Kevin Coval sure knows how to pick the controversial subject matter. His previous book L-vis Lives! dives deep into the questions of race in American music and hip-hop culture. It is impassioned and rebellious without claiming any easy answers.
With Schtick, his newest book of poems, Coval tells his own story through that of others and vice versa. It looks at identity and heritage, oppression and transgression with a frank kind of lyricism and biting wit.
Where it gets controversial is naturally where it gets the most interesting. Coval is Jewish. “If you look at me, you talk to me, you look at my family, it’s just an ‘all-Jew everything’ kind of thing,” he said in an interview with The Electronic Intifada.
Raised in the suburbs of Chicago, hip-hop culture provided a way to find his identity. It’s these struggles — with his own heritage and his own beliefs — that lead him to draw some stark parallels between the historic oppression of Jews, the meaning of hip-hop and cultural resistance, and the occupation of Palestine.
What drew it all together, though, was watching how things have unfolded in Palestine over the past few years. “The increasing militarization of Palestine, the increased, unabashed colonialism that Israel and America practice on a daily basis; at some point it just becomes undeniable and becomes impossible to talk about anything else,” he said.
“The Mavi Marmara [Israel’s deadly 2010 attack on a Gaza-bound humanitarian ship], the bombing of Gaza; if you’re going to be a Jew in this country or in the world, or just somebody who gives a shit about basic human rights, if you’re going to keep your ears or eyes open then it becomes impossible not to point out. All of those things together made it so that this was the moment for this book.”
Will this get Coval into some hot water with the bastions of Zionist zealotry which seek to control the parameters of discussion? Quite possibly. Some of the poems themselves seem to pre-empt the familiar tropes many like him are so often subject to: “self-hating jew,” and “what it’s like to be the disagreeable grandson of zionists.” And the Israeli state is built on an intensely selective reading of the history of Judaism, one that quite often glosses over America’s complicity in anti-Semitic scapegoating.
Many of the poems in Schtick delve into this history that is all too often glossed over. Coval reminds us that anti-Semitism still pokes its way into a supposedly liberal Hollywood — a whole section of the book is dedicated to dissecting the walking crime against filmmaking that is Mel Gibson. Coval reminds us how popes have connections with fascists and war criminals, and of the racist, union-busting Henry Ford’s admiration for Adolf Hitler.
All of this provides background for Coval’s portrayals of his own struggles and the fight for Palestinian liberation today. “For the first time I think in the history of Jews, we’re able to become full-fledged white people,” he says. But, citing James Baldwin’s The Price of the Ticket, he said that Jews have also sacrificed a great amount of their identity for this privilege, and have gained precious little in return.
“We look differently at the world than we used to,” he said. “We’ve tricked ourselves into believing that just because we live next to Aryans then we’re okay … We are in bed with evangelicals who ultimately think that Jews need to be in Israel — which helps determine their foreign policy — for a ‘messiah’ to come and ensure the erasure of Jewish people. It’s crazy that we would be in the same political action committee as people who think that we are going to go hell.”
Such observations don’t just randomly drop out of the historical ether. It’s well-documented that Arthur James Balfour, Winston Churchill and so many other of those most ardent in bequeathing Palestine to the Zionist project also happened to be dedicated anti-Semites.
But over the past sixty years, Jewish identity and identification of Israel have been so deliberately intertwined that any criticism whatsoever of the latter’s apartheid regime is equivocated with anti-Semitism. It’s an accusation that — as many have pointed out — is itself anti-Semitic. It’s also unfortunately a tactic encountered by Palestine solidarity activists today.
Coval’s effort to unpack all of this poetically is at various turns both funny and moving. Even seemingly goofy moments — such as when he recounts being offered a bacon-infused martini — delineate the contours between everyday Jewish life and everyday American life in sneaky and deft ways.
At other times, Coval is much more straightforward, especially when profiling his family. “I think of my dad having to work on Yom Kippur,” he said. “You know, my dad having to participate fully in capitalism in a way that was an affront to our Jewish way of life.” These pieces — related mostly through a much younger Coval’s eyes — play almost as allegorical dream-states: odd but engrossing all the same.
What’s more, the themes of cultural appropriation and manipulation give the reader a rather unique viewpoint on Israel’s apartheid regime and the need for solidarity with Palestinians.
In a stand-out poem, “portrait with midrash of israel’s favorite rapper,” Coval takes to task Israeli MC Subliminal: “he is trying to make zionism chic / literally paid by the government, a snitch … who is critical of young people resisting / military service.” He describes Subliminal’s music as “c+c music factory meets a minstrel show / meets a zionist separatist rally.”
“The story is what it is,” Coval said. “You know, he got into rap and of course like a lot of white kids was super interested in the criminalized black body and all that image[ry], so he starts to mimic American gangster rap — but in Israel, and divorced of politics.
“Early on, Subliminal was cool with one of the kids from DAM — the Palestinian hip-hop group. And then Subliminal’s politics got increasingly reactionary, conservative, racist. And at one point the kid from DAM said he couldn’t go to his shows because they wouldn’t let him across [the checkpoint] and Subliminal was like ‘yo, fuck you, B.’
“It basically fractured that relationship. The irony is clear. How do you take, appropriate, bastardize a culture that is not only about bringing voices at the margins to the center of civic discourse, but also a culture that has used its various artistic and aesthetics innovations to challenge the dominant culture; how do you take that and then use it to espouse a fascistic, pro-militarized, pro-police state ideology?
“It’s the equivalent of a neo-Nazi doing rap, or a Klansman doing rap.”
Struggle for identity
The final section of Schtick is pointedly titled: “all the pharaohs must fall.” It explains why the author stands — as a Jew — with Palestine. He jumps from pleading with his father to not be mad at him for speaking out against Israel to recounting how the Israeli military shut down the Palestine Festival of Literature in 2009:
students and administrators feel
this presence, this growing mass
who knows the hummus in the cafeteria
stinks and supports military brigades
& knows Finkelstein was denied
cuz of his commitment to rigor & truth
this growing mass of Arab youth
who begin to ally with Black
Coval leaves readers with a powerful notion: that the struggle to forge a new identity, and to win a world where those identities can be worn with pride and freedom, means fighting for others to do so too. More and more, young Jews are showing their solidarity at Palestine demonstrations with messages like: “I am Jewish and I want Israel to stop killing Palestinians,” or “Judaism does not equal Zionism.”
It’s as much an effort to reclaim one’s own heritage as it is to protect another’s. There’s an old saying from the labor movement for that: “an injury to one is an injury to all.” Coval’s book just puts it in a new way.
Alexander Billet is a music journalist and solidarity activist living in Chicago, and runs the website Rebel Frequencies (www.rebelfrequencies.net). He is the author of Sounds of Liberation: Music In the Age of Crisis and Resistance. He can be reached at rebelfrequencies [AT] gmail [DOT] com.