Remixing the Narratives: A Conversation with Kevin Coval




KEVIN COVAL IS A POET, but more importantly, he’s a proud Chicagoan who makes art about and for the city that he loves. In his new book of poems, A People’s History of Chicago, including a preface from Chance the Rapper, Coval makes his passion known. Channeling historian Howard Zinn’s working-class point of view, Coval recounts monumental, obscure, and personal events in the history of Chicago, including the founding of the city by Point du Sable; the founding of the Society for Human Rights; the assassination of Black Panther Fred Hampton; the development of electric blues music, jazz fusion, house, and footwork music; and a whole lot more.

In reading A People’s History of Chicago, one’s reminded of the impact that the city has had on the culture and politics of the entire country, from Chicagoans revolutionizing the blues, creating an electric monster that morphed into the rock music we know today, to disco-obsessed kids on the South Side creating soulful dance music that is now a multimillion-, if not billion-dollar industry, to kids fighting back against institutional racism, neglect, and poverty with the power of hip-hop music. Chicago also happens to be one of the most segregated cities in the country, where racism, xenophobia, and resentment run deep. It is also the birthplace of some of the most progressive social and political movements in the country’s history.

It is this bifurcated city that Kevin Coval writes about in plainspoken and precisely worded language, filled with warm and knowing slang. Invoking past Chicago writers and artists like Studs Terkel, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Common, Coval joins those who so engrossed themselves in their city that they found a mirror reflection of the beauty and horror of the entire country within its confines. In “I Wasn’t in Grant Park when obama Was Elected,” Coval writes, “i was on the ave listening to the only democracy i believe in. the longest-running youth open mic in America. i was listening to the young & the working, black & unemployed & Queer & radical imaginations dreaming narrating the city they see & fear.” 

I talked to Kevin over the phone about his new book, hip-hop, and the connection between dance music and social and political movements.

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SAM RIBAKOFF: Considering the title of your book, was A People’s History of the United States an important book in your life?

KEVIN COVAL: Of course. I read it very thankfully when I was a sophomore or junior in high school. I started to veer away from the intended curriculum and found my way into the public library. Miraculously public libraries house these texts for free. It still kind of amazes me. In this order, I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Before the Mayflower, and A People’s History of the United States. Those three books sent me on a trajectory. Then I read Dudley Randall’s The Black Poets, an anthology of Black Arts poets. Those books really shaped my life and meant the world to me.

Was there something that made you go read on your own? A friend, a relative, music?

It was music. I didn’t know everyone that KRS-One and Chuck D and Big Daddy Kane and Rakim were talking about. They were referential. What better place to start than to dig into the record and the text, which I was also doing sonically by looking at who was sampled? Even by saying the name of someone on a record, I wanted to know the reference. That’s what propelled me to want to learn. I was not a good student, but I became hungry to pursue my own education.

Did you ever try your hand at rapping?

Oh yeah, that happened. That was the first impulse, maybe. I think the first thing I tried to do was write battle-rap essays to my English and history teachers in high school. Of course they were like self-righteous garbage, but, in some sense, I’m still on that tip. I was angry about the lack of inclusion of other voices. I was also just appalled at the sheer amount of lies in the textbooks, and I knew that because of this incredible writer and historian Howard Zinn.

I mean, look, I still want to rap. In some ways I do, but I don’t obviously. I mean, I don’t put out rap records, but I feel like my whole life has been about trying to understand the aesthetics of the most vibrant youth cultural practice in the history of the planet, and how it can infect and affect the page of a poet. I’ve been interested in that question for a long time.

In this collection, you write pretty beautifully about music, specifically the poems about house music and footwork music.

Thank you, man. Being a Chicago kid, I think I began to be most interested by hip-hop sonically, but, of course, hip-hop being composed of everything else gave me a palate and appreciation for all other music. But being a kid seeking breaks in Chicago at my age meant I was going to house parties, so I became immersed and ingratiated, thankfully, in the culture of house music, even though I was in search of hip-hop music. Chicago was a house community at that time. I became friends with this woman named Boogie McClarin, an important figure in the house music community in Chicago. She told me that house has this principle of radical inclusivity, and that’s something I saw as a young person. Of course, it was created by black and Latin queer men who were really trying to carve out a space for their own bodies, but ultimately it was a space that welcomed and championed everybody. Seeing that, I was put out and on by the vibrancy of that music and culture, the beautiful notion of radical inclusivity. As someone who has grown up in these various cultural spaces, I have this rich appreciation of Chicago-centric shit first, and then the various ways that we innovate.

This doesn’t have much to do with the book, but I interviewed RP Boo a while ago, and it was amazing to hear the story of how footwork came to be, and how for years and years it was underground and held together by teenagers. How did you discover that music?

I think it has a lot to do with the book. Cultural space in Chicago is at a premium. Like physical public space in Chicago is at a premium. The city is selling it ad nauseam. Young people of color and working people are constantly contesting the notion of public space. In the realm of culture, that’s like, “I can’t afford to go to the Art Institute because it’s 18 dollars. It also doesn’t represent anything I’m interested in because it has a very narrow representation of who makes art. It doesn’t put on for Chicago. It doesn’t put on for youth culture. It doesn’t put on for people of color. So what do we do?” You invent in the house party. You invent in the basement of the community center, or in the basement of a church. Like any art form, the myth of the artist as a lone thinker is played. That’s a Western European notion. Typically what happens is you have these creative artistic communities that influence one another, even across genres. Art in Chicago is really a working person’s craft. You’re always working on that thing you’re trying to get good at. Sorry, I just get mad excited talking about Chicago shit.

A lot of people are kind of scared off from poetry because it’s seen as this ossified, florid, hard-to-understand, and pretentious art, but your poems are not like that at all. You have a very blunt style. I know that you teach poetry to kids. Did that style develop as you were teaching, trying to get kids into poetry, or did you come to poetry with that style? 

Well, like any artist you develop and get better and better the more you work at it. That’s interesting though, because they are my audience in many ways. I wrote this book with my students in high school and college in mind. I wanted to write a history book that would hopefully do for them what hip-hop did for me, you know? Send them into an orbit of their own self-interest in order for them to learn more about the world and history around them. In terms of the language, I hated poetry in high school because it was ossified, as you said, and also because of the way that they taught it. The canon was closed. The anthology was over. In some ways they teach history that way. In some ways hip-hop taught me and generations to contribute to and continue a tradition, or to make a new tradition, an alternative canon.

In Chicago, we have a very rich tradition of literature, and I see myself in the wave and lineage of Gwendolyn Brooks and her students, one of whom is my mentor, Haki Madhubuti. They both populated their prose and poems with language of the everyday. Brooks talks about finding her material in the street, which is reminiscent of what Mos Def and Talib Kweli might say at the beginning of Black Star. At the same time that I was reading Jayne Cortez, Carolyn Rodgers, and Angela Jackson, I was also listening to A Tribe Called Quest and The D.O.C. and Ice Cube and Scarface and, later, Common and folks who influenced a kind of poetics that is very much alive. A poetics emblematic of the language around you, and the people right in front of you, that tries to locate and tell the story of a place. Hip-hop has traditionally been about the poetics of place and putting on for that block, that corner, that school, that area code, that zip code, that city. I’ve very much informally been trained to do that work.

Sometimes your poetry gets put into the slam poetry movement. Is that how you see your poetry? 

No, I don’t. I didn’t start to write because of the slam. I slammed for maybe two years and left because it didn’t vibe with me. There’s definitely a purpose for it, and I love Marc Smith. I think slam is a gateway and a trick. I wrote because of the hundreds of rappers I listened to. I wrote because of the Black Arts poets, and the Beat Generation poets, and the Nuyorican poets that I was reading as a young person. That spurred me to pick up the pen and do the work. Marc is a genius and a great writer, and I think he’s created something that’s changed the city, and youth culture in the city, but for me, myself, slam is a form and a game.

It’s more like an exercise that poets do?

I think so. That’s how I teach it. It’s an exercise.

It’s a way to get kids into poetry because it’s a kind of performance art. 

Yeah. That’s the real intelligence of the pedagogy of the slam. It’s like, “Oh, this is the town hall. I can be seen as a citizen in the town hall, talking about my life.” What spaces do we really have to do that in? I think it is a perfect tool for young people in a lot of ways. Marc always talks about it being a gimmick or a trick, a way to get his construction-worker friends to listen to people write and say poems. People weren’t willing to do that, and now they do it in the thousands. That has everything to do with the public expression of hip-hop culture.

Do you think people’s interest in slam poetry and rap trickles down into more people being interested in “literary” poetry?

I came up with a generation of poets who were in the same spaces and at the same open mics as rappers. There was no differentiation between the two. We were taken by the same vibrancy and power of the musicality of language. I think that the poets of this generation, who are both making traditional hip-hop music and maybe who are also publishing books, or not even publishing books, are all of the same aesthetic, cultural force. We’re in tune with a lot of the same things.

There is a performance aspect of slam poetry and rapping that doesn’t really exist in poetry though. When I was in high school and a teacher tried to introduce poetry to us by reading a 2Pac song, it was only a little corny, and super outdated.

Only a little bit, huh? Yeah, definitely. I teach young poets, and I also teach young rappers, and a lot of the time young poets want to be young rappers because there is more money, fame, and notoriety. If you want to be an MC you have to be able to dance with language in a way that a poet isn’t charged with. Which doesn’t mean a poet can’t dance or make you move. A lot of poets and rappers of this, and now multiple generations, have been trading notes. I think, at least in Chicago, where we’ve shared the same spaces, we’ve really gleaned the innovation and style of one another, and we’ve influenced each other. A rapper has to dance with, and over, and in between a beat, and also is charged with the ability to make a club shut the fuck up and pay attention. Poets, in Chicago at least, are oftentimes charged with the same thing. I came up performing in bars and clubs as well, where oftentimes people weren’t necessarily there to listen to you. I learned through repetition how to say the poems so they’d be heard. I come from a lineage and a community where the poets also had to move the crowd.

What’s your method of getting kids into poetry?

I’m of the opinion that everyone’s got great poems inside of them, and I really mean everybody. Poetry is utilitarian in a lot of ways, and certainly it’s a populist art form. I take this from Zinn and Brooks and a lot of other people I’ve been influenced by. We all have an essential story to tell, and the poem is a beautiful way to relay that story. I usually start with a “where-I’m-from poem” or an ode, which could be anything from Run-D.M.C.’s “My Adidas” to Chance’s “Hey Ma,” coupled with something from Neruda. Even under the hardest, most roughneck type of circumstance, I see people smile and love their grandmother, or cut up with their homies, and that’s the approach I take in the classroom. We’re going to put something from our lives on a pedestal, give it the kind of shine it deserves, and sing its praises.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems like a lot of the book was written as a way to teach the history of Chicago to kids, through poetry.

Yeah, that is finding my audience. With this book, I wanted to write a history book. I’m not a historian; I’m not trained in anything. I just studied things along the way that I’ve taken an interest in. I’ve been thinking about and researching this book my whole life in a lot of ways. I’ve always been a listener of stories, and hip-hop really made me a digger of the record. I wanted to write something that would be interesting and engaging for someone 13, 15, 27, 30, and beyond. And certainly have it be a roadmap back to these places, and people, that they may have heard of, or never heard of, and hopefully set people off on their own path, too.

I also wanted to tell the story of a lot of working people. We sometimes forget that working people have fought, and have won. Working people in Chicago have created interracial solidarities and communities that have really brought the city to a standstill and changed power. I think we can be emboldened by those stories now.

It’s interesting to think about the interracial and cross-cultural political movements that you describe in the book, and the sometimes parallel interracial and cross-cultural dance music communities in Chicago.

Yeah, that’s why I take culture very seriously. If you change the culture, you’ll change the politics; if you change the politics, ultimately you’ll change the policy. To throw an event like a party, you have to organize a community, which is community organizing. Maybe these things don’t exactly mirror each other, but they do fuel and feed and bleed into each other. I think the creative, cultural, poetic folks need to unleash their imagination into the civic sphere, and I think we see that in Chicago a lot. I don’t think it’s happenstance that Chance is engaged in the civic space. It’s kind of a Chicago tradition.

How did getting Chance to write the intro for the book come together?

I asked him if he would, and he said yes. I’ve known him for probably 10 to 11 years now. I’ve been really lucky to be around him and see him grow and develop. He has an incredible family. I really love his parents and his brother, Taylor. I’m really excited about what Taylor, his brother, is doing as an artist and a writer and a person. I’m excited for Chance, too, and all the things he’s done and will do. I’ve been influenced by them and inspired by them continuously.

It’s easy to see history as this far-off reality you could have never experienced, but you write about the past in the book from the point of view of lived experience.

I feel very Jewish. Jews have always made the past the present. That’s implicit in Midrash Talmudic stories. It’s a lot of remixing the narratives of the stories and the records in order to make sense of them in this moment in time. In part, that prepares me for the historical work I’ve tried to do as a writer. A lot of cultures do that, but I feel particularly Jewish.

One of my favorite poems in the book is “Carl Sandburg Village,” about when your mom and dad first met. The rest of the book is about these big societal events, and this one’s about this very personally important event.

[Laughs.] Yeah. Well, I think the Carl Sandburg Village was important because it represented this thing in Chicago that was like gentrification before they were calling it gentrification. The book I’m writing right now is about gentrification in the 1960s and ’70s in Chicago and the destruction of working-class neighborhoods, specifically the neighborhood where the Young Lords were, which was the neighborhood that my parents moved into. I’m writing that book because so goes Chicago, so goes the country in a lot of ways. I mean, this is my oral history, and I wanted to tell that story in part because I am, and my parents are, and their parents were, storytellers.

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Sam Ribakoff is a freelance writer who’s interested in everything and everyone, but if he had to be specific he’d say he’s interested in music and the communities and ideas it fosters, film, literature, how art interacts with social and political movements, science and math education, and environmental policy.


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