To describe what happened on the night of July 25 is to step into something like a Philip K. Dick novel.
Around 10:30 pm, just as rapper Chief Keef’s hologram was wrapping up his opening song and biggest hit, “I Don’t Like,” at a show in Hammond, Indiana, police broke it up. Officers stormed the stage, shining their flashlights and telling concertgoers to leave. They cut the music and killed the power to Keef’s hologram, which was beaming in live by satellite from a Los Angeles studio. Video of police officers captured at the scene show them yelling to concert organizers: "What were you told? No Chief Keef."
Facing an arrest warrant in Illinois for allegations that he failed to pay child support, Keef has been unable to return to his hometown of Chicago for a full year. A series of hologram concerts seemed a solution–until a spokesperson for Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel issued a statement calling Keef (real name: Keith Cozart) an "unacceptable role model," whose presence via hologram "posed a significant public safety risk." Suddenly, several venues cancelled shows, and at the last moment, Keef's camp moved a show across state borders to Indiana, where a music festival called the Craze Fest was taking place. It's not clear how involved Mayor Emanuel's office might have been in the cancellations; a mayoral spokesperson told the Chicago Sun Times the office requested the venues cancel. The office did not respond to requests for comment, and the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois says it is still looking into possible freedom of speech violations.
Keef's holographic appearance would be the surprise special ending of the Indiana festival. The performance was billed as "Stop the Killing," and was meant to raise funds for the family of Marvin Carr, a fellow Chicago rapper and friend of Keef's who was gunned down weeks earlier, and Dillan Harris, a 13-month-old child who was killed by a car fleeing the scene of that shooting.
The mayor of Hammond, Thomas M. McDermott Jr., told the New York Times that his office heard about the planned hologram appearance on social media. His office asked organizers if Keef would be appearing on stage, and they assured him he would not be. A few hours later, his hologram appeared and the show was shut down.
“All I’d heard [about Chief Keef] was he has a lot of songs about gangs and shooting people — a history that’s anti-cop, pro-gang and pro-drug use,” McDermott told the Times. "He’s been basically outlawed in Chicago, and we’re not going to let you circumvent Mayor Emanuel by going next door.”
Concertgoers were upset. "[Chief Keef] wasn't even here," one told the Chicago Tribune. "We're in two different time zones."
It was perhaps the first time the deployment of hologram technology was met with force from real world law enforcement officials in the name of keeping peace and order.
Alki David, the Greek billionaire shipping heir and media mogul whose company Hologram USA was organizing the appearance, was livid. "This was a legal event and there was no justification for shutting it down besides your glaring disregard for the First Amendment right to speech. Shame on the mayor and the police chief of Hammond," he said in a statement at the time. " Shutting down the show, he said, only served to "[take] away money that could have gone to help the victims' families."
Keef is also signed to David's record label, FilmOn.com, which also serves as a worldwide television streaming company. The two are "kindred spirits," he recently told me, bolstered by the fact that he considers Keef a "perfect ambassador for my brands."
Part of Keef ‘s appeal is his constant controversy. His sudden rise to fame came after he was released from jail following an incident where he aimed a gun at a Chicago police officer back in 2012. Video of a young fan celebrating his release went viral, and soon after he was working with Kanye West and other top producers and rappers. He was 16 years old at the time.
Hologramming politically controversial figures is not new to David or his company, but the Indiana incident was the first time he ran into resistance from law enforcement for doing so. Last year, the group beamed WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange's hologram onstage for the Nantucket Project conference in Massachusetts, live via satellite from the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. Assange has been living in the building under asylum since 2012, facing extradition to Sweden, where two women have accused him of sexual assault, if he sets foot outside of it.
Video of the event shows what looks like quite real interactions between Assange and his interviewer. A little awkward, but remarkable nonetheless. Especially when imagining the effect it would have if you were actually there.
In the world of holograms, there are few, if any, rivals to David's company. Since its inception in 2013, the company has been in the forefront of hologram projections. It owns the patent of the technology that famously beamed a hologram performance by Tupac during Coachella 2012, the event which introduced the technology to the mainstream.
Recently, the group has contracted with the Apollo Theater in New York City, where it will be setting up a permanent holographic installation of a posthumous Billie Holiday doing a live performance, with rapper Flo Rida, another friend of David's, of all people.
"It will be a tourist attraction," he said. David also has announced that a hologram of late singer Whitney Houston will embark on a world tour in 2016.
The technology is also used in a more consequential way. During the electoral campaign for Prime minister of India last year, Hologram USA worked with Narenda Modi to hold town hall meetings at dozens of small cities and villages at the same time, allowing him to reach “more than 14 million extra voters," reported British newspaper The Telegraph at the time.
"It was really well received, and the obvious effect of it was staggering," said David.
American politicians have taken notice. "I can't tell you who, but we've got some very strong nibbles," David said, hinting at candidates for the 2016 presidential race.
But that's all in the distant future. David has more immediate plans with Chief Keef.
"We're going to do a surprise in Chicago," he said when I asked him if they're going to make another attempt at it. "We're definitely going to be doing a surprise."
Among all the potential uses of hologram technology, their role in the future of protests and civil disobedience is one of the most uncertain, and legally tricky. Over the last year, the issue has already come to a head in both Europe and the U.S.
Last December, the Spanish government passed a controversial law that would fine protest organizers up to €600,000 for holding unauthorized demonstrations outside of public buildings. To protest the law, Spanish activists organized what was widely billed as the "world's first hologram protest." Thousands of holographic protesters were projected in front of the Spanish Parliament building for over an hour, for the simple fact that it would soon be illegal for actual people to physically do so. The law went into effect in July.
"With the restrictions we're suffering on our freedoms of association and peaceful assembly, the only option that will be left to use in the end will be to protest through our holograms," spokesperson for the Spanish group No Somos Delito (We Are Not a Crime) told El Mundo.
And almost exactly a year ago, three members of Brooklyn-based activist arts group The Illuminator were arrested after they projected an image onto the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. They were protesting the renaming of the museum's plaza, which now bears the name of controversial billionaire David H. Koch, after he contributed $65 million for its redesign and renovation effort.
A gala honoring the billionaire and conservative gift giver was being thrown inside while the group projected banners onto the facade of the museum. "The Met: Brought to you by the Tea Party," read one. "Koch = Climate Chaos," read another. The United Nations Climate Summit and a massive simultaneous climate demonstration were set to take place the following week. Koch and his company Koch Industries are widely suspected of donating large amounts of money to groups aimed at debunking climate change science. Exact dollar amounts for the efforts, if any exist, are unknown.
The projector was seized by New York City police and the three members of The Illuminator were charged with illegal posting of advertisements. All charges were later dropped, but just a few months ago the three members filed a federal lawsuit against New York City claiming their First Amendment rights were broken.
The lawsuit alleges the arrests were undertaken “in order to end the Plaintiffs’ expressive speech activities on the night of the incident, and to prevent them from participating in the Peoples’ Climate March thereafter.” It took months to get the seized projector back from authorities.
Further, projecting political speech onto the side of a building, the suit alleges, can't constitute the unlawful posting of advertisements because "no materials are being painted, posted or otherwise affixed to [the] property." The (lack of) physicality of the act, rather than its effect, should determine how the law treats a situation, the group seems to argue.
"There's an act of confrontation, and an act of trespass in some of these things," Mark Read, an Illuminator member and spokesperson, told me. (He was not among the arrested that night.) "It's something mysterious that shows up out of nowhere, and within a few minutes, it's gone. As a form of direct address, it's hard to control."
Hours after a bust of whistleblower Edward Snowden mysteriously showed up in a Brooklyn park earlier this year, it was removed by city authorities. Later that night, Illuminator members went to the park, where they set up a replica "rudimentary hologram" of Snowden, on the same spot where the statue once stood by projecting Snowden's image through the air and tossing white flour into the light.
"People were appealed to it because it had this kind of mysterious, ephemeral quality," Read said. "Is it really there? Is it not there?"
"What does it mean to be present?" he asked.
Chief Keef has never shied away from his humble beginnings on the 6400 block of South Dr. Martin Luther King Drive in Chicago. Known as "O Block," the street saw 19 shootings between June 2011 and June 2014, making it "the most dangerous block in Chicago in terms of shootings in that three-year period," reported the Chicago Sun Times. Considering the level of inner-city violence in Chicago's South Side, that makes his childhood stomping grounds a contender for the most dangerous block in the entire country.
First lady Michelle Obama briefly lived on the block as a child. She remembers living in “a wonderful, small apartment building,” she told Time in 2009. “But now when I pass it, it’s — I was, like, God, I never saw that apartment in the way that I’m seeing it now.”
Unlike when Obama lived there, gang violence is now an epidemic. The neighborhood was flooded by gang members after nearby public housing projects were knocked down in 2007, forcing opposing gang members, who used to be confined to their own buildings, to intermingle in the streets. Over 50 public schools have shut down in the city, forcing children to walk through neighborhoods that are claimed by opposing gangs just to get to class. Kids in the impoverished South Side "cannot not be in a gang," experts say. It's for their own protection, as much as it is likely to be their own demise.
Just as much as he is a product of the ills of his neighborhood, Keef has become a posterboy for it. His gang-affiliated, violence-ridden lyrics send smoke signals to the world, showing exactly how bad things are out there.
Recently, though, Keef has been striking a more matured, conscious tone in his music. In the song "Ain't Missing You," he mourns the loss of his cousin Big Dro to those same streets. "We done rode Ferraris, rode Lamborghinis/ Now the only thing I care about is breathing," he raps. The double of tragedy of his friend and the toddler which spurred his attempted "Stop the Violence" hologram show happened nine days after that song came out.
When Chief Keef’s hologram lit up on stage that night in Indiana, the first words out of his mouth were: "Stop the violence. Stop the killing, stop the nonsense. Let the children grow up."
"I was really shocked. [City officials] just be hating. They don’t want to see a young black man be successful and try to do something good. It’s crazy.” Keef told Billboard following the shutdown of the show.
"As a kid I know he's hurting and I know he wants to help. There's no way you can lose so many people to senseless violence and not be changed by that," Lance Williams, associate professor at the Jacob H. Carruthers Center for Inner City Studies at Northeastern Illinois University, told me. Williams has studied gang culture in Chicago, and he has worked closely with many members of the city's hip-hop community to address it. Keef's attempt to pull off a hologram peace concert in Chicago "was a beautiful thing," he said, though he urged Keef's team to get more buy-in from the community before moving forward with it, to no avail.
Few outside the city understand how much tension Keef's music has created there, he said. Now Keef is being used as a scapegoat for many of the city's problems, even though he could prove a "force for good" in the city under the right guidance.
"[The cities] want to make it look like rappers are the ones contributing to violent culture in the city, and they do to a certain degree, but it's public policy that's the major contributing factor to the violence," Williams said of Chicago and Hammond's recent run-ins with Keef's planned hologram shows. "They're not ready to deal with that."
For the shutdown, David, the mogul behind Hologram USA, has threatened to file a lawsuit against the city of Hammond, telling media outlets that he might call upon the American Civil Liberties Union. A spokesperson of the ACLU of Indiana told me the organization has briefly looked into the incident, but it has been too busy to pursue an investigation or file anything in the courts about it. It appears that the ACLU has not been directly contacted by David or any of his representatives about it.
The Hammond Police Department referred me to the Hammond Port Authority for any comment on the matter, since that entity contracted with the show's promoters to rent out the venue, which is a city property. "It was a breach of contract," HPA attorney Steve Sersic told me about the incident, denying it had anything to do with the First Amendment.
"The way it works is that the promoter has to follow all the directives of the public safety department" when renting the property, he said. In this case, the promoters displayed Keef's hologram after specifically agreeing with police that they would not do that. Because they broke their word to police and the agreement, the police "terminated the hologram" and "terminated the show" he said. "It was for public safety concerns."
Hologram technology is "changing our mobility," David told me. It's allowing people to be places where they aren't, to pop up in places where they're not supposed to be. The line between broadcast and a live appearance is being blurred, and that scares some people. What would happen if a hologram of Edward Snowden were to address Congress directly? If ISIS propagandists appeared on the streets of London? If the Dalai Lama made an appearance in Tibet, where he has been exiled from since 1959?
Exile is the position Keef, at a mere 19 years old, currently finds himself in. He can't physically be in Chicago right now, but by all accounts, that's where his heart is. It's where his allegiances lie, and where his most fervent supporters are.
"I thought that [Keef] beaming into Chicago to do a performance would be enough of a poke in the eye to the man," said David. But he didn’t anticipate that the attempted shows would generate such controversy, or bring about such unprecedented discussions.
"I wish I were that clever," he said.
Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.