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Posted under: Music

Even In Death, This Hip-Hop Artist’s Life Is Having A Huge Impact On Chicago’s Young Black Creatives

Get ready to turn up at another John Walt Day.

Each year, near the end of November, The John Walt Foundation (JWF) teams up with the hip-hop squad Pivot Gang to throw a  huge concert. As a result, The crowd gets dope music and the nonprofit gets money for its Chicago-based creative youth programs. They call the celebration John Walt Day. 

As straightforward as it seems, the annual performance is more than just another benefit show. In fact, the concert mainly acknowledges the legacy of late Pivot Gang rapper John Walt. Before attending John Walt Day 2019, in partnership with Red Bull, it's important to learn who John Walt was and what JWF means to the culture.

On the surface, John Walt appears to be a talented young rapper whose life was cut too short — at least, that’s what the headlines read. He was one of the founding members of the highly acclaimed Pivot Gang and a Westside Chicago native. 

Outside of his music, Walt acted as a protective brother, loving son, supportive friend and active family member. He fulfilled those roles until the day of his tragic and senseless murder on February 8, 2017. That afternoon, the promising rap artist was leaving work and headed to the music studio when he was fatally stabbed— he was only 24. Thankfully, the purpose of Walt’s life didn’t end on the day he was killed.

"[Saba and I] were talking and I was telling him that I wanted to do a scholarship in Walt's honor," Walt’s mother, JWF Executive Director Nachelle Pugh, told Blavity.

Photo credit: Henry Jones/Khavon Thomas (Saba and Nachelle Pugh at 2019 Dinner with John).
Photo credit: Henry Jones/Khavon Thomas (Saba and Nachelle Pugh at 2019 Dinner with John).
Photo credit: Henry Jones/Khavon Thomas (Saba and Nachelle Pugh at 2019 Dinner with John).

Pugh teamed up with her younger cousin, lead Pivot Gang rapper Saba, and together they registered the organization, just six months after Walt’s death. In their minds, JWF would be that talented, motivational friend who always looked out and pushed folks forward —  just like Walt did. The organization would support artistry, mentor Chicago’s youth and, most importantly, replicate the close creative circle Walt helped build with Pivot Gang.

"What's more important, than any amount of money you can give a person or any opportunity, is creating a community," Saba shared.

Although building a community was a main objective, JWF still had to find a way to bring in coins. After all, the scholarships wouldn’t create themselves. On November 25, Walt’s golden birthday, Pivot Gang members: Saba, Joseph Chilliams, Frsh Waters, MFnMelo, SqueakPivot and daedaePIVOT along with JWF and friends threw the first John Walt Day. 

"Those are his brothers. Those young men have become my sons," Pugh shared. "It seems like they all have a piece of Walter in them."

YouTube | Ear2Ground TV

Since that day, JWF has offered 10 young creatives $1,000 each. Nine of those rising artists have accepted their scholarships and are working towards their creative dreams. The organization has launched workshops, given away backpacks and paired several young Black talents with successful mentors. If hearing about JWF’s impact isn’t enough, no worries. The public has the chance to see it for themselves, at an annual gathering that celebrates John Walt fellows called Dinner with John — another moniker Walt used.

At this year’s dinner, Blavity got to meet 2019 scholar, Trey The Third, a young rapper and poet, who wants to use his scholarship to complete new music and host open mics across the city. NaomiG, a 2018 JWF fellow, serenaded guests with the piano and her voice. LaDasia Bryant, JWF's 2018 visual arts scholar, is curating art shows around the city and expanding her skills into the digital realm with her new online and print magazine, Braided.

"I do a lot of work that centers around people of color, how they're great, why you should like them so much, because everyone does," Bryant explained with a smile.

YouTube | John Walt Foundation

As Saba introduced five new scholarship recipients, Walt's Auntie Gertie was hyping them up at the top of her lungs and in the same breath mumbling, "I don't know them, but I'ma cheer for 'em like I do."

We should all cheer for them like Auntie Gertie does because they are the future of the culture. When Pugh talked about the scholars and everything they've accomplished, she sounded like a proud parent. JWF fellows have created fashion. They have opened doors for other up-and-comers, with curated shows. One fellow even flew to Los Angeles to participate in a dance workshop with renowned choreographer Aliya Janell.

"What this foundation is for young kids is what Walt was for me and all of us," Walt's cousin, singer and rapper Jean Deaux shared. "He's the reason I even pursue music, and now I do it as a full-time career. Without that extra push from him, I wouldn't be in the place that I am today. The basis of this foundation serves his legacy perfectly, in that way."

Jean Deaux validated what Pugh and Saba were trying to accomplish. With Pugh’s  leadership and passion the foundation has quickly become a positive motivating force and is living up to her son's name. Even Red Bull took notice of all the good work JWF has done and decided to lend its wings, as a John Walt Day 2019 sponsor.

On Friday, Nov. 29 and Saturday, Nov. 30, Saba and Pivot Gang will close out the Red Bull Chicago Music Festival with John Walt Day at Metro. Who knows? Maybe Auntie Gertie might jump on stage too, as she has in past years. That’s not a guarantee, but what we do know is the concert will be more than another benefit show. It will be a celebration of community, art and culture as well as a remarkable extension of John Walt’s life.

This will be the first year Red Bull partners with the John Walt Foundation and Pivot Gang.

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Culture Editor for Blavity. Olympic blogger, Storyteller and Fufu + soup connoisseur.