Interviews | Poetry

The Hip-Hop Poet

ELLIE MEJIA

ELLIE MEJIA

Nate Marshall met me in the middle of Hyde Park wearing a t-shirt bearing the names “Emmett, Amadou, Sean, Oscar, Trayvon, Jordan,” followed by a “&…”. The slam poetry star from the far South Side doesn’t soften the tone of his statements on race and violence when he’s offstage. Marshall achieved city-wide and even national fame in the critically-acclaimed 2010 documentary Louder Than a Bomb (LTAB), about a slam poetry competition of the same name, as a bookish high school senior from the “100s block” who focused his after-school hours and stresses on poetry. The then-eighteen-years old Marshall, a six-year slam-competition veteran, was portrayed as the elder of the teen competition. He won the 2008 final with a poem, “Look!” that ended with a thank you to the LTAB community for providing a forum to talk about “sex, drugs, basketball, and moms.” Now twenty-four, Marshall is coaching at the Young Chicago Authors summer program. After majoring in English at Vanderbilt, he continued his study of creative writing and poetry at the University of Michigan’s Masters in Fine Arts program. His thesis, titled “Wild Hundreds,” begins with a James Baldwin quote, “you don’t ever leave home.” He and the themes of his work show no sign of doing so. Marshall graduated in May, with at least four promising projects—many continuing his reflection on the South Side and violence—to be released within a year.  We sat down to talk about his growth as a poet, his upcoming work, and what “hip-hop poetry” really means. A poem from Nate Marshall can be found in the issue here

You went to college at Vanderbilt. What was that like, going from Chicago to Nashville?

You know, I love Nashville, and it’s weird because I didn’t expect to, and I think I even resisted it for a while. I think I always liked Vanderbilt, I had a good time there, I had a good experience there, but it was really different for me, and in some ways I think it was a really essential education. I think I began to understand some of the things that I had grown up seeing. I was able to understand them better, having had that distance, having had that perspective of living in different places.

Like what?

Like, for example, Vanderbilt’s hand signal, the “VU,” is similar to the gang sign for the Vice Lords. When I first got to college I wouldn’t throw it because my neighborhood back home was GD and even though I’m not affiliated it felt like a kind of betrayal. That’s maybe a small, stupid example but I think it illustrates really clearly the ways that our upbringing gets carried in our bodies without us realizing it until we have some distance to see that all of our cultural context isn’t universal.

How was Michigan after that? 

I had a good time in Michigan. I think I was really lucky and that my cohort and the cohort above and behind me were really cool; we got along pretty well and they were generous readers of my work. I got a lot of positive reinforcement in Michigan that I didn’t really expect to get.

In what way?

Like, I won awards when I was there—a lot of things happened for me there that didn’t happen in Vanderbilt. What I thought had propelled me at Vanderbilt was my sort of just knowing this is what I wanted to be doing, whereas at Michigan there were actually external forces saying, “You’re on the right track, you’re doing the right things. The work you’re doing here is valuable and valued.” But it was cool. I think the poetry community in Ann Arbor was cool and fed me in a couple of interesting ways. There was a fellowship through the university that allowed me to teach for Inside Out, which is a youth organization that works in Detroit, so that was great. I loved Detroit and my students. One of them just texted me today: “Can you teach me about line breaks?”

What have you been working on since grad school?

So right now I’m finishing up a chapbook, which is called Blood Percussion, and it should be out later in the summer. It’s framed as a meditation on violence, particularly youth violence, particularly here. So what frames it are these short poems, and some of them are published in the Beloit Poetry Journal as a single thing, but they are numbered based on the number of homicides that happened during my senior year of high school. So they go from one, starting on the first day of school for us, to my graduation day. That number, the last number, was 333.

So that has been much of the work. I’m also working on finishing up a hip-hop album, with one of my homies from high school, Jus Love, which we’ve been working on for a couple years now, but that’s finally coming to a close. I also have my thesis from graduate school, which is a manuscript, and which I’m submitting to publishers now. It’s called “Wild Hundreds,” and it’s about the South Side. In some ways. In some ways not! I think it’s a hard prospect to say what a book of poems is “about,” because it’s not narrative, not fiction, not about something. Poetry meditates on things.

I’ve also read a little bit about BreakBeat Poets, and I’m really interested in that. 

Oh, yeah, yeah! I forgot about that, I’m doing too many things. So the BreakBeat Poets is an anthology. The full title is, The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop. It’s sort of inspired by a number of anthologies, like the New American Poetry, edited by Donald Allen, that happened in the sixties, and also Black Fire, which was an anthology edited by Amiri Baraka, which puts forth some of the stuff about the Black Arts aesthetic. So our anthology is going to be released by Haymarket Press in, I believe, February 2015. I’m one of the editors with Quraysh Ali Lansana, who was formerly a professor at Chicago State, and Kevin Coval, who is the artistic director at Young Chicago Authors and also teaches at UIC through the school of art and art history. So the three of us are editing this thing, and it’s a bunch of poems and we’re sort of finalizing that this summer also. It has folks ranging from those born in the early sixties to the nineties—essentially youth. There are also essays in it. I guess what it sort of is hoping to do, or hopefully does, is make a kind of artistic or aesthetic argument for what “Hip-Hop Poetry” is or might be, and also just how hip hop in general has impacted the artistic landscape or the landscape of contemporary poetry. At least for me, it’s sort of an undeniable truth that it has, but it’s one of these things that people in academia either really get but don’t have the knowledge basis to talk about it or are like, “That’s not true.” And those people are wrong, probably.

What would you say is hip-hop poetry? 

That’s a hard question. I think it can be many things. I think that I would first make an argument that hip-hop is not solely hip-hop. So the thing that we think about as the “hip-hop generation”—those folks who are engaged in youth-driven culture, kind of post-disco, post-soul, seventies up to now—the argument that I would make is that hip-hop is a part of that ecosystem but it’s not the only thing in that ecosystem; I think that house music is a part of that, I think that go-go music is a part of that, I think that Baltimore club, techno, music from Detroit, bounce music from New Orleans, all of these things are a part of that. Hip-hop is just sort of the main language that we speak because it was in New York, it was in the cultural center.

But I think that there are a couple of things that sort of build up a hip-hop aesthetic. Number one, I think the interest and ease and the use of sampling as an idea, just the idea of being able to pull from anywhere, I think that’s some super hip-hop shit. There’s a renewed interest in sound, in rhyme, in things being actually sonically pleasing. Because in a lot of ways, in the contemporary moment, minus a few folks like the New Formalists or shit like that, a lot of people have become really uninterested in the sonics of a poem. The idea of a rhyming poem is crazy for some folks in the contemporary landscape. And I think that hip-hop begins to introduce those things, or hip hop is a kind of narrative, or a narrative form that uses a singular “I” to speak to a generational “We.” So I think you see a lot of that stuff happening in poetry. And a lot of hip-hop was initially sort of sparked by poetry and poets. Amiri Baraka mentored The Last Poets who people consider the sort of direct forbearers of hip-hop. And then you go to the 1990s in New York and you see Mos Def and Talib Kweli were also in the same spaces as Saul Williams and Jessica Care Moore and a lot of the folks who sort of became a part of the slam generation in current-day Chicago. You know, Malcolm London and Chance the Rapper are in the same crew, and that shit is not a mistake, right! Like, Vic Mensa went to high school with me. I was the first person to take him into a studio. That’s not a coincidence.

Who were your greatest hip-hop and poetry influences when you started writing? 

Amiri Baraka was one of the first people I saw perform who made me wanna go and put some shit down. I saw him first on Def Poetry. A lot of stuff that happened on Def Poetry was influential for me. Gwendolyn Brooks, Haki Madhubuti, were also super influential to me. James Weldon Johnson has this book called God’s Trombones, which is all about black homiletic church tradition. It tells of these canonical sermons circa the turn of the twentieth century that were in the black church tradition at that moment. Richard Wright has this one essay that I always go back to called “Blueprint for Negro Writing.” Which is dope. He wrote it when he was in Chicago, when he was doing a lot of organizing of artist communities in Chicago and it lays out not only artistic principles but also what the artist’s responsibility is to the community, to one’s race, to one’s fellow artists. It’s not a mistake that all his shit is based here. There’s this book, I can’t remember the title, but the authors’ last names are Bone and Courage; they wrote this book [The Muse in Bronzeville, by Robert Bone and Richard A. Courage] that stakes the claim that Chicago’s literary scene post-Harlem in the 1930s was equally important to the development of black literature as the Harlem Renaissance. You have Gwendolyn Brooks, you have Margaret Walker, you have Frank Marshall Davis. Frank Marshall Davis is a big one.

In terms of hip-hop, I would say Talib Kweli—the song “The Blast” really made me want to write. The group, The Clipse were just rhythmically genius and had some of the illest flows I’ve ever heard. Mos Def, then and now, has influenced me, and Common. Who else? I think Biggie, though more now, I was sort of late to come around to Biggie. Big Pun can just rap circles around pretty much anyone. Black Thought is incredible. Lupe back when was someone I learned a lot from.

Do you rap a lot now?

I try to. I love hip-hop. I love rhyming. I like and still make records and I still enjoy doing shows and whatever. And a lot of my friends are still MCs or producers, so I’m still engaged in those communities.

You said in a recent essay, “A Code Switch Memoir,” that you developed a fondness for formal poetry. Was that after you were involved in slam? 

I would say that probably happened sometime around high school, but kind of concurrent to the slam. I think it was because I started looking at Shakespeare and started looking at sonnets and I was like, “You know what he’s actually doing? He’s writing shit in the common parlance, he’s using context to create new vocabulary—so he’s nouning verbs and verbing nouns to make new words.” Shakespeare added hundreds of words to the English language just by doing stuff like that. And that’s the same shit Chief Keef does. That’s what rappers do all day.

So when I went to college I wanted to study more “traditional” poetry because I felt like it was important to know that as well as I knew spoken word stuff or hip-hop stuff. I wanted to be well-versed, and that was really important and a really good decision for me in college. I had a professor named Mark Jarman, and he’s really important in the New Formalist movement. So he’s all about sonnets and formal poetry. At first when we met, we did not get along. But by the end of my time at Vanderbilt, we were really close, and I think we both taught each other a lot about poetry and how to think about poetry. My last year there we did an independent study that was about hip-hop poetry, and essentially we would sit in his office for a couple hours every week and we’d just argue. I’d play him Dead Prez songs, and Kweli, and they said things like “Yeah! Black people don’t trust books!” and he was like, “What does that mean? Why?” And then I’d write that in an essay. It helped me learn and think a lot about my aesthetic and what I thought was important, and I think it also expanded his ability to read work that was different from the things he had been taught and find literary value in.

Are the writing processes different for you, between formal and informal poetry, like the hip-hop or rapping that you do?

Rapping is different because I don’t have to worry about what the shit looks like. It’s all about sound, so the editing process is different. It’s just more purely sonic driven, instead of trying to strike a balance. The thing is, if I’m writing a poem, even if it’s not a sonnet or sestina or whatever, every poem has a form. So when you’re writing, you’re just sort of writing, and then I think after that you try to figure out what the form of the poem is. So I’ve accidentally written poems that are formal poems, but once I wrote a poem and later on someone pointed out, “This could be a pantun. You’re rhyming things in a particular way, so if you just shift a couple of things….” So I wrote a pantun, on accident. So there’s that, and then there’s the fact that every poem has a form—a lot of times it’s just about figuring out what that is, if it’s an infinite form or just a form specific to that particular poem or a kind of received form, like a sestina or a pantun or rap verse. I think that if I go into a poem knowing, “Oh I want to write a sestina, or to write a sonnet,” then that does impact the writing process. Sometimes it can be a little more artificial, which can be good or it can stifle it.

What are you doing next? 

I don’t know. I wanna get all the projects that I have in the air now, I wanna get them out. So the chapbook will be coming this year. Then early next year, the anthology. Hopefully I’ll get the manuscript picked up by a publisher in the near future, and then I guess beyond that, I have until May with this fellowship at the University of Michigan. And while doing that, I’ll be doing some work in Ann Arbor with the Neutral Zone, and also Young Chicago Authors here. And you know, beyond that, I don’t know, I’m a little open, which is exciting and a little nerve-wracking, but I’d be cool with going into academia, I’d be cool with doing nonprofit work, you know, maybe I’d be cool with doing some full-time artistry educational consulting. I could do a jillion things, which sometimes makes it hard to figure out what you’re actually trying to do.

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