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May 2022

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Chicago's 'Hip-Hop Historian'
is a TikTok Star Made by Labor

Shermann "Dilla" Thomas zigs when everyone else is zagging.

While most college graduates chain themselves to desk jobs, he earned his degree and then grabbed at the chance for a bottom-rung union job at ComEd with a Downers Grove, Ill., Local 15 member card in his wallet. Eleven years later, he is a substation operator, trained on the job and making four times the median American income.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020 and young people across the world started making dance and lip-sync videos for the social media app TikTok — including his daughter Bayleigh — Thomas didn't join the adults shaking their heads at this next social media foolishness; he zagged again and started his own account.

"The first few [videos,] my daughter Bayleigh had me dancing like everybody else, but then I told her, 'You need to stop dancing like the rest of these people and do something different,'" Thomas said.

His suggestion: 15- to 30-second videos about Chicago.

"Everything dope in America either came from or was improved on by Chicago. It's the greatest city on Earth," he said, pausing for emphasis between each word. "Who could resist an adorable 8-year-old girl doing that?"

Well Bayleigh, for one. She resisted that entirely.

"She said, 'Don't nobody want to see no Chicago history. Get out my face,'" he said. "And to maintain dominance in my house, I did one anyway to prove her wrong. And here we are."

Where he was, when he told that story, was a couch on The Kelly Clarkson show, a nationally broadcast daytime talk show. His channel — @6figga_dilla — had gone viral. He was a hit.

Thomas produced dozens of videos on everything from the name of every street in the city to the Empire Carpet jingle to the history of local delicacy, mild sauce.

They've been watched millions of times, shared hundreds of thousands of times and he has nearly 90,000 followers.

He receives so many requests from local, regional, and national television programs he had to hire a publicist. On weekends, she books four Chicago history bus tours and he even cut a deal with Netflix to develop a show about the Windy City. Nearly every weekday, before his shift at ComEd, he does a history talk at a local high school or college, he said.

"If I have a heavy day, I trade with a night guy and work the overnight," he said. All this success, he says, all of it goes back to that union card in his wallet.

It's right there in his TikTok bio: "Husband. Father. Chicago Historian. IBEW."

"The tenth day as a meter reader I realized I was going to see the entirety of Chicago in a way that I never would have been able to otherwise," he said.

The truth is, everybody in every city has places they don't go. Sometimes it's shaped by the nature of 21st-century work — home to work, back to home; repeat for 40 years — but sometimes it's about not feeling welcome. In a big, diverse city like Chicago, that can often come down to race and ethnicity.

"When I was a kid, my parents told me, for example, don't go to Bridgeport, a South Side white Irish Protestant enclave (and birthplace of five mayors — history)," he said. "But if a job says go, you go and then you go and find out that they are just people.

"And that little old Irish grandma, it's not like she sees a lot of Black people either, and all of sudden she has a 6-foot-5 young Black man with dreads in her basement. And then, we're just people, in our personal space."

He saw a different side of the city: the inside. Hundreds of homes a week, thousands of people a year. He watched and listened and talked with thousands of new people and learned countless stories. His city opened like a flower in spring and what he found was people were more alike than they were different.

"I have heard 'Take out the garbage' in Ebonics, every broken English accent and language there is. We're all just people," he said. "And that is true of the past, too. They were not so different from us. They are just another kind of person you haven't met."

But it isn't just the way the union job helped him see the world. It's the confidence he felt in a job that kept him close to home, ended when he clocked out, offered training to grow and wages and benefits that freed him from the worries so many Americans have as a matter of course.

"You can't be creative if you aren't happy at work, and you can't be happy if you have no security. If my kid chips his tooth, we have dental insurance, and it's good insurance. I am not worried we can't afford inhalers. And when I leave work, I leave work there. That isn't true for most people," he said. "Removing those worries leaves me time to think, to chase my interests. The IBEW makes that possible."

"We are lucky to have him as a member. On top of all else he does, he does a lot of work for the local: he is a steward and he is chairman of the Chicago unit meeting, one of eight units in the local," said Downers Grove, Ill., Local 15 President and Business Manager Terry McGoldrick. "He is unbelievably talented. I don't know how he gets it all into 24 hours each day."

Thomas is clear who makes it possible: Lynette, his wife. They have seven children together: Isaiah, Shemaiah, Jacob, Landon, Bayleigh, Wisdom and Junior. While he is starting his many-headed business, he leans a lot on Lynette. "She is holding the house down," he said.

Thomas regularly brings labor history in his videos, stories of the struggles working-class Chicagoans fought to get, bluntly, what he has.

And in his presentations in high schools, he makes a point not only of pushing the trades but, making it very real for the kids who may not be listening too closely.

"I always mention how much I make," he said. "No one pays attention until you say how much you get paid."

Thomas said his professional goal is to be an organizer, and everything he is doing, in his mind, is what modern organizing looks like.

"In the past an organizer would go down to the bar, buy a guy a beer and say, 'If you were union, you could buy it for yourself.' Now, no one is at the bar or [the people we want to organize] are at 1 million different bars," he said. "But all of them are watching their phones."

Thomas has one particular employer he wants a shot at, an ambitious target, a gargantuan and famously antiunion company in the city.

"We won't be able to stand 100 feet from their front door waving signs to win. It will be the videos and the tweets and the hashtags that can be shared that will bring them home," he said. "Organizers are historians, too. If I can teach the complexity of redlining and how neighborhood boundaries were made in 60 seconds, with five minutes I could explain why a rising tide raises all ships."

Whether or not he gets that chance, hundreds of attendees at the IBEW's Chicago convention this month will get a taste of Thomas' storytelling in person. Local 15 is sponsoring Thomas to do multiple labor-history tours that will go by the major landmarks of Chicago organized labor from Haymarket to the stretch of influential union halls on Washington Street.

Everyone will leave with an eye for the city he loves, he said. He brings your attention to things that hide in the open.

Like on Washington Street.

"It's like the only part of the city where there's no parking meters there. The unions there have never let them be installed," he said. "Chicago is a union town, after all."


"This is what modern organizing looks like. It will be the videos and the tweets and the hashtags that can be shared that will bring them home."

– Local 15 member Shermann "Dilla" Thomas


Downers Grove, Ill., Local 15 member Shermann "Dilla" Thomas' Chicago history TikTok has built an enormous audience online and in traditional media.

Photo Credits: Chicago Fire