At 5:30 a.m. Wednesday, Vic Mensa of the Chicago-based band Kids These Days dragged himself into his house after a long night in the studio to find his mother, Betsy, furiously preparing protest signs. He knew he couldn’t go to sleep just yet.
Mensa and Cunningham are graduates of Whitney Young High School so that is where they headed, with camera and questions. They spent the day speaking with teachers about the strike’s impact and their concerns to gain a deeper understanding of the issues.
“Ironically enough we just wanted to be educated on what was going on,” band member Liam Cunningham said. “I’m really trying to make a conscious effort in my life to be aware of what’s going on in my community, my city.”
Mensa and his bandmates point to one of their songs, “Don’t Harsh My Mellow,” from their upcoming album “Traphouse Rock” to support the striking Chicago teachers, including Mensa’s mother, who had worked in Chicago Public Schools for nearly a decade. “ ‘Don’t Harsh My Mellow’ is an anthem. It’s an enormous sledgehammer to mainstream materialistic music, smashing it into a thousand tiny pieces and burying it beneath the earth,” Mensa said “It’s kind of like a ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It’ type of thing. But not the Twisted Sister song. More like Crime Mob.”
It was not their first brush with taking on City Hall.
With their signature brand of what they call “Traphouse Rock” — a blend of rock, hip-hop, jazz and funk perfected during endless jam sessions in the Trap, the band’s rehearsal space — the seven-member crew has traveled the country, playing Lollapalooza last year and a full host of festivals this summer. Kids These Days began their rise in the music scene as students in high school and credit much of their success to the teachers they came across along the way
It was during their time at Whitney Young, in fact, when the members of the band got their first taste of the clashes between the education system and City Hall when they helped stage a walkout from the school in retaliation of the funding cuts that caused the firings of several teachers in 2010. Mensa helped organize nearly 800 students to walk out of the school during their home room hour and marched down Jackson Street to the Chicago Public School Headquarters where the band’s trumpet player, Nico Segal, played and Mensa rapped a verse for the teachers.
“More than anything it was our way to show support and do what we could for the teachers that really mattered to us,” Mensa said.
Cunningham is no stranger to the education world either. His father, Peter Cunningham, is a senior staff member for the U.S. Department of Education.
“Look, Rahm has a voice, the union leaders have a voice, the Department of Education has a voice,” Cunningham said. “The people who don’t have a voice are the everyday teaching folks and this is my little contribution to lend a voice to them.”
Their interest in the strike is not the only time the band has gotten involved in Chicago. The members of Kids These Days organized the first annual Fan Jam pre-Lollapalloza concert to benefit the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. The duo plans to post the video of their conversations with teachers on the band’s social networking sites to raise awareness. They also have plans to visit other schools across the city tolisten to others.
To be sure, Mensa and Cunningham have stayed true to the name of their band, standing up to the issues that concern kids these days.
“If there’s one thing you can take from this, I think that if we want a change for the education system, we need a social change to focus more on the value of education as a society,” said Cunningham. “This city, this community means everything to us and we want to help.”