Welcome to KQED Arts’ Women to Watch, a series celebrating 20 local women artists, creatives and makers who are pushing boundaries in 2017. Driven by passion for their own disciplines, from photography to comedy and every other medium in between, these women are true vanguards paving the way in their respective communities.
By now, Chinaka Hodge should need no introduction. As an MC and poet of two books (For Girls With Hips and Dated Emcees), she strings together words with intelligence, poignancy and wit; as a writer and activist, she brings deliberation and care to her work.
I talked to Hodge over the phone from Los Angeles, where she's a staff writer on the TV show Rise, set to air next Spring. But though you can take the poet out of The Town, you can't take The Town out of the poet; "I love every nook and cranny of Oakland like it’s a family member," she says. The proof's below.
These days it's pretty rare for an artist working in Oakland to have been raised in Oakland since birth. What kind of perspective does that give you in your work?
I think it's just one of the most diverse places in the world, and I feel like I got the best of the best growing up in the Bay. I got the best of ideas. I was raised by Black Panthers, and UC Berkeley professors, and a cadre of folks who were inventing what it meant to work in the non-profit sector, and forerunners in both black and brown education. I had a really great palette to pull from. I feel like that was a huge influence on me.
I grew up in all parts of Oakland. I grew up in West Oakland with my dad, and my mom lived in East Oakland in the flats and in the Fruitvale district, then we moved to the hills. I was in North Oakland as soon as I came back from college, and then I moved to Jack London right after that. I'm an all-city kind of girl. I love every nook and cranny of Oakland like it's a family member. That's something rare, and it can't really be manufactured. Even if you're a great artist from the Midwest or the East Coast that ends up in Oakland, there's nothing like being from there and being able to document what you know, what you've seen, what you predict, what's changed. We have a style all our own. It's like, you're going to write a certain way if you grew up listening to E-40 exclusively. You know what I mean?
Your book Dated Emcees tells a lot of your story in relationships with rappers, but it also speaks for so many other women on the other side of the stories heard on rap albums. What advice would you have for younger women attracted to, or hypnotized by rappers today?
Write your own music. Be your own storyteller. I spent a lot of time in my 20s dazzled by the talents of others, and not as interested in cultivating my own. I think that my 30s have really been about being unafraid to be great. That's something I feel decadent, or foolish even, saying aloud to you right now, but my advice to women who are hypnotized — that's a really good choice of words, "hypnotized by rappers" — I would say be your own delight, be your own best thing, like Toni Morrison.
That said, I was a Youth Speaks kid. I started performing at 14, and I wish I'd started later, to be honest. It would have served me to have spent a little less time in the limelight, as such a young person. I wanted to be a star when I was a kid, and I think that growing up on stage is hard. So I wish I'd started sharing my work a little later, maybe in my early 20s, but I will say I was blessed by being around so many amazing young poets from the time I was 14 until now.
You mentioned Youth Speaks, which had a big impact on you. What are some other places or people in the Bay Area who made you who you are today?
Oh, man. I'd have to say my parents, and my family. I'm the eldest of eight siblings. I'd say Sarah Tramble, who was my next-door neighbor and who passed away this year at 100 years old. Dave Eggers, and Michael Chabon, and Ayelet Waldman, who also helped contribute to the cost of my NYU education. I'd say 826 Valencia, as an organization, because of that. I'd say Youth Together, which did workshops at Berkeley High, and at Oakland Schools on agencies of freedom and power, when I was a high school student. I'd say Ile Omode, which is the private institution I went to that seeks to educate black children to be prepared leaders in the world. I went there. My parents actually started the school for us, and it's in its 30th year now. I'd say Shelton's Primary Education Center, and Gym Rompers, where I did gymnastics, and taught. I'd say Oakland Freedom Schools, and Allen Temple Baptist Church. I'd say Rick Ayers, man, and the classrooms at Berkeley High School.
I feel like I was so lucky to have been born in the right time, and place, and to have been raised by so many people who believed that young people should have art as a tool, and who invested in me. I don't know, I get emotional when I start talking about it. We talk about it as if one organization saves one kid's life, and I think the Bay Area is a huge web of a lot of organizations working together to change the way we see youth, and the way that youth see the world. I think it's easy to get bogged down with how crazy the world is, but I think we would do well to remember our resources. I had arts education, and I had it in the '90s, coming out of crack-era '80s Oakland. I had art when it mattered, and how it mattered. Yeah, I could go on forever.
Lately, Oakland is rapidly losing its black population. What can be done? Where do you see Oakland going?
To me, Oakland is as much an idea as it is a fixed place. Oakland is Daveed Diggs on Blackish, and on the Hamilton stage. Oakland is Ambrose Akinmusire in Tokyo. Many of those who can't afford to live there go out to proselytize about what Oakland was, or what Oakland is.
I am terrified of where Oakland is going. I'm really concerned not only that artists can't be there, but people I grew up with, and know, and love, they can't afford to raise their kids there. We're being supplanted by an influx of literally thousands of people every year who have no interest in investing in the established culture. It'd be like moving to Paris, and being like, "Fuck the Eiffel Tower. Fuck baguettes."
It baffles me every day, and I hope that the market moves in our favor, that developers are more conscientious about how art and culture are necessary in order to have a thriving city, and that art without context is just decoration. I think it's incumbent upon all of us to make the Bay Area what we want it to be — an affordable, safe haven for art and politics, as it's always been. We all make this very weird distinction that the technologists are the ones who are destroying the Bay Area, and I posit every single time that my mom has been a black technologist working in the Bay Area since the '80s, and she also had respect for art, and culture. She's also a transplant from the Midwest, but I think she moved here respectfully, and I think she moved here to try and improve the area, as opposed to being a succubus upon it.
Oakland will never die. I'm just dubious about what happens next.
While we're talking about hope in the face of hopelessness, you had a very popular poem recently, "What Will You Tell Your Daughters About 2016?" Some people wake up and compulsively check the news, and get out and march as much as they can, and ride this roller coaster of outrage and defeat. Other people are just trying to disconnect entirely. How are you dealing with it?
I'm trying to figure it out. I watched the whole election process, and I was pretty confident he was going to win, based on the way he was ruling the half hour immediately following debates. He's really set a model where Kim Kardashian can run next term, and win. We elected royalty, basically. No platform, all popularity, all media spin, all media cycles. I am hopeful in the face of hopelessness, because I believe that the universe operates in balance, and will balance itself out, just as water does, just as life does, and I believe that... I have a perhaps naïve belief that good will eventually prosper over evil.
My major advice for myself is to remain painfully aware, and not get caught up, while the White House does its prestidigitation act. I refuse to be distracted by one hand, while the other perpetrates war. I talked to Miss Tramble, the neighbor I was talking about before, right after the election. She was 100 at the time. I asked her was she worried, and she was like, "You know, I've seen many of these men come and go, and we all outlast them, so don't worry no mo', not one second longer." That's kind of what I've adopted. Stay vigilant, remain artistic, remain a truth-teller, put the skills that I say I've been honing for this moment to work, but not to be scared, not to be afraid anymore. That's kinda where I land.
A lot of your work is informed by a love of music, particularly hip-hop. What would you say are your top five hip-hop albums? Of all time, or right now, whatever, don't overthink it.
I'd say Noname, Telefone. I'd say Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly — this last album is not my favorite of his, I understand how it's useful, but I love To Pimp a Butterfly, and a bunch of my friends are on it. I would say clipping. — I like Midcity a lot, though their last album's great. That's the homey Daveed Diggs' rap group. What am I actually listening to? Outkast, Stankonia. That'd be up there. One more. Man, whose do I just love the most? I'll say, just because I hope the Queen returns, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Still the greatest ever.
What does your ideal future look like for women artists in the Bay Area?
That we are able to eat, work, breathe, and revolt without fear for our bodies, or our minds' injury. That we learn to use our privilege to extend the privilege to those without it. And that we get to knock "I Got 5 On It" at the end of every party.