The Education of Kevin Coval: Conversations of Hip-Hop, Race, and Inequities
GALO: On the topic of being “down,” Patricia Smith, author of Blood Dazzler categorized you as one of the “white men of color.” Do you consider yourself a white man of color?
KC: No. [Laughs] I think I am a white man; I know, actually. I’ve looked in the mirror several times. Unfortunately, it is not as common to have white men who are anti-racist, critical of white supremacy, capitalism, Zionism, and of general dominant culture. I don’t think that too many of those white men have larger forums in which to always be understood.
When white men encounter that dominant narrative, many times they are clowned. Part of the character in L-vis is a clown, and also someone who is dead serious about what he is speaking about. I think we have just gotten it wrong. We don’t understand the impetus. Part of what I wanted to do, was go back to the source of why that character wants to leave and re-examine that space to figure out what was wrong, and what they have to teach to America about what is wrong.
GALO: Did you know you would stage this piece after you finished writing the book?
KC: No, I knew that the book told the story of what I thought to be one person. I wrote the book like I was writing a novella; one narrative of one character with a rise and fall. Once I finished the book, I thought that it potentially had some life beyond it.
It is because of the people working on the show, specifically Jess McLeod, L-vis Live’s! director, who adopted and adapted the book. We worked together, but it was really her eye and vision for how the character could live through the show and how the various voices could intertwine with the larger narrative. I am indebted to the team who has made the show come to life.
GALO: In mainstream hip-hop music and culture, there are often images and representations of black culture that are not positive. What are your thoughts on some of the negative ways black women and men are portrayed nationally and globally in this medium?
KC: I think that hip-hop is a counter [culture], and then a sub [culture], [ending on a] dominant culture within America, which means that it was born in this country and then reflects and refracts American values. America hates black women. America is homophobic. America is rampantly capitalistic. America is sexist, misogynistic, and racist. Some of those values then reappear in hip-hop culture, because it was a culture that was born within its borders. If we are going to have a conversation about what is wrong with hip-hop, then we also need to have a conversation about what is wrong with America.
I do think that in the hip-hop, I’m sorry…in the “rap” music business, a certain kind of narrative, aesthetic, and representation of, particularly, black male and female bodies gets pushed to the forefront. In large part, because you have older, white wealthy males sitting at the heads of record label companies and multinational conglomerates, who are putting the same kind of criminalized and racist notions of blackness out into the world that they themselves think about on a regular basis.
When 50 Cent appeared oiled and in a bulletproof vest posing for prison-esque photos, I don’t think that is a mistake. I think it has everything to do with how white supremacy affects the larger conscience of American culture. And so what do we do? We imagine that black male bodies are criminals. America shoots them without asking any questions. That then becomes the dominant narrative for our country.
GALO: To that point, to the likes of rappers like 50 Cent or whoever, can you put some responsibility on them for just doing it?
KC: Of course, but there is also an undeniable need for radical systemic change. Individuals are responsible for themselves, but they are not responsible for years of history. They can’t be.
History needs individuals to create a moment to change and each person has a part in that. However, as opposed to looking at individual victims, we need to critique a larger historical arc.
GALO: Because people are exposed to some of these negative stereotypes of black people, it often leads to misconceptions of an entire race; this can extend to many other cultures. What would you say to those people who have not yet learned to separate one from the whole, so to speak?
KC: In your family, there is every kind of person. In my family, there are complicated saints and prisoners, addicts and heroes. And, sometimes, the addicts are heroes. As diverse as my family is, in terms of individual personality, career choice and moral center, that’s how everybody is. This is why I believe in the power of storytelling because I think that once we get past these giant misconceptions that we have of one another and come human to human, talking to each other about what we believe, what we care about, what we experience, then we have the potential to create bridges and cross borders.
GALO: Do you think that will happen in your lifetime?
KC: I think it is happening. I think that kids being born into urban centers now are much hipper than kids I grew up with, and certainly my parents, in terms of their thoughts on race, sexuality, and what they want to do for their lives. I think that now there is a desire to live in urban spaces. There is something powerful about rubbing shoulders and being on the train with people who do not look like you; going to bars, schools, or clubs that are integrated. I believe in the mix and that everything is better when it’s mixed. It’s fresher; it sounds better, its liver. Our country needs to be integrated and interwoven in any and every way possible to create the idealistic fabric that we thought the country was built on.
GALO: For those negative representations, do you think prominent figures in black culture have a responsibility to dispel myths?
KC: Sure, but I think the generators of those images and myths have the greater responsibility, and need to be held accountable. The heads and barons of industry need to be brought to task. From there, we can have change. There are more of us than there are of them. On some old school organizing, it just takes people…together.
If in Chicago people collectively thought the parking meters were unjust and we all stopped paying, what are they going to do? If we wanted to ensure that everyone had healthcare, we could collectively set up clinics. I believe more in the power of people than I do in those with the power to attempt to determine the course of people’s lives. I believe the desire for freedom and justice is greater than the desire for the dollar.
GALO: In an interview with Allison Cuddy from WBEZ-FM Chicago, you talked about being inspired by hip-hop music. “When I first heard hip-hop music, those were working class narratives that felt the most relatable; they felt more like my own story than Dynasty.” If it wasn’t hip-hop, what would it have been? Do you think you would have turned out the same way?
KC: No. No, way.
GALO: Nothing else?
KC: No, and I feel lucky for that reason. I would not be the same person without hip-hop. I don’t know who I would be. It brought me everywhere and did everything for me. Everything that I have ever done that has been halfway okay has been because of hip-hop. Anywhere I have ever traveled, anyone I have ever met and befriended, anything that I have ever written, read and thought is because of it. Is it possible to divorce myself from the impact that it has had on me? I shudder to think about who I would be if I didn’t have its influence in my life.
For more information about Kevin Coval, visit www.kevincoval.com. “L-vis Live!” part of the Fresh Squeezed series, is now playing at the Victory Gardens Theater (2433 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago) through April 14. Call the box office at (773) 871-3000 or visit the Web site at www.victorygardens.org for more information.