Kevin Coval is the director of Young Chicago Authors, teaches “Hip-Hop Aesthetics” at The University of Illinois-Chicago, and just published “A People’s History of Chicago” through Haymarket Books. I had the pleasure of speaking to him about his newest piece of work.
Kevin, I noticed you mentioned a fairly well-known author and historian in your latest poetry book, Howard Zinn, I wanted to ask you about your affinity for him and how he influenced your writing.
Howard’s work, “A People’s History of the United States”, was one of those formative texts for me when I was in high school. I ran to the library for hip hop albums. Hip hop in turn taught me to dig for records and to picture history as a narrative, one where I have the ability to see where the bits came from and trace them back. In the stacks of the library, I think the first book I really found purposely to read outside of the class was “The Autobiography of Malcolm X”, and then in that same section of the library there was “Before the Mayflower: A History of Black America” by Lerone Bennett Jr, then there was Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States”. I read those pretty much all of my Freshman and Sophomore year of high school, and those books armed me for my Junior year of U.S. History class, where I really was on my battle with the teacher. I knew that I was being lied to, and these books and Howard’s book in particular, confirmed the propaganda that the country seemed bent on feeding students. It had a powerful impact when I was young. Howard as a listener, as a digger of the record, as a conscious through five or six decades of American existence has made a giant impact on my work and my writing.
What advice do you have for students and young people looking to find more “fringe history” or history that often does not get included in textbooks?
Investigate anything that you’re interested in. Everything has a back story. The smallest things will unravel the whole world. The story of the planet will unwind like a ball of string once you start to tug on it from any angle. Be passionate and on fire about the things that you want study, if it’s comic books, graffiti art or skateboard culture, hip hop musical production — whatever it is, there’s a history there that will really open up the world. So be on your Inspector-Gadget-type-shit all of the time, just become an detective so that when you become the Dilla or DJ Premier of your field or where you are, you have an understanding of what you’re doing—and one way to understand is to go back and to see where it comes from.
I know hip hop has been a big influence on your life, but how did you come to use that hybrid style of academic language and Chicago slang in your writing?
I think I learned how to write poems just by the things I saw. I read a lot, I write a lot, I talk a lot of shit. I feel like all of that, hopefully, is then found in my poetry. I was tutored through the work of Ms. Gwendolyn Brooks and her students, particularly by my mentor Haki Madhubuti. Through poetry and music, I learned that the sounds of the world around you can be translated onto the page. It’s like a culmination of the multiple voices, tongues, experiences and sounds that I have in my head—that I’m privy to over the course of my life, I try to then translate onto the page I guess.
I noticed that there are a lot of anti-capitalist tones in your book. I was hoping you could tell us more about your political leanings.
I think that I have a critique of capitalism that determines such a grand inequity between those who have and those who have to rent and those who own and then the workers whose lives are determined by the necessity of the depletion of public resources and increased privatization towards individual capital and greed. When we see some of the threads throughout history that are consistent, we see that gross inequity produces rifts and dissonance in culture. I think one of the reasons I wanted to write this book was that working people have had a lot of victory through time, particularly in Chicago. As Nelson Algren speaks of, we are a great “union town”. Algren believes that Chicago is the most radical of all American cities, and I think that’s because we have a tradition of working people coming together, creating interracial and interethnic solidarities in order to band together to have basic rights met from the Bourgeois class. Another one of the things I wanted to do was highlight these working class victories, especially the moment that we are in…we’re up against the lot in the political climate in this country and around the world and I think that as working people, we have a better sense of how our lives could be. I also as an artist, want us to unleash our radical imagination upon civic space in order to think about ways where we could live together in more equitable and just manners. That was the hope. I think that capitalism ultimately has created environments that are unsustainable for all people. We have the insistence of putting profit over the livelihoods and well-beings of people, and I believe differently.
I’m glad you brought up working class victories. I jotted down a few lines from the book that stood out to me. One of them was: “Even victory is death for black men”. Could you expound on that?
Yeah man, that’s at the end of the Lorraine Hansberry poem. I think in this moment where we just came off eight years of a historic presidency, historic in many ways including the fact that he was the first black president in the history of our country. We experienced what Van Jones called the ‘white lash’ in this moment. I think that in America we are still governed by the principles of greed and the ethos of a white supremacist system that infects and harms us all. These systems keep the country divided along issues of race, certainly, issues of class, and I think that ultimately creates a culture where we don’t spend enough time really hearing, listening and building with one another. I think that the status quo aims to govern by that principle of white supremacy, and it comes at the cost of black lives in this country. It comes at the cost of brown life in this country and around the planet. We can plainly see the harmful ramifications of white system — but very few people question it and I take issue with that.
That brings me to another line that I wrote down from early on in the book, “a black mayor, a black president, everything will change and nothing will”. That line made want to ask you about President Obama’s term in office, and how you felt about what changed and what didn’t change.
I think not enough has changed. I think that is part of the reason people organize and take to the streets. It’s part of the reason why we have a continued dire necessity and why there is this constant call for power to shift in this country and in this world — because not enough has changed. We have a long way to go in this country still and the march towards justice and equity is long. That’s part of what people have been telling us for a long time. So I think it’s important to be emboldened by the fact that people have been struggling towards the same goals for decades, and centuries. This current system of white supremacy is nothing new, and people have been struggling and working and losing their lives — but we can find a small kind of solace in the fact that we come from a long line of fighters. This is a town of writers and fighters. We are immersed in the constant push, and we should feel emboldened by that. I don’t know how much has changed ultimately, I think individuals and communities make progress at grassroots level, that doesn’t mean the means of productions themselves necessarily change, although I think in Chicago, working people, innovative young people, have found ways to turn their backs on central systems of capital and have made lanes around systems, and I think that is power.
Chance The Rapper is an often used example of a young Chicago artist who has been able to circumvent the traditional systems of capital.
I think so. But where does that come from? In a lot of ways, at least in my mind, that comes from “Soldiers at War” selling tapes on Austin, the backpack mixtape era — you know — folks selling 10 thousand units out of their backpacks in Wicker Park at The Note or Sub-T. That comes from a Chicago style of commerce, salesmanship, and artistry that has everything to do with people operating at the grassroots and community based level. You know, Keef started as a YouTube star in the neighborhood in a lot of ways before the major labels came in. This necessity to build in the community you are apart of is an important way to think about resistance and centralize forms of capital. Chance is certainly the shining example of that — but I think he stands in this grand tradition of Chicago cultural figures.
My next question centers around another line early on in the book, you talk about the redline train as a “working class spaceship” that allows people to “fly above grounds and borders”. I think that’s a purposefully optimistic view you took and I’m just curious how you view that line in contrast to the reality of what the “EL” train has become over the past 100 years.
One of the things it represents is the opportunity to move between neighborhoods. As a kid the EL opened up a cultural landscape — to go to house parties, clubs, record shops. It was a space to see graffiti artists from all over the city and begin to know names and locales that were not my own. The EL was to a way to become familiar with the landscape both physically and then culturally. Of course we live in this country, with a great deal of segregation. The EL is a way to abstract the segregation and bring all types of people together, connecting communities. When we think about graffiti and hip hop, it really becomes the kind of environment where young people come together to be unapologetic together in these spaces that they are building — and that comes in part because of the ingenuity of young people and their ability to carve out spaces for themselves.
Lastly, on the topic of young people and the arts, I’d like to talk to talk about footwork. In thinking about that genre, it is very much a product of Chicago as it is this evolution of house music with all kinds of hip hop elements layered in. I just wanted to hear your thoughts about the music.
Young people stay inventing. Each generation has 1000 Einstein’s and 1000 Benjamin Banneker’s, and they’re just constantly taking what they’re given and making it their own. House is a Chicago innovation, and once people got into that groove of 120 beats per minutes, I think the children of that movement were able to move quicker and incorporate jacking and hip hop into House, which bred the genre of hipHouse, which I don’t know how many people feel about, but I love it. I think footwork just really speaks to the ingenuity and genius of young people.
- The footwork poem mentioned in the last paragraph is included at the top of this article.
- By happenstance the day before publishing this article Danny Coval, father of Kevin, gave me a ride home in his Uber and told me wonderful stories about Jamila Woods, Chance the Rapper, Diana Ross, and of course his son.
- The cover photo was taken by Bryan Allen Lamb.