spirit, colorful choice of clothing, and free-flowing hair. “Intentionally, he’s not perceived as a regular guy walking down the street,” music supervisor, Barry Cole, says over the phone. “We automatically know there’s something different about this kid. Even more than that, there’s something bright about him. It’s something hopeful.”
When director Rick Famuyiwa tapped Barry Cole for Lena Waithe’s new series, The Chi, Cole was tasked with adding new dimension to the coming-of-age narrative representing Chicago’s South Side through sound. Cole was the music supervisor behind some of hip-hop’s best cinematic moments, like Belly’s iconic opening scene and Brown Sugar’s ode to rap with “Love of My Life.” The Chi, however, was a little more fragile. Waithe, known for her role on Master of None, had a vision to rectify Chicago’s reputation through her beautifully flawed characters. To do this she needed to use authenticity to push past public perception. The show’s soundtrack, which became a platform for emerging as well as established artists, was one way to execute that.
Written and executive produced by Chicago natives Waithe and Common, The Chi is the account of four generations of men in modern day Chicago whose lives intersect after the death of a local teenager. The script was the foundation for Cole’s success. “You start to see what this show is about. It’s about people,” Cole says. “It’s not people who are always under duress or in an environment that’s threatening their livelihood. We’re really getting a look at these characters and what their dreams are about and what they’re progressing toward.”
The city nickname that is the series' namesake creates a raw and personal version of Chicago that you won’t see on Showtime’s Shameless. The people of “the Chi” let you in intimately, like a new neighbor, informally giving you a tour of the city as they know it. We’re practically customers of Habib’s corner store on 77th, and can smell the grease in Sonny’s chicken shack, both staple mom-and-pop stores spread across disenfranchised neighborhoods throughout the country.
Throughout the show’s pilot music is used skillfully, foreshadowing and divulging the intentions of characters for the remainder of the series. Coogie, a teenager with a neon personality, steals the sneakers and necklace from a dead body he sees on his way home. The next day on what would be his last ride around 79th, Noname sings “Yesterday” in the background: "When the sun is going down/when the sun is out to stay/I remember your smile, like it was yesterday." That night, Coogie runs into Ronnie, a roaming former addict introduced to the audience accompanied by the blues of RL Boyce’s “Shotgun.” Ronnie, father figure to the deceased, catches a glimpse of his son’s chain around Coogie’s neck and shoots him in the chest. “When those songs end up in those places, it’s not necessarily premeditated, but it’s trying to stay as close to what we know about those characters and also what we’ll be able to expect when we see those characters again.”
Kiara Lanier, a former American Idol contestant from Chicago, performs a moving rendition of “Lead Me Home,” at Coogie’s funeral where Brandon, his older brother, delivers his eulogy. Outside a makeshift memorial in front of Habib’s store a somber “Brother, Where Are You,” plays when Emmett, a sneakerhead who has almost as many kids as he does shoes, tells Brandon he knows who saw the whole thing. Kevin is a seventh grader and sole witness to Coogie’s murder, but he’s just trying to get his crush’s attention by learning the words to “Slide Some Oil to Me,” a cut from the school production of The Wiz. The Wiz, like The Chi, chronicled black life in an inner city.
In some ways, the plot does show the Chicago we've come to know on television. But, buried in the hour-long episodes are moments that show black life in a major city, layered and full of nuance. In a script that humanizes the people of Chicago, Cole’s job is to enhance those stories through the sonic landscape by considering the effect the music has on the picture. “In music supervision and in filmmaking you consider the picture first,” he starts. “Once you put the picture together you decide whether or not the music choice is going with the grain or against it.”
Cole reveals that there were up to a dozen songs that were considered for Coogie’s opening scene. But, the deciding factor for Cole was the song’s ingredients. For him, Chance’s leadership around the city embodied the tone and texture of what The Chi was trying to capture. “It’s interesting that the song has not only Chance, Chicago’s Children Choir, Donny Trumpet [now credited as Nico Segal], and a host of other incredible songwriters and musicians from Chicago; but to top it off, Kanye’s on it too.”
Rick Famuyiwa wasn’t the only familiar face Cole worked with prior to The Chi. He knew Common from his work on Brown Sugar, watching him and Erykah Badu create the film’s lead single “Love of My Life” at Electric Lady Studios. Sixteen years later, Common’s role as an activist around his hometown is undisputed. “It’s been amazing to watch Common take his rightful place as a leader in his community,” he says. “A window opened up to me by Common and his management to help to show me what their vision is of the Chicago that they live in and what’s important for them to be seen and heard.” For Cole, the criteria has got to feel right. “That’s where the experience and the input of Common, Rick and Lena have helped to create a completely different experience that what you’re used to seeing and hearing on tv.”
The Chi is a spotlight on the abandoned narratives of people living on the less glamorized parts of town. The landscape is imperfect yet familiar, with story arcs that prove there isn’t just one Chicago. “Black and brown people all over the world are dying, not because we want to, but because we have no choice not to,” says Eva Lewis, a teen from Chicago’s South Shore neighborhood, in a TEDxTeen Talk. Exchange the street signs and colloquialisms and you’ll see the same stories in Ferguson, Flint, New Orleans, Los Angeles, New York and Washington, D.C. Waithe’s objective was to make the show “really black, really human and as authentic as possible.” The Chi is a pretty damn good way of validating the lives of black men in America, even when they’re hearing otherwise everywhere else.
Kristin Corry is a staff writer at Noisey. Follow her on Twitter.