Kevin Coval, Chicago & the Poet-Rapper Connection

For this first poet profile of National Poetry Month, I’ll be boosting awareness of someone close to home, Kevin Coval and his latest poetry book, A People’s History of Chicago. Coval is a Chicago area poet and community builder, going out and teaching people the power of expression through poetry. In walking the beat, so to speak, for his work, he’s learned the feeling of Chicago inside and out, which made him capable of producing quite a comprehensive history in his book.

Coval turns out pieces on every notable Chicago figure from the city’s founder, Jean Baptiste Point Du Sable to Kanye West to the Daley dynasty, looking at the history of corruption, the African American culture of the city resisting erasure and the moments of the city that are beautiful for horrible and/or wonderful reasons. The printed words on the paper seem to be spat out with poetry slam energy, a very contagious passion. This energy explains why the book has a forward from Chance the Rapper, a Chicago native himself, for those of you who don’t know. Coval’s work, especially in this exploration of urban Chicago life is an excellent example of the many ways poetry and rap can be kindred spirits.

I sometimes joke that poetry and rap are nothing alike because you can actually make money as a rapper. Fans of rap are always quick to correct me, to declare that rap and poetry are close siblings in the world of words. Well, if you’re stubborn and financially irresponsible enough to want to call yourself a poet, then you’ve really fulfilled the most important part of actually being a poet, caring more about your words and message than practical things like money and your parents being proud of you. So yes, by my personal estimation, rappers are poets, but it becomes even more apparent in practice.

Substantive rappers such as Chance himself, who says Coval taught him “what it meant to be a poet,” create work I couldn’t readily separate from the modern, quick on it’s linguistic foot work poets like Coval make. Often, on further ends of the spectrum, people see rappers only going on about pouring champagne onto stripper booties and poets who only dole out  dreamy spaced-out, cryptic phrases that no one understands. Those polar opposite stereotypes make it seem like the genres should be totally opposed, and yes some types of poetry and rap are very dissimilar, but Coval and artists like Chance the Rapper are artists who use the force of what their medium does to their words to create images and stories what they’ve seen and put some power into their frank, open discussion about issues inherent in their critically undervalued environment and experience.

Coval’s work shows he feels rapper musicians and straight up poets are equally deserving of praise and a part in his People’s History, including both Chief Keef and Gwendolyn Brooks. Where other people might think to raise one of these characters above the other, view them as distinct, different, Coval honors them both in his poetry, showing how they all are playing a part in the same game, a part in keeping the African American community in Chicago alive.

For National Poetry Month, I really hope you guys will check out a seriously talented poet who knows how to write about a city that’s near to my heart. Reading Coval will teach you about the city of Chicago and the power of poetic style in confronting a gritty, urban life, and you get to simply enjoy reading some truly engaging poetry.


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