On February 25, Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company premiered “This Is Modern Art,” a new play for its Young Audiences series. Kevin Coval, a poet and author and the founder of Louder Than a Bomb: The Chicago Youth Poetry Festival, co-wrote it with playwright Idris Goodwin. The play took as its inspiration a 2010 incident when a group of young graffiti artists tagged the new modern art wing of the Art Institute of Chicago. In the mainstream press, critical reaction has been unusually dismissive, objecting to the glorification of graffiti, or perhaps in this case vandalism, as art. Veteran Chicago Sun-Times critic Hedy Weiss denounced the play for sending out “a slew of profoundly misguided messages to its impressionable viewers.” Chris Jones, the Chicago Tribune’s chief theater critic, called it “staggeringly one-sided.” We invited Coval to offer his side of the controversy and to explain how his Jewish background influenced his love of hip-hop and graffiti.
I have been listening to hip-hop every day since 1984. What drew me in was a confluence of the sonic and cinematic; Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five’s “The Message,” RUN-DMC’s “King of Rock,” LL Cool J’s “Radio” and Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit,” along with the films “Style Wars,” “Beat Street” and “Flashdance” for the few minutes the Rock Steady Crew is breaking in the park.
I was enthralled by the realist working-class portraiture displayed in the poetics of Grandmaster Melle Mel, the verbal acrobatics of RUN-DMC and the bravado of Todd Smith. I dragged cardboard in front of the pharmacy in the strip mall in the suburbs, replete with parachute pants and boom box, trying to up rock and backspin. It was the documentary “Style Wars” more than anything else that made me wonder about the anonymous and courageous new American visual aesthetics (not a word I knew at the age of 9) known as graffiti art. The totality of the youth cultural movement called hip-hop is the only thing in my life that I have sought out without being asked. Hip-Hop is the reason I read anything without being forced. Hip-Hop is the reason I write and work to deconstruct white supremacist capitalist supremacy.
Hip-Hop has given me a family I sought, a radically diverse crew across the planet rock. Hip-Hop is why I am alive. Hip-Hop brought me back to Judaism and made me wrestle and remix it, understand my Jewishness in the light of critical race theories and mystical meditation practices I first found while free styling. I wanted to be a Black Panther soon after my bar-mitzvah and divorce myself from Judaism, but hip-hop ultimately brings one home and because of hip-hop I represent and re-present my Jewishness on new and fresh diasporic terrain, emboldened with prophetic questions I heard from KRS-ONE and Chuck D. Hip-Hop is why I am not a Zionist. Hip-Hop is why I teach, why I started Louder Than a Bomb: The Chicago Youth Poetry Festival, based of the organizing model of Afrika Bambaataa and the pedagogic poetics of KRS—ONE. Hip-hop is why I represent Chicago so tough, why I put on for my city and for my culture(s).
I am a Chicago poet, in the traditions of Gwendolyn Brooks and Carl Sandburg, in the traditions of Haki Madhubuti and Carolyn Rodgers, Kanye West and Twista. I am a breakbeat poet, a hip-hop generation writer who is trying to translate and synthesize the aesthetics of my moment and life and generation for a popular/populist audience.
I grew up around the theater. My aunt Joyce Sloane was the producer emeritus at The Second City, and on the weekends my dad would take me to the late-night sets at the Main Stage and let me hang way past my bedtime to see the improv. “This Is Modern Art,” a play I co-wrote with longtime homie and hip-hop’s August Wilson, Idris Goodwin, is the first time I have written for an ensemble.
The play is based on the real-life story of a graffiti crew that painted a 44-foot mural on a 50-foot wall in 14 minutes during a blizzard in 2010. The wall was at the eastern entrance of the (at the time) recently opened Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago.
The play seems to be doing in real time now what the act/art did then: creating conversations about artists who, from neighborhoods and aesthetics, are historically, and too often currently, relegated, forcibly, to the margins of public space and civic discourse. We wrote the play for this reason, as well as out of the desire to write an ode to the art and artists who create something that I, and an entire generation, think to be a visual movement that is incredibly beautiful.
In Chicago, when there is road repair and public works, the mayor puts out signs that say “Building a New Chicago,” and that statement in Chicago, and in rapidly gentrifying urban centers around the country, begs the question: For whom is the city building anew? With the destruction of pubic housing and the decimation of the industrial sector, cities like Chicago are losing or pushing out working-class families, many of whom are communities of color and immigrant groups. The city of big shoulders is becoming a city of spiced pumpkin lattes.
New forms and movements in art have always made publics uncomfortable and asked/pushed them to reconsider standards of beauty. Many people thought Monet and impressionism were ugly, and Chicago had a difficult time accepting and appreciating Picasso and the bird/woman sculpture he gifted the city. But as Brooks wrote in her poem “The Chicago Picasso” after witnessing the unveiling:
Man visits Art, but squirms.
Art hurts. Art urges voyages—
and it is easier to stay at home.
Graffiti is a global art movement whose innovators are young people of color from Philadelphia, New York and Los Angeles. They are participating in a diasporic art form that is as ancient as cave painting and as complex and narrative and ritualistic as Egyptian hieroglyphs.
Graffiti is a youth cultural expression coming from working-class communities of color that are routinely and systematically criminalized. One of the reasons we began to organize Louder Than a Bomb: The Chicago Youth Festival was to respond to Chicago’s anti-gang loitering law, which was locking up kids of color for hanging out in groups of more than one.
People of color have been criminalized since they were shackled and stolen from their homeland. The history of the West is the history of colonization and of the state’s white supremacist imperative to criminalize bodies of color. America has cared more about property than about people. It has also made people property and normalized the objectification and dehumanization of bodies of color, from slavery to the rising privatized prison industrial complex.
My work is about liberty more than it is about property. Graffiti is an artistic form of civil disobedience. Many things have been illegal in this country, from integrated dining rooms and schools to shackled and forced laborers running for their freedom. Graffiti is form of a resistance: a “reverse colonialism,” as the journalist and cultural critic Greg Tate puts it.
Graffiti reconsiders who has the right to the city and who has the right to write the city, its history and public narrative. We used to tell the tired tale of Columbus discovering America. We know he was a tool of Spanish and European colonization, and that people existed on this land for generations before he arrived. We know the land we call America is stolen land. The language of the critics and the language of those who consider graffiti and youth culture to be only crime is the language of white fear.
We are in a culture shift. Soon the minority will be the majority, and I guess I understand why they’re scared. But no need to fear; the dismantling of white supremacy will make all people more free.
Kevin Coval is the founder of Louder Than a Bomb and the co-author of the play “This Is Modern Art,” which opened in February at Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago.