The transformative capacity of spoken word

by Onyinyechi Jessica Ogwumike

Kevin Coval is the founder of Young Chicago Authors’ Louder Than A Bomb (LTAB),  a Chicago-based youth poetry festival (the largest in the nation), and an editor of the newly released poetry anthology The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop. His talk on Friday began with identifying his audience, those who “plan to use your body and organize other bodies to make your communities a fresher and more equitable space for other bodies.”

In this identity, in our dedication to the vital inhabitants who share our skin-bound existence, we are kin with Coval, who retold his story of founding LTAB in an effort to better Chicago. He began in 1987, when a young Coval began to listen to hip-hop, which he described as both a “new utterance,” and, in borrowing the wisdom of his great friend KRS-1, “one of the most ancient utterances” in the same vein as graffiti art.

“Women would take berries in their mouths, put their hands on walls and spray - like aerosol,” Coval said.

This spirit of illustration permeated the entirety of Kevin Coval’s talk. The talk was an experience in discovering narrative form, in discovering storytelling, and how pertinent community is to that endeavour.

Hip-hop, for adolescent Coval, was explorative. In the vein of the Afro-diasporic tradition of call and respond, “hip-hop is invitation.” In hip-hop, Coval found a motivation to “put pen to paper” and create working/middle class portraiture, which is another epithet with which hip-hop can be identified.

As he listened and created, Coval began to direct energy into finding more “hip-hop heads.” He illustrates this experience of building as he reads from The BreakBeat Poets, a work entitled “Molemen Beat Tapes.” In the piece, he describes the filling backseat of his mom’s Dodge as he traverses Chicago Street and beat. He ties his narrative of finding fellows in his craft to the spacemaking efforts of other Chicago musical revolutions such as house music, in which queer people of color found solace in the 1980s.

Kevin Coval’s “pedagogy” for spacemaking developed out of his time navigating Chicago open mics. During his first class, he remembers spending his time dissecting Lauryn Hill’s lines in The Fugees’ second release The Score. The friend who had invited Coval to teach the class, Eboo Patel, remarked that he had never seen students so engaged around language. In this way, Coval learned to conduct a space, he “started to ask incredibly simple questions in a public space,” and then engaged in a deep and honest listening.

The “pedagogy” Coval developed meant standing in a space and asking its inhabitants what they hope about, dream about, and fear about, because that is how you conduct self-education. He asks what it looks like looking out of your bedroom window, because if you experience fear at the sight of seeing a Starbucks go up, if you’re met with fear walking down the street at night as a woman, that speaks to the global maintenance of hegemonic structures such as white supremacy and patriarchy. Coval mentioned how in his time community-building he’d been commonly referred to as “that white kid,” in this way hip-hop makes whiteness visible where it generally has the luxury of slipping quietly into the acquired default. Hip-hop asks its students simple questions, listens, and then asks you to represent your experiences in a new setting.

Disrupting the setting psychologically and narratively, is key to the radical dismantling of Chicago racial segregation. 2001, when LTAB was first hosted, was a year of, “a fear, a paranoia, of all this hegemonic blabber of what the world was, [Coval and his community] started to want to do something else because [they] knew the dominant narrative was whack.”

They decided to organize themselves and created Louder Than A Bomb. Coval also described his decision to name the festival after the classic Public Enemy line.

“The tools we use to create are more powerful than the weapons of dehumanization and all the boundaries the Chicago urban planner could throw at [us],” Coval said.

Coval explained that the festival meant emerging new writers would finally meet each other. They were changing school cultures; suddenly these “hyperliterate” kids were being treated like star athletes. Young people were beginning to traverse Chicago in a new way. This was a very intentional process for Coval and his team, combatting train lines and red lines; he was changing culture and thus changing politics, which facilitates the kind of revolutionary spacial relationships that allow a community to overthrow incongruent leadership (as in the case of  #ByeAnita and #ByeRahm). This change in politics has the potential to introduce a change in policies, but it starts with doing work to create equitable and just spaces for our own bodies.

The delegate beside me, Jephtaph Acheampong, from New York via Ghana, told me that he “began performing poetry once [he] got in the states,” and in this way, he and I are both small members of this growing movement of sonically engaging with poetry. Coval unhinges the concept of size when it comes to engagement, especially at this conference.

“To share a small idea is a privilege, because every small idea has the ability to build.”


Onyinyechi Jessica Ogwumike is a member of the Global Engagement Staff. A full video of Kevin Coval's talk, The Breakbeat Poets, will be available online following the Summit. Follow the GES blog and social media outlets for summaries, recaps and reflections on all Summit events.