"Kevin made art a job to me. He made me feel like it was real. He made me feel like the competition was real. He made me feel that the money was real. He made me feel that the love and the fans were real. And if I didn’t have him in my life I would’ve been complacent. He took me out of that space and made me understand what it is to be a poet, what it is to be an artist, and what it is to serve the people."—Chance The Rapper, 'A People’s History of Chicago'
“What is the record?” Kevin Coval asked, but I knew it was a rhetorical question.
“The record is recorded sound. What is a recorded sound? Well, it's history.” He briefly paused before illustrating how reading the back of Tribe records, taking note of Q-Tip’s production, was his introduction to ‘60s and ‘70s jazz musicians. Tip sampled the recorded sound, inspiring Kevin to search for the history behind the creation. This is the immortality made available through architects of the present finding inspiration in the past, the immortality we both agree that all artists strive for, to leave behind gold for the next creator to find.
Sadly, this isn’t the world of today, and the strenuous laws of sampling sadden both Kevin and I. We took a moment to sigh for all the songs buried due to clearance restriction and all the history lost in the past.
Within the explanation of what a record is, Kevin Coval the teacher naturally appeared. The way he simplifies a record as a point of history reminded me of an educator breaking down a simple math equation. As he continued detailing how no idea is truly original, I couldn’t help but feel as if I entered a classroom and was no longer conducting a phone interview.
Kevin Coval, 41, is the teacher/mentor/organizer who has assisted countless promising writers through his workshops, Young Chicago Authors and Louder Than A Bomb. This is the man who had Jamila Woods, Noname, Taylor Bennett and countless others under his wing at one point in time. Chance The Rapper, the white knight of Chicago's artistic renaissance, has hailed Kev as an artistic father, a small snippet of the glowing praise he gives in the foreword of Kevin's book, A People's History of Chicago.
During our conversation, Kev recalled a time when Chicago’s city council was trying to pass an anti-gang loitering law that was locking up young people of color who were hanging out in groups of more than one, a complete violation of their right to assemble. As a teacher he was seeing the school-to-prison pipeline manifest: “I was running around the high schools and seeing young writers I was building with in class on Tuesday and see them in county [jail] on Thursday because I was teaching there as well.” It became important and imperative to have a space for writers and creatives to avoid trouble and have a haven to, at the very least, express themselves.
"Louder Than A Bomb is a space that is a counter to [the] dominant tropes in our culture and it’s very much been. It’s not a new idea, I get this idea from hip-hop cultural practice, the notion that hip-hop is a cultural force. We organize the city and counter the vision of urban planners to keep us segregated in working class communities. Isolated from one another. I wanted to create a different kind of environment. A cultural space for young writers who were beginning to really innovate this new kind of wing or genre in hip-hop cultural practice that I thought was hip-hop poetry and later what my man would call Break Beat Poetry. Louder Than A Bomb is now in its 17th year this year. I've been organizing in Chicago as a semi-grown-up since ‘96."
Imagine if history was like a crate full of records, and you were able to dig through and take bits and pieces out but retell it through a modern form. This process of making old stories feel new is how Kevin explained the basis of A People’s History of Chicago, his collection of 77 poems retelling important moments of history from his hometown. He used the terms “sample” and “remix” in the same context as a producer but through his medium of breakbeat poetry. It’s history, written, unlike any way I’ve ever read, about a city I knew so little about. Unsung heroes and working class organizers are spotlighted alongside acclaimed rappers and revered poets. The triumphs of black and brown, queer and trans, men and women are put under a microscope, but also the tragedies that were difficult to overcome. Each poem has a sense of importance and authenticity, history told through a format that blends the souls of hip-hop and poetry.
In an age of rappers carelessly dismissing the past over the present, history is a topic rarely discussed without becoming a war zone of new versus old. Kevin Coval isn’t a rapper, but hip-hop has influenced his interaction with history since he discovered KRS-One and Rakim. He has said on numerous occasions that hip-hop inspired him to expand his mind in the public library instead of blindly accepting what was being taught in school. Wanting to know who these men and women being referenced in rap records were added the necessary push to curriculum heavily influenced by black art.
A white, Jewish teenager found his calling as a writer after following the crumbs that were presented through the music, from the Autobiography of Malcolm X to Dudley Randall’s The Black Poets.
"I am a kid who received the culture. Hip-hop is a culture of call and response. Hip-hop gave me permission, as it did generations of young people, to create, make and occupy public space unapologetically. A lot of things that we talk about now in terms of our broader culture is this issue of a dying public or an increasingly privatized, criminalized space. Hip-hop has been challenging the notion of what is public for generations. Going on four decades. These are things as a young person I didn’t necessarily have all the language for but you're naturally drawn to things that feel authentic, you're drawn to things that feel fresh, but also you feel like you as a person will be seen and valued in the space. Hip-hop is that."
It’s the way that Kevin talks about hip-hop that gives off a sense of deep understanding. This isn’t someone who simply wore the clothes and repeated the slang, but a tree that is deeply rooted in the very soil of what this culture stands for. It’s deeper than just hearing the music or doing the homework, Kevin was a participant when no one white had entered the spoken word space. Seeing it, living it, and breathing the air is what shapes who an artist becomes.
What truly intrigued me about Chicago is how many rappers with poetic pens the city has produced. From Common and Kanye to Noname and Mick Jenkins, the 773 is a breeding ground for wordsmiths. The perception of how words could be strung together changed on the day Lupe's Food & Liquor found its way into my CD player. He was unlike the head bussas, hustlers and trap stars that ruled the radio around me in Atlanta.
Kev explained how this isn’t a coincidence, but rather the lineage of home:
"The reason why Common, Ye, Lupe and Chicago rappers are rooted in this aesthetic and such good writers is the tradition that we inherit as young people in the city. We come from a tradition of Gwendolyn Brooks, Carolyn Rogers and Angela Jackson, and they mentored more generations of writers in a lot of ways. Both Common and Dr. West are educators and Dr. West was a colleague of Ms. Gwendolyn Brooks and Haki Madhubuti at Chicago State. This lineage is real. The connection between hip-hop and poetry in Chicago is, we used to be in the same open mic spots, we used to go see the same music and go to the same house parties. There was no distinction between rhyme and poem. I think people of my generation were just influenced by the same aesthetics and vibes of the emcee. We were reeled in the same spaces and came up with the intent and dedication to the craft. We had a similar approach if that makes sense. Gwendolyn Brooks talked about how her inspiration was in the streets and she would encourage generations of young writers to record the stories in front of their nose, and what’s more hip-hop than that?”
Kevin Coval embodies the ethos of the pen being mightier than the sword and that the words of a poet can be louder than a bomb. It’s fitting that his latest book pays homage to the state that gave him his identity by using a form of the culture that gave him his voice. The foreword is written by a young man whom he considers to be a student he watched evolve into a responsible artist who cares about the craft of writing and the souls who live in their city.
At a time when the future is frightening, Kevin looks to the past as a reminder of the victories won by marginalized communities who fought for everything they earned. He is a fighter who has fought and continued to fight for the betterment of others since 1996. He is a face in hip-hop that you don’t see, but represents so many of the beautiful qualities this culture exudes.
Kevin Coval wears many hats. I admire him as a writer but I wish I had him as a teacher; he's the hip-hop Mr. Feeny that was put on Earth to help boys and girls meet the world. Thankfully, he's leaving a little gold behind for the next creator to find.
By Yoh, aka Louder Than A Yoh, aka @Yoh31