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Poetic justice 

Idris Goodwin sheds light on rap's hidden histories

Editor's note: This story was updated on Feb. 25 to reflect the correct date (March 10) for the Critical Karaoke launch party.

Multitasking, for most of us, doesn't go much beyond routine activities. We text, we email, we post on Facebook, we pretend to listen to someone. Nothing all that impressive, really, other than the fact that we're trying to do them all at the same time.

But for Type A personalities like Idris Goodwin, the juggling act operates on a considerably higher level: He writes award-winning plays and prominently reviewed books, performs on shows like Sesame Street and Def Poetry Jam, and teaches the history of hip-hop at Colorado College. The Detroit native is also the proud parent of a 2½-year-old son named Taos and a newly released rap album titled Rhyming While Black.

Plus, starting next month, Goodwin will be co-hosting a new monthly show on KRCC called Critical Karaoke, which he likens to listening in on a conversation between music nerds. It will air on Friday evenings at 7 and be rebroadcast on Sunday afternoons at 4, with a launch party scheduled for March 10 at Packard Hall.

A graduate of Columbia College and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Goodwin moved here to teach at CC in the summer of 2012, just a few weeks before the Waldo Canyon Fire broke out.

"My wife was eight months pregnant," he recalls, "and we were just like, 'What's going ON?' Thankfully we were downtown, which didn't get evacuated, but it was covered in that fog of smoke. We had a bag packed, and I was constantly checking the maps and listening to the radio. And it was like, at any moment, my son could arrive. It was really nerve-wracking."

Goodwin's life and multiple careers have since gone more smoothly. The success of his 2012 coming-of-age play How We Got On led to his being commissioned to write And in This Corner ... Cassius Clay, a play about Muhammad Ali's upbringing in Louisville. (It just debuted there.)

Meanwhile, his 2013 prose collection, These Are the Breaks, was praised by the New York Times for taking "grown man rap" — Goodwin recently turned 37 — to a whole new level.

Earlier this month, Goodwin threw a CD release party at the Mezzanine for Rhyming While Black. His set that night ranged from the Ferguson-inspired lyrics of "Song Speak for Itself" — "Who care about your release date / We in a police state" — to the less harrowing "Say My Name," about growing up with an African name in a suburb full of Marks, Tonys and Shawns.

"I call myself Idris," he says, pronouncing the two i's as long e's. "That's how my mama says it. But she's probably not sayin' it right."

Indy: You've already proven this isn't the case, but just as a thought experiment: If you could only have one creative outlet, what would it be? Would you write plays, would you write books, would you rap, would you teach?

Idris Goodwin: If there was no such thing as capitalism? If it wasn't about money, it was purely about creative expression?

Sure, we'll give you that.

I would rap, no question about it. Those other things are really fun and interesting. And rewarding, you know. Playwriting is my career, rap is my life. It's my passion. I've tried to step away, but it's just a part of my physiology. Like, there's no way I can't rap.

When did you start?

I don't know, I've been doing it forever. I've never thought about trying to be in the music business with a capital M and a capital B, but I've always wanted to do the independent thing and tour and do all that. Which I've done to a certain extent, but I've never gone all the way, full-out, like being in a van for three months.

But the moment I decided like, OK, I'm gonna actually record songs and make an album and try to get it out to people, I was 22 or 23 and I saw The Roots playing inside a gym at Northwestern University. I was dabbling with hip-hop in Chicago with a band. But we weren't really serious, we were just performing at parties and stuff. But then, when I saw The Roots perform, I don't know, it was just like, I have to do this. Like, I want to do this. Like, I can do this, you know? And that, for me, was when I got more serious about it. But I'd already been writing rhymes pretty much throughout my adolescence.

So when you appeared on HBO's Def Poetry show, did you meet [series creator and rap impresario] Russell Simmons?

Um, no.

Because that would be really cool if you did.

I didn't, but both DMX and Jill Scott were in my green room.

You can't ask for more than Jill Scott.

Yeah, but I was mostly fascinated with DMX, just because that voice that he raps with, that's like his actual voice, you know what I mean? He's just like [growls], "WHERE'S DA BATHROOM?"

Apparently, Geddy Lee from Rush is that way, too.

Oh, is that right? That figures. But yeah, it was fun. All that stuff is fun. I just call those "rest stops," where, you know, you're on this path, you have your career, and you have these little rest stops where it's something like, "Yo, it's HBO."

A lot of people would think, "This is my big break."

No, because it's still poetry. It's always gonna be poetry. It's never NOT gonna be poetry.

Which means it's going to be marginalized.

Exactly. It's just like, c'mon, you see the dreck that the public enjoys. People like garbage, man. Americans are weird. We're like, "Oh, we're gonna go to a museum! OK, everybody, let's get ready to look at high art now." But then the art that they interact with from day to day, it's like, they just want it to be disposable. They don't want to be bothered. They just want everything to be innocuous and operate on one level. So I know what I write about, and it comes from a very real place, and I'm very comfortable with that.

Who are the political hip-hop acts that you relate to? I'm guessing Public Enemy and Dead Prez are in there somewhere.

Oh yeah, all that. I mean, I'm a rap fan, period. I see the beauty and brilliance in everything. But yeah, that whole '88 lineup: Public Enemy, KRS-One's Boogie Down Productions, Big Daddy Kane, all that. Eric B & Rakim ...

The Coldcut mix of their "Paid in Full" is amazing.

Oh my God, yeah, it's great: "Def with the record / Def with the record." [Laughs.] It's like, that's just where it's at. I like everything that came after, but that's just the core to me.

I was reading These Are the Breaks after your CD release show last night, and a lot of it's really intense. But I noticed that your stage patter was pretty lighthearted, even when you were talking about race. Would you say you're using different tactics to reach different audiences with a similar message?

Yeah, well, since The Breaks is a collection of short standalone pieces, I knew that with certain pieces that got very intense or were very heavy, the reader can continue to go on or they can just stop. But for me as a performer onstage, that whole persona is like a blend of me as a teacher and stand-up comedy.

Richard Pryor is probably one of my biggest influences. He could pull the comedy out of the real. I didn't necessarily steer away from certain topics, but I think it was more the way I treated them.

When I kind of do my little banter in between, it's very much responding to the moment, much like a stand-up does, doing what they call crowd-work. It's also a way to bring people in and try to make them feel comfortable, because they were sitting away from the stage and there was this sort of lit emptiness between us. So I wanted to close that gap, and then later it just got very loose and jam-like.

I was struck by the piece in your book that opens with that really weird quote comparing recorded black voices to birds and beasts. ["Negros take better than white singers because their voices have a certain sharpness or harshness about them that a white singer has not. A barking dog, squalling cat, neighing horse and in fact, almost any beast or birds voice is excellent for the good repetition on a record."]

How did you FIND that?

Just diggin', man, just diggin'. I got really obsessed for a while with minstrel shows and the birth of the recording industry. And I happened upon this story about George W. Johnson, who was the first recording star.

The REASON he was the first recording star is because the recording technology was so crude and primitive, you had to have a super-powerful voice to cut through all the hiss.

Like Paul Robeson.

Yeah, yeah. [Johnson] was a street performer and so he knew how to do that. So the first recording star was a black man, you know what I mean?

And if you study his whole story, he was famous for these vaudeville minstrel songs. Racist songs like "The Whistling Coon" or "The Laughing Coon." And it's a black man singing these songs. So if you think about some of the songs that are really popular now, you know, by black men — if you think about what we hear on the radio — it's like, how far have we really gotten?

Can you give me some current examples you're referring to?

I think if you look at the Top 40, you'll know what I mean. The rap songs that, by and large, are most supported and most heavily consumed across America are not necessarily anything the NAACP are going to be giving awards to anytime soon.

This is not to say I think that these artists are destroying our culture. However, I do think that, for a large section of the population, this is the ONLY interaction that they have with Black America. And so if that's all it is, if every single song is espousing the same narrative, that's troublesome.

How would you characterize that narrative?

Just sort of a very shallow, one-note, kind of like, "This is a young, money-hungry person that hates women," you know what I mean? Just a very narrow, uncontextualized narrative.

Which might still be better than "The Whistling Coon."

I don't know. I can't call it. I mean, yes, the language — "The Whistling Coon" is obviously ridiculous — but again, there are certain songs that are in the Top 40, look at the titles.

Name one.

I don't know, I don't listen to it. [Laughs.] But you know what I'm saying. Like seriously, just take a look and you'll see exactly what I'm talking about.

And again, I'm not one of these crusaders that believes popular rap music is the cause of the end of civilization and all that. I mean, I equally indict the public that enjoys and consumes it. To me, it's more of a question of, "What do you all love about it so much?" more than I question, "Why did you make the song?" The dude made the song because he knows people love it.

I think it really is going back to: What is it that people are attracted to about certain images of young Black America? Think about all those gangsta parties that they do at the colleges all across the country, where these, you know, good upstanding white kids paint their faces and put on dreadlock wigs and gold chains. It's the same as the minstrel shows, you know, white performers putting on blackface. And then black entertainers did it, too. And so you see all these different ethnicities of people doing what they think is urban black culture.

Everyone's all twisted up about Iggy Azalea, and she's like, "I'm just being myself." But it's like, no, you've CHOSEN this persona to adopt. And even by us looking at it and saying, "Oh, she's trying to be black," even THAT'S problematic, right? Because it's like, why do we think that that's a black thing?

It's like when someone dismisses a black person for being "too white."

Exactly. All these little containers. It gets very dicey, and I think it it's a misconception that speaks to a very narrow view and an insatiable appetite for a particular type of imagery and aesthetic when it comes to Black America.

Tell me about teaching. What classes did you move here to teach, and what are you teaching now?

Well, that's one of the things I like about teaching at CC, they really let me teach whatever I want. I'm in the theater and dance department, so I teach playwriting and also spoken-word performance. But then I also teach a course in hip-hop aesthetics, which involves creating a historical framework and context, and then going beyond rap music into other aspects of it, like dance, visual art, sonic turntablism, everything. I just try to take the student on a journey that's a little deeper than just their favorite five rappers.

So artists like The Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron?

Yeah, we talk about the lineage. We go all the way back to Walt Whitman, you know, who was considered the first serious American poet, but who worked in free-verse.

And so it's like, we start there, and then we talk about the Beat Generation, and from there we talk about the Black Arts Movement. And then that's when we get into [Amiri] Baraka and Sonia Sanchez, and then Gil Scott-Heron and The Last Poets.

I would not have thought of Whitman being part of the hip-hop tradition.

Yeah, but I think it's very significant to have a writer say, "No thank you, I'm not gonna work in your English forms, I'm gonna embrace something entirely new that's true to ME." And I think that's similar to hip-hop, which is also a truly American form, so naturally it has some of that same defiance in there.

It's like, "This is what makes sense on MY block. I'm not trying to get into Juilliard or whatever. This is what WE know, and these are the references WE get."

Rap is so unique because it doesn't operate in terms of keys, notes, any of that. I mean, hip-hop is its own planet, but it's got pieces of everything in it. It didn't actually invent anything, but it's sort of reinvented and re-approached and flipped everything that it's drawing upon.

It's like, at NO point has ANY beatmaker or producer ever said to me, "What key are you going to rap in?" You know, it's just a different thing.

So what key do you rap in?

I can't tell you. It's top secret.

  • Idris Goodwin sheds light on rap's hidden histories

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