Photo: giphy.com

And as I watched all of this unfold the last few weeks, I was reminded of something. Being constantly brutalized is one thing, but having to re-live said brutalization through looping videos and clips and sound bites and pundits trivializing the violence tends to take its toll really quick.

I found myself having to unplug from most of it in order to avoid losing my mind. I found that my favorite books, movies, and even late nights out with my friends helped me to process the heaviness. Oddly enough, however, I never imagined that music might be exactly what I needed to soothe my heavy heart.

So, imagine my surprise when it was announced that Chance The Rapper had debuted his song “Angels” on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Although I didn’t know the song was coming, I became elated at the idea of new music from Chance.

And, why is that exactly?

Well, let me briefly talk about a little album called Surf.


In all seriousness, there’s nothing “small” about Surf. Surf is, in fact, a large, collaborative music project between Chance the Rapper, Donnie Trumpet, Busta Rhymes, Janelle Monae, B.O.B, and many, MANY others. Furthermore, Chance and company released it for FREE. As a broke college student, that was enough of a reason for me to be excited.

Still, that’s not why the project was notable. The project is notable because of the musical instruments and elements (most famously the trumpet and choir music) that it utilizes and the feelings that it invokes. To be quite frank, there’s no way to listen to Surf and not feel happy after the fact. The entire effort seems to ooze out joy and light from every. single. track.

I hadn’t heard anything quite like it before and I wasn’t alone in this.

Multiple outlets praised its cheerful vibe and inspiring flow. But one particular outlet caught my attention when they labeled music with two distinct words: “utopia rap.”

What is utopia rap exactly? Well, I’m not entirely sure. I actually hadn’t heard of the term before until I came across it in Grantland’s piece that they wrote about Chance and his collaboration with Donnie Trumpet. And although Google didn’t give me any other leads, Grantland did offer up a clear-cut definition for “utopia rap,” which is music for “a better tomorrow, today. Music so pure it could revive the trumpet.”


I was particularly struck by the use of “pure,” “a better today” and a “better tomorrow.” Maybe it’s because it stands in stark opposition to all the violence and chaos that is happening around us as of late.

And maybe that’s the point.

To explain, a month ago, I reviewed Straight Outta Compton and briefly expounded upon how the film was important and necessary because it got us to revisit the idea of music as revolution. Music is ever-changing and always reflective of the world around us. It’s especially never too far off from the current socio-political landscape that encompasses it. And over the years, rap has been no exception. Rap has moved with the times, taking form as conscious rap during the Black Em[power]ment era, taking form as gangsta rap (new and old) in the late ’80s and ’90s, and evolving from there as it has seen fit.

Phases aside, one constant thing that rap has maintained is the way in which it seeks to give its creators and cultivators — black people — a way to speak out, reflect, and air their grievances, good or bad. Pretty or ugly. The whole nine yards.

Which is why this idea of “utopia rap” is interesting, considering the influences that it’s drawing upon.

Again, I don’t have much to go on other than Chance’s music — Surf and “Angel” especially — but even then, his music provides an interesting study on music of old. And by music of old, I am referring to gospel music, its ties to the black church, and its direct connection to negro spirituals and hymns of our recent past.

All three of these things have assisted black people in some capacity as we attempt to transcend the constant sorrow, tragedy, and violence that life and the State continue to throw at us. What’s more is that these things have always been a part of collective and widespread black resistance. This is especially true in regards to negro spirituals and hymnals, as they were most often ways for slaves to communicate and plot their escape without alerting their masters and overseers.


This history is painful. This history is rich. This history is important. This history is ours. And this history is irrevocably tied to us and our culture. Which is why I would be doing Chance and his music an extreme disservice if I didn’t explore any of the gospel influences in his recent musical efforts, Surf and “Angels.”

On top of including all those choir and instrumental stops (such as steel drums and what sounds like a xylophone) I mentioned earlier, Surf in particular pays tribute to its black church influences in “Sunday Candy” by taking the form of an ode to Chance’s church-attending grandma (which shouldn’t be all that surprising,considering his recent collaboration with Kirk Franklin at Pitchfork Music Festival last summer). Various images of Jesus Christ, prayer, Zion, and other symbols are invoked in creative fashion. Slate called this use of “divine imagery” very distinct and recalled how reminiscent it was to “traditions within the black church”.

And true to those traditions, Chance does not pass up the chance to include these symbols and this divine imagery in “Angels,” especially as he seeks to lift his city — Chicago — up. Indeed, Chance and fellow Chicago artist Saba serenade the city, saying it’s “so damn great, I feel like Alexand’” and shout-out Chicago staples like “GCI, 1-0-7-5″ and “Power 92before launching into all sorts of divine imagery such as angels and halos:

They was talking “woo woo this woo wap da bam”

City so damn great, I feel like Alexand’

Wear your halo like a hat, that’s like the latest fashion

I got angels all around me, they keep me surrounded

Wap the bam (na, na, na)

(I got angels) I got angels all around me they keep me surrounded

(Na, na, na)

(I got angels)

They was talking “woo woo this woo wap da bam”

City so damn great, I feel like Alexand’

Wear your halo like a hat, that’s like the latest fashion

I got angels all around me, they keep me surrounded

Chance even shoots straight to the top and invokes images of God and creation while making it all look easy with his signature, twisty wordplay (“This what it sound like when God split an atom with me”/“I even have Steve giving out apples for free”). And like in “Sunday Candy,” these images are purposeful. This time around, in addition to uplifting Chicago, Chance and Saba seek to use these images to pay tribute to those who have fallen to horrific gun violence (“And if they rest in peace they bunny hopping heaven’s gates”/“It’s too many young angels on the southside”), reassure their city of a better tomorrow (“Clean up the streets so my daughter can have somewhere to play”), and thank the city and the people that have been with them along the way (“you can’t touch me”/ “Na, na, na, na I got angels”/ “I got angels”/“I got angels all around me, they keep me surrounded”).

That reassurance of a better tomorrow and the exuberance and pure joy with which Chance and Saba rap about it is exactly why idea the of “utopia rap,” the idea of joyous music, is important. In a time when we are constantly bombarded by images of violence carried out on black bodies and black people (of all genders AND even children), joyous music such as “Angels” and Surf provides us with relief and a much-needed break.

And goddamn if we don’t need a break from this bullsh*t every now and then.

So, I don’t know about you, but before I return to the trenches and continue to fight the good fight, I’m going to join Chicago in “doing front flips” and bask in the positivity and joy that Chance just gifted us with for as long as I possibly can.

Photo: giphy.com


Alex is a Care-Free Black Girl in training. She is fluent in sarcasm, a master of sass, and a fervent wordsmith.