It’s been four years since Steve James and his film crew were allowed into the halls of Oak Park and River Forest High School to document how the institution deals with race on a day-to-day basis. The resulting 10-part documentary, America to Me, aired in 2018 on Starz, but life hasn’t stopped for one of the film’s subjects.
Charles Donalson, 21, said recently that people stopping him on the street are not as frequent as they used to be in those heady days after the film aired, but he’s still processing the chasm between his low-frequency fame and everyday reality. These days Donalson is an independent artist who currently works in Oak Park at Friday Night Place, a recreational and educational program for Oak Park middle-schoolers.
“When I started working with Friday Night Place in 2018, I had just dropped out of college and was living with my dad,” he said, adding that, at one point, he was “going to work from different houses almost every day. But those kids were the high point of my day. I see a lot of myself in them.”
So much so that on Feb. 13, Donalson will release a music project he said was largely inspired by the young people he encounters every day. In addition to working at Friday Night Place, he also volunteers at the James R. Jordan Boys and Girls Club in Chicago.
The project, Donalson’s first mixtape, will be available on streaming platforms like SoundCloud and DatPiff for free starting Feb. 13. He said the songs are about his experiences growing up African American in Oak Park, where school suspension is almost a rite of passage and the racial landscape is akin to a real-life game of Minesweeper.
“Used to call the cops on the kid for just playing and now they want my autograph, I find it insulting,” Donalson raps on “Old School,” one of the most resonant songs on the album that give insight on how the OPRF graduate has processed the dissonance between life lived in liberal Oak Park pre- and post- his Starz recognition.
In elementary school he was suspended for “some wild stuff,” Donalson said. One song on the mixtape may fill you in on the details. The mixtape, the rapper said, is mostly about his elementary and middle-school years in Oak Park, which were fraught with racial slurs and childhood relationships damaged by prejudice.
The great tragedy in the project is that, from the perspective of Donalson and the young people at Friday Night Place, not much has changed. Oak Park, according to Donalson and the kids he works with, is still a place where the overwhelming majority of suspended students within District 97 are black and where African-American culture is insufficiently recognized.
And the village is still a place that is reluctant to talk about these chronic problems with the young people who bear the brunt of them, he said.
The mixtape isn’t Donalson’s first music project. Last year, he released the album For Whatever You Do, which he co-produced with a friend; however, Donalson considers this year’s mixtape (yet to be named) his first solo project — and his most personal.
He said he hopes the project sparks the kind of conversation on growing up black in Oak Park that wasn’t had when he was younger.
“At the end of the day, I’m saying what I wanted to be said to me,” Donalson said.