It’s 5pm on a temperate Saturday night in Evanston, the relatively quiet sister city, lying directly north of Chicago. Red Bull Sound Select Presents: 30 Days In Chicago has put together 30 shows in 30 nights to celebrate the Chicago music scene. So why did the 25th night not actually take place in Chicago? The answer would be one Kweku Collins.
On April 1, 2015, Kweku, a senior in highschool at the time, signed to a small up and coming Chicago record label called Closed Sessions. Two years later I’m back in the same room that he used to write his first songs in, his father excitedly telling Kweku that he would be wearing Kweku’s leather pants tonight, in order to honor his son’s first headliner back in his hometown. Kweku coyly smiles and casually brushes off his dad’s exuberance with a memory: “The last time I wore those pants it was at my high school prom.” He grins, knowing how much has changed since then.
It all started making songs with Garageband. He wrote slam poetry growing up; his mother encouraged him to join the school’s team. He learned basic music principles from his Father, who was a percussionist. In his boyhood room he was able to create his critically acclaimed album Nat Love, which would go on to springboard his music into the national spotlight. This past year his sophomore EP, Grey continued to heighten the altitude on Kweku’s rise. He toured the nation with the band Whitney and went oversees to Europe to tour. All of this by 21.
When asked how high school him would respond to knowing he was headlining the premier venue in his city, he pauses for a second, then with a half serious expression he says: “don’t fuck it up.”
At 1245 Chicago avenue, off the Dempster Purple Line stop, lies SPACE. A concert venue “where music fanatics can get closer to their favorite music and have a uniquely intimate and memorable experience,” according to the venue’s website. SPACE offers to let the performers have tables or seats at their leisure, creating an experience that is best suited for the music. During sound check Kweku balks at how much bigger the venue looked than the last time he was there. Tables had been set up at the side of the stage previously, this time it was an open ended room leaving little to no separation from the audience and the performer. This was hours before the doors were scheduled to open and the illusion of all that open space seemed daunting. A lot can change in an artist’s life, but that fear of not being heard will always remain.
As Kweku takes us around his block after soundcheck he alludes to just how surreal this experience already is: “I just watched Alex and Mike (his management team) walk down the same street that I used to always skateboard on.” In his Ford he is quite literally taking a drive down memory lane. As we pull up to his house he recounts a boyhood story of how the rich neighbors across the street tried to put him in his place. Kweku had been hiding in a tree during the summertime making noises and scaring a young boy who lived in the mansion directly across from Kweku’s apartment building. His older brother came out telling Kweku to shut up, only for Kweku to confidently jump down from the tree and cause the boys to retreat in fear. Even at a young age he was bold and unwavering.
Once Kweku has grabbed some comfortable clothes and gone for a calming drive, he returns back to the venue with a half hour to doors opening. After putting his stuff down in his luxurious green room stocked with his pick of Guiness, Modelo, Topo Chico and Red Bull, he opts to grab his favorite beer from the back of his car instead and fill the cooler with that. This is his night after-all. After eating some Buffalo Joes Wings he goes out to see what’s brewing in front of the venue, dozens of people are already lined up and excited to get a pre-show look at the hometown hero. Kweku runs into two old teachers from his highschool who ask him for a picture, “bless you” one of them exclaims after he obliges. Kweku finds his niece who he is eager to show backstage, she tells me how proud she is of him, how he was more like a brother to her growing up. “We used to spend time skating and making videos together, I’m from Evanston, so (of course) I’ve been to SPACE a few times,” she says with delight. Knowing her own family is joining a long list of great artists who’ve shared the stage.
While the opening DJ set begins, Kweku floats around; his mind no doubt running a mile a minute. He comes back to the green room with a nervous smile stating “it’s already getting hella stressful out there,” meaning that the venue is already filling up with eager fans. After being there since 3:30pm, it felt like the show would never start, once the first act began though time seemingly sped up. All of a sudden 11pm is only 5 minutes away, and the crowd is ready. Anytime Kweku’s name was so much as mentioned by the previous acts the crowd thunderously cheered.
At 11pm Kweku came out to a deafening ovation. He begins his set with “Lucky Ones”, the crowd singing along to every word. Halfway through the performance Kweku pauses the set to tell the crowd “So… I went to high school with half of you. This is pretty crazy,” at which point the crowd roars, old friends and acquaintances all sharing in a mutual moment in time. Kweku shouts out his friend by name who he spots, a few rows back from center stage, the crowd all packed in as close as they can possibly fit, loves it. He returns to his set only to pause once again after the next song, even more overwhelmed with emotion all he can say is “this is crazy, this is really, really crazy,” feeling the weight of the moment in every emotional pause.
Once the performance ends he is mobbed by people, he escapes back to the green room and asks for a moment alone. His mother guards the door making sure no one ruins her son’s brief reflection. “Kweku is a beautiful soul,” she says. “He just needs to gather himself, this has all meant so much to him.” As he exits, fans anxiously await to get their special edition Red Bull Sound Select Kweku Collins skateboard decks; signed by the local skateboarder turned hometown hero.
Could this all have been imagined two years ago? No one can be sure but regardless, under the circumstances of today, Kweku Collins is one of the Lucky Ones.