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Kevin Mitchell seeks poetic justice with Words from a Field Negro 

click to enlarge Local emcee Kevin Mitchell, of A Black Day and Fidel RedStar fame, has made his first venture into poetry with his Words from a Field Negro collection. - LINDSAY MARONEY
  • Lindsay Maroney
  • Local emcee Kevin Mitchell, of A Black Day and Fidel RedStar fame, has made his first venture into poetry with his Words from a Field Negro collection.
‘Identity politics” is a term you’ve probably seen in the last year or so, assuming you’ve read anything even tangentially related to politics, culture, media and art. It’s a concept well worth discussing, but the most curious thing about the phrase, to my mind, is how it’s almost always weighted with some sort of implied meaning. Aside from making an objective discussion tricky at best and impossibly bogged down by pointed assumptions at worst, it’s certainly a reminder of the complexities and hidden shades of language.

One person who knows a bit about language, identity and politics is local emcee and activist Kevin Mitchell, who should be familiar to local hip-hop fans for both his solo material and his role in the groups Fidel RedStar and A Black Day.

Mitchell’s most recent album with DJ Lord Damage, 2017’s Hannibal’s at the Gates, was a powerful and overtly political collection of revolutionary songs. Now he has turned his attention to the written word, releasing a volume of 17 poems titled Words from a Field Negro.

The book, Mitchell’s first, is described as a “portrait of an unapologetic Black male — a raw perspective of a modern-day ‘field Negro’ in American society.” Even for those well versed in Mitchell’s talent on the mic and his ability to work a good turn of phrase, the book is still an impressive debut, its generally brief poems brimming with an emotive honesty and succinct anger at the injustices faced by the black community in modern America.

The musician’s venture into poetry was inspired by family member Hope Mitchell, whom he says urged him for years to collect his poems and lyrics in a book. “Mostly to keep the papers I kept leaving around out of her way,” laughs Mitchell.

He also cites his mentor Rosemary Lytle as an inspiration, noting that he had never read any of his poetry aloud until Lytle asked him to open a meeting at the NAACP State Conference with one of his pieces.

Mitchell’s use of language in Words from a Field Negro conveys personal and political anxiety, pain and fatigue with an often visceral realism. The opening poem, “Intro,” sets the tone quite deliberately with its first couplet: “the field Negro bore the bullwhip scars on his back / cuts from the cotton, the torment of torture.”
What emerges from the collection as a whole is a vivid portrait of black identity, in the sum of its physical, mental, emotional and spiritual facets.

The body is also a recurring theme in Mitchell’s poems, and a repeated target for appalling violence and racism.

The opening of “Not for Us” lays this physicality bare through blistered hands, bones and “coal bodies” dangling from tree limbs.

The motif brought to mind a surface similarity to author Ta-Nehisi Coates’ 2015 bestseller Between the World and Me. However, it is never used as an obscuring or passive metaphor, as R.L. Stephens suggested in his critique of Coates. The violence enacted upon the body — and mind — in Mitchell’s poems is starkly unnatural, even absurd, leaving in its wake “a hunger for justice.”

The identity Mitchell explores shifts through the personal vignettes of “Soul,” “Revolutionary Love 2.0,” and “What I Am” to the more historical settings of “Lynching” and “Church.”

While it might transcend temporality and division, the voice of this poetry always speaks with a clarity; it is a voice ready to fight and live with a defiant, indomitable purpose.

Which makes sense, when Mitchell explains his guiding light for writing.

“More so than a basis for any political ideology,” he says, “my thoughts, art, and actions are guided by me and my community’s experiences as a necessity of survival.”

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