Kevin Coval: Chicago’s Hip-Hop Poet

By Patty Wetli | Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Kevin Coval has been called "the voice of the new Chicago" by Rick Kogan of the Chicago Tribune. Credit: Rebekah Raleigh

Chicago’s North Shore hardly seems fertile breeding ground for a hip-hop artist. Which is precisely the premise of Kevin Coval’s latest collection of poetry, L-vis Lives! Racemusic Poems, released Sept. 13 by Haymarket Books.

L-vis, which reads much like a rock opera (think Green Day’s American Idiot), follows the rise and fall of a White Boy enamored with black culture: Elvis, Eminem and Vanilla Ice all rolled into one, with autobiographical scenes drawn from Coval’s own childhood in suburban Northbrook.

“I’ve listened to hip-hop every day since 1982,” says the Albany Park resident. Though popular enough to be elected vice-president of his senior class at Glenbrook North High School, Coval says he felt alienated, an “anomaly” among his peers. “My mom was working class; she struggled to keep us in that suburb,” he says. “I didn’t see a mirror around me except in [hip-hop] music.”

Coval immersed himself in the work of artists like Chuck D (“one of my heroes and poetic mentors”), Kool Herq and other early pioneers of the form. They sent him to, of all places, the library.

“One of the things hip-hop did was it made me into a student,” Coval says. He spent hours researching references in lyrics, educating himself on people, places and events that weren’t part of his school’s curriculum. As he delved deeper into the environment and history that informed and shaped hip-hop, he began to sense that the culture surrounding him in Northbrook was wrong, “a lie.”

“there was apartheid at the schools. apartheid in the lessons we sat thru. nelson mandela was in america. his name was chuck d. his name was krs-one. what is a black panther? there is apartheid on the bus home. there is apartheid in the lunchroom. the sides of the city we don’t visit. were told not to. there is apartheid on the television. bill cosby aside.”
–from the crossover

“I’ve been writing this book for a very long time,” Coval says of L-vis. Given the current climate, one that a chorus of pundits has declared “post-racial,” the timing couldn’t seem less ripe for a narrative that tackles racial inequality, manifest in hop-hop as the appropriation of black culture by white artists. During the civil rights struggle, race was at the forefront of the national discussion, Coval says. “Now we seem afraid to talk about it.”

Coval is just the sort of activist poet willing to step into the breach. “Good art participates in the conversations of the day,” he says, or, in his case, takes the lead. “Part of the purpose is to challenge the status quo.”

Among Coval’s challenges in L-vis: a moving ode to Bill Ayers, whom Coval counts as a friend; the haunting holla for Troy Davis, a controversial death row inmate; and a suite of poems, whiteboy i could’ve been, dedicated to “American Taliban” John Walker Lindh.

“He was politicized by hip-hop like I was. He read Malcolm X and was transformed as I was,” Coval says of Lindh. “There are infinite ways to truth, myriad ways to one’s end. I’m a fairly well-adjusted poet. He made different choices.”

In case you haven’t noticed, Coval isn’t your grandfather’s Robert Frost. Nor does he subscribe to John Ashbery’s school of poetry, best described as obscurity for obscurity’s sake. Rather he considers his work in the tradition of Walt Whitman, who, Coval says, “saw beyond the distinctions of class and allied himself with immigrants and laborers,” or the contemporary poet, Martin Espada, a former tenants rights lawyer. Coval has a point to make, a story to tell, and he wants you, the reader, to understand it.

“poems about birchwood are bulls**t
unless forests of mercantilists burn
tied to tree trunks, skin smoldering
trail of dental records…

we want poems to stop lying
in showers of middle-age heartbreak &
cancer. f***ing grad students ain’t noble.”

–from white art

Coval didn’t set out to be a poet. He’s never truly studied the art form and left both Ohio University and DePaul without a degree. What he wanted to be was a rapper.

He performed at open mic nights, honing his delivery. The flaw in his career plan became apparent when he was complimented not for his skills as an M.C. but for what others clearly recognized as his poems. “The form didn’t work for me,” he says of rap. “You’re always needing to rhyme.”

His big break came when he was tapped to appear on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam. The spoken word format provided the perfect

"L-vis Lives!" is the latest collection of poetry from Kevin Coval.

outlet for Coval, a way to combine his writing with poetry’s (and hip-hop’s) oral tradition. “It’s an ancient yearning we all have,” Coval says of the desire to tell stories. While his poems initially are worked out “draft after draft on the page,” they ultimately must pass the musicality test, how they sound to the ear.

Def Poetry and other similar venues have enabled Coval to reach a broader audience than more traditional poets. “I wanted to be a writer and I wanted to share my work,” he says. “There’s such a small audience for poetry and I wasn’t writing for them.”

Coval engages younger readers and promotes his narrative style of writing through “Louder Than a Bomb (LTAB),” the Chicago teen poetry festival he co-founded 10 years ago through Young Chicago Authors, now the subject of a documentary.

“Part of my job and privilege has been to encourage young people to tell their story,” he says. “That story is essential to our country; we can’t discount any one story.”

“but i really want Black
audiences to feel me
cuz i am making Black
art, and am not. i am
something new and am not.
i am authentic and not.”
– from nerve

“Hip-hop is about shouting out where you’re from and I love that about the form,” says Coval, “the attention to place.” L-vis is peppered with references to Humboldt Park, Cabrini Green and Jon Burge, the poet’s way of firmly identifying himself as a Chicagoan.

Today Coval calls Albany Park home, though don’t tell his dog, who often mistakes himself for a resident of the ritzier Ravenswood Manor, depending on the direction of his daily walk. The neighborhood provides the sort of diversity Coval found lacking in his youth: the melting pot of Latinos, Koreans and Arabs, falafel at Semiramis, baklava at Nazareth Sweets. “I get my hair cut by Palestinians,” notes Coval, who happens to be Jewish. “It’s a great mix of people. Not everybody’s here, but it’s a pretty rich mix.”

The rare poet able to support himself through his art, without a tenured academic post, Coval has cobbled together what he calls a “piece-mealed” existence through performances and workshops, and various teaching gigs. “No one is paying me to wake up and write poems,” he says. “I’m a working class dog.”

That sort of work ethic, Coval says, is part of Chicago’s appeal. “It’s a great city to learn how to be an artist in. Here, no one cares until you make them care.”

downtown meant dangerous if you lived in the suburbs.
then suburban kids moved to the city their parents left
and the city became the north side. the south side a forest
we were never to enter. public schools were no door bathroom
gang fight graffiti crack dens. welfare: Black babymachines
with headscarves and packs of kools, no jobs or fathers in sight.
Section 8 housing: Cabrini Green candyman, food stamps and ebonics.”
– from cracking the code

The middle section of L-vis is devoted to portraits of individuals who provide Coval with inspiration, including record producer Rick Rubin, a White Boy who founded Def Jam records, worked with LL Cool J and Public Enemy, and is known for fusing rap with rock (see: Aerosmith and Run-DMC’s Walk This Way). “His ear is so diverse and complex,” Coval says of Rubin. “He can see the beauty and power of James Brown and a slow Johnny Cash ballad.”

It’s this sort of polyculturalism, a “mix of radically diverse cultural places,” that Coval believes points the way forward. From Chicago to South Africa, he’s witnessed the way hip-hop brings together young people from wildly divergent backgrounds, “creating a world that looks different.”

“everyone hears something recognizable and something foreign
and what kind of magic is that, to reposition, to collage, to make
new and nostalgic”
–from Rick Rubin’s (Black) Magic Act

Coval will read from L-vis Lives!, Wednesday, Sept 14, at Metro, 3730 N. Clark St. Doors open at 7:00 p.m., the show starts at 8:00 p.m. Admission is free for high school students with valid ID.


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