“TEENS in Chicago always feel silenced. They always feel the older people just want us to be something that we’re not.”

Rising hip-hop star SABA is sitting across from me in a Melbourne cafe, world’s away from Austin on Chicago’s west side where he grew up.

A city well known for its inner-city violence, Chicago hasn’t always been the most encouraging of environments for young people to chase a lifestyle that hasn’t already been marked out for them. But this was not to be SABA’s path.

An excellent student – “I went to school everyday,” he raps on ‘401K’ from his ComfortZone mixtape – SABA attended open mic nights and youth groups in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighbourhood. These proved to be a creative catalyst, giving him the ability to explore his own ideas and find his voice.

“I had been doing music for almost 10 years by the time I had even gone to an open mic,” the 24-year-old says, looking remarkably fresh for someone who had only step foot off an international flight a day before.

“I knew what I wanted to do, but the open mic [night] was a training ground.”

Like his Chicago peers Noname, Mick Jenkins and Chance The Rapper, SABA was mentored by Brother Mike, whose YouMedia Centre made a huge impact on the area’s emerging hip-hop scene.

“[He] just looked after everybody and he encouraged everybody,” he says of the poet and youth leader, who died in 2014. “The open mics were where we could go and be ourselves.

“For some people, they would become themselves there. I credit a lot of just finding my confidence – finding what I wanted my message to be and who I was as a person – to just going to those open mics and [building] some of those relationships there.”

"If your dad was a car mechanic or something and you grow up and take over the family business one day, that’s what it felt like I was doing."

This confidence and clarity in identity is a strong element of SABA’s music and performance style. The stage is where SABA is truly at home. A poet driven by beats and the vigour of a young artist with an important truth to be spoken, he thrives on the undeniable energy exchanged between himself and the crowd.

“Ridin’ through the city/I’m young, I’m black, I’m guilty,” he laments on ‘BUSY/SIRENS’, a choice cut from his 2018 album CARE FOR ME. “I know ones that want to kill me/They don’t know me, but they fear me.”

•••

BORN Tahj Malik Chandler, SABA grew up surrounded by music and musicians including his father, R&B artist Chandlar, who appears on the outro of SABA’s ComfortZone mixtape.

While his dad lived New York – “He moved there when I was four” – his influence on SABA’s career was profound.

“My upbringing is almost 100 percent responsible for me doing music now,” he says. “A lot of my family did music and my dad still does music. If your dad was a car mechanic or something and you grow up and take over the family business one day, that’s what it felt like I was doing.”

CARE FOR ME paints a textured portrait of his upbringing, marked by humour, self-awareness and grief.

“We really wanted to treat it as if it were a masterpiece,” he says. “It wasn’t ready until it was ready. I didn’t really care if people were going to like it or not. I just wanted to like it myself. I thought that was going to be enough.”

•••

SABA’s emergence as a hip-hop identity to watch with a keen eye dates back to ‘Everybody’s Something’, his 2013 collaboration with Chance The Rapper.

It was followed by another guest verse on ‘Angels’ from Chance’s 2016 mixtape Coloring Book. When the album was nominated for a Grammy it boosted his profile considerably. Chance returned the favour on ‘LOGOUT’ from CARE FOR ME, which further explores their seamless dynamic as they bounce off one another on the track.

2012 saw SABA release his debut mixtape in GETCOMFORTable, a fervent collection of music that showed early signs of his potential as one of Chicago’s premier young artists. He followed it up with 2014’s ComfortZone, another showcase of his quick wit and honesty.

SABA’s distinctive sound became part of a new musical tapestry being made in Chicago, threading together strong personal stories and a melting pot of influences beyond hip-hop such as spoken word, jazz, and soul.

Alongside Mick Jenkins, Noname, Smino and Jamila Woods, his music would become a game-changer for young people in the area.

“Back in 2011-2012, when I became close with Noname and Mick Jenkins, we had always seen ourselves as bigger than what a lot of the world had seen us. I think that’s how it has to be as an artist – even as a person in general. You have to see the success for yourself before anybody else can.”

SABA says he can see the ripples of change among the next class of Chicago artists currently making their way. But a lot has changed for him personally since those initial mixtapes and his teen years idolising hometown heroes including Kanye West and Lupe Fiasco.

“I’m not going out much, so I don’t know what the kids are into now,” he says, laughing. “I think I am a little removed back home. Now [Chicago’s] just moving like a machine. There’s always new artists coming up.”

While many areas of the city still battle crime, violence, poverty and oppression, SABA and his extended musical family of artists see themselves as examples of those who made it out and broke the mould.

“There wasn’t really a community in Chicago of artists for a long time so our class [of peers], I feel, made it out of nothing. We saw the importance of it and now, I think the teens now are looking up to us to see the importance of just being together and sticking together.

“There are more opportunities now in the city of Chicago for teens who want to do music or just want to pursue the arts in general,” he continues. “A lot has to do with our class and generation.”

•••

WHERE previous releases offered unfiltered insights into his life and upbringing, CARE FOR ME finds SABA at his candid best.

Threaded through the album are SABA’s thoughts and memories of his cousin, fellow rapper John Walt, who was murdered in 2017. The stories are equal parts bittersweet and harrowing, delivered with nuance and reflection.

“Jesus got killed for our sins/Walter got killed for a coat,” he details on ‘BUSY/SIRENS’. “I’m tryna cope, but it’s a part of me gone/And apparently I’m alone.”

Over the course of the album we learn about the tight bond between the pair; one that extends to SABA’s other family, Chicago collective Pivot Gang.

“Back in 2011-2012, when I became close with Noname and Mick Jenkins, we had always seen ourselves as bigger than what a lot of the world had seen us."

The group – comprising SABA, his brother Joseph Chilliams, childhood friend MFn Melo and fellow rappers Dam Dam, Frsh Waters, Daoud and daedaePIVOT – has been a driving force in Chicago’s independent hip-hop community since 2012.

Pivot is more than just a name, however, it’s a safe zone for SABA. His debut Australian show in Melbourne in December 2018 was a prime example of how Pivot has grown into a more global community, with sections of the audience chanting their name. That growth puts a smile on SABA’s face.

“I want [future records] to be completely different from what I did this year and the year before.” he enthuses. “I don’t want to be an artist who creates the same thing. We’re at the point now where we kind of have a ‘sound’, but I want to keep expanding on it and keep building it. Keep it different.”

Even though CARE FOR ME details heavy loss and heartbreak, SABA considers it a strong step forward for him as an artist and a cathartic one for him personally.

If anything, creating this work has given SABA the opportunity to heal, while simultaneously opening up new facets of his creative voice.

“Each album is like a chapter of my life,” he explains. “I view projects in general as an easy way to get a lot off of your chest.”

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