Self discovery: being white, Jewish and suburban didn’t make sense to Kevin Coval when he was a teen, but hip hop did

Self discovery: being white, Jewish and suburban didn’t make sense to Kevin Coval when he was a teen, but hip hop did – New Voices

Justina Wang

Kevin Coral stood in front of 10 black students in his John Coltrane T-shirt and khaki corduroys, trying to hush the chit chat before a performance at an Evanston Township High School evening class. Then he bounced his hands in rhythm and let his story silence the audience. All 10 heads turned to look at Coval, the only white man in the classroom, as he rapped unashamedly: “I’m a Jewish kid who kicks raps and yes I’m from the suburbs. I kibbitz when I kick it. Eatin’ kosher, so no rib tips. When flow is a thousand fists in the back of classes and even if you’re a blind teacher who forgot your glasses, you couldn’t miss it.” Within minutes, the students were cheering and pounding their desks to the beat.

A few weeks later, he performed in front of 70 Maine East High School students, most of whom were white. As he rapped about his struggle with Judaism, they stared at him, entranced and silent. Coval, 28, said he didn’t want to be Jewish when he was younger because he thought the religion was filled with hypocrisy and “hypercapitalism.” He has used hip hop to explore, understand and return to his culture: “He said Jews are the chosen people…. And I said ‘fuck you’ and stripped to show him naked. That I stitched hymen and foreskin of human to my skin to see self bare, I told him: We will recreate the covenant.” A student approached him after class. “I don’t listen to hip hop, but you really made sense,” he said, and noted that Coral’s lyrics echoed many of his unspoken thoughts.

No matter where kids are from, they all have stories to tell, said Coval, who co-founded the Young Chicago Authors, a program that brings together high school students from around the city for an annual poetry slam competition. This year, 32 teams will be competing in “Louder Than a Bomb,” the fourth annual Chicago Teen Poetry Festival, at the Chicago Historical Society from March 19 to 21. Coval said Americans don’t talk about being white because it is accepted as the norm, “a pervasive everythingness and nothingness.” But he hopes to use hip hop to name and critique his own race.

A native of north suburban Northbrook, Coval started writing rhymes at Glenbrook North High School. In 1997, he began performing his poetry at an Afrocentric bookstore in Wicker Park. And after a filmed performance at the Museum of Contemporary Art, HBO asked him to appear on its Def Poetry Jam. Though he never graduated from college, Coval hopes to eventually finish a religious studies degree at DePaul University.

For the last four years, Coval has performed at high schools and colleges. He has also taught poetry and spoken-word workshops at local schools, the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center and the University of Hip Hop–a Southwest Youth Collaborative program that teaches kids everything from rapping to graffiti.

Coval sat down with The Chicago Reporter to talk about his journey through hip hop and his racial identity.

You were this Jewish kid living in a predominantly white suburb. How did you turn black hip hop stars into your role models?

I don’t know. I was an anomaly. There weren’t, especially at that time, suburban kids listening and being engaged by hip hop music. [They told me], ‘You’re a “wigger”‘ and ‘You want to be black.’ … What I liked about hip hop was that the sentiment, the anger, the otherness. What was being articulated in hip hop, I was feeling in my own community. In some ways, in the suburbs, I had this other-side-of-the-tracks experience where I grew up in a single-parent home. My room worked two or three jobs, and I’ve been working since I was 11. That was not the norm in the community that I grew up in, so I saw my peers and friends having things and living the lifestyle that I didn’t…. There was something that didn’t feel right about my experience in the home and the other kids’ gated-community privilege. Hip hop spoke to that experience.

In the beginning, you questioned your religious heritage. Why are you now using hip hop to explore it?

I’ve come home after not wanting to be associated with Judaism at all. At 16, I told my best friend not to call me Jewish. I wanted to be a Black Panther. When I was young, I didn’t want to be what I saw this north suburban, somewhat Jewish community being. The values I associated with this community were consumerism, hyper-capitalism…. We had unhappy homes, broken homes, alcoholic fathers, mothers on painkillers, divorcees. In some ways, the vision of suburbia in my community, specifically, is the fruition of the American dream. But I think what I learned, and didn’t necessarily have the language to articulate, is that this dream is filled with emptiness, is filled with this spiritual depletion, sense of isolation. I think that when I heard hip hop, it let me know that I wasn’t alone, even though it wasn’t describing my story.

I think all people, regardless of race, go through our natural steps in identity development. At some point, I learned enough about where I came from that I no longer wanted to be black. And I also didn’t want to be white. I wanted to be Jewish. Hip hop, the self-critical gazing that comes from it, asks you to represent. It took me a minute to figure out what I represented. It made me inevitably look and search for identity.

Have you faced difficulty in the hip hop scene because you are white?

When I started going to open mics, every now and then, I’d get introduced and I’d come up and people would be giggling.

But the thing about hip hop–it’s based on skills and not skin. So, if you are good at what you do, it doesn’t matter what you look like.

Sometimes what happens is that people of color, white people, Jews, whoever, are suspicious because of skin–which I understand. I get a lot of love, but the more I do and the more risks I take politically, the more hate mail or weird phone messages I get. But I think that’s part of the course.

Has white privilege helped you in the hip hop community?

In terms of recognition, it was easier. People would ask, ‘Who was that kid, that white kid?’ A couple years ago, I was it. I didn’t have to compete with five dudes with dreads because that’s not how I looked. I think people are more curious. I think it’s my skills and craft that ensured I stayed on, but the initial spectacle of whiteness and Jewishness on a microphone also entices people, and I understand that. It works for and against me.

Are you also more suspicious of white emcees?

I think I am probably more critical of white emcees and white writers than I am of writers of color in some ways. Some of it has to do with privilege. Back when I was getting involved in hip hop, it was not acceptable, it wasn’t done, to be white in certain spaces and to be up on a microphone. There were times when I thought I was going to get beat up. I almost did. Now you go to a hip hop show at the Metro and the whole spot is white kids with backpacks and dreadlocks. So I’m suspicious of that. I’m suspicious of white emcees and white poets who won’t talk about where they’re from. And maybe the reason I’m suspicious is because I used to do that.

Are there race issues between the students at the poetry slam?

After the slam last year, this suburban kid and one of my students at the Cook County juvenile detention center embraced afterward. They gave each other respect. It’s that crossing and meeting that, in part, something like this slam produces. Every open mic that we do, there are kids from all over the city who are telling stories, and kids in the audience who do not come from their neighborhoods are nodding [their heads] during their pieces.

What do you want the audience to walk away with after they hear you?

I want us all to be comfortable in our stories and find validity in them. We don’t only have to look at the lives of celebrities, politicians, business persons. We could really invest interest in the people’s stories around us. We can do what Gwendolyn Brooks has told us: Tell the story in front of our nose.

Kevin Coral used hip bop to find his identity. He’s now teaching others to tell their stories.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Community Renewal Society

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group