The first time I saw Kevin Coval read, I thought he was black.
It was the fall of 2015, and I was sitting at the back of a dim Art Institute auditorium. Onstage, Coval had just joined a jazz sextet led by drummer Mike Reed. They were performing a suite of music and poetry inspired by Reed’s violent 2009 run-in with neo-Nazis. Coval’s flat-brimmed cap was pulled low over his thick-framed glasses, his crisp oxford shirt buttoned up to his throat. He read in a pit-deep register, half pastor, half rapper, punctuating each line with a jab of his index finger.
original is myth. nothing
comes from one. truth is, we’re mixed.
the whole of history/herstory
a miscegenation. a confluence
I had come with my own assumption. Surely the cofounder of the nation’s largest youth poetry slam, Louder Than a Bomb, and the mentor to a new generation of hip-hop artists—including Chance the Rapper, Noname, and Saba—would be black.
how can i say one, when there is
the mother and father, when there’s
europe and Africa,
when there’s Africa over everything
As the music sped up, Coval’s delivery shifted from coffeehouse slam to rap-metal verse. Complete thoughts turned to sputtered rhymes as he cranked up the volume to a full-blown holler. The band careened into dissonance, and Coval’s poem ended abruptly, as though it had collapsed onto itself. He backed away from the microphone, his temple catching the light. The face of hip-hop poetry in Chicago, I realized, is white.
Coval’s Albany Park apartment is a shrine to all he holds sacred. In a would-be dining room, a large table shares space with two turntables (one broken) and 10 crates of frayed LPs. Canvases by local street artists cover every good inch of wall, with a line of two dozen sneakers stacked along the edge of the room. Toward the back of the apartment, Coval has converted a spare bedroom into a makeshift walk-in closet, filled with racks of sweatshirts, jackets, and both fitted and snapback caps. “It’s messy right now,” he explains, straddling the line between monastic and macho in his socks and Nike sandals. “I’m in the midst of swapping this room and my guest room.”
As if on cue, Kamaria Woods, the 20-year-old poet and younger sister of rising-star singer Jamila Woods, peels out of the next room.
“You good?” asks Coval. “Going to rehearsal?”
“Yeah, I had one this morning, too.”
“Oh, wow. ’Bout it, ’bout it.”
Coval keeps the spare room for a rotating cast of local artists. Activist and poet Malcolm London and the spoken-word poet E’mon Lauren Black have both stayed with Coval for stretches at a time. It’s a penchant Coval picked up from his late aunt, Joyce Sloane, a Second City producer who hosted a number of transient comics. “I’ve been homeless before and needed mentors or mentees or a girl to put me in a bed,” Coval says. “I know how that is.”
At 42, Coval is the most visible cog in the city’s flourishing spoken-word scene. Over the past 16 years, he’s helped build Louder Than a Bomb from a one-off poetry slam into a five-week, 1,000-student tournament that has fostered some of Chicago’s most dynamic talent. He’s written a play and four books of poems and coedited an anthology that chronicles poetry in the hip-hop age—all of them challenging the traditional Western canon. His latest book, A People’s History of Chicago, out April 11, tackles a similar theme, with 77 poems about narratives Coval perceives as undersold by history, from Chicago settler Jean Baptiste Point DuSable to the drill rapper Chief Keef.
“He’s always had an eye not just for the kids who are talented but who are really on fire for the work,” Nate Marshall, a former Louder Than a Bomb champ and now an award-winning poet, says of Coval. “To have him tell me, ‘Man, Marshall, you can write poetry,’ was like, Oh shit, somebody give me the Pulitzer immediately.”
But long before Coval was Chicago’s prince of poetry, he was a volatile teen rebelling against his North Shore surroundings. Born in Lake View, he moved, during elementary school, with his family to Northbrook in 1978. His parents divorced a few years later. His father, a restaurant manager, moved away, and his mother, a sales rep at the Apparel Center downtown, struggled with a cocaine addiction. “It began to affect how she would parent,” says Coval. She finally quit after her father threatened to take the kids away. Still, with their mom working, Coval and his younger brother, Eric, largely fended for themselves after school. “We’d invent little sports games, boost shit from comic book stores. Thank God we got into music.”
When Coval describes his introduction to hip-hop, he goes wide-eyed. His first profound experience with it came at age 8, when he heard Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message.” Coval saw his own family’s story reflected in the song’s description of a blue-collar Bronx neighborhood. “My parents were workers, and I think they were sold this American dream that ultimately failed them,” he says. “I began to develop some sense that there is the main narrative—the rules—and then there is what actually is.”
Coval started to take cues from the music: He confronted his rabbi with “Why Is That?,” in which KRS-One portrays Abraham and Moses as black. And after watching Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, he skewered a history teacher for not having any black portraits on the classroom walls. (His loud indignation earned him a trip to the principal’s office.) “Hip-hop made my whiteness visible to me in a way that isn’t always the case for white people,” he says. “I started to treat the education space like a battleground. My teachers were like, ‘You’re not that smart, and you’re definitely not as smart as you think you are.’ But I learned there’s a power in saying shit that people don’t want to hear.”
But Coval does recall a sole high school teacher who put up with his militancy. “He led me to believe that I was not a complete asshole. He was the only one. Even my parents were concerned about my growing and misdirected black nationalist ideology. I wanted to be a Black Panther at 16. I really did.”
Coval’s appearance transformed, too, as he embraced hip-hop culture. Soon he was never without his oversize House of Pain metal chain. And for his senior prom, he asked a Northbrook barber to shave a peace sign into his hair (the barber botched the job, and it wound up looking more like a Mercedes insignia). “My friends would ask, ‘Why does he wear an X cap?’ ” recalls his brother. “Listening to hip-hop, we were hearing about people’s lives who weren’t in our history books, and it really angered him. I remember him punching a hole in the wall of our house.”
Though Coval played on the Glenbrook North basketball team, coming off the bench for a squad that starred current Northwestern coach Chris Collins, he spent most of his free time in the local library’s African American literature stacks. There he found Dudley Randall’s The Black Poets, which sparked his interest in the form. He started taking the train into Wicker Park to hang around record shops and African bookstores and attend performances by hip-hop pioneers such as Jesse De La Pena and the Funky Wordsmyths. “In those early days, there weren’t many white folks in Chicago who weren’t scared of hip-hop,” says Quraysh Ali Lansana, a poet and a lecturer at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, who was a member of the Wordsmyths at the time. “I’d be at a show, and Kevin would quite literally be the only white dude in the room.”
After high school, Coval left Chicago for Ohio University. The summer after his freshman year, he took an internship with Senator Carol Moseley Braun in Washington, D.C. “The internship was wack,” Coval says. So he felt justified cutting out early to read by the Potomac and try his hand at writing poetry. His junior year, he decided to study abroad at Swansea University in Wales, but dropped out after four days. “I took an American studies class, and they were teaching about the Vietnam War, and it was, like, all imperialist. I’m like, ‘Nah, I can’t with y’all.’ ” He stayed in Wales for a year, making ends meet by peddling drugs and playing in a semipro basketball league.
Coval returned to Chicago in 1996, working a variety of jobs—as a furniture deliveryman, caterer, and waiter—to pay the rent on his Wicker Park apartment. All the while, he wrote poetry, honing his unadorned Algren-cum-Chuck D style, and started performing at open mics around the city.
Coval got his first taste of teaching when Eboo Patel, then a Wicker Park hippie and later a Barack Obama confidant, asked him to lead a workshop for his students at the alternative high school El Cuarto Año in Humboldt Park. “It was a few weeks after the Fugees’ second record had come out,” says Coval. “We basically had a conversation about the language on the record.” Soon, Coval was a regular in the network of the city’s alternative public schools and had developed a personal pedagogy: Everybody has a story worth telling.
But he faced criticism about whether the story he was telling was his own. Lansana recalls bringing a class of mostly black students to one of Coval’s readings. “Many of them felt he was not authentic,” he says. “Not because of his lack of melanin, but because he was trying too hard—overcompensating for the whiteness by being a little too black.” (Coval once appeared on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam wearing an African kufi and a T-shirt reading “Prisons: America’s Finest Slave Plantations.”)
If you ask Coval, though, he’ll say he’s gotten more pushback from the white community than the black. “White people have the most difficulty with understanding how I am. It has always been an issue. I think in communities of color, I’ve been received very well because of how I approach the space.”
That was certainly true in the classroom. Coval’s connection with students was clear from the start, and he fast became an in-demand teacher. In 1999, Bob Boone, the founder of Young Chicago Authors, tapped him to lead workshops put on by his West Side nonprofit. “We were doing classes with a thousand kids across the city,” says Coval. Only one problem: “They weren’t hearing each other’s stories.”
To remedy that, two years later, Coval and his fellow YCA instructors—including Anna West, Tara Betts, and Avery R. Young—created a citywide poetry slam. They took the name Louder Than a Bomb from a Public Enemy song. At the first event, four teams from four corners of the city competed. Now, 16 years later, Louder Than a Bomb is the biggest slam of its kind in the country.
But the event’s meteoric rise led to resentment among some YCA staff members. When potential donors came calling, it seemed like they only wanted to talk to Coval. It was the same with the media. Recalls Betts: “Anna would bust her hump to do all this work, and reporters would be like, ‘OK, can we talk to Kevin?’ I said to him, ‘Do you realize people will gravitate toward you because you’re a white man?’ ”
As Coval ascended within the organization, Betts, for one, felt brushed aside. And the ramifications concerned her. “I was saying it from the beginning: Do we really want a white man to be the face of all of this?”
What is undeniable is that Coval has helped make a name for Young Chicago Authors in a major way. Since he got involved (he has been the artistic director, first unofficially, then officially since 2011), YCA has grown to 10,000 students across the country. And Louder Than a Bomb has become such a phenomenon that in 2008 a camera crew followed four teams as they prepared for the tournament and turned the material into an award-winning documentary. The organization now counts Helen Zell and Alec Baldwin among its fans (both have given sizable donations), and the list of graduates reads like a who’s who of the Chicago hip-hop and poetry scenes.
As for the rub with Coval, Eve Ewing, a sociologist at the University of Chicago and a YCA alum, puts it this way: “There are times I wish Kevin would be more self-critical. But at the end of the day, he invites people into the room. When I was 20 and broke, he offered me grocery money. Those things are hard to let go of.”
Ask Coval to reconcile being a hip-hop poet with being white, and you’ll get a thesis abstract: “I think there’s a line between what’s appropriate and what’s appropriation. But I think this is a form that has been created by a lot of people, that is intentionally open, and is ultimately about an authentic voice that all people are wrestling with and striving toward.”
With Coval, it’s sometimes easiest to just go to the work, like his 2011 poem “what the whiteboy wants”:
the whiteboy wants
to be liked
wants not to be
the whiteboy wants
to be dug, felt, thought of
the whiteboy wants
On an early Tuesday evening in late January, four days after the presidential inauguration, 100 teenagers pack YCA’s second-floor performance space in a converted shotgun apartment in Noble Square for WordPlay, the organization’s flagship workshop and open-mic night. Coval walks among the students as they finish a 10-minute freewriting exercise spurred by a lesson on turning everyday prayers into poetry.
At the front of the room, a DJ spins a tune from A Charlie Brown Christmas mashed with hip-hop drums. The words “Young Chicago Authors” hang in graffiti lettering on a brick wall. “You guys are doing great,” says Coval. “Really go in. Think about how you hear prayers in the real world. Be as specific as you can in the situation that you’re talking about.”
When the freewriting ends, Coval lets the teens take turns up front, where they read, rap, and sing their pieces. He stays mostly expressionless, save for the bob of his head and an occasional involuntary grin. A young man reads a piece about getting pulled over without a license. One young woman exorcises herself of a past abuser. Another prefaces her piece by saying, “This is lame as fuck,” then rips through a riveting 60-second prayer for her newborn.
Coval chimes in. “I’ll say this: I’m a little mad at you because you told us that was gonna be wack, and then you wrote hot shit.” The room explodes in cheers. “We don’t gotta give that preamble,” continues Coval. “Just read the fire.”
That’s all the white boy wants.