After experiencing years of childhood abuse, shuffling through group homes and shelters, homelessness and multiple suicide attempts, Christopher LeMark initially sought refuge through hip-hop. The South Side artist used music as a tool to take himself and listeners on a journey toward healing.

However, in October 2018, LeMark found himself in a Starbucks coffee shop, having an emotional breakdown. 

“Didn’t own anything, didn’t know what to do, struggling, didn’t know how to live. I was really overwhelmed,” LeMark told The TRiiBE. “But having that moment, that breakdown, led to a breakthrough to finally say, ‘go get some help.’”

LeMark went to therapy, where he learned that it wasn’t his fault that he was abused as a child. After a few sessions, the idea for his nonprofit Coffee, Hip-Hop & Mental Health came to mind. He wrote the words down on paper.

“Coffee, because [the coffee shop was] the safest place I could possibly be to have that breakdown moment, no judgment, nobody bothered me,” he explained. “Obviously, I put hip-hop because being a hip-hop artist in Chicago and that being my first form of therapy. I knew that was a bridge. And then mental health because we wasn’t talking about our emotions, our feelings. It’s really important for us to normalize that in our community so we can fight back mentally and be more strategic.”

On June 18, LeMark helped kick off the Chicago leg of the 2022 ESSENCE Road To Festival, a two-stop tour leading up to the 2022 Essence Festival of Culture in New Orleans on June 30-July 3. The free Road to Festival event took place at the Harold Washington Cultural Center in Bronzeville for the Juneteenth holiday weekend. It included food, a performance by BJ the Chicago Kid and panel discussions with local Black organizers, entrepreneurs and more. WGCI radio personality Kendra G hosted the event.

LeMark moderated a panel called, “Black-Owned Business Spotlight: Behind the Brand,” with Semicolon Bookstore owner Danielle Mullen, Forty Acres Fresh Food Market founder and CEO Liz Abunaw, Black Bread Company co-owner Jamel Lewis and AYO Foods founder Perteet Spencer.

Today, LeMark’s Coffee, Hip-Hop & Mental Health offers free group therapy sessions on a weekly basis. In July, LeMark said, the organization will relaunch by providing 10 free sessions to individuals. People can fill out an intake form and, if chosen, they will be able to pick out their own therapist. He said his organization pays the therapists, spending about $750 per individual. 

WGCI radio personality Kendra G hosted the 2022 ESSENCE Road to Festival event on Chicago's South Side. Photo by ANF Chicago for The TRiiBE ®
Christopher LeMark moderated a panel called, “Black-Owned Business Spotlight: Behind the Brand,” with Semicolon Bookstore owner Danielle Mullen. Photo by ANF Chicago for The TRiiBE ®

Each panelist discussed the story behind their brands. Mullen’s story includes a bout with ocular cancer in 2019. It made her think about her legacy. The idea for a community-focused bookstore came to mind. Recently, Semicolon moved to a 6,000-square-foot space in Wicker Park on Division Street.

“We are consistently trying to change people’s minds about what readers look like, about what bookselling can look like, about the partnerships we take on to ensure that people are interested in these books,” Mullen said about being a Black woman bookstore owner in Chicago during an era of audiobooks and digitization.

She’s going to the Essence Festival in New Orleans this year. It’s a time for her to catch up with some of her favorite booksellers in NOLA, such as Baldwin & Co.

“Definitely check out Baldwin & Co while you’re there,” Mullen says to Chicagoans who are making the trip down to Essence Festival.

Additionally, one of her favorite parts of Essence Festival is being surrounded by successful Black people, similarly to the Road To Festival event. She applauded Essence Magazine for bringing a taste of their festival to the South Side; particularly Bronzeville, a neighborhood rich in Black history, culture and influence.

“The South Side definitely deserves the attention,” she said. “These entrepreneurs who are here today, the people who are becoming entrepreneurs, the people who haven’t seen entrepreneurs who look like us or run a business like ours, it is imperative that we bring that attention to this space.”

During a later panel discussion called “Real Estate, Crypto or Something Else? Mapping Your Road to Financial Freedom,” Ani Real Estate broker Whitney Hampton shared advice on building generational wealth and choosing financial paths that best fit an individual’s situation as the country is on the brink of a possible recession.

Audience members enjoying the discussion at the 2022 ESSENCE Road to Festival event on Chicago's South Side. Photo by ANF Chicago for The TRiiBE ®

“In 2008, 2009, we had a real-estate market crash because you had inflated prices for property, appraising, and those things just couldn’t stand up. But that’s because there was a lot of corruption in the industry at the time,” Hampton said. 

According to Business Insider, the 2008 housing market crash happened due to a combination of cheap debt, predatory lending practices and financial engineering that led to many borrowers being placed into unaffordable mortgages. It sparked a foreclosure and credit crisis; nearly 9 million Americans lost their jobs and the median household income dropped from $54,489 in 2007 to $52,195 in 2009.

“I think a lot of the fear that we’re seeing is based on what happened in 2008 and 2009. The market does not reflect that that’s going to happen,” she added. 

With the recent critique of rapper and billionaire Jay Z’s launch of a bitcoin school in his former Marcy Housing Projects home, Hampton encouraged Chicagoans to research diligently before investing in crypto, real estate or even the stock market.

“May that doesn’t mean taking $10,000 and putting it into the stock market. Maybe it means buying a few stocks at once. Maybe it means, when it comes to real estate, instead of purchasing a building or a six-unit right away, maybe just purchasing a tax lien. Maybe you’re becoming a capital investor and just putting $5,000 into a property and seeing a 10% return,” she explained. “There are a number of ways to invest and do it in a way that is less risky, and still see a nice return. That all boils down to doing the research and partnering with professionals, ones that you can trust.”

is the editor-in-chief of The TRiiBE and a 2023-2024 John S. Knight Journalism Fellow.