“Will it play in Peoria?” So goes the question traditionally asked when it comes to considering the prospects of a given cultural product. In other words: Will it play to Middle America?
A middling city in the middle of a state in the middle of the country, Peoria, Illinois, is shorthand for ordinary. As such, it’s perhaps the last place one would associate with hip hop, an artform often about extremes — whether it be boastful lyrics about excessive wealth and conspicuous consumption or heady verses about the harshest realities of street life in America.
Nevertheless, hip hop is thriving in Peoria, albeit on a very underground and, well, middling level. And before you dismiss Peoria rappers as having little to rap about, consider that nearly half of the city’s black residents live below the poverty line and that Peoria’s violent crime rate is the fourth highest in Illinois.
But it is that spirit of Middle America living that inspired Josh Birnbaum — a photographer based in southeast Ohio — to document the lives of Killa Koumity (pronounced “committee”), a Peoria hip-hop group consisting of rappers Curtis Johnson and Marshall Payton, and producer Frazer Matthews, or, as Birnbaum calls them, “average Midwesterners just trying to get by.”
“They might emulate these rich rappers, but they have these middle class family lives,” says Birnbaum, who’s been documenting the group since 2009. “It’s why I include the wives, the kids, the cousins, nieces and nephews. It defies the stereotype of what hip hop can be. Seeing what their lives are like gives us a view of hip hop that’s not just a stereotype.” —Jordan Heller