Common remembers one day, well before he became a Grammy Award-winning rapper, actor and philanthropist, when a musician returned to his South Side neighborhood to shoot a music video.
“I was hatin’ on him because he left the hood after shooting the video,” he said.
“But I have also done that — shooting music videos around my old neighborhood where I no longer live,” he added. “It’s time to give something back.”
Common joined fellow Chicago hip-hop artist Che “Rhymefest” Smith in the act on Wednesday by announcing a jobs program to benefit the city’s youth and a new music festival.
The Chicago Youth Jobs Collaborative plans to create thousands of year-round jobs for young people aged 16-24. Led by the Chicago Urban League and the Common Ground Foundation, which was founded by Common in 2007, the partnership also includes Kanye West’s arts and educational foundation, Donda’s House, where Rhymefest serves as creative director.
“It hurts me to hear about the [gun] violence and our youth being shot or killed,” said Common, who was born Lonnie Rashid Lynn, Jr., at a standing-room-only press conference at the Museum of Contemporary Art. “One of the biggest reasons that our youth are [experiencing] violence is because of poverty. They want a chance and opportunity. They need jobs.”
The coalition is aiming for a minimum of 1,000 new jobs beginning in the fall and plans to add 1,000 more in each of the next four years, said Andrea L. Zopp, President and CEO of the Chicago Urban League.
Illinois is one of the 10 worst states for youth employment, according to a January report released by the Chicago Alternative Schools Network, a non-profit based in Ravenswood. Young black males in Chicago suffer from the lowest employment statistics of any demographic, with a 89 percent unemployment rate in 2012, the study notes. Only 4 percent of black male teens from low-income households in Chicago were employed in 2012.
The bleak employment numbers come at the same time Chicago’s gun violence has made national and international headlines. The city recorded 415 homicides in 2013, a significant drop from the 506 in 2012. Still, Chicago’s homicide rate the last two years outpaced all other major metropolitan areas and the victims were disproportionately black and Latino male youth from the South and West sides.
The collaborative hopes to partner with other public, private and non-profit businesses to push for more funding and resources to create youth employment opportunities, Zopp said. Other community partners include the Chicago Alternative Schools Network, Austin People’s Action Center, Centers for New Horizons and UCAN.
“We know what it means to have a summer job and a little money in our pocket. But the need for a job doesn’t end in September,” said Zopp. “Youth need to be able to support themselves and their families year-around.”
The festival – called AAHH!Fest – will debut September 20-21 in Woodlawn’s Jackson Park and feature top artists in the industry, as well as local talent. Proceeds from the two-day festival will benefit Common Ground, Donda’s House, arts education in Chicago Public Schools and the youth jobs initiative.
“We are not just going to solve the city’s problems through one foundation,” Common told The Chicago Reporter. “It has to be a collective effort. Jobs [are] a good start but it [has] to be other things, too, like helping to build self-esteem.”
The announcement of the citywide job initiative was warmly greeted by community-based groups at the press conference.
“This is amazing,” said Carmen Curet, Director of Youth Development at Alternatives, Inc., an Uptown-based non-profit. “We place about 250 youth per year in the summer employment program. One of the challenges that we have as a grassroots agency is that young people don’t have anything to do when the summer is over. Our youth want to work. They don’t want to wake up and become gangbangers.”