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How's L.A. see our violence? A Chicago native living there tells us

By Jack M Silverstein, @readjack

For RedEye

11:37 AM CST, March 5, 2013

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In early February, Chicagoan Matt Rivera, a.k.a. Matty Rico, wrote RedEye from his adopted home of Los Angeles, looking for pub on his track "Sweet Home Chicago." The 24-year-old was raised by his parents near Fullerton and Pulaski, and attended Walter Payton College Prep. He graduated in 2007, attended DePauw, and moved to L.A. in June of 2011, three weeks after graduating college.

He is now a teacher and mentor at Fusion Academy, an alternative private middle school and high school. His email to RedEye:

"My name is Matthew Rivera. I am a Chicagoan. I am a city kid, an urban dweller, a middle class intellect, and I am a proud college graduate. I am a rapper – a defender and advocate of hip-hop culture. I am also a teacher in Los Angeles for children with learning disabilities and a music producer for TV/Film. This is an atypical journey for someone who grew up in Humboldt Park.

"Violence in Chicago has risen to levels that I could never have imagined when I was a child. There are so many different ways to tackle a political and social issue. I gathered a group of artists together to create a song, a plea, to the city of Chicago. This song carries a message of hope with the harsh realities of the present. The media often reports on the negative messages that hip-hop, especially Chicago hip-hop, communicate to the public. Please help us spread a positive message.

"We want to take our city back. One song and video at a time. Please help. And if not, at least enjoy the song."

Intrigued by his message and his video, I emailed Matt to ask him about his life experience, and how it fed into the song. We traded a few emails … here is what transpired:

JACK: My editor forwarded me your email because he thought I might be interested in your story, which I am. Before we do an interview, tell me a bit more about yourself. What was your experience like at Payton? Do you have friends who have been shot? Friends who have been shooters? What is L.A.'s perspective on Chicago? What has been the feedback to your "Sweet Home Chicago" track and video?

MATT: Going to school at Walter Payton was a huge change. I grew up in Humboldt Park and Logan Square, so I was used to my classmates looking just like me; we were all black and brown kids from the ghetto. There was a huge learning curve for me in high school. I adjusted quickly, I don't know why, but I think my initial interactions with students were mostly positive. I formed a diverse group of friends, but I can't say that is true for most minorities that ended up there. Taking the train downtown to one of the wealthiest (demographically) public schools in Chicago and then going back home to the West Side (Fullerton and Pulaski) was an eye opener as well. I grew up traveling as far as my neighborhood extended. The furthest we went outside of our neighborhood was on a rare trip to a semi-fancy Italian restaurant in Bucktown.

My uncle was shot and killed when I was 6 or 7. I remember that Bone Thugs "Tha Crossroadz" song just came on the radio that year and the timing was eerie. That was my first meeting with death. After that, there was Manny, my next door neighbor, laying face down in the alley. Luis, shot outside of Kelvyn Park while I was inside playing basketball. The list goes on. Out of about 7 close friends that were shot in my life, only Calvin recovered with his life.

My whole family is full of gangbangers. Guns have always been in my life in some form. My cousins always come at me for being the smart one, saying that I act "white" because I would stay in and write, but they also showed a lot of respect for me at the same time.

If you tell someone you are from Chicago in L.A., they get a spooked look on their face. If they know anything about Chicago hip-hop or the news or listen to Kanye, they think it's a warzone. Even people out here joke and call it "Chiraq." It's kind of messed up. We have this international reputation for being a sad place to come from. Their reactions are almost always apologetic. And I'm always thinking, "That's not my city. I love this place. Chicago is great!"

The reaction to "Sweet Home Chicago" has been unbelievable. It started off as an ode to a great city and it turned into a soulful plea to a troubled place that we love. I was talking to [rapper] Benny Nice on the phone and he was shocked at the reactions. Older people love it. They don't even like rap. I've gotten emails from a handful of teachers that wanted the lyrics so they can put the song in their lesson plans. I'm excited to see where it goes. I think the message is strong and my people need to hear it. People saw the video and have told me that they felt it on a personal level because of the visuals. My friend told me that she started tearing up when she was landing at O'Hare because she missed home so much. It's powerful. At least, I think it is.

JACK: One element of your experience I'm very interested in is your time in L.A., and the perspective that L.A. has on Chicago. But even prior to that, you already had, as you said, a significant geographic and cultural change from Humboldt/Logan to Payton. I experienced that cultural shift before 8th grade, not moving within Chicago but going from Evanston to Wilmette. The cultural difference from one burb to the next was rather stunning.

I remember two key misperceptions in particular, one on my end, one on theirs. I had a few kids from Wilmette who thought that because I was from Evanston, that I was somehow hard or not to be trifled with. I had two kids on the first day of school ask me if I was in a gang, and if I was the leader.

And on my end, hilariously, I remember being CONVINCED that I would make the basketball team, even though I couldn't even make the B-team at my Evanston middle school. We just all figured growing up that Wilmette was filled with non-athletes. I even knew some kids from Wilmette growing up, and when I would attend their birthday parties, I was always one of the best athletes.

It was quite a surprise to them that I was in no way a thug or a gang member, and not even particularly tough, and a rude awakening to me that I still couldn't make the B-team.

So I'm curious: what were the big surprises? What were your assumptions about Payton and that neighborhood that were false, and were you able to surmise any surprises on their end that they experienced about you?

MATT: Don't worry about your basketball dreams. I thought I was going to be the next Muggsy Bogues. Especially after "Space Jam" … shit.

Anyway, big surprises? I guess the whole experience was unprecedented. I didn't really know what to expect for the most part. I immediately found comfort in other Hispanic and black kids. I was actually scared of anything white. And even in the beginning when I would make a white friend, I would assume he was an exception. I grew up hearing all the grown-ups around me pouring out envy and frustrations with White. The fear was subconscious and I had 14 years of secondhand pain to wash away.

In retrospect, I think the major shock for all of us at Payton was how open and comfortable we were talking about race and class … even more than our parents and teachers. We jumped over the taboo, the careful, political correctness of the adults. I remember being 14 and having these amazing, unfiltered conversations about where we came from and who we thought we were and how we fit into each other's development. We didn't understand it, but we knew something cool was going on. No bull either. We would literally say things like, "Our parents don't get it. They never got to experience this."

I think we all went in to Payton with the baggage of our parents and mentors and the world they created for us. And we went through this journey and explored it together. Kids from all parts of Chicago united by this new ground that none of our teachers can guide us through. We led each other through it. I don't know if this makes sense, but when I went to college at DePauw University and met some kid from southern Indiana who never had a black or Puerto Rican or Jewish friend from New York or Chicago, I would always think to myself, "You need to catch up. I gotta help you on this journey. Get ready for the ride of your life, because you've been lied to all of your life." A lot of people end up getting it. And it's beautiful. Most people won't for a while. And that's OK too. They'll figure it out soon enough.

The song
"Sweet Home Chicago" by Matty Rico, feat. Brice Fox, Constant L Burts, The Pro Letarians, and Benny Nice
From the forthcoming "New American," due out in April
Produced by Steve Metz
Video by Winky Productions
For more on Matty Rico, go to http://www.theorfanage.com.

Jack M Silverstein is a RedEye special contributor.

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