Poetic Justice: Kevin Coval Inspires Social Change One Stanza At A Time

Photos by Michael Salisbury

Photos by Michael Salisbury

We recently recognized the 180th anniversary of Chicago’s existence. 180 years filled with trials, tribulations, celebrations and victories. Home to difficult existences but also well inspired creativity, Chicago has been ground zero for innovations in the arts for so long. On our city’s anniversary, we gathered at the Harold Washington Library in the Loop to honor Chicago’s heritage and revere over a present day trailblazer and history maker in his own right, Kevin Coval. 

The Chicago born and bred author, poet, teacher and mentor, like so many others, has been molded into who he is by his city. Inspired by its rich history and the people in it, Kevin is hosted an event to share his latest project, A People’s History of Chicago. The collection of 77 poems for Chicago’s 77 neighborhoods is a nod to the people who have paved the way, both good and bad. Kevin shares local history that many breeze past in conventional history books, and even peppers in some personal stories that shed light on how he became who he is today.

While we’ve enjoyed the insight Kevin shared in his new book, we had to know more. Several weeks prior to the inspiring evening at Harold Washington, I sat down with Kevin and had a dialogue about the core influences that make him who he is today, a respected forward thinker and role model for how to be a Chicagoan. 

A few pages into A People’s History of Chicago, and it’s obvious that its author has embraced the perspective of the oppressed. A white male in his thirties, we had to know how Kevin felt he personally aligned with that perspective. The short answer is that although more privileged in a lot of ways than many, Kevin and his family were not immune to hard times. Part of a working class family trying to make it in Chicago, Kevin and his family moved around a lot when Kevin was young. One neighborhood after another, apartment to apartment, “Just a series of rentals” as Kevin described it. While times weren’t always perfect, Kevin’s mother worked hard to provide a sense of normalcy in the ever changing environment growing up. A combination of this changing environment and his parent’s dedication to making a better life for Kevin and his siblings exposed him to the the problems Chicagoan’s face and also what it takes to overcome them.

“When you’re up against the monstrosity of those forms of capital(ism) and you don’t have the means to produce, inevitably you’re going to take a lot of L’s.”

As a result of Kevin’s upbringing, he found himself rooting for the underdog often. Naturally, hip hop resonated with Kevin. He and hip hop understood what it’s like to fight for each day. Whether it’s the South Bronx or Ukrainian Village, the struggle is the struggle. His deep love for the art form led to his own pursuit of lyrically powered expression.   

Like many who veer from the tried and true path society considers normal, Kevin’s parents didn’t love the idea of their son being a professional hip hop poet. Kevin didn’t start by packing hundreds of people in a room to hear him read from his latest book, there were years of juggling day jobs and side hustles before he saw his first glimpse at success. A little more than a decade after embarking on this journey and an appearance on HBO’s Def Poetry, Mom finally bought into the plan, and so did many others. Kevin had the desire and ambition to see his plan through, and wasn’t going to deviate for anyone.

Now releasing his 10th book, and Kevin Coval still seemingly has an endless supply of fuel to stoke the fire of change in not only his own life, but the lives of so many others that share his relate-able origin story. A People’s History of Chicago wasn’t even a planned project, but one that grew from necessity while researching the history of gentrification in Chicago for something else Kevin has been working on. After some encouragement from friend and collaborator Nate Marshall, Kevin chose to put aside one project to pursue another, one in which the poems seemed to write themselves, and held a purpose to alter the tourist board’s narrative of the place he calls home.

This attempt to shed light on the "real" history of Chicago isn't Kevin's first, in fact he's done so by educating and mentoring local youth as the Artistic Director of Young Chicago Authors, a place he's left his mark on since 1999. Kevin's strong passion for poetry can't be limited to his own work after all, the best way to actualize change is to make sure the new generation is willing and able to carry the torch after you're gone. Whether he's working with the next generation on their craft or his own, Kevin's mission to inspire change remains the same across all platforms.

Nearly 150 poems were written for his new book, all of which sought to shine a light on the proverbial underdog. Chicago hasn’t been good about preserving its cultural narrative over the years. "We need to be championing our own," says Kevin. It's necessary to tell the stories of working people winning, those in power are threatened by them. A People's History of Chicago offers good stories, bad stories and everything in between, but most importantly it offers the narratives of people successful in implementing change and encourages readers to continue down that path.

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We all gathered at the Harold Washington Library to celebrate this man's latest accomplishment, the Cindy Pritzker Auditorium bursted at the seams. Kevin read select excerpts from his book and invited one guest after another to share the stage with him. Names like former student Mick Jenkins to Kevin's own mentor Haki Matabuti share Kevin's excitement and motivation to make a better Chicago, a better world. 

It's obvious from the turn out that Kevin's message and overall persona connects with so many across races, generations and economic status. It's easy to recognize the validity of the truth Kevin Coval pedals. Not everyone who showed up to the library was able to gain access due to the overwhelming interest in the event, but afterwards Kevin made sure to put more time aside to sign books and converse with the friends, family and fans that came to support. 

It's been a little over a month since that night, and A People's History of Chicago is now available for consumption by everyone via local publisher Haymarket Books. You don't have to be a fan of poetry to appreciate the stories told in Kevin's new book, you just have to love Chicago and have a desire to make it a better place for the next generation. This book is a quick read, but don't put it on a shelf to get dusty when you're done. Pass these poems along to someone else who can benefit from reading them. After all, many of these stories have remained untold or buried underneath a facade of perfection for years and the educating can't stop with you. A People's History of Chicago might be printed, bound and for sale in paperback and digital formats, but Chicago history is ongoing, so do your part to make it something its people can be proud of in another 180 years.