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Hip-Hop Poet Kevin Coval Is Charting 'A People's History' Of The City

By Stephen Gossett in Arts & Entertainment on Mar 3, 2017 3:11PM

Kevin Coval / Facebook

In history, there is the official narrative; and there is the parallel, underreported version of events. There’s the Great Man interpretation of our collective past; and there’s the view from the grassroots.

There’s little doubt as to whether Kevin Coval—poet, educator, tireless custodian of the arts for Chicago youth—prefers the former or the latter. Coval’s upcoming book of poetry, A People’s History of Chicago (Haymarket Books, April 11), doubles as an alternate chronology of the city he calls home, “a history book of prose,” as he calls it.

Extending from the city’s early origins to present day, the collection runs the gamut on events and figures major and should-be-major throughout the city’s 180-plus-year timeline: Jean Baptiste Point duSable, footwork, the Great Migration, the teachers’ strike, the Division St. riots, Studs Terkel, Rudy Lozano, King Louie and on. And the familiar watershed moments and characters that do populate Coval’s history always face a gimlet eye. (In “I Wasn’t in Grant Park when obama Was Elected,” the future president is no contest for the marginalized kids of a Chicago open mic in terms of commanding the author’s rapt attention.)

As you can probably discern from the above list and the Howard Zinn title reference, the book is animated by a twin desire to celebrate the contributions of working people and the endless cultural stamina of Chicago’s minority communities.

“Especially in this moment where working people are so divided, we can look at the history of the city and see where people come across boundaries that typically separate and segregate them. Working people have these tremendous victories that have reverberations not only throughout Chicago but the rest of the country,” Coval told Chicagoist.

Similarly, Coval’s work finds endless inspiration from—and dialogue with—the cultural legacy of people of color in the city. “Young people, particularly young black and brown people in Chicago, continue to innovate the best kind of American culture—so whether it be jump blues or house or hip-hop or graffiti art or the black arts movement or the tradition of Chicago street muralism,” he said.

It’s a tradition Coval himself has worked doggedly to nurture, as longtime artistic director of Young Chicago Authors and the founder of the Louder Than a Bomb spoken-word competition. Through YCA, he and a close-knit community of collaborators have helped nurture some of the most standout voices to emerge from Chicago (or anywhere) in recent years, with Chance the Rapper being only the tip of the iceberg. (Chance provides the moving forward for the collection.)

So it should come as no surprise that Coval hopes A People’s History will resonate particularly with youth, even though anyone of an open mind should find it plenty compelling. Coval wants his poetry “to do what hip-hop did for me, which was [make me] run to the library and record crate, digging into things I was excited to learn more about.”

Coval kicks off that mission with a free book launch party on Saturday. March 4 at Harold Washington Library (5 p.m.). The stacked lineup also includes Jamila Woods, rapper Mick Jenkins and footwork crew The Era, among others. It’s the first stop in an ambitious local reading tour that includes stops in each of Chicago’s 77 neighborhoods. “This will be an incredible opportunity to build with communities in a different way than I’ve had the opportunity before,” he said.