She was called “Lil Snoop” by one friend, after the fictional female assassin in the TV show The Wire.
Mostly, 17-year-old Gakirah Barnes was known as “K.I.” in the real life and death world of Chicago gangs.
And as K.I., she became a kind of mythic figure in social media, a diminutive gap-toothed girl gunsel who was nobody’s bitch. She was purported to have killed at least twice avenging murdered friends, the first time when she was just 14.
After she herself was killed on April 11, an array of disturbing photos appeared on Instagram of her brandishing a variety of firearms, looking at once like a young girl and exactly like the “shootah” she was said to be.
“I only fw k.i. Cuz she do wat Yu bitch ni**as scared too do !” a senior member of her Fly Boy Gang tweeted before her death.
Yet Barnes does not seem to have ever been convicted of a serious crime, although she was arrested several times. She was never even named a suspect in a shooting.
Her mother, Shontell Brown, allows that Barnes was “not an angel” but describes her as a beautiful and “very loved girl” who would sit with her mom as they played music on their iPhones and joked and laughed.
The photo the mother wishes the world to see is of her daughter in a cap and gown, taken when she graduated from the Charter Perspective/IT Math & Science Academy.
“I just want everyone to know she’s just not what they’ve seen on social media,” Brown says. “She was a young girl that had dreams of being something and getting herself and family away from this life.”
The mother adds, “She didn’t bother anyone…Unless they bothered her. She always was respectable and mannerable.”
Barnes’s father was shot to death on Easter Sunday in 1997, when she was not yet 1. And to have had him taken from her before she even knew him may have helped make her at once self-reliant and hungry to bond with others. This early loss also may have contributed to her strong impulse to keep those dear to her safe from harm.
“She just wanted to protect everybody,” her mother says.
The mother pauses, then adds, “With her lil’ self.”
As Barnes entered her teens, she fell in with a group of young men from her immediate area in Woodlawn on the South Side who called themselves variously the St. Lawrence Boys and the Fly Boy Gang. They included 15-year-old Shondale “Tooka” Gregory, who was shot to death as he waited for a bus in January 2011.
The group memorialized him by dubbing itself the Tooka gang and the surrounding neighborhood “Tookaville.” Barnes took the Facebook name “Tookaville’kirah.”
Eight months later, a 20-year-old opposing gang member named Odee Perry was shot to death. Online postings would later report that Barnes had been the “hitta,” though the police would never name her a suspect.
“lol so odee was killed by a girl smh [shaking my head],” one street guy later tweeted.
The opposing gang memorialized the fallen Odee by christening its home turf “O’Block.” The residents included the rapper and Black Disciple gang member Keith “Chief Keef” Cozart, who had included Odee in one of his music videos. Keef recorded two songs that derided Tooka.
“Fuck a Tooka gang, I let this Ruger bang,” said one.
In November 2011, Carlton “Tutu” Archer of the Tooka gang was shot to death. Barnes posted a photo inscribed “RIP Carlton” that showed her with her hands pressed together in prayer.
The killing that had seemed to have the most profound effect on Barnes was apparently unrelated to the ongoing rivalry between Tookaville and O’Block. The victim was 13-year-old Tyquan Tyler, whose mother had moved him from Chicago to western Illinois to get him away from the city’s violence. He returned for a visit in June 2012 and was killed by a stray bullet when two grown gang members fired into a crowd of youngsters who were leaving a party. Tyler’s mother had just been coming to pick him up.
“I held him in my arms on the sidewalk and talked to him while he was fighting for his life,” she told the Chicago Tribune. “He was my baby—so loving and respectful.”
Barnes grieved as if Tyquan had been her little brother. She adopted the Twitter handle “Tyquanassassin” in his honor.
In the meantime, the rap rivalry escalated. A Tooka associate named Joseph “Lil JoJo” Coleman recorded a song and video dissing Keef and his fellow Black Disciples.
“We BDK!” JoJo announced, with the K standing for killers.
In September 2012, Lil JoJo was shot to death as he rode on the back of a friend’s bicycle shortly after tweeting his location.
On Christmas Day 2012, 18-year-old Joshua “Jay Loud” Davis was gunned down, apparently because he was wearing a Lil JoJo hooded sweatshirt. His brother, Ricky Davis, told reporters that the murdered teen’s hope had been to make it as a rapper and give his mother an easier life than raising five kids on her own.
“He simply wanted to get rich for his momma,” the brother reported.
The brother also said: “It’s all about the Chicago music. If people weren’t making that music, none of this would be happening.”
In July 2013, the Fly Boy Gang posted a music video called simply “Murda.” Young X Dutchie led the rapping.
“My young ni**as they’re gonna murder...” he rapped.
Then came this line:
“K.I. my young killa.”
Barnes appears in much of the video, looking small and impossibly young but absolutely sure of herself among the others, who are all male and bigger. She at one point appears holding an automatic pistol, a black bandanna covering the lower half of her face.
In one bit of video playacting, some supposed interlopers attempt to rob the gang, only to discover that they are dealing with more than they can handle. The overall message is not a threat but a warning: If you mess with the Fly Boy Gang, you do so at your own peril.
Were it not for all the real-life murdas, the whole video could have been just theatrics, fantasy stuff like those made by a host of poseur rappers from New York and Los Angeles and elsewhere who sought stardom by pretending to be from the street. That bogus stuff had begun to seem tired. And in seeking something fresh, the recording industry had discovered Chicago “drill music”; to drill in that city’s parlance meaning to shoot.
“A lot of ni**as be rappin’, but we the ones tote guns,” the Fly Boy Gang video says immediately after the reference to K.I. the young killa.
The commercial interest in real street stuff encouraged all the talk of murda and the gun waving, fostering an illusion that the bloodshed was more than senseless, the stuff of stardom. The video thus had another message: Give us a recording contract like you gave Chief Keef.
Thanks to his contract with Interscope, Chief Keef had moved to the safety of a suburban McMansion, posting Instagrams of himself posing with guns in a marble bathroom. His debut album, Finally Rich, included the song with the lyrics dissing the murdered Tooka.
In September 2013, a Chief Keef associate named Leonard “L’A Capone” Anderson was shot after emerging from a recording studio. He had survived a shooting a year before, but this time his luck ran out. He had just turned 17, and a chocolate birthday cake his mother had baked sat in the family kitchen.
“I don’t know what to do without my son,” his mother was quoted as saying.
Keef stirred further trouble in November 2013 by tweeting what was apparently a future album lyric containing a reference to the murder of Barnes’s pal Tutu.
“Bitch I’m coolin wit my Youngins. Smokin Tutu wit my Youngins.”
On April 9, Keef’s 30-year-old cousin and sometime music collaborator, Mario “Blood Money” Hess, was shot and killed. Online postings would later name Barnes as the “hitta.” The police did not name her as a suspect in the killing of this father of five. And she herself made no direct online reference to the shooting. She did cite a line from a Biggie Smalls song in a tweet the next day:
“u Nobody until Somebody kill u dats jst real Shyt.”
But that could have been a reference her own losses, the most recent of which had come 12 days before, when police shot and killed 19-year-old Raason “Lil B” Shaw after he allegedly pointed a pistol at them during a foot chase right where the “Murda” video was made. Barnes named her Twitter page “NO SURRENDER LIL B.”
“I Dne seen 2 many of my ni**az n a casket…In da end we DIE,” she tweeted on April 10.
That same day, a rapper named Lil Jay with the Fly Boy Gang taunted Blood Money’s friends by posting a video of himself drinking a red-hued beverage from a Styrofoam cup. Jay had survived being shot 10 times back in June.
“Sippin’ on Blood Money,” he now sang.
The following afternoon, April 11, a hooded gunman approached Barnes on Eberhart Street, just two and a half blocks from where Odee Perry was killed in 2011. She collapsed with multiple bullet wounds at the base of some wooden steps. A neighbor tried in vain to stanch the bleeding with a towel. A ambulance responded, but she was beyond saving when she reached the hospital.
“They killed my little ni**a snoop #restuptyqanaassassin,” a Fly Boy Gang associate tweeted.
In the aftermath, friends posted photos of Barnes brandishing guns. And, as if social media were an alternate reality where she still lived, somebody began tweeting in her name:
“YOUNG NI**AS THEY GONE MURDA... TAUGHT A COUPLE YOUNG NI**AS HOW TO SHOOT SOME OLD GUNS B4 MY TIME WAS UP
“BITCH IMMA STILL TURN UP… IMMA HAVE U NI**AS WIT NIGHTMARES…BOSS KIRAH LIVES TOOKAVILLE.”
Her mother stood before a TV news camera with the graduation photo that to her was the real Gakirah Barnes. The mother told people not to believe what was posted on social media.
“I wanted everyone to know my 17-year-old daughter first off before they start judging,” she later said.
She noted that much of the blustering on Twitter and Instagram and Facebook was just kids trying to impress each other and themselves, making myth out of madness.
“All those kids and rappers talk like Jesse James. Everyone wants to be the biggest and the baddest,” she said. “This is life in Chicago.”
She knows full well that some rappers sit in relative safety while stoking the violence.
“They stir up,” she noted. “But they don’t walk these streets and have to go back and forth to school like these kids.”
The mother said she would be adding Barnes’s obituary to a stack of them her daughter had collected of her friends during her too brief life not two dozen blocks from President Obama’s home in the city some now call Chiraq.
“She seen quite a few friends buried, last few years,” the mother said. “It’s like a war zone.”
The mother insisted that at her core Barnes was a protector. And that made the loss all the more wrenching.
“Because I couldn’t protect her,” the mother said.
She spoke of organizing a Million Mom march for all mothers who have lost a child.
“No matter how they were lost,” she said.
Barnes is buried near her father, who was taken from her on her very first Easter. The two of them now join together to ask if it is ever going to end.