Kevin Coval - Telling Authentic Stories with "A People's History of Chicago" - Extended Interview

Extended - April 26, 2017 - Kevin Coval 04/26/2017 Views: 40,382

"A People's History of Chicago" author Kevin Coval explains why he wanted to highlight Chicago's diverse background and talks about being a mentor to Chance the Rapper. (9:40)

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Please welcome Kevin Coval.

(cheers and applause)

-Welcome.-Thanks for having me.

-Welcome to the show.-Yeah, thank you, man.

-Thank you for having me. -Thankyou so much for coming out,

and thank youfor writing this book.

Your story really interesting,

because if somebody readyour résumé...

I'm not gonna lie, I thoughtyou were a black person.

-Uh...-I'm not. I just want to...

-I'm definitely not.-You're not.

-No, no. Very... Yeah,very, very white. -Okay, cool.

-All right, cool.-Very Jewish.

All right. All right, cool.

All right. #NoDolezal.All right, we cool.

-Um... But no.-Yeah, no. Definitely not.

But you... But your story.I mean, it's like,

you are deeply involvedin the hip-hop community

in Chicago, you know.

You are helping out with kids

both in the inner citiesand-and on the outside.

You... You run slam poetry.

You are part of programsthat help children

live their livesin a different way using poetry.

How on earthdid you get into this?

Well, I-I come from a traditionof storytellers, you know.

I-I've sat at my Aunt Joyce'sSeder table and just heard her

tell the same storiesagain and again.

My dad is a storyteller.

He... They used to annoy mewith those histories,

-with those stories.-Right.

But eventually, I... I thoughtthat this is my family story,

and the same time I was kind ofreally ingesting those,

I was alsopaying a lot of attention

to what was in my boom box.

I was a latchkey kid,grew up with my brother

and just on our own.

'80s hip-hop kidswho were listening to KRS-One

-and MC Lyte and...-Right.

So the-these narrativeskind of began to fuse

in some ways in my mind.

And I think hip-hop has nowgiven four generations of people

permission to tell their storiesauthentically,

and so that's part of the workthat I've been, you know,

able to do, and what I've beenprivileged to do in Chicago.

I mean, I... We-we believein a very simple idea

that all of us,regardless of who you are,

have an essential story to tell.

And if you don't tellyour own narrative,

inevitably, as we've seen--and even today, your show--

you know,people will lie on history,

-and people will lie about you,-Right.

and so we try to create space

so people can also telltheir own stories.

You-you...You not only enjoy the space,

you're not onlya good storyteller,

but you've managedto live in a space

that many peoplewould be terrified of,

and that is a space whereyou are oftentimes in contact

with a very black world

whilst maintainingyour authentic self.

Are you ever afraidthat someone would say,

"Hey, Kevin.This is cultural appropriation.

What are...What are you doing here?"

How do you navigate that,yourself and your audience

and the kidsthat you're teaching?

Yeah, I think I've learnedalong the way, too.

I mean, I used to weara House of Pain necklace

-like I meant it. You knowwhat I mean? -(laughter)

Like, I made... I did, like...You just...

-You make a bunch ofbad decisions, you know? -Right.

I mean, I got...I wanted a fa...

I wanted a peace sign shavedin the back of my head

for my-my senior prom,and I didn't know anyone who...

-Which is mistake number one,right? I mean... -(laughter)

Um, and I didn't know anyonewho, like, knew how

to do graphics, so I went tothe stylist in the strip mall...

-Yeah, yeah, yeah. thesuburb near my high school.

And she's like, "Oh, I'll giveit a whirl," and when I got home

and looked in the mirror,it was Pac-Man,

-so I had to go bald to...-(laughter)

-So, you learn, you know?-Yes.

And you also, like...I also come

from a community of peoplewho will check me.

-Right. -Like, I have peopleright now,

you know,some of my closest colleagues--

you know, they'll tell mewhen I'm doing wrong.

And I think that that'sessential, that's important.

That's how, I think as a person,I get better,

and I think, ultimately,that's how a country,

-we're gonna get better, too,you know? -That's interesting

that you are actively willingto do that.

People are terrifiedof the landmines

in and around, you know,race and the conversations.

But to have thatis an interesting way

to navigate that.

Looking at the book...

This is a collection of poems, A People's History of Chicago.

And it really isa history of Chicago

in a way that I've neverheard it told before.

-Thank you. -You know,it's not Wikipedia.

It's not a history book.

It's a collection of 77 poems.Why the number 77?

For the area communitiesin the city.

I mean, really, there's probably143 community...

-like, neighborhoodsin Chicago... -Right.

...when it really changesblock to block.

But they say there's 77area communities.

And so, Nate Marshall, who'smy dear homie and colleague

and the primary editorof the book--

I brought him about 150 poems.

He's like, "These are way toomany poems for a book, my guy."

-So, and so he's like...-(laughter)

He's like,"You need to edit it down.

Let's go with 77."

-Right, right. -So we juststarted to put, like, the...

You know, we triedto get the story together,

and tried to havethe best poems,

you know, survive the edit,I guess.

And you have poemsthat have survived.

You have poems about, you know,

the white working classin Chicago.

You have poemsabout the black working class,

which a lot of peopleforget about.

You have poems about hip-hop.

You have poemsabout icons from Chicago,

whether it be Kanye West,or Hugh Hefner,

-who I didn't even know wasfrom Chicago. -Unfortunately.


When, um... when-when...

when writing these poems,what is most important to you?

Is it the information thatyou're trying to get through?

Is it the feeling?What are you trying to achieve?

I wanted to do a few things,but in this moment especially,

I wanted us to rememberthat we have a history

as working peoplewhere we've won, you know.

Working peoplehave come together

across every imaginable boundarythat has kept us

intentionally separatedand segregated.

And we've created theseinterracial solidarities

-to create radical change.-Right.

In Chicago,comes the eight-hour workday.

Right now in Chicago, you havea history and a legacy of,

you know, black, queer women

who are holding the mayor's feetto the fire.

And I wanted to honorand uphold this legacy

so we could be emboldenedby where we've come from

in order to make our city,

in orderto make our country better.

I wanted to remind us of that.

That's beautiful.

If you look at the storiesthat you tell,

the conversationsthat you have,

with the kids specifically,there's a narrative in Chicago.

And that is,Chicago is one giant inner-city.


Kids getting shot.

It's undeniablethat there is a lot of crime,

but... you arguethat people need to look

at another side of Chicagothat is flourishing.

Indeed, and I also thinkthat that narrative

about Chicagois problematic, and I think,

ultimately, racist.

I think that it serves reallythe one...

the white supremacist criminalimagination about the city

that really funds privatized,prison industrial complexes.

And I think we need to counterthat narrative, you know?


and in Chicago,the-the truth is,

is that in Chicago we arenot only in the midst

of a incrediblecultural Renaissance,

-you know, run by young people,16 to 26, -Yeah.

the same community that is,you know, highly criminalized

on, you know, nationaland local media outlets.

But then in every neighborhood,there are, you know,

there's a spectrumof human experience, you know?

And-and that's beenmy experience

going neighborhoodto neighborhood.

That's my experienceas an educator.

That's my experience as a writerand a documenter of the city

that, you know, everywherethere are people

who love their grandma dearly,

and everywhere there is,I think, people who struggle.

But I-I think the storythat isn't told

is-is not the storyof interpersonal

or intercommunal violence.

We need to tell the story moreabout systemic violence

that is reared and reaped upon

communities of color andworking class communities.

You know, that's why peopleresult to any means necessary,

-because there's a depletion ofresources, -Right, right.

and there's an inequitywhen it comes

to the distributionof those resources.

You, uh, you aren't justinvolved with teaching.

You've taught some reallyinteresting people.

I guess, one of the mostinteresting, for many people,

would be someone who calls youhis mentor,

and that is Chance the Rapper,right?

And, uh, he wrote, you know,a glowing blurb for your book.

He says here, "Kevin Covalmade me understand

"what it is to be a poet,what it is to be an artist,

and what it is to servethe people."

That's, I mean, that's glowingcoming from Chance,

who is somebody who has shownover and over again

that he's in the community

and he wants to, uh,make a change.

What does he mean by that,that you taught him

what it means to be a poet?

Like, if people see Chance,they go, like,

"How did this guy teach Chance?"

What does that even mean?

That's a good que--I really have no idea.

-I mean, I, uh, I-I don't know.-(laughter)

Um... You know, he-he was, uh...

I-I've had the privilege

of-of working with a lot ofincredible talented, uh,

incredibly talented youngartists and musicians.

And I remember meeting Chancewhen he was 13.

He was sitting, uh, outsideof the circle

that I was running a workshop

-at his high school.-Wow. That long ago.

Yeah. When he-- I think he was,like, 13 at the time.

And afterwards, he just,he's like,

"Hey. Um, I got these rhymes.

Will you read 'em?"

And I'm like, "Yeah.No doubt, I'll read 'em."

And I read them,like, these are cool.

-You know what I mean?-Yeah.

And... and thenfor the next ten years,

you saw the discipline anddedication he took to the craft.

And so I've known himthrough that time,

and of course, the whole cityis behind him, you know.

And it's not--he's part of a moment

-that we're having in Chicago,you know? -Right.

He is in the midst of-of,you know,

hundreds of young peoplewho are taking the tools

of democratized technologyto find a fan base

-and speak to a larger audience.-Uh-huh.

And I think young peoplein Chicago

have always changed the waythe world gets down,

from Frankie Knucklesand Ron Hardy,

to, you know, house music,and to juke, to footwork, to...

Really, Chance is in a lineageof a black arts tradition.

You know, we just-- this yearthe whole city

is celebrating our matriarch,Gwendolyn Brooks.

You know, the incredibly, youknow, fine, brilliant poet,

who delighted in the syllable.

And-and I thinkfrom Ms. Brooks to Chance

is a very small bridge.

And that's part of the workthat we do in the classroom.

That's part of the workthat we do in the community.

And so I think Chanceis very much in a tradition

of Chicago artists who grind

and who take the craftvery seriously.

Well, I, uh, I can see why hewrote glowing words about you.

It's a fascinating book,

beautiful poems that reallyteach you a lot about Chicago.

Thank you so muchfor being on the show.

-I appreciate it. -Thank you,man, yeah, I appreciate it, too.

A People's History of Chicago is available now.

Go out and get it.

Kevin Coval, everybody.

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