Ric Wilson, 23, knows he isn’t the revolution. If it comes one day, he’ll know it by name: For now, he lives and fights and deals as we all do. He backs such a conviction via a simple Thursday afternoon chat at Nini’s Deli in his hometown of Chicago, over empanadas and hibiscus lemonade on the cusp of Pitchfork Festival weekend; he won’t play, but he’ll surely be around, especially to playfully nudge me as I await my plug to come down once my press credentials (or lack thereof) impede me from doing my work. “Come on, VMP!” But on this day on Noble Street, Wilson’s drippin’ in his own BANBA T-shirt after the namesake of his newest work — and our newest VMP Rising release — with some sweats and clean FILAs he recently received in a care package from a shoot. Internally, his mind’s thoroughly occupied with anything and everything; our elongated interview was prefaced by a nearby table’s complaints about Chicago’s gentrification. They’re on our side, or are they?
These days, Wilson’s unamused by the concept of rent, especially when he’s finally saving money to have his own: “We live in a capitalistic world, why you out here rentin’ shit?” He’s also not a fan of Al Sharpton, conjuring his disdain once I tell him the elder Black man driving my Lyft had his radio show on. (I didn’t know Sharpton protested Whitney Houston over a classic dance song, but I agree: That’s some ol’ bullshit.)
It might seem uncouth to consider Wilson’s politics and thoughts on rent before his music, but you understand why he’d ask for revolution by name: for one, he’s a graduate of the Chicago Freedom School who considers the decorated activist Mariame Kaba as a mentor. CFS is mere blocks from the Chicago Public Library which hosts YOU Media programming, the youth space responsible for Wilson’s artistic growth as well as a sacred hub of this millennium’s Chicago Renaissance that gave us Chance the Rapper, Noname, Saba, Mick Jenkins and many more.
As a teen, Wilson’s organizing placed him on panels alongside the likes of Diane Nash and the late Dick Gregory, and earned him a spot on the youth delegation of We Charge Genocide to deliver a shadow report on police violence in Geneva, Switzerland. In his first few musical efforts, he made clear that he identifies as a prison abolitionist, cherishing the specificity of the language rather than leaning against the all-encompassing “activist” trend many folks actively reduce to a buzzword. Even the concept of prison abolition can easily be obfuscated in the extremes of the misinformed, citing serial killers and rapists as a reason why we should always rely on mass incarceration, when the former’s an extreme minority and the latter’s your neighbor right now. But Wilson’s a specific gentleman, unfazed by extremism and intentional in his struggle.
“I still don’t believe in prisons,” Wilson says. “A prison abolitionist is someone who gets to the root of people’s suffering. To be a prison abolitionist, you have to be against sexism, against homophobia, against all -isms, cuz all these people are affected by society and all these people… are victims, [are thrown in jail more.] I just need to start workin’ more at it every day. Maybe I can be a mouthpiece for whoever the next Mariame Kaba is… I think I’m just the mouthpiece right now, I’ll figure out one day where I’m supposed to be.”
Wilson’s been riding out the brighter days lately; he’s not the youngin’ at every protest and lecture, the eventual burnout caving in on him like it will eventually for any dedicated organizer. Musically, he’s a shapeshifter weaving his way through the traditions of Black music to carve his “soul bounce” niche: It’s disco, funk, R&B and especially house music before white folks finessed it from under us. He’s even taken up modeling, pridefully showing me his cameo in a recent Bonobos ad calling to #EvolveTheDefinition of masculinity that went viral by the toxicity of the internet because… men. Wilson’s critical of the pop-up boys who go to the protest to post about being there; he’s also weary of how trendy organizing work has become in a post-BLM United States when the same struggles continue, but it’s no longer flooding the dinner-table dialogue. Wilson hopes to one day throw his racks at the cause a la Harry Belafonte of sorts, but when the revolution’s always a step from co-optation, how does Ric Wilson make his music, professionally bust his fits, and fight for freedom?
“It’s rough,” Wilson says, plainly. “It’s rough balancing it, I think about that a lot. Most days now, I feel like a supercapitalist when I’m like turnin’ down shit — people are just like ‘This much’ and I’m like ‘That’s not enough!’ — but… artists have to eat. And if I want kids, I gotta have a lotta money so I can afford health insurance. That’s just where I’m at right now, I don’t know what the future’s gonna be. But if everyone gets with the shits and tries to start a revolution against capitalism, I’m down with that shit! But... ’til everybody get there, I gotta figure out how to feed my future family and me.”
When we’re days removed from the CPD’s murder of Harith Augustus in South Shore — fka Snoop the Barber to the community he served — being Ric Wilson on vacation in L.A. can become a special hell for a freedom fighter who watches the South Side burn from a screen. If he’s not on the streets, he reads to sharpen the blade; his speech can quicken rapidly when he’s passionate, which is almost always, as our conversations spans on the nature of whether or not capitalism is inherently evil, communism and music industry politics. His focus is only interrupted by the way he surveils the block for random details: an attractive passerby, a Maserati he mistook for a Tesla and a woman named Jasmine that Wilson knows from the south suburb of Blue Island, his home. We later find out it’s her and two other friends arriving to Nini’s for lunch; Wilson waited until he was sure to avoid the potential catcall effect of calling her by “Juicy J” like in high school.
I asked the crew how they’d describe Blue Island: Historic. Quiet, until it ain’t. A small town where everybody knows everybody. Recently, someone drunk drove and ran their car into the public library. If Wilson described it to Chicago residents, it’s “kinda like Pilsen without the gentrification.” To everyone else: the Blue Island area is a black and brown working-class community “with a dabble of white folks.” Wilson’s family once lived in neighboring Alsip, which became more expensive due to white flight and price hikes. “I’m one of the few Blacks who’ve been affected by white flight and gentrification!” Wilson exclaims, through laughter.
It’s the Blue Island days that leave their watermark on the superlative BANBA EP: Black Art Not Bad Art, a title formed in direct opposition to how listeners and the media perceive and critique Black artists as the proverbial Other before dividing and pitting them against each other, let alone invalidating their efforts. From the Black name to the Blacker cover, it’s Wilson’s most realized and centered collection yet, bringing an upbeat swing to growing pains and pride in oneself. On “Kiddie Cocktail,” he recalls the smoking section of the neighborhood bowling alley where the oldheads would order them for the kids, and the struggles of accepting his dark skin in the face of rejection from his first crushes. Wilson cites Jay Electronica, Noname and earlier Eminem as influences for stepping his bars up as well as turning more inward. Throughout, Wilson conjures the markers and figures indicative of Blackness being, but prioritizes thriving over surviving; the everyday traumas show their teeth, but cave into an optimism steeped in Wilson’s sincerity. “Sinner” deals most directly with this, the sense of overcoming carrying the crew cut into the sunset. There’s rage and confliction wading in the undercurrent — see “Split” for Wilson’s internal monologue on navigating this — but hope prevails past the surface of all Wilson’s contradictions. He makes gentle spirituals for young Black souls, the kickback, the Soul Train line.
Speaking of which: The moment leading to the inception of Wilson’s partnership with Innovative Leisure originated from a Soul Train line. After Wilson accepted an offer (against his manager’s wishes) to play the Mile of Music festival in Appleton, Wisconsin, for $150 and a hotel room, Wilson initiated the dance section for his 30-person crowd. One of the participants was the father of Innovative Leisure founder Jamie Strong; after receiving a brochure and his father’s rave reviews, Strong met Wilson at a BADBADNOTGOOD/Mattson 2/Sen Morimoto show at Lincoln Hall for the Tomorrow Never Knows Festival. Wilson came during load-in with Morimoto and Eddie Burns (of the Burns Twins) and ended up politicking with the BBNG boys without knowing who they were. Coincidentally, Strong signed BBNG after their initial viral wave caught; their success was a major factor in convincing Wilson to sign to Innovative Leisure. Everyone kept in touch, BBNG came back for North Coast Festival a month after, then Wilson ended up opening for BBNG on a Boston tour date.
Unapologetic is the first word conjured in the Wilson universe, but BANBA offers glimpses into what he used to apologize for: the way he talked, the way he looked, where he felt he belonged. The Blue Island backdrop stands in strong contrast to the Lincoln Park streets Wilson dwells on now as he plans on moving back in the fall; that far North, he’s already put the key into the door of his home for a white woman to ask him if he belongs there. He did it to learn more about navigating in white spaces, especially in the same Chicago where the 24-hour news cycle grips its death toll like a Box Score from Wrigley. When someone pulls the “black-on-black crime” card in moments like these, Wilson’s rebuttal calls back to pre-colonial Africa when tribes were selling each other off into slavery; not from a black-on-black U.S. position, but from people capitalizing on people. (The analogy is so poignant, I left it here in full:)
“If you go to the South Side, a lot of my friends and [my whole family]; they don’t run into white people. Never! So these niggas: when they get into it with a muhfucka, they just get into it with another muhfucka. They don’t look at it like ‘Yo, I’m gettin’ into it with this other black man, I need to stop doin’ this!’ That ain’t it, bro, they don’t even see white people. They’re so marginalized, they’re just like ‘I gotta deal with this other muhfucka down the street, I hate this nigga, I’m finna kill him.’ We the only ones, other people from the outside in lookin’ at it like ‘Man, you guys are fightin’ with people the same color as you, why you doin’ that?’ And it’s just like ‘What, bro? This is all we know, this is our world, bro, it’s other colors?’ If it’s some white muhfuckas who live there, they would get into it with them, too! That’s what happens when people in set communities get into it with each other all the time, especially people in poor communities. That’s why white-on-white crime is way [bigger] than black-on-black crime, cuz these [white folks] all live around each other!”
The Ric Wilson legacy’s a persistence in building worlds that don’t exist from the Black worlds that allowed them to be: when he dropped Soul Bounce, the sonic aesthetic followed just its namesake, then with Negrow Disco, he pivoted in that direction. Now with BANBA in the rearview, the soul bounce sound offers Wilson a chance to expand into whichever direction he can, though he worries about how to craft a work as outwardly Black as his discography already is. His next project has a working title — he implored me not to reveal it — and if it draws from the Solange and Vince Staples that inspires Wilson, with a slight dash of Calvin Harris, we may have Black liberatory messaging well tucked into the two-step summer pop smash. (Picture something like “Slide on Me,” Wilson’s harmonizing interrupted on the three by a shout of ‘I’m black as fuck, bitch!’) Rest assured, when Hov’s gone “APESHIT” and Bey’s post-“Freedom” moment, Wilson’s dedicated to keeping his insightful energy well within the family-friendly trail he’s paved. There’s no desperation to catch a wave, just a craving to be without apologies. And, calling back to “Split,” “mild sauce on my chicken, but it’s never sweet.”