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Louder Than a Bomb: an Interview with Chicago Hip-Hopper Kevin Coval

Aaron Sarver

White and Jewish, Kevin Coval is a hip-hop poet who proves that, in hip-hop, talent is more important than skin color. A frequent guest on Russell Simmons’ HBO Def Poetry Jam,” Coval’s words are further amplified by his intense live performances, which stay in the mind long after the experience.

Hip-hop has the ability to open a progressive discussion between what's appropriate and what's appropriated.

As co-founder of Louder Than A Bomb, the largest youth poetry slam in the country, Coval has inspired thousands of young Chicagoans to hone their own skills as poets. The 6th annual slam takes place on March 12 in Chicago. For more information, visit youngchicagoau​thors​.org.

Coval’s first collection of poems, Slingshots: A Hip-Hop Poetica was released late last year. In These Times spoke with Coval in February.

When did things first click for you? When did you know this was something you were going to pursue?

My first hip-hop memories are from 82. I immersed myself in hip-hop later, in that second wave of hip-hop – what some people would call the Golden Era, 88 to 92 – when I was in high school. I started writing in high school, because I started reading so much. Hip-hop pushed me into the libraries. Groups like Boogie Down Productions, KRS-One, Public Enemy and Chuck D, X-Clan, the Native Tongue Posse, A Tribe Called Quest – all of these guys would drop a lot of names, like historical figures, in their rhymes and I really didn’t know who they were. So I would rush to the library to read who Assata Shakur was, or who the Black Panthers were.

This information would inevitably end up in my high school essays, papers and book reports. I started to write battle rhymes to my high school English teachers. Who and what we were studying was so white and narrow and European, and what I was listening to on my own was so Afrocentric and black nationalist, the two inevitably met head-to-head. And I knew that what I was listening to out of the mouths of these teachers – KRS and Chuck D – was much more profound, interesting, important and historically accurate than the white lies I was getting in my classroom. And with the confrontation it would create in my classrooms, I thought I was on to something.

So, initially hip-hop was an avenue for you to explore things you otherwise wouldn’t encounter?

Yeah, it opened up a lot of doors. I chose to walk through some doors as opposed to others. Some people are exposed to and participate in hip-hop and walk through the door of gangsterism and hyper-materialism, but at the time I was listening, hip-hop was radically literate and radically intelligent. It made me want to learn. That’s what was cool in 88: knowledge. Knowledge, like Kool Moe Dee said, is king. And that’s what I wanted to be – smart.

You have a track on the CD called, Elegy for Lit X.” Can you explain what Lit X. was and what it meant to you?

Lit X. was this space that I kind of dreamed about. I never knew that spaces like it actually existed. It was an Afrocentric bookstore run by people who were extremely well-read, knew the different canonical traditions in the diaspora of black literature, and saw themselves as next in line in a progression of storytelling. They gathered an almost religious movement on Saturday nights. They spoke and prayed and sung, and it was brilliant. At the time, I was primarily writing by myself and for myself and didn’t know that there was this oral tradition in Chicago and around the country and the world. Seeing that opened me up to the possibility of what the word can do when in communion with others.

Hip-hop often tells stories that counter the dominant myths of our time. How do you think that influences your thinking and writing?

The hip-hop I was getting, primarily from New York, was about working-class narratives. I felt resonance with those narratives: I saw my mom and dad struggle in a similar capitalist system for different reasons than other people were articulating. Chuck D comes from Long Island, and so does De La Soul, so they’re black suburban kids still talking about a similar economic system in which they see their parents work, struggle and be treated unjustly, and for me, there was real resonance in that. I eventually learned that’s the story I have to tell. 

It’s interesting now being a teacher doing workshops in city and suburban schools. A lot of times suburban kids feel like they don’t have stories to tell. A lot of what we do is to talk about deconstructing the myth of the American Dream or the fruition of the American Dream and analyzing it. If we can tell the other side of it, isn’t there importance in that storytelling?

How did you deal with issues of appropriation in hip-hop? This has been an issue with white people participating in black cultural art forms for a long time.

I and other white folks can use it if they speak honestly about who they are and where they come from. I don’t think there have been white innovators within the form and I don’t think it’s a white form, but what I learned about hip-hop early on was that it’s about the skill and the craft, not necessary about what you look like. Hip-hoppers – not Americans as a dominant culture, because we have all kinds of Elvises within hip-hop as well – know the difference between who and what is real and whether they’re genuinely participating in storytelling and in crafting their skill, whether it be graffiti or rhyming. Hip-hop has the ability to open a progressive discussion between what’s appropriate and what’s appropriated.

It seems like hip-hop and Judaism have come full circle for you. What are the common elements between the two?

There is something about this oral storytelling. When I was studying for my Bar Mitzvah, I would be trying to memorize my Haphtorah portion – I hated Hebrew school and was forced to memorize it. I would listen to old tapes of cantors chanting. There was a rhythm there that wasn’t dissimilar to some of the rhythm I was hearing in hip-hop. Then there are the stories I got from my dad and my aunt and other family members about where my family comes from in Russia, having to leave the Cossacks, trying to get to this country in order to not be killed. There was something about that that I liked. All of the humor, the heartache, the beauty, the brutality, all within the same story, was also present within hip-hop. 

One thing hip-hop demanded from me was that I deal with Judaism. Particularly after the second Intifada, hip-hop demanded I deal with Israel-Palestine, because it’s an issue within my community, and if I didn’t deal with it and talk about it, I would be disingenuous. I would be the Jewish kid at the table refusing to recognize a situation that is prominent in the minds of people around the world.

Hip-hop is a form of expression that is more accessible than what high school kids encounter in the classroom. In your work with young Chicago authors how have you tried to bridge the gap between the two?

When we want to teach literacy or an appreciation for literature, if we start with John Donne or Robert Frost or Edgar Allen Poe, a lot of times we’re going to lose most kids who are savvy and learned in what they know. Hip-hop, I think, was Freirean before a lot of us even read [Brazilian education theorist Paulo] Freire, because it dealt with what was around us immediately and it used that as a starting point from which to go backwards – whether into the canon of African literature or the canon of social-economic American history or the canon of religion in some ways. If students in the classroom know every word to Pac or Big or Nas or Jay-Z or whoever it is, it’s an excellent starting point to have a conversation about literature or kick off a social studies class. 

Thirty nine percent of the kids who go to Chicago public schools drop out. Only 57 percent graduate and of those, only 47 percent go on to college. The Chicago public schools are failing miserably, partly because we don’t access the students’ base of knowledge. If we have conversations about the prison complex, about globalization, industrialization, gentrification and police brutality, and all of these issues that are in the music they’re listening to, or, more importantly, are in their lives, then we can have a progressive education system that demands an engaged student.

To hear Coval perform a few pieces from his book, visit the Web site of Fire on the Prairie, the radio show sponsored by In These Times.

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Aaron Sarver is an independent audio producer and writer based in Chicago. His work has appeared in In These Times, The Chicago Reader, Alter​net​.org, and on Free Speech Radio News. For nearly three years he produced and co-hosted the radio program, Fire on the Prairie, which featured interviews with progressive writers and activists, and is archived at fire​on​thep​rairie​.com.
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