Profile: mykele deville
on the immediacy of art and making "poems for the people"
Written by Megan Stringer, Co-Founder and Co-Editor-in-Chief
Under his bed covers in the dark, listening to jazz, Mykele Deville is alone. He’s chosen to take himself to this physically dark space because this is how he writes best. The 28-year-old rapper and poet is alone in this moment, but hardly ever lonely – his work draws on personal experience to relate to larger issues. Deville creates in private, pulling on memories, but he creates with a sense of immediacy for human connection. He writes “poems for the people” as ⅓ of Growing Concerns Poetry Collective.
Talking to Deville is like talking to Chicago – a city drowned in immediacy, looking for healing and focused on identity. A conversation with Deville is a conversation with every musician he’s heard, every poet he’s read, every play he’s seen.
“In the beginning my sound was the Chicago sound,” Deville said. “It was everybody.”
While Deville’s hip-hop and poetry are inherently intertwined, he comes from an acting background as well, folding together different artistic mediums to inform his general work as a storyteller. As a poetry collective, Growing Concerns blends visual, lyrical and auditory disciplines.
Growing up on Chicago’s West Side in the Austin neighborhood, Deville finds that the story of his life is not shared in contemporary culture. This is where the immediacy comes from – he sees a need, and the ability of hip-hop to fill that gap.
“I was young and I was like any other small black boy tryna figure out how to live and survive,” he said.
Deville didn’t stop after finding a niche in Chicago’s DIY community. He released three albums in 2017, and a bunch of singles all around. He planned album release shows and concerts before having finished an album, as a checkpoint to keep himself on track and creating. But telling stories immediately isn’t always enough for him. His hip-hop ultimately sent him back to poetry, his first and favored medium.
“I have like crates and crates of poetry, stuff that just never saw the light of day,” Deville said.
As a boy, Deville turned to poetry as an internal way to deal with the external, whether it was family problems or street violence. He’s only recently embraced poetry professionally with Growing Concerns Poetry Collective, along with musician Jeff Austin and poet McKenzie Chinn.
With their one-year anniversary this January, Growing Concerns has announced their first book “Five Fifths” to be published with the local Candor Arts. The group will celebrate with a book/vinyl release at the Steppenwolf Theater on Jan. 26 and Jan. 27, 8 p.m. each night.
Growing Concerns began when Deville wanted to transform a hip-hop set into a poetry set. He had a short, 20-minute gig and preferred to read rather than rap. However, he needed something else to bring the set to life.
Austin had created beats for Deville’s previous albums (Super Predator and Each One, Teach One) and Deville thought of his sound and how it molded into his words. The two met up and Austin would improv the sound live while Deville read. They did this a few times before shelving the process – they knew something was missing.
“I felt there were stories with the body that I’m in that I can’t tell,” Deville said. “It can’t just be two sad boys up here talkin’ about emotions in the world, but it should be bigger than that. And it can be.”
Soon after, Deville ran into Chinn. They’d known each other for around five years in Chicago’s theater scene, but hadn’t seen each other for nearly a year. The two attended a happenstance salonathon at Beauty Bar, where Deville read a poem. They reconnected and Deville heard Chinn read her own poems aloud – he knew right away he’d found Growing Concerns’ missing piece. Soon they were working together, reading poems aloud, finding the connections between each and smashing them together out loud as Austin found a beat.
“And then Growing Concerns was born,” Deville said. “Growing Concerns is everything I could have dreamed of. It’s like all of my career stuff in one like pretty little package.”
The group continues to work together a year later. Deville and Austin room together in Pilsen, and Deville and Chinn now date. Their lives are intertwined, yet they all come from different backgrounds, and live on very different “artist schedules.” Austin travels for sculpture installations and live performances, Chinn acts and teaches and Deville works a day job selling theater tickets.
However, creation remains the top priority for all three, a goal that can be hard to maintain between the daytime hours of the real world and the after-dark tendency of Chicago’s DIY art and music scene. At 28, he soon hopes to create a life for himself as a full-time artist.
Deville finds a bottomless pit of inspiration in his daily life, too. He’s been pegged as an “identity” writer, but recognizes there will always be a space – and a need – for poems about and for the people. As every person is different, so is every poem that stems from separate bodies, no matter how similar the subject matter.
“She [McKenzie] can do 10 poems about hair, I can too, and they can be completely different yet live in the same universe,” Deville said.
It’s this combination of worlds so separate yet similar that Deville finds fascinating. He considers Growing Concerns a mix of the visual, auditory and lyrical – a recipe that can find comfort in collaboration while also benefiting from an extra dash of salt, an outpouring of flavor.
The trio has performed the seemingly private in public spaces, drawing the question of what sort of physical environment is acceptable for artistic performances that build on emotional response.
“I’d start a set off just yelling a poem a capella into a microphone to get everybody in the bar to shut up and pay attention, and then go into my set,” Deville said. “I saw this beautiful ease that came with arresting people with poetry, hitting them with very lyrical, political hip-hop, and knew there was something to that formula.”
From dusty basement corners, to dimly-lit arthouse spaces, to bars filled with the dribble of drink-induced conversation, Growing Concerns wants to bring their work to every Chicago space that needs it. They want to play institutions, as they did with a performance at the Museum of Contemporary Art; and play for education, as they did with the Young Chicago Authors youth writing mentorship program. As their work embraces diversity and blends sound, they want their performance environment to remain varied too.
The root of his desire to meld together such distinctive mediums stems from Deville’s background in acting, among other disciplines. In high school, he was the kid who wanted to try everything. He ran cross-country, joined the football and baseball teams, became vice president of his class and continued to branch out. After dabbling in everything he could, he realized his school on the West Side didn’t have a good acting or arts program – instead, it put money into choir and sports.
An English teacher who believed in Deville’s writing defied the unequal funding to start a small drama club with a few kids after school, drawing on her own dime to print scripts at Kinkos. After getting into acting later on in high school, Deville studied theater at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
He stayed on the Southwest Side, having found a community that reminds him of his West Side home, a neighborhood fully dedicated to itself. Deville was one of the founding members of the The Dojo, a DIY space in Pilsen known for its diversity of musical performance and safe spaces.
Starting The Dojo connected Deville to other artists in the city, and gave him a stage to curate. However, he became so focused on building this community that he eventually noticed his own art receding. He left to briefly shed the responsibility of leadership and maintain focus on his own artwork.
Deville is accustomed to owning a single hamper of clothing – to picking up and moving for a new project, having lived in and out of DIY spaces most of his adult life. With Peace, Fam, Deville wanted to ground himself, to stand out.
That’s why he chose to wear a pink shirt on the mixtape cover – to take on power colors is to take up space with intention. While trying to represent that intention physically, he’s also focused on manifesting it in his writing. Finding alternatives to trauma within art is no easy feat, and to devote oneself fully to the craft is to give over to its power.
“Writing is hard, man. And it never stops bein’ hard, that’s the beautiful part,” Deville said. “Acting taught me that you gotta love the 90 percent of rehearsal and the 10 percent of performances.”
Deville does love both. Moreso, he lives for both. With Growing Concerns, he builds off his own growth. Deville acknowledges not everything he writes will be worth sharing, but the space between two good poems is powerful, just as worth noting as the “success” pieces. Together, those works create their own story, the good and the bad.
That growth, for Deville, is strongly influenced by his roots. He says his favorite music and poetry comes from his friends – people that have dedicated their life’s work to Chicago. Deville takes inspiration from the likes of Krista Franklin, avery r. young and Harold Green.
“You can see God in a basement, there’s so many bands in this city, and so many hip-hop acts and poetry acts,” Deville said. “I will always say from now to the end, the best music is comin’ from basements here in Chicago.”
While willing to travel for performances, Deville wants to remain rooted in Chicago for the remainder of his artistic career. He’s not going anywhere. Rather, he wants to devote his work to his environment. He believes artists don’t have to be based off a coast anymore – you can work one full-time job in Chicago, and still have the chance to breathe, grow, become the artist you really want to be.
“If you can make it here I feel like you can take over the world,” Deville said of Chicago.
Deville will be playing at The Hideout Inn on Saturday, Feb. 17. Tickets are $10.
Contact Megan by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, and follow her on Twitter @megstringers.