Interview 4080: Kevin Coval
Words by Alexander "DJ RTC" Fruchter
Man, time management is a bitch. When I asked Kevin Coval to come by my office to talk about his latest book, A People's History of Chicago, the book was still in pre-release. He had yet to speak to Trevor Noah, or undertake his massive reading tour. I was coming down the homestretch of another semester at Columbia College, Grey was brand new, and we were all eagerly counting down the days to oddCouple at Mamby, Jamila at Pitchfork, and Kweku (with BoatHouse) at Lollapalooza.
I love to write, and I love to interview people. Many of you reading this already know about my journalistic past at rubyhornet and even prior to that, SoundSlam. I had big ideas for this summer. Invite artists, thinkers, and just generally cool people over to my office every week and churn out new interviews on the regular. Get back to writing, DJing, and laughably bringing back Closed Sessions Radio. While I have actually been DJing a lot more frequently again, Those last two turned out to be wishful thinking.
When I apologized to Kevin for the long delay on this interview, he wasn't phased. He probably didn't even notice. See Kevin Coval is apparently amazing at time management. Since releasing his book and doing the above mentioned appearance on the Daily Show, Kevin has been rigorously hosting readings, participating in workshops, and all out spreading his latest work. All while continuing his efforts of nurturing the creative spritis of Chicago youth via Louder Than A Bomb, Young Chicago Authors, his Chicago Next series at Soho House, and the new Pop Out events at The Hollander (the next one is tomorrow). He's also on the constant attack against white supremacy and the multiple systems and structures that exist to keep it intact, updates an instagram of graffiti, and somehow manages to work out regularly.
During our almost hour long conversation, we spoke about all of the above within the content of his latest book, A People's History of Chicago. Read it below. There are a lot of gems.
RTC: So, Kevin Coval - thanks for coming by to my office.
Kevin: The empire that you guys are building.
RTC: Empire... yeah... I think when you were last here we didn't have shit on the walls.
Kevin Coval: It looks a lot more lived in, it looks a lot more fresh. The office. It's beautiful. I don't know if this room was necessarily your office the last time I was here. I remember this as a room, but you definitely didn't have all the stuff you have on the wall in here. Including your degree... Congrats by the way.
RTC: I'm very proud of that, man.
Kevin Coval: You should be. That's lovely.
RTC: Let's start with talking to you about the book a bit. I have read and listened to your other interviews. I don't want to ask you the same questions per say, but as I was reading the book, I noticed the changes where even in the font, the designs are different. From verse to the story about your parents meeting is more of a traditional narrative and it's printed out that way. In compiling this, was that in your consciousness and what role did design play in how you're presenting it relative to how you tell the story?
Kevin Coval: I think that I'm really not as interested in form as I am in content. I think form comes later. Sometimes you kind of find the right way to present a piece. But you find that in the editorial process, or at least I find I do. Sometimes I'll sit down to write a piece and maybe it will be left justified and I'll break the line in a particular way, but then in reviewing and spending more time and living with the piece, I'll find this works better as prose. Maybe this works better in the form as a guzzle or a traditional poetic form that I'll try to articulate the same story or idea in. There's some pieces in the book where I tried to play with the visual aspects to accompany the theme of the piece. There's the "Pickle with the Peppermint Stick" poem, I meant it to try to look as close to a pickle as I can.
RTC: As someone that works with young poets, I think our first entry into poetry, American kids are introduced to poetry through Dr. Seuss and a poem is something that rhymes. You working with young kids and being a poet yourself, where do you see rhyme's place? A lot of it is absent in your work. What is the purpose of that device?
Kevin Coval: The Rhyme is the way we first recorded history. You had the oral poetic before we became various kinds of literate generations and cultures, we remembered our stories through rhyme, through song. Rhyme has a giant place in the course of even crafting the poetic, of crafting the literature, of crafting the history. I came to poetry through rhyme. Both the Dr. Seuss books, and even the notion of what a poem was came to me via KRS-ONE, Chuck D, Big Daddy Kane. Those play a giant importance in my life. I think I rhyme, but it's not necessarily A-A, A-B. It's more inside of the syllable. Similar to how Mrs. Brooks delighted in each syllabic note, I'm also trying to invest in the sonic quality of what language can do.
RTC: When you have kids coming to Young Chicago Authors do you see any similarities or notice any common threads no matter the author or perspective, someone's first poem follows a certain form?
Kevin Coval: All the time. All the time. You find people have some unfortunate ideas about what poetry is, some unfortunate ideas of what Hip Hop is. Because the way particularly poetry has been taught in our public education system, it really tries to kill the desire to even like poetry. I think in part it's intentional. A poetic imagination throws open the world in a way that the confines of how we are pre-scripted, it limits our imagination. The poetic imagination is ultimately the artistic imagination, which is vast. I think that truthfully kind of scares educators who are essentially trying to move people towards literally run of the mill service sector jobs. Once you begin to unleash that radical or artistic imagination, you're gonna have a different type of person. I think that's the work that we certainly try to do at YCA - throw open all conventions and not limit the one person's own idea of what they can be. There's no limitations of what a poem can be. I think part of the idea of poetry, the way it's taught typically and I think we're changing this over the last 17 years of Louder Than A Bomb, the last 25 years of Young Chicago Authors and last 40 years of Hip Hop cultural practices is to say that the poem can be much broader. Which is what Ms. Brooks said, it can be about the material that is found in your everyday. Q-Tip said, "street poetry is my everyday," but Ms. Brooks said my material is found in the street, long before Hip Hop. Those are the ideas that we try to share with young writers.
RTC: When you're writing this book, or any of your books, are the students anywhere in your mind like, 'they are going to read this.'?
Kevin Coval: Oh yeah. That's my audience. One, I think if it works with them, it works with anybody. I think they are the slickest and most critical readers. Young people have a giant bullshit detector that goes a long way, and if you come whack with them, they will let you know. I think this book in particular, probably like a lot of my books but even more so, I wrote with an audience in mind that was high school and college English and history students. Trying to give them a book that might propel them into learning something that they are concerned with. Hip Hop sent me to the library, and I think the intention is to produce texts that do that for other people. To set people hopefully in a moment of intrigue or a moment of passion into finding out more about where they come from and who they are.
RTC: With the Louder Than A Bomb happening right now, I'm guessing the poems are where kids are expressing themselves and addressing topics that they don't get to normally talk about. So you are able to have a keen insight into how current events are effecting these kids. Are there any common threads or insights you've gained about how they process what's happening with Donald Trump, the out of hand violence in Chicago, even pop culture stuff.
Kevin Coval: All of those things. And you've been at the festival. You know through your work as an artist, as a curator, through Closed Sessions, Hip Hop cultural practice continues to do the work that Chuck D talks about - being the Black CNN. We hear first hand narratives of the conditions of communities that are typically kept out of the dominant discourse in some ways. Or if they are, they are only there as statistics. They are only there as these off-handed comments of the particular criminality of a neighborhood or a people entirely. And so, I think the work of trying to give larger and larger space to young people to tell their story on their own terms is to counter those dominant criminalized and white supremacist narratives about what it's like to be from any neighborhood in the city of Chicago. And that's the reason that we do that community cultural organizing. Trying to be intentional about being in every zip code, being in every neighborhood and bringing people into a center space where they can meet one another, they can hear one another, and they can speak to a larger and larger audience.
RTC: I'm going to come back to some of that stuff, but I want to talk about the book. Some of the poems where I felt the most personal connection were about the Jewish Immigrants. Maxwell Street is something that I've been to a lot. It's not the same now, but my dad grew up on Division and Rockwell, born in 1937, his family owned a small grocery store. His brother and sister moved to the Wilmette, Deerfield area. He stayed in the city and chose to raise a family in Hyde Park. The Jewish flight idea you talk about in the book, I had a lot of Jewish people that grew up with me and were people that chose actively against that option.
Kevin Coval: Yes. Right. Which is another story all together.
RTC: "Pickle with a Peppermint Stick" hit me - we would be driving down 55th street, you see some of the old Jewish Synagogues there. We're going to Manny's and the Jewish culture aspects were big to my family. When you have the metaphor of the pickle and then the pickle's place on the southside at one-time. With synagogues you think of the dill kosher pickle, eat it with a corned beef sandwich, put it on the Chicago hot dog. Then transforming as time goes on. My friends growing up had the pickle that comes in the plastic pouch, and is really sour. You use that as a metaphor to describe the southside. I don't know where my question is in all this. I'm hoping you can find it...
Kevin Coval: You're right, it's about the changing neighborhoods and the incredibly complex relationships that new immigrant groups, new migrants groups have to the city, to any ubran space. It's a story that of course is specific to Chicago, but is not unique to Chicago. Other immigrant groups, there's always a tension and a scrapping against when a new migrant or immigrant group is forced in or comes into a new neighborhood. Part of the story of Chicago, of course, is also the story of white flight, of ethnic white groups leaving certain neighborhoods or abandoning certain neighborhoods and what that has meant for socio-economic relations, for racial relations, and of course being Jewish as well. I remember hearing the great Chicago Historian Timuel Black writes about Hyde Park and a lot of the southside area communities being formally Jewish. He was the one who really first hipped me to that. If you look up closely at a building, you'll see the Jewish Star in the brick of a church.
RTC: Or a mosque.
Kevin Coval: Right, right. That really speaks to how fluid some of these neighborhoods are and some of American History is. I think that's a story that is, I think probably in some ways unique in an American narrative, in a Chicago narrative. The pickle of course is something that I also associate with own cultural and ethnic background and then I remember seeing the innovations of the pickle and being like, 'wow, that's wild. And kind of oddly delicious."
RTC: The bagged pickle... you showed up to school with one of those, and - someone was looking out for you... Something I got into as a little kid unknowingly and definitely when I got to IU, was the study of sociology. For me, it wasn't so much learning something new. They were giving me the tools to talk about things I had been seeing, but didn't know "this is called social stratification." This is why this is happening. Something interesting to me is the relationship between the American Jewish community and the Black community. I think it is a different perspective if you grew up in the suburbs cause your family left, or you're family chose to stay and you're part of this Jewish community over here. I never knew it wasn't the same, when I would meet Jewish kids from the suburbs or other states, they did not have the same real views, relationships, connections I had. As a young kid I just thought it was always like, cool, between Black and Jewish people. But it was not.
Kevin Coval: No. A few things. One, that's part of the reason why over the course of the year I want to do the work of essentially helping to gather a larger archive of people's voices of people's history of Chicago, which is also a Howard Zinn educational project. Howard Zinn's A People's History of The United States -
RTC: Informed your book.
Kevin Coval: Yeah, and my whole life and everything. And not just mine, but generations of thinkers and intellectuals and progressives. But also the educational project, The Voice of A People's History of the United States of America. I also want to try to do that in Chicago, which is this gathering of stories. I have 77 poems in the book and there are giant gaps and my perspective is one. I believe in the perspective of the many. Even that experience where - my family moved to the suburbs. My family had that experience of White Flight. I would say a disruption of a Civil Rights Era coalition between Black Communities and Jewish Communities. I've been very influenced by the work of James Baldwin as well. Part of my last book, Schtick, was about an assimilation into American whiteness for a Jewish community that probably prior to coming to the shores of this country were considered very much other. And for a very long time even in this community, in this city, and in this country were other. Once we as a people began to, one, rise on socioeconomic ladder of this country and also began to betray these working class solidarities. We have this foray into Whiteness that ultimately I think betrays who we are as a people. Betrays a lot of our spiritual and religious beliefs, and certainly betrays some of the roles that we've played in struggles for justice in the course of this country.
RTC: We could spend another few hours just talking about that.
Kevin Coval: Jew Podcast, sub conversation.... Part of what you're saying and I believe this, of course the story is not monolithic. Your experience is very different from my own. They're both valid, and they both deserve space and weight. And are also just interesting and speak to the complexity of any 1 story and countering the notion that there is only 1 story. There are many stories and multiple perspectives and they can all be true. That's the difficulty of history.
RTC: Are these mainly your experiences? We're taught that history is objective. These are just the facts. We're taught, "This is history." But, that's not totally true. What was your approach to this idea of "History"?
Kevin Coval: And that is a myth. The myth of objectivity. That anybody can be objective. And who says that the most are people who have some sort of investment in maintaining certain power structures. If you have the idea that history is objective and these are just facts, that was the power of not only Howard Zinn, but Lerone Bennett Jr, Timuel Black, Studs Terkel, Ida B. Wells, people who also countered the historical record in order to make it more inclusive and to say, Columbus did not discover America. That's not a fact. Actually it is travesty, it's a series of lies that has everything to do with the maintenance of this imperialistic power. One, history is not objective, obviously. I told stories that I found interesting and also useful. Most of these stories are not my own. I'm in the book, certainly. And they are all from my perspective. There is a persona poem that is in the voice of one other person. It's all my work, and obviously my gaze into the history of the city is limited. Which is also part of the reason why its called A People's History, not The People's History. And also why part of the plan is to do a series of workshops, which begins this archive of a voice of A People's History that will live, hopefully in perpetuity.
And it's to counter the dominant notion of what should be told. Part of what I wanted to do was to arm teachers with this book inside of a classroom in order to have a more robust conversation about some of the social dynamics, and racial dynamics, socioeconomic conditions that surround young people right now. Some of the stories are my own biography, but very few of those. Most of it I wanted to champion the struggles of working people. And show over the course of time, working people have fought and won against these almost intolerable conditions, but conditions that also seemed insurmountable. Despite those circumstances, working people have also put themselves, their livelihood on the line in order for a better place for their communities and their children.
RTC: You have a poem here about the White Sox Disco Demolition Night. You also have a poem about the Cubs winning the World Series and the destruction that took place around both of these events. People ask, are you a Cubs or Sox fan? It's much deeper than what actual baseball team you like. Did you gain any insight in the differences?
Kevin Coval: That's a big question. There's a poem in the book prior to the one about the Cubs winning the World Series, which is about the Sox winning the World Series, which I edited from the book, but I was with my dad in a bar on the Northside watching the last game when there was that grounder to third, and I know Jermaine Dye had a big hit that game, maybe it was a homer or something like that. It tells the story of being on the Northside, and my dad's been a Cubs fan since 1933. And he turned to me as the Sox were poised win and said, 'you know, as long as they have Chicago written across their chest, I'm going to root for them.' That is an uncommon opinion in the city. But I also think it speaks to the necessity in some ways to build these working-class solidarities across boundaries that would normally keep us apart. Because ultimately one of things I find as a thematic point across the book, what terrifies the power structure the most are these inter-racial, inter-class solidarities. When working people get together, that is the most horrifying idea that the power structure has. We would have a different mayor and a president if people, black, brown, and working white people voted in their class interest as opposed to white people's fictive racial solidarity. We saw this in the election of Harold Washington, which produced a grassroots campaign that Barack Obama enacted to become president as well. That organizing strategy is based off of the Rainbow Coalition that Fred Hampton employed. Chairman Fred Hampton was assassinated by the Federal Government and Chicago Police Department, worked with the Young Lords, a similar organization to the Black Panthers and also a group of progressive whites to build the Rainbow Coalition. That language was later co-opted by Jesse Jackson and others. But that organizing strategy that also goes back to the days of Saul Alinsky organizing people in religious institutions. When working people in Chicago, or anywhere really, come together great change is possible.
RTC: I wanted to ask you something totally off-topic. I remember first meeting you and trying to get in touch with KRS-ONE so he would write an intro to your book. Way back... What is the music that you're still most a fan of? Why KRS-One or Chuck D, what was it about them and is that still your go to?
Kevin Coval: I listen to a lot of Kweku Collins. Those are facts. I like a lot of the music you guys put out. I think one of the things that Hip Hop demands is that you stay in-tune with what's happening in this moment of vanguard and cutting edge culture making, that young people continue to produce. Combat Jack talks about the divisions between Hip Hop conservatives and Hip Hop progressives. I'm definitely a Hip Hop progressive. I believe that right now is probably the best moment in the history of the culture. Now that might be contentious, but I think if you see the impact that the aesthetic and the spirit of Hip Hop is having outside of the genre, outside of even the artistic genre, you see young people that are implementing the strategies of community organizing and political work that I think have everything to do with what they've gleaned from Hip Hop cultural practice.... And Yes. Yesterday in the gym I was listening to Edutainment, and I was listening to Lil' Yachty.
RTC: I was going to ask you about Lil' Yachty. I know Pete Rock had a big problem. I'm not sure if you saw, there was a Complex event and they had Raekwon, Scraface, Vince Staples, Angie Martinez and Pete Rock talking about "mumble Rap". I think Pete Rock by the end had changed and decided, "we have to open up and teach." It's not that they had the problem with the music, it was kind of like they perceived an attitude and a mentality, they took offense to 'we don't need to know who DJ Premier is, we don't need to know Biggie songs. It has no impact.' As someone teaching youth, and who just wrote a history book -
Kevin Coval: It's part of our positionality as an educator. It's part of our job, to connect dots that we might see, we might know exists, but not everyone is in the process or practice of connecting those dots. We have a certain kind of historic amnesia that marks American history. I think it's endemic of whiteness. We choose intentionally not to remember how some of things have happened because they would only speak to white people's role in the maintenance of terror. What that means of larger American cultural practice, of which now Hip Hop is certainly part of the mainstream and the dominant cultural tropes that they also now adopt or have adopted some of these bad and tragic habits of popular culture or dominant culture. Do I think Lil Yachty or whoever must know who DJ Premier is? No. Do I think that there is a missed opportunity in the course of that young person's education? Certainly. I that's certainly part of my role as an educator. And I would argue that a lot of the young people who we've been able to - yourself included - foster a relationship with in this city, I think are a little more versed in the traditions at which they are also participating.
RTC: I don't think it was like, I don't feel like anyone has to know anyone else. I feel like Pete Rock seemed not as much mad, as he was hurt that someone wouldn't want to know DJ Premier. It was like he took it personally, "what?! You don't want to know who Biggie is?!' That's where I think it hit him.
Kevin Coval: There's a certain Hubris being a young person and trying to figure out one's way in the world. I think you inevitably throw off the yolk of your elders in some ways. It's not out of even the need or the desire, but the feeling that you have to be your own person. I think young people also, who knows, 10 years from now will Lil' Yachty know or revere DJ Premier, I think it's like an attitude toward the necessity to do anything. Part of being a young person is finding the next levels of freedom. I think there's something to be said for that too. I think that's part of the reason why we probably need more historians and more critics, more people to connect some of the dots. When I heard so-called "Mumble Rap" to me sounds in the traditions, sounds like the blues. I think I had that experience around Desiigner's "Timmy Turner". Some people had adverse reactions to that, but I thought it was first of all one of the most beautiful and tragic songs I'd heard in that moment, and certainly felt so much like the blues. Young people will stay inventing culture. As older people we should not be weary of that, we should embrace that.
RTC: Quickly, ketchup or no ketchup on a hot dog?
Kevin Coval: Never.
RTC: Never. Thank you, Kevin. That was a test. I should have
Kevin: Why would you even ask. Shout out to celery salt.
RTC: Do you have a favorite pizza? Where are you on the deep dish?
Kevin: I don't like Deep Dish. This is an unpopular opinion. First of all, I don't like Deep Dish. I think that is something that says a lot about our midwesterness. It's probably like a cheese quiche. The best Deep Dish is Lou Mal's (Lou Malnati's). The Spinach mushroom joint.
RTC: You're not a Giordano's fan.
Kevin Coval: Nah. Lou Mal's over Giordano's.
RTC: Edwardo's is really bad.
Kevin Coval: Edwardo's is really bad, yeah.
RTC: In Hyde Park there's The Medici and then a few doors down there was Edwardo's. Medici is the shit. On the days the Medici line was too long, or you only had the $1, you had to downgrade and get Edwardo's.
Kevin Coval: As unpopular as this is, I think New York does a few things better than Chicago -
RTC: Don't tell me...
Kevin Coval: They do a few things better. One is the pizza. The New York slice is superior to the Chicago pie. It's a food that's meant to be consumed in transit. So, I like walking with a slice in New York. I like that you can get pesticide free tomatoes at 3 o'clock in the morning, and also, integration. They do these things probably better than Chicago.
RTC: They're killing us with the deli-grocery store.
Kevin Coval: They're crushing. You also get flowers, bring somebody a bouquet of tulips at 2am. That's clutch.
RTC: When I used to interview artists and ask if they had a favorite song on the album, they would say, "I like them all." Or they would have a favorite song at the moment. Have you been re-reading the book, do you have a favorite poem?
Kevin Coval: I have to start to figure that out. Once I have the book and start to go around and the support for the book.
RTC: You have a rigorous reading schedule.
Kevin Coval: I really love the last poem in the book, the love letter to Chicago. I think in some ways that's most me and the most emotional. There's a lot of joints in there that I really love. I'm excited to share all of them with everybody. Inside of the book, I don't know. There's some stuff I'm really enjoying reading when I start to do that... I feel there's some that I feel particularly sentimental about. There's a poem in there about Haki Madhubuti and the story he told me is essentially about his name. That is the story I told. I haven't seen that story elsewhere, and it was transmitted so intimately that I feel it's emotional for me in some ways to also share it. I got the call yesterday from him that he spent some time with the book and loved it, and was honored by the poem. There's things like that where there are personal relationships with some of the pieces and the people in the book in a way, even the "Molemen Beat Tape", when we speak of the history of Hip Hop in Chicago, it's a generation that I think really created this moment.
RTC: Definitely. Molemen, and Nacrobats.
Kevin Coval: And Rubber Room, and so many of that era, which is the era I was a young person in going to their shows and seeking out their cassette tapes, and seeing them perform in smaller spaces and the Chicago Rocks events as the Metro. Those were folks who I really admired and I think in part also created, not only the lane for this generation of Chicago Hip Hop, but I would argue even the cultural spaces that I admired and wanted to be a part of so often as a young person. We try to incorporate that kind of inclusiveness and freshness in the cultural spaces we try to build at Young Chicago Authors and Louder Than A Bomb.
Kevin Coval's A People's History of Chicago is available now via Haymarket Books.