Chicago rapper John Walt, who later performed as dinnerwithjohn with his Pivot Gang collective, was killed in February 2017 | Photo by Jude Appleby
This story is published on in partnership with The Real Chi, an experimental “learning newsroom” in North Lawndale for young adults.

It’s been 31 months since Pivot Gang rapper John Walt was killed near the Metra tracks off Clinton Street in the Fulton River District. Since then his mother Nachelle Pugh has spent each of those months inside the Leighton Criminal Court Building. In September alone, she says, she’s been in and out of the courtroom three times for hearings on evidence and other pre-trial matters. 

In February 2017, Pugh didn’t have a choice but to put on a brave face. On Feb. 8, 2017, she’d gotten the call every Black mother in Chicago fears: her 24-year-old son, born Walter E. Long Jr., had been stabbed to death, police say, after an altercation with Kevin Alexander, 23, that started on the CTA Green Line train and spilled out onto North Clinton Street. Police quickly arrested Alexander on two counts of murder while Chicago’s hip-hop community mourned the loss of another star gone too soon.

Two days later, Pugh found herself inside the courtroom for the first time, beginning the process of seeking justice for her son. She had no idea it would take this long, considering that the altercation between Alexander and Walt was captured on video surveillance. Today, the third anniversary of her son’s death is approaching and there still isn’t a trial date set. 

But Pugh continues to find strength in the midst of this tragedy. She created DinnerWithJohn, a fundraiser for her nonprofit, the John Walt Foundation, which equips the next generation of young artists with the tools they need to be successful in their craft. Walt changed his name from “John Walt” to “dinnerwithjohn” shortly before his death, and the fundraiser is a play on that alter ego.

“One of the lyrics to his song said, ‘Do you want to have dinner with John?’” Pugh explains. “So he was, like, ‘Ma. I changed my name because the girls want to have dinner with John.’”

Walt at a photoshoot for his 'dinnerwithjohn' mixtape. He was working on the mixtape before he died | Photo courtesy of Nachelle Pugh

As she preps and plans for the DinnerWithJohn fundraiser, which takes place on Oct. 10 at Ovation Chicago, Pugh finds herself juggling a battle on two fronts — the slow-moving judicial system and creating opportunities for other inspired youth on Chicago’s West Side. 

“I have to be his voice. That’s the only thing I can say about that. He’s no longer here to speak. He’s no longer here to do the things that he loved to do,” Pugh says about Walt. “So I feel like a part of him, when he passed away, returned to me.”

The John Walt Foundation is Pugh’s saving grace. Although she works a full-time job as a records coordinator for the Illinois College of Optometry, it’s the work with the foundation that keeps her at peace. As co-founder of the foundation, Pugh helps connect the scholarship recipients with mentors while also finding resources to help develop their art for showcases. The DinnerWithJohn fundraiser will highlight their work. 

“I’m just always running and always networking and just trying to stay productive. If I’m not productive, it just makes my day go really bad,” Pugh says.

John Walt Foundation co-founders Nachelle Pugh (l) and rapper Saba (r) with the foundation's scholarship recipients | Photo by Qurissy Lopez

The idea for the John Walt Foundation came to Pugh during a local TV interview days after her son’s death. After being asked how she wanted others to remember Walt, she thought about the pastor’s eulogy at his funeral. She remembered the pastor speaking about the importance of following your heart and staying in your lane. In that moment, she knew that she wanted to start a scholarship foundation in Walt’s honor. 

“Walt always wanted to stay in his lane.” she continues. “He was pushing toward certain goals and trying to do different aspects with his career.”

Pugh describes her son’s lane as helping others and giving back to his community, motivating others around him to do better for themselves. She even recalls running into a young man who used to sleep on the floor of the apartment of one of Walt’s friends. The young man was down on his luck, and didn’t have the energy to get up and work on his art. If Walt had $10, he would give the guy $5 and encourage him to keep at his art.

“He just wanted to make sure that people in our community were able to come together, work together, build together [and] eat together,” Pugh remembers the young man telling her. “And that’s the lane that I figured he wanted to build.”

Walt was already well on his way as a community builder. He was a founding member of hip-hop collective Pivot Gang, a self-described “boy band” composed of independent rappers who also happen to be family and friends from Chicago’s West Side. Members include his cousins Saba and Joseph Chilliams, and friends MFnMelo and Frsh Waters. Their mixtape, JIMMY, dropped in 2013, igniting the start of Pivot Gang’s notoriety. The group released their debut album, You Can’t Sit With Us, this past April, including core Pivot producers Dae Dae and Squeak to the mix. The album cover honors Walt with a framed photo of him behind the guys.

“It’s a lot of kids that are out here that just want to push and stay in they own lane and be successful at whatever their craft is,” Pugh continues.

When Walt was growing up, Pugh took him outside of his Austin neighborhood to join extracurricular activities simply because there weren’t many available nearby. He attended to Gordon Tech High School, now named DePaul College Prep, in on the North Side. He frequented youth open-mikes at Young Chicago Authors, the YMCA in Wicker Park and the Harold Washington Library’s YouMedia in downtown Chicago, where songs like his 2013’s “Kemo Walk” were fan favorites.

Pugh realized that the John Walt Foundation could become the place in Austin where youth could fine-tune their musical skills. That’s what Walt would have wanted, she says. 

“I feel that if we provide these types of resources for these kids, then maybe a person — like the person that killed my son — [could] be taken out of that element of doing harm to someone else by giving them a scholarship that can help them produce whatever their craft is,” Pugh says. 

For now, the John Walt Foundation is operating out of Pugh’s home. But she hopes her to find a home in Austin for the foundation as she continues to network and raise money. Her motivation stems from knowing she’s doing the work her son would be doing if he were alive.

“It wasn’t about just his music, it was just building relationships, building up others in our community,” she said.

Nachelle Pugh and her nephew, Snacks Pivot, at the first John Walt Day celebration | Photo courtesy of Nachelle Pugh

Although Walt’s death was a devastating loss for Pugh and Pivot Gang, they commemorate him with John Walt Day every year. It’s a tribute concert that celebrates Walt’s life and legacy. 

This year, John Walt Day is a part of the month-long Red Bull Music Festival in Chicago. And 100% of the ticket sales for the Nov. 29 show at the Metro will go to the John Walt Foundation. Pugh says the collaboration came as a surprise when Red Bull reached out to her, wanting to be a part of the celebration. 

It’s during John Walt Day, which is now in its third year, that Pugh feels her son’s presence the most. 

“All of the boys, they take a piece of him, and they perform,” Pugh says. “Anybody that gets up on that stage that had any kind of personal relationship with him, I’ll see a piece of him coming out that day. They’re giving him a voice. They’re giving him a performance of a lifetime.”

Pivot Gang's Saba with Snacks Pivot at the second John Walt Day | Photo courtesy of Nachelle Pugh

As a child, Walt always thought of Thanksgiving as his birthday, since the holiday sometimes fell on his Nov. 25 birthday. Now, with John Walt Day, the big celebration of Walt’s life continues — just now on a bigger stage.

“He’s quiet when he doesn’t know someone. And when he gets out on stage, he’s a totally different person,” Pugh says about Walt. “And so John Walt Day is, like, his Sasha Fierce to me. He just expands. He just grows. He just, you know, comes out.”