By Michael Volpe
When Kevin Coval and I attended Glenbrook North in the early 1990s, two cars were exceedingly popular among students: the Chevy Blazer SUV and the Toyota Celica. In fact, a license plate on one of those shiny red Celicas back then summed up life at high school in Northbrook pretty well: “THNKUDAD.” Though alumni of Glenbrook North include late filmmaker John Hughes, former Cub Scott Sanderson and former WFLD reporter Lilia Chacon, most graduates wind up in a boardroom or courtroom or on a trading floor.
Nobody expected Kevin Coval to end up on stage, especially as a hip-hop artist. After all, hip-hop was born and bred in the inner city, where violence, poverty and misery created a tempestuous story line for many of its most successful artists. The closest thing to violence in Northbrook usually happened on the straightaway from that infamous scene in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” when Matthew Broderick, pretending to be his girlfriend Sloane’s dad, picks her up in his friend Cameron’s dad’s car. At GBN, as the natives call it, all the light poles are on the right side of the street except one. As the straightaway turns into a curve, though, there’s one pole on the left. Those slick Blazers and Celicas that got going too fast on the straightaway used to crash into the pole as they cruised around the curve, back when it was on the right side of the street. If things really got crazy in Northbrook, teenagers might find a fake ID, get some beer, and head to Gilson Beach to cause havoc. Not exactly thug life. In Northbrook, there aren’t many drive-bys—only drive-thrus. Coval says he was first inspired by hip-hop in the early 1980s. I like to think there was some inspiration from the Business Administration class we all had to take to graduate from GBN. After all, that’s where we learned the value of cornering a niche. Being a white Jewish kid from the uber-wealthy North Shore of Chicago obsessed with hip-hop is a niche of one.
Another John Hughes film, “The Breakfast Club,” is based on Hughes’ own experience of GBN and while everyone likes to make comparisons between their own high-school personas and the characters of the film, the analogies hit closer to home for us. Kevin Coval was akin to Emilio Estevez’ character, Andrew Clark, the popular jock. I was more like Anthony Michael Hall’s painfully nerdy character, Brian Johnson. That might be too kind. The losers would let me hang out with them, but I wasn’t technically even part of that clique. More than anything then I wanted to be popular, just like Andrew Clark, just like Kevin Coval.
After all, Coval was part of a crew that included the biggest big man on campus: Chris Collins (GBN ’92). Collins was GBN’s star basketball player and he had the qualifications to back up that honor off the court, too: his father, Doug Collins, coached the Bulls back then (now he coaches the 76ers). Coval was popular: He played basketball with Collins, coming off the bench when GBN made the sweet sixteen in 1992, and he also came off the bench the next year on the elite eight team that went downstate. He was a part of the singing and dancing troupe Boys of Spartan Spirit (described as “Senior Studs” in our yearbook), and he was a Vice President on the Student Association Board his senior year. He was also a peer group leader his senior year, giving him the trifecta of coolness along with BOSS and the SA Board. Outwardly, Kevin Coval had it all in high school.
An outcast, I dreamed of being a popular athlete like Coval, enjoying the perks of popularity. I was astonished when Coval told me recently, “I was living a double life.” I never knew that underneath the jersey, Coval faced feelings of alienation and isolation.
Coval struggled to understand how he fit in, at GBN, in Northbrook, and in the world. “I believed we were working-class,” he says. That’s an ironic statement, starting with the reality that Northbrook doesn’t really have a working-class population. According to the last census, the median income was just below $100,000, and the average home value was just below $400,000. Second, Coval’s dad, Danny Coval, was one of the original investors and partners in Lettuce Entertain You, Chicago’s now-legendary restaurant conglomerate. Danny Coval says he left the business when it was only eight restaurants—now there are sixty-four—largely because “the culture was growing too corporate.” If he hadn’t gotten out, the older Coval estimates his share would now be worth north of $20 million. Kevin says, “I’d see all this wealth and wonder why they had so much and others didn’t.” In his piece “White,” Kevin writes,
white only CEO’s smoking private jet streams
white presidents in white houses with white walls
white washed on memorial day, pearl gates
around greek columned communities, the american dream
is white flight thru cotton skies
Northbrook is almost all white and wealthy, essentially an exclusive club where your bank account has to be large enough in order to get invited. It doesn’t represent America and, more importantly, it didn’t represent the world Coval wanted to see.
He dreamed of a world like the Doug Collins basketball camp he attended in grade school. There, suburban kids like him would get on the court with inner-city youth. Basketball was the ultimate equalizer. “If you can play, you can play,” he says. On the court, everyone is the same, judged only by their ability.
Starting in junior high, Coval would leave Northbrook and escape to the city, where he would visit the Maxwell Street Market. It was more seductive than the exclusivity of Northbrook. There, he found a world more like the “melting pot” that we’d read America was in social studies class but never seen in Northbrook. People of all races, creeds and classes would gather together buying and selling forgotten treasures. Coval loved soaking in all the different cultures, backgrounds and lifestyles, and it’s a quality that endears him to the Chicago poetry community today. His childhood hero, and the man Coval now calls his mentor, Haki Madhubuti, says Coval is “One of the few white poets that’s comfortable outside of his culture.”
Struggling to understand where he fit in the world outside of Northbrook, Coval reached to hip-hop for comfort. He doesn’t remember exactly why or when he initially took to hip-hop. What he does remember is that he took to it early. His favorite artists made obscure references to black historical figures. Coval says he was so enthralled by the names he heard on hip-hop tracks that he would spend hours alone at the Northbrook Public Library reading books by black icons like Malcolm X, Lerone Bennett Jr., Amiri Baraka and Madhubuti. He also got a glimpse of history that wasn’t being taught at GBN. Here was the popular kid, alone in the library for hours on end, reading up on a history and culture totally foreign to the wealth and stature of Northbrook. One day he says he asked his history teacher, Mr. Rothschild, “Why aren’t there any black people on the wall?” Mr. Rothschild responded, “That’s just the way it is.” Before he knew it, Mr. Rothschild had kicked him out of class. “I was kicked out of history class a lot,” he says. Undeterred, Coval kept pushing against the way things were done. He started writing his history papers in rhyme. “I didn’t get good grades in history class,” he says.
While black historical figures weren’t represented on the wall in his history class, through hip-hop, Coval realized they were still “representing.” Representing has become a clichéd idea in the hip-hop world; in the pinnacle rap battle scene in “8 Mile,” Eminem sings, “everybody from the 313 put your hands up and follow me,” representing his home area code. But representing can mean more than an area code. “Representing means telling your story,” Coval says. This includes everything: your thoughts, your day, your relationships, your view of politics, love, life. It’s your perspective on the world. Coval quotes Gwendolyn Brooks, describing it as “the reality right in front of your nose.” Representing became a place of solace for Coval, who struggled to make sense of the confusion of race, wealth and class that grew increasingly complex as he expanded his worldview.
To Coval, representing is poetry. Coval’s introduction to spoken-word performance happened by accident. One day in 1997, Coval headed to the Alt-X bookstore that used to be located underneath the Starbucks on the corner of North, Damen and Milwaukee. As Coval looked for books by some of his favorite black authors, he noticed a sign for an open-mic spoken-word event later that week. Coval went. And then he went again, and again. For the first several weeks, he sat in the audience watching the performances. He became a regular—the only white regular—at this open mic. Then he got up on stage. From there, he expanded his scope, becoming a regular of the hip-hop community at large in Chicago, regularly performing at spots like Mad Bar and Estelle’s, as well as at poetry slams at Green Mill.
These days, Coval brings all sorts of worlds together through poetry and hip-hop, and the world he’s created looks like the one he first glimpsed at Maxwell Street. He’s developed a following that’s earned the respect of titans like the late author and broadcaster Studs Terkel, poet and activist Baraka, and Madhubuti, whose work he used to read at the library. Rapper and kingpin of the spoken-word-poetry-world Mos Def says Coval “is one of my favorite poets.”
Once he discovered open mics, Coval performed throughout Chicago for the next two years. The hip-hop community is relatively small in Chicago, and he quickly built a reputation. Although he was getting noticed, he wasn’t getting paid. Coval maintained a series of day jobs like waiting tables, driving a truck and delivering pizzas to pay the bills while he honed his craft. Finally, in 1999, a friend of his, Eboo Patel, invited Coval to teach a creative-writing workshop at his school, El Cuarto Año. Coval read a few poems. He took questions and he led the group in a discussion of creative writing. And he got paid. Following the session, Patel suggested that Coval teach creative-writing workshops there regularly. Coval has since taught throughout the city of Chicago, working with kids from tough neighborhoods like Englewood to students at his alma mater, Glenbrook North. Still, he is a poet first, and the relationship between his poetry and his teaching is symbiotic. “Without poetry, there’s nothing else. I begin each class by reading a poem and if the kids don’t like the poem I’ve lost them right away.”
When Coval enters a classroom to teach, he returns to what it was like to be in high school and tries to decipher what will—and won’t—work in reaching the minds of his students. “You have to reach the kids on their level,” he says. He performs a poem about growing up, family, high school, and the city of Chicago—things they can relate to. Then, he has the class members each write a poem about themselves, and the conversation seems to naturally transition to the concept of representing. Coval believes the academic approach to poetry in the classroom largely creates the impression in the mind of students that poetry isn’t for them. “Most poetry classes teach Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost and most kids don’t relate to that, he says, recalling how much he hated his own high-school poetry lessons for just that reason. Coval shares and teaches poetry through concepts young people know and understand so they can realize that poetry is for them, too.
at wood and division
sells beef jerky and sandalwood incense
clorox bleach and brass monkey, Mexican and Polish baked
goods for those forced to flee the neighborhood.
(from his book of poetry, “Everyday People”)
Now that Coval was teaching, he started earning some cash through poetry, but he wasn’t earning enough to make poetry his only profession. He continued to maintain his day jobs until his big break came following a poetry reading at the Museum of Contemporary Art. After the reading, he was approached by representatives of Def Poetry Jam, a spinoff from Def Comedy Jam on HBO. They told Coval they were considering him for part of their next special. Less than six months later, Coval went up on stage at the Supper Club in New York City. The segment was filmed in October of 2001 and broadcast on HBO the following January. He performed his poem, “Family Feud,” both deeply personal and political, in the aftermath of 9/11:
My mother asked if I’ve done anything patriotic these last days
Of white men pointing crooked fingers back at their own conscience
A flag, a ribbon, blood
Nothing have I done different except watch tv
Coval continues, speaking about his father:
My father screams fist through my face
When I mention this new war, AIDS
Right wing rhetoric
And maybe the government is involved in
Ways, know secret books from now
At the end, he more pointedly reaches beyond personal connections to an international community:
My mother is in Arizona
My mother is in Afghanistan
My mother is in Iraq
My mother is in Palestine
I love my mother
Though at times
We don’t find language to share
I defend her right to exist
It was bold and daring, but it worked. “I knew I’d done well because of the standing ovation I got,” he says. Coval would go on to perform three more times on Def Poetry Jam and even serve as its creative consultant, scouting for local talent to include in future shows. Immediately following the first airing, which Coval estimates was viewed by six million people, he got a call from an agent and went on a college tour. Coval reached the holy grail most poets only dream of: He was a full-time professional poet. Coval quit his truck-driving job.
As Coval’s career has grown, the fallout from his willingness to take a stand has increased too—it doesn’t mean getting kicked out of history class anymore. He landed in the center of debate surrounding the Palestine-Israeli conflict when he was invited to the J Street Conference in D.C. in October of 2009. J Street is a recently established lobbying and policy group that aims to speak for “mainstream American Jews” and others who “believe that a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is essential.” Coval and one of his former poetry-slam students, Josh Healey, were to be joined by another poet, Tracy Soren, to perform at the conference. A blogger contacted J Street and informed them that Healey compared Gitmo to a Nazi concentration camp in a poem. (“Guantanamo is Auschwitz,” Healey says in the poem “Queer Intifada.”) Healey responded by arguing that the quote was taken out of context, but the controversy was set in motion. The poetry portion of the program was eventually cancelled.
Coval and Healey performed their set instead at the Washington D.C. restaurant/bookstore Busboys and Poets, during the week they were originally scheduled to perform at J Street. “The room filled with a spectrum of ideas. We read our poems and during the Q&A, no one was shouted down. Not the Israeli army Refusenik, not the liberal Zionist apologist, not the Palestinian student who asked us to include more about the Palestinian people in our poems, not just the land or idea of nation-state, a point beautifully made and incredibly profound. No one shouted down moderator Laila Al-Arian, brilliant journalist and activist, whose father was a Palestinian political prisoner in America, now freed because of his daughter’s persistence. The crowd was cool and civil, though broad in opinion…” Coval wrote in a post for “The Huffington Post.” “I, and the poet I was to read with at the conference, wrote a response to being censored. People from all over the country wrote to us supporting free speech, supporting art as a tool for change, supporting real talk about the degradation of Palestinians, and people wrote to let us know they disagreed. Some more thoughtfully than others,” he wrote.
J Street Executive Director Jeremy Ben-Ami issued a statement at the time that read, in part: “We acknowledge that expression and language are used differently in the arts and artistic expression when compared to their use in political argumentation. Nevertheless, as J Street is critical of the use and abuse of Holocaust imagery and metaphors by politicians and pundits on the right, it would be inappropriate for us to feature poets at our conference whose poetry has used such imagery in the past and might also be offensive to some conference participants.”
It was the second slight in two months. Coval was also uninvited from a conference held by Hillel, the national Jewish college organization, in Georgia. Coval remembers Hillel having problems with a poem he planned to perform, “Burning Books.” Problems between literati and pro-Israel institutions earlier that year heightened the tension—in May of 2009, the Israeli military had closed down the Palestinian Festival of Literature, and Coval says that he had friends scheduled to perform there.
Coval says he sent Hillel his set, including “Burning Books,” months in advance, but they called only days before the event to tell him they were no longer comfortable with him performing the poem. Coval insisted on reading the poem and he was then told he wouldn’t be welcome at the conference. Jeff Rubin, media director for the national Hillel, had no comment for this story.
Coval’s poetry zooms in and out, touching on big issues like the Palestine-Israeli conflict as well as tiny moments in his own life: observations on a typical day, relationships with friends and family, and the city he calls home. Writing about love, family and friendship gains the interest of the audience because everyone can relate. When Coval writes about the Israeli/Palestinian crisis, he breaks a cardinal sin: never talk about politics and religion. When I told some conservative blogging associates of mine I was writing a piece on Coval, many of them were disgusted, calling him an “Anti-Semite” and “despicable.” One demanded that I expose his “morally repugnant” political views. Coval’s rhetoric is fiery and full of forceful metaphors: “Israel, you whore yourself to sleep in the hands of men who will beat you after morning coffee,” he writes. He makes no bones of his political perspective, and it gets a rise out of supporters of Israel. “But when you try to talk about Palestine there is silence. When you talk about the role the United States plays in supporting Israel and its military coffers, there is no room for discourse,” says Coval in response. “If you bring up Palestinians’ right to return to land they were forced out of, or mention that this past January over 1,400 Palestinians, mostly civilian, were killed in Gaza, there is no room to speak in Jewish-centric spaces in this country.” Coval says he considers Edward Said his favorite pundit on the region and he once toured college campuses with Ishmael Khalidi, the son of Palestinian-American historian Rashid Khalidi.
All of this puts Coval at one end of a very emotional issue with roots at the beginning of the Bible and six million deep and painful scars. It’s complicated even further by Coval’s Judaism. Clearly, Coval isn’t afraid of occupying paradoxical spaces: he’s a white north suburban kid who raps, a Jewish supporter of Palestine. He’s drawn the ire of conservative pundits like Bill Kristol’s The Weekly Standard and the powerhouse conservative blog Power Line. He’s been demonized, marginalized and called a radical, and he gives as good as he takes. “I want to kick Joe Lieberman in the face,” Coval said on the local talk show “The Interview Show.”
In response to being uninvited to the J Street conference, Coval tore apart the organization, and everything he felt it represented. “What is disappointing, and troubling, is J Street’s response in caving to this sort of McCarthyism. The executive director of J Street called us to say ’I know what I’m doing is wrong… but there are some battles we choose not to fight,’ before canceling our program, and disinviting us from the conference. This accommodates their red-baiting and is the wrong response. Rather than give in, which only emboldens the right and legitimizes their attacks, we need to stand up for our principles and engage on that front. Van Jones is another perfect example: after the Fox News venom became too much and he resigned last month, the radical Right hasn’t stopped attacking Obama or, more accurately, the alternative, progressive voice they fear he represents. The Right stands by its politics, and practices solidarity with their allies. Too often the Left doesn’t. And that’s why we often lose—on health care, on global warming and on Israel/Palestine.”
I asked Coval, “Can you see how someone could be offended by you calling Israel a whore?” With the sharply honed skill of a master slammer, he responded, “I’m offended by their apartheid policies.” It was an assertion that made me, like many, wish I could respond with an equally stinging retort. Putting yourself so firmly on one side of such an emotional debate is difficult enough for a political pundit. It can be downright professional suicide for a poet, who counts on fans for income. By so forcefully giving his views, Coval risks losing part of his potential fanbase. I asked Madhubuti what he thought of Coval’s decision to dedicate so much energy to speaking out on this cause. “You cannot constrain art,” he replies. Coval says, “Speak the truth as you see it.” This isn’t just an aphorism for Coval; it’s a way of life. It all comes back to representing. If you tell the world your perspective, you represent yourself, and you can never be afraid to represent.
One controversy hit closer to home for Coval. At one reading and creative-writing session at Niles West High School, Coval did a rhyme about Mel Gibson months after his film, “The Passion of the Christ,” was released. In the rhyme, Coval suggested that Gibson was anti-Semitic and criticized Gibson’s ties to the actor’s father’s controversial church. Some faculty said the rhyme made them uncomfortable and Coval was asked to no longer come back. It was an experience that made Coval rethink the effect his poetry had on others—in this case, he says, “I would have chosen a different set of words for the poem,” had he known it would have upset people.
While Coval has his share of critics, he also has his share of admirers. “Kevin is a poet,” says Madhubuti. “A rapper can stand on the street and describe what’s happening. A poet can stand in the same place and give it all meaning,” he says. Coval and Madhubuti share a passion for literacy, poetry and social justice and, while Coval never would have guessed it in high school, it now seems inevitable that the two would overlap in their pursuits as well. Since 1967, Madhubuti has run Third World Press, publishing hundreds of authors. He’s published dozens of his own books, including one, “Black Men: Obsolete, Single, Dangerous?” which sold more than a million copies. He’s also the founder and director of several charter schools on the South Side. “I’m very concerned about literacy” says Madhubuti, who credits his love of poetry with saving his life. Madhubuti says that all of his other endeavors and interests are grown out of poetry. Coval says everything starts with poetry, too.
Louder Than A Bomb, an annual Chicago youth poetry slam, is Coval’s creation, and through the festival, which celebrated its tenth anniversary this year, Coval has given thousands of young people the opportunity to stand at a mic and speak their voice. In fact, Louder Than A Bomb has awakened a poetry community in the school systems of Chicago that most didn’t know existed. It started more than a decade ago, when Coval began teaching throughout the Chicago area. He joined Young Chicago Authors, a nonprofit run by Bob Boone that supports writing by city teenagers. Coval discovered nearly two dozen poets like him who also spent time teaching poetry and creative writing throughout the city and suburbs. They formed a sub-group, the Writing Teacher’s Collective, and once a month, they met to talk shop. They had connections in almost every part of the greater Chicago academic community. One day, someone suggested they take advantage of those connections and create a poetry slam—an open mic poetry competition—for youth aged 13-19.
The first Louder Than A Bomb drew about sixty students in the winter of 2002. The most recent one, this past winter, attracted nearly a thousand youth poets.
For Coval, it’s a return to the basketball camp he loved so much as a youth. Coval told me that our alma mater, Glenbrook North, has a team. So too do Englewood High School, Lane Tech, Whitney Young and other local high schools. Louder Than A Bomb is the “melting pot” the basketball camp was—what Coval wants his whole world to be. Young people of different neighborhoods, ages, ethnicities—different experiences—are together. Up on stage, everyone is a poet. All that matters is how good you slam. “If you can play, you can play.” You can hear the magic of this melting pot when listening to the words of these young poets—like 16-year-old Gina Gonzales, of Lane Tech, who performed a spoken-word piece about lost love, interchanging between English and French.
Coval’s been so impressed by his students’ poetry he’s started New School Poetics Press, a small publishing company, with the help of Columbia College. New School Poetics Press publishes the work of young poets. One of his students, Nate Marshall, recently had his book of poetry, “Unconditional Like”, published through the press and the poetry collection of another student of his, Erika Dickerson, will be released in August under her stage name Shally. Coval plans on publishing the best young poets from Louder Than A Bomb. Like Madhubuti, Coval has found a way to merge his many passions: poetry, teaching, activism and publishing.
Earlier this month, Coval hosted his latest poetry jam at Silver Room on Milwaukee Avenue to celebrate the release of Marshall’s book, “Unconditional Like”. There were about fifty current and former students from Louder Than A Bomb. Kevin’s father Danny was there as well. The provost of Vanderbilt University, Richard McCarty, came to see the festivities. Many skilled poets performed, but the performer everyone came to see was the newly published Marshall. Marshall, currently a sophomore at Vanderbilt, has been in Louder Than A Bomb for eight years.
In August, Coval will head to the University of Wisconsin to kick off the publicity for Shally’s book of poetry, “This Side of Mourning.” Coval says he expects to publish six books of poems by the end of 2010, all from current and former students.
Coval’s latest project is a new book of his own poetry, “Elvis Lives.” This will be his third: “Slingshots: A Hip-hop Poetica” was published in 2002 and “Everyday People” was published in 2008. In “Elvis Lives,” Coval creates a character that’s an amalgam of Elvis Presley, Vanilla Ice, Eminem and himself: all are white performers who made it in traditionally black art forms. Although it’s a book of poetry, Coval says, “This book will have a story, narrative and arc that threads throughout.” It includes a poem about Bill Ayers told by the main character as well as “a suite of poems about John Walker Lindh.” Coval says that Lindh, an American who is serving a twenty-year sentence for working with the Taliban in Afghanistan, was introduced to Islam initially through hip-hop artists like Mos Def. It’s impossible to separate Coval’s political and poetic identities: he’s always representing.
Coval works closely with other community organizers and educators to learn from them and develop projects. One of his most valued mentors is Bill Ayers. To the outside world, Ayers is largely known for his controversial past as part of the Weather Underground, a radical left organization from the late sixties/early seventies. Ayers became a household name when conservative political commentators like Sean Hannity tried to link him and his past to then-presidential candidate Barack Obama. Coval has known both Ayers and his wife, Bernardine Dohrn, for nearly a decade. They both often judge for Louder Than A Bomb. Coval says he knew little about Ayers past when they met. Instead, Coval learned about Ayers because of his reputation as an innovative educator. “I see him as a public intellectual,” Coval says. Dohrn says Ayers and Coval have had a close relationship for years. “Bill became a mentor at every stage of Kevin’s life.” Dohrn says. “He’s an artist, a poet and a community organizer.” Coval says that Ayers helps him to think through all these interlocking issues. Coval reminds me, just as he continuously reminds those around him, that his community organizing revolves entirely around poetry.
Coval’s poetry projects seem to multiply. In May of 2010, he collaborated with the Children and Family Justice Center at Northwestern University’s Law School. The Center was holding a conference on juveniles sentenced to natural life, that is, a sentence of life without the possibility of parole. The center reached out to individuals, now mostly adults, who were still serving their sentences, and asked them to produce original works of poetry. These works, edited by Coval and his most elite students from his Louder Than A Bomb program, were published by New School Poetics Press under the title “Until I am Free.” Most of the poems are about the struggle, pain and conflict of life in prison. Inmate Albert X. Kingman writes, in the poem “Behind These Walls”:
Behind these walls
Men enter hearts as cold as ice
Desensitized, numb, and dead
But isolated from this world
The same heart begins life again
I swear you never thought
You’d see these men cry
These poets represent, just as Coval does, only they represent a worldview born of years behind the wrong side of metal bars.
While Coval has earned both respect and controversy through his poetry, it is picturing him as a high-school kid sitting alone in the Northbrook Public Library that inspires me more than seeing him on stage or in the classroom. For Coval and me, it’s a “Breakfast Club” revelation, twenty years later. After all, the theme of the movie is that we’re all more similar to each other than we think. When we open our mouths, when we put pen to paper—when we represent—it’s then that we realize our unique experiences are also universal ones.
“What we found out is that each one of us is a brain… and an athlete… and a basket case… a princess… and a criminal…. Does that answer your question?…. Sincerely yours, the Breakfast Club.”