40th Ward Run-off in Chicago

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by Roxane Assaf-Lynn

As Chicago chooses between two black women for mayor, anti-minority tactics endure in Ward 40 run-off.

Despite relentless apologies from Ward 40 aldermanic candidate Andre Vasquez for his vulgar battle rap lyrics of decades past, incumbent Patrick O’Connor’s team has carpet-bombed the neighborhoods with reams of giant postcards and waxy bi-folds displaying his opponent’s coarse words.

In the run-up to the runoff between the 34-year veteran politician and his neophyte competitor, a new rash of messages arrives every couple of days, one marked “WARNING” and “Read at your own discretion.”

The young man’s choices were idiotic, to be sure. But a glossy magazine-sized card showing a gameshow host in a bad suit urging the municipal voter to play a game of “Name that Offensive Comment” is aiming higher?

The art form that sets spoken word to a rhythm loop has at moments been the salvation of otherwise bereft youths from the U.S. inner city to refugee camps abroad. Competing with couplet beats schoolyard aggression; poetry vs. punching.

But the escalation from genius rhymes denouncing inequity to guttural insults boasting sexual dominance has produced a race-to-the-bottom aspect that does make the construct hard to dismiss as mere artistic convention.

And Vasquez knows it. That’s why he apologized – unequivocally and without qualification.

To meet Vasquez today, one might not guess he had the chops. Approaching 40 with a wife and two young children, his affable smile and collegiate speech belie the street cred he likely earned in his youth. But one glance at an O’Connor website dedicated wholly to exposing Vasquez’s past potty mouth with its “Parental Advisory” does reveal an alarmingly acute skill at a plundering form of expression intended to lacerate the competitor’s self-hood with sound swords.

But why is the O’Connor campaign so sure that this is their opponent’s weak spot? After all, we have just seen how readily a candidate for public office can get away with sexually denigrating remarks and actions – indeed, winning the highest office in the land.

Is this really about the profanity? Or is it because Vasquez is brown? African American and Latinx men have been vilified by their association with rap lyrics for years already. We have seen this from the courtroom to the classroom. The O’Connor campaign is playing on stereotypes associating hip-hop and rap with bad elements that wouldn’t be washed away with time. Wholesome or not, battle rap is a youthful pastime. One has a chance of growing out of it and embracing gentility in its place.

By contrast, in a Facebook post following a March 19 aldermanic forum, Vasquez’s father-in-law Richard Pearlman, a family therapist and social worker, reported introducing himself to a member of O’Connor’s family who blurted, “That’s too bad.”

Then came the same retort from another family member after a warm conversation about a summer camp their children had enjoyed together. As soon as the long-time neighbor got word that she was fraternizing with the father-in-law of Andre Vasquez, Pearlman wrote, the woman’s mood shifted. “That’s too bad,” she responded, reinforcing the sense among certain attendees that the O’Connor camp was uncivil on a person-to-person level, and moreover, reinforcing the chief complaint about O’Connor among his critical constituents: closedness, clannishness, and cliquishness.

If a society declares itself democratic, but its individuals show contempt for a plurality of ideas or even of civil discourse, are we missing the point?

At the end of the day, battle rap is stagecraft, proven by the last shot of an old video of Vasquez in performance with a young woman he has just eviscerated with vile insults. The audience roars. It’s WWF meets smack talk. As the dueling dig-dishers part ways to leave the stage in opposite directions, Vasquez pats the small of her back; she opens her palm; he gives her hand a squeeze, tugging her fingers as they separate in a silent truce. A sign of the better man he would become.

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