Chinaka Hodge’s talent seems to have no limit. She’s written an experimental play starring Daveed Diggs, the Oakland-born rapper recently nominated for a Tony for his role in Hamilton. She’s a hot-as-hell guest MC. She’s written a screenplay that earned her a fellowship at the Sundance Institute. She’s made an impact as an educator with Youth Speaks, the influential poetry nonprofit that impacts kids’ lives across the Bay Area. She’s teamed with the director Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale, Creed) on a new drama series about young people affected by institutionalization. And she has a sense of humor: check out her acting role as a gun-toting criminal with an elderly lover in the Harold and Maude-gone-amok video for Atmosphere’s “Kanye West.”
On top of this already stacked resumé, Hodge is a well-received poet. Her second poetry collection, Dated Emcees, comes out in June on the City Lights imprint Sister Spit. Hodge grew up in Oakland, under the influence of hip-hop and nineties East Bay culture. In fact, she’s a founding member of collaborative hip-hop ensemble The Getback, along with Daveed Diggs and others. In this new collection of 25 poems, she examines her own life through the lens of hip-hop, modeling the book’s length on a classic double album.
The collection’s title poem is a scathing critique of “washed-up” rappers “otherwise known as old dudes rocking old fits” and hitting on teenage girls. Hodge’s narrator goes to a party in New York, where she’s propositioned by a man “round greying in a shirt that came with the pants / and a pair of gazelles actually older than my father.” He hands her his coke-white business card, and, as it turns out, the old guy is Positive K: You might remember him from the 1992 song “I Got a Man.” You can guess how the young lady responds to his groupie treatment of a woman two decades his junior.
The poem sets the reader up for the rest of the collection’s excellent mix of humor, tragedy, and sly cultural and political allusions.
“Title track” opens with this powerhouse stanza:
no jazz men left: I date emcees,
tries to rehabilitate them,
into honest, working stiffs
i foot the bills, handle
the losses them come
loud leave softly
fall short break
The opening functions as a bit of braggadocio about all the rappers the narrator has hooked up with over the years, the men of “fast dishonest / words, thoughts, childish aliases” that morph swiftly into the “lames i held / on too long / way past / time.” The voice is harsh, unforgiving, a spotlight shone on all players involved, and on the futility of playing the same games over and over, until you end up “in the studio / four am red bull / china shopping / married to / same old / acts” — a familiar scenario to anyone that has spent any amount of intimate time with musicians.
There are 24 haikus for every year of the life of Notorious B.I.G., and couplets for every year of Tupac Shakur’s life, including one for the late Afeni Shakur: “your dear mama, eschews her crackfiend fame / afeni becomes a household, recognized name.”
Other poems like “One Being the Other Woman,” “First Date with the Engaged Rapper,” and “Life is Good” speak of betrayal, the loneliness of being the second choice, or the disgust at discovering you’re the one being cheated on.
“The Ballad of Hollywood” captures the impulsive, destructive nature of anger; how a drink spilled on a prized silk shirt can lead to an explosion of violence, changing the entire course of a night out at the club. Hodge explores how violence infuses certain men with energy, offering a way to truly feel all the feels.
You got to understand, he knows it’s fleeting
but when he draws someone’s blood away
from its course and holds it in his mouth
and fist at once he tastes tomorrow
he does feel like a new man
thumps a fist against his heart
Dated Emcees hits hard from beginning to end, but “The Oscars: an epic” is truly brutal in its insight about systemic racism and the aftermath of the killings of Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, and other young black men.
When they said it was fine for the boy to lay there
and the killer to walk. I was just outside of Folsom, drove
straight to his house. Waited for him to get off set.
He held me while I sobbed.
The arrests, the profiling, the random sanctioned violence: “Everyone black man I love been through it,” writes Hodge.
Ultimately, this is a book that begs to be read over and over, like a favorite album that you play morning ’til night, until you know the lyrics, secret messages, and hard-won insights as intimately as you know your own beating heart. Dated Emcees is another gem from one of Oakland’s best.
Chinaka Hodge appears at Freight and Salvage on June 2, with Saul Williams and Black Spirituals, as part of the Bay Area Book Festival. Hodge also appears in a Q&A with Mona Eltahawy and a panels with Rebecca Solnit, Aya de Leon, and Julia Serano at the Book Fetsival on June 5. Details here.