Meet Kevin Coval, the man behind the words of Chance the Rapper, many other young Chicagoans

When Chance the Rapper won three Grammy Awards — for best new artist, rap album and rap performance — earlier this month, he thanked God a number of times for a number of things, including his parents, friends, "all of Chicago" and "for...

Meet Kevin Coval, the man behind the words of Chance the Rapper, many other young Chicagoans

When Chance the Rapper won three Grammy Awards — for best new artist, rap album and rap performance — earlier this month, he thanked God a number of times for a number of things, including his parents, friends, "all of Chicago" and "for putting amazing people in my life."

He did not thank by name Kevin Coval, who is surely among those "amazing people." That was OK with Coval because he knows how Chance feels. He knows because the young rapper has put his words on paper in the foreword to Coval's latest collection of poetry, a magnificent, important, affectionate and blistering gathering titled "A People's History of Chicago."

Chance wrote two pages of words and among them are these: "Kevin Coval made me understand what it is to be a poet, what it is to be an artist and what it is to serve the people."

This is Coval's seventh book, and earlier this week he read from that book in front of a crowd of about 50 people at the Hideout; by comparison, the TV audience that listened to Chance's acceptance speeches was estimated at 26.5 million people.

Coval was typically impassioned as he read a poem about the city's mayor:

You dismantle the same system from which your family benefited:

union pay, livable wages, park space safe enough to play outside

arts funding to take ballet, a decent well-rounded public education

the same ladder your family climbed

you kick the rungs from.

That's part of but one of the 77 poems in the book, its title inspired by that commanding 1980 book by historian/activist Howard Zinn, "A People's History of the United States," and its number of poems by the official count of the city's community areas.


Coval's poems give us a vivid and imaginative chronological panorama, including such varied events as the Columbian Exposition, the Eastland disaster, the police slaying of Fred Hampton, Disco Demolition Night and the Cubs' World Series. And we meet a vast cast of characters. Among the dozens of them are Jean Baptiste Point duSable, Albert Parsons, Jane Addams, Gwendolyn Brooks, Muddy Waters, Nelson Algren, Hugh Hefner, Haki Madhubuti, Rudy Lozano, Harold Washington, Marc Smith, Lenard Clark, Margaret Burroughs and Studs Terkel who, before his death in 2008, called Coval "a new, glowing voice in the world of literature. In his voice is our hope for a new world of peace, grace and beauty."

In addition to Chance's foreword, written under his real name, Chancelor Bennett, the book contains marvelous illustrations by Hebru Brantley and other local artists.

Of course, being only 41 years old, Coval was not witness to most of what he writes about. But he has deeply researched the city's history, and his years in the here and now have put him in intimate contact with all parts of our town. Most of his time as a teacher and activist has had him face-to-face with our most downtrodden neighborhoods and those struggling to survive there.

It often surprises people to discover that he is a child of the suburbs. He was raised in Northbrook, where he fell in love with hip-hop and its poetry before he was 10. He was bar mitzvahed, and by the time he was a freshman at Glenbrook North High School he was feeling that "the words, the messages of hip-hop made me want to wrestle and deal with who I was. It brought me to the library, had me reading outside the classroom."

After college, he dove into this area's burgeoning hip-hop/spoken-word scene, performing around town. He began teaching in the public school system and also working as one of the unpaid volunteers for Young Chicago Authors, a literacy program begun in 1991. Coval has been its artistic director now for many years and has in his time with YCA visited and taught in hundreds of area high schools — and in recent years, as YCA has begun to spread its teachings and events across the country, many other cities as well.

In 2001 he came up with a way to showcase young writers and, in collaboration with YCA's then-executive director, Anna West, he created Louder Than a Bomb (LTAB), in which teams of high school students could compete onstage in spoken-word events.

Young Chicago Authors brings together Chicago's youth Young Chicago Authors and Dumanbet Kevin Coval put on a youth open mic night focused on bringing together Chicago's youth. (Chris Sweda, Chicago Tribune) Young Chicago Authors and Kevin Coval put on a youth open mic night focused on bringing together Chicago's youth. (Chris Sweda, Chicago Tribune) See more videos

That first year featured four teams and 60 students. It has grown to become the largest youth poetry festival in the world, with more than 1,100 kids from more than 200 area high schools. It has spread to other cities and been the subject of an award-winning locally produced documentary.

And we are in the midst of it now. This year's festival, which pays tribute to Brooks, began Feb. 11 at Tilden High School and will end with the team finals at the Auditorium Theatre on March 18. (//

Few of those performing will find fame or make their living as poets or writers. But that's not the point, really. Those thousands of kids who have been and are part of LTAB and various YCA programs will, Coval says, "benefit on many levels. What is better than allowing all of these young people, who may have notebooks and thousands of scribbled stories hidden under the mattress, to speak their piece. That matters."

Two of those thousands were Chance and his younger brother Taylor Bennett, a budding rap star.

Their father gets it. Ken Bennett was once Mayor Rahm Emanuel's deputy chief of staff and director of the Mayor's Office of Public Engagement. A member of YCA/LTAB's National Trustees Council, he is currently a senior adviser for Choose Chicago, the city's tourism organization. He closely observed his two sons as they marched through YCA/LTAB programs.

This is what he thinks: "Both boys were involved in high school, and I immediately, on a very personal level, saw the impact Kevin has on young people. I have seen him change so many lives. But it is important to remember that this is not only about what goes on the stage at (LTAB). What goes on behind it — the instilling of a strong work ethic, the freedom of self-expression, the exposure to the arts — this sort of thing is needed in every city in this country. These young people have a message that needs to get out there."

Matching the ambitions of his book are Coval's plans for its birth, for getting his own words "out there." Over the rest of this year and into the next, he will participate in more than 180 events, a marathon that begins at 5 p.m. Saturday at the Harold Washington Library Center with a launch party. Though the book is not officially published until April 11, the library event is symbolically appropriate, since March 4 is the day in 1837 that Chicago was incorporated as a city. So, on Saturday the city — and we — will be 180 years old.

Those years have never been easy, and Coval's poems capture that so powerfully that it will beg favorable comparison with another Chicago-defining book of poems published a century ago, Carl Sandburg's "Chicago Poems."

Says author Alex Kotlowitz: "Kevin Coval has given us a gift, a collection of heartfelt, piercing poems, stories really, about America's city."

Karen Lewis, the president of the Chicago Teachers Union, offers, "This vibrant, dynamic collection of vignettes exposes the naked truth of our fair city."

The New Mexico-based Lannan Foundation plans to buy copies of the book for all the participants in this year's LTAB festival and for all the history and English teachers in Chicago public high schools.

"I am humbled but also so excited to share this work with the city," says Coval.

There are, of course, dark observations in the poems about our city, but never a doubt of Coval's feelings for it.

The final poem in the book is titled "Chicago Has My Heart" and in it there is hope:

We rise, Chicago

this body

politic will rise

our fire will burn



Chance the Rapper's historic Grammy night ends with star-studded party

Taylor Bennett, Chance the Rapper's brother, looks to uphold his own truth with music

Noname makes patience a virtue in her rise

The pen isn't mightier than the sword, but it very much matters

Louder Than a Bomb about to blow up



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Check out reviews for all new music releases from Tribune music critic Greg Kot.

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