Story by Imama Khawaja
Photos by Priyanka Podjale

The amount of work and art that Ethos balances on a daily basis is almost baffling. At age 23 he is embroiled in a number of different musical collectives (most notably his group Thy Neighborhood) while also creating his own music, fighting for numerous activist organizations such as No Cop Academy, and gardening to save the planet. His appearance mirrors his personality, somehow both serious and whimsical at once, a mix of chipped light blue nail polish and floral patterns and chains and thick dreads, his face a little lopsided from a fading black eye. The number 12 is aptly tattooed on his middle finger, “EAT THE RICH” on his arm. He speaks cheerfully but with intention, at one point snapping out of an intense speech about Chicago’s crises mid-sentence to dreamily compliment the flowers in the room. We got the opportunity to delve into Ethos’ thought process, and we’re sharing it with you.

Where did your name “Ethos” come from?

In high school they used to call me Etho - my government name is Ethan. Then at sixteen I was trying to figure out my “poet name,” what to release my art under, and I saw this documentary called Ethos. The definition they gave was the “underlying spiritual ethics of a culture.” That was exactly what I was trying to embody with my artwork.

It’s interesting how you call it your “poet name” rather than your “rapper name.” What’s the connection or difference between the two?

I’m a writer, so I write in all aspects. Whether in a paper or a speech for organizing, I’m always using my poet or rapping devices, using alliteration or rhythm. I always put poet before anything because I try to be very intentional with my words, and poetry was where I found my gift with that.

"Guns have been a problem in black communities for decades...But now that a bunch of white kids from Florida are saying it, now it starts getting all this media attention."

You call yourself an “organizer” instead of an “activist.”

Yes. It comes with the term - we separate activism from the rest of society, whereas organizing is like hand - to - hand with the people, working to build on our power as people. With activist I’ve been activated to move on my own, but with “organizer” I’ve been “activated” to move other people.

You also notably call yourself an “abolitionist,” which isn’t really a term we hear in modern day. Why do you choose to use that word?

Not to sound too Kanye West, but I think we’re bound by systems and subjugation and control that are akin to slavery. Systems of racial segregation and hierarchy were developed and built on institutions of slavery. So the fight I’m fighting today, for the dissolution of the police state and the end of mass incarceration, is in the same legacy of the struggle that Harriet Tubman fought, that Huey P. Newton fought, that Elaine Brown fought, that all my ancestors before me were fighting.

I see myself in continuation of this legacy, not disrupting from it or at a new level of it. I say abolition to both invoke my ancestors into the space when I do my work, but also to be clear that I do believe that the systems we’re in today are the same source as slavery and need to be taken as seriously. We’re like, oh slavery was so long ago - but now we can get down with more black men being incarcerated today than there were slaves in 1865. Like, slavery rubs you the wrong way but this is okay? We need to look at it in the same light.

What are your thoughts on current Kanye West?

He’s like the uncle at the barbeque capping. It’s like, oh, there go Uncle West again! With his rants or whatever. I think his money has him disconnected from us. I’m like, alright Uncle. Do you. I grew up with him. He’s on my top three favorite rappers list. Like, do I take him off because of his political views or do I keep him? His new album was gorgeous. And he got, who was it, Valee singing on it? That was angelic.

Obviously politics mean a lot to you. We saw that picture of you screaming in a man’s face at City Hall in the Sun-Times. What was going on there?

#NoCopAcademy. No Cop Academy is a coalition of organizers and young black people from the south and west side that are demanding Rahm Emanuel not spend $95 million of the city’s money on a police training facility, and instead put that money towards things that we have deemed necessary for our lives - like education, and healthcare, and schools that Rahm continues to close. We were in City Hall a lot a couple weeks ago, because the Cop Academy was up again for City Hall to either approve the funding allocation or not. We’re just trying to hold our politicians accountable - we’ve gone to my alderman Joe Moore’s office a bunch. Like, bruh. Clearly no one is advocating every day for Cop Academy, but there are people advocating every day against it.

On the west side in Garfield Park, close to a thousand people were surveyed and 95% of them said they’d rather the money go somewhere else. It’s outright us saying no and being ignored by our elected officials. We’re not going because we necessarily think we’ll change their mind, but to stand in opposition and try to hold them accountable. The picture where I’m yelling - the police union was doing a protest that day as well because they think police accountability is too harsh, and making their jobs harder. In a city known for its lack of police accountability! There was a stand - off between off - duty officers, uniformed officers, and protesters face - to - face for an intense hour. I’ve gotten so used to City Hall, I know where all the bathrooms at, I got the water fountain situation down.

Are you usually just there for #NoCopAcademy?

And for general protests. During the Black Lives era in its heyday, we did a lot of direct action organizing. We’ve also met with Rahm Emanuel a couple times to no avail. We don’t accept those meetings anymore because then the mayor’s office will say, “Had a meeting today with Black Lives Matter protesters!” And it’s like, you haven’t met a single one of our demands, but you want to herald yourself as being a mayor that talks with his protesters.

"As I transition from this role of 'youth' to someone a little more experienced, I get to rear up the next generation. Which is dope."

You said “Black Lives Matter in its heyday.” Why do you think it isn’t in its heyday anymore? What do you think is trending now?

Black Lives Matter in 2014, 2015, 2016, was just crazy. Laquan McDonald here, the creation of the group We Charge Genocide because of Dominique Franklin, Ferguson - we were just on the streets every day. And honestly, it was super draining for folks. There was a lot of burnout going on with activists and organizers. That fervor, that rhythm, that pace was a little too much, and there was too much outside pressure from the media and the public but not enough actual support. So we had to step back and reevaluate what exactly our mission was, and organizing based on our terms.

In terms of trends, right now I want to up the young people doing work around gun violence. We’re trying to take this narrative of school shootings, which is trending, but give it a black context, because guns have been a problem in black communities for decades and we’ve been talking about it for decades. But now that a bunch of white kids from Florida are saying it, now it starts getting all this media attention. Good Kids Mad City is a group of Chicago high school organizers that are moving every day, doing school walk - outs, and I want to lift their voices up. As I transition from this role of "youth" to someone a little more experienced, I get to rear up the next generation. Which is dope.

Are there any other organizations you’re really invested in?

One org I want to lift up is the Chicago Community Bond Fund, which is working to create a communal public bond fund for people who are being held in pre - detentions without being convicted of anything. Right now in Chicago you can sit in County Jail for three years fighting a case without even being convicted. What kind of country is it where you can make someone sit without them being convicted of any crimes? We’re trying to make it illegal to do cash bonds, and gathering funds to release people.

I also work with growing food. I work in gardens almost every day. While sometimes that doesn’t feel as, I don’t know, socially relevant, it still feels impactful. Giving people access to healthy foods, disinvesting from a fossil - fuel based food industry, teaching kids about it. If our planet’s not here, there’s no need to organize around abolition.

Switching back to music - your musical collective Thy Neighborhood has a lot of fun genres coming together.

We’re hip - hop punk - rockers. I’ve been in the alternative scene, the garage - rock scene, the DIY scene in Chicago for almost a decade now. First just going to house shows and thrashing around in the mosh pit, then joining our band in 2015. Now I’m in a bunch of musical collectives. There’s nothing like live instruments, or a basement with forty people just going nuts. We also do activism, so we’re playing at protests, or donating money from our shows. Activism and music are intertwined for us.

Okay, we have to ask. Where did you get your black eye?

It looked better a couple days ago! We showed up to this condo downtown in a limo, having a great time, and this dude I kinda know was in there super sad. I’m like, what are you sad about bro? Someone else was like, it’s his girlfriend. I was like, man this is not the time to be sad about some girlfriend. Life is too lit, let’s get it! The whole time I didn’t know his girlfriend had just gotten into a car accident. So that’s where I got the black eye. It looks cool though. They say scars are tattoos with better stories.

Check out Ethos’ website, or follow him on Twitter.