for the disruptors

From Member Kevin Coval, Executive Creative Director, Momentum Worldwide, Chicago

This summer, these past ten months, have been eye-opening for many who believe in the sanctity of the status quo. 2020 has been a painful and deadly reminder that the world is grossly unjust and there are grand inequities in societies all over the planet. For many this seems to be new news. But there are those who had seen the norm as far from where normal ought to be.

For those who have been working to counter the commonplace, or are recently inspired to do the necessary work of challenging the traditional, take heed that you are not alone, even if at times it feels that way. Gain comfort that the impetus to disrupt sits in the core of our desire for justice and equity; some innate urging or pang that lets us know when something is not right. The internal compass that signals when “something feels off.”

That compass has driven the greatest of our species to walk toward the long arc of morality that bends toward justice, to paraphrase Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. But the dedication and discipline of King, and others of his ilk, might be daunting for the many of us who do not see ourselves as committed or courageous in a similar way.

Which is totally cool, and we should not have the pressure to be singular giants. It is a kind of false narrative anyway, given that great leaders are often representatives of greater communities where the many organize and toil day to day in historic anonymity. The narrative of the great individual is often tied to a patriarchal, hierarchical and white supremacist spin on ways to tell a story. A more inclusive approach to tell a narrative is to not discredit the role of any individual but to offer a more holistic account of that individual’s connection to communities of people who are similarly committed, courageous and ingenious.

All this is to say that the desire and legacy for disruption is rich and yours to inherit. And for me, a continual source of solace and inspiration is the radical cultural disruption that separately took place at the same time in the lives of disenchanted young people who created the largest transnational cultural movements the planet has ever seen.

Namely, I’m thinking about hip-hop as a disruptive counter-cultural practice, as well as the punk and skateboard cultures that all emerged around the same time in the early to mid-1970s as the country turned its back on working-class communities and actively disinvested from communities of color around the country, with perhaps no more glaring an example than the South Bronx in New York, where city officials literally left the neighborhoods burning, and in some of the most tone-deaf political theater in a long and painfully tragi-comic tradition of tone-deaf political theater, President Jimmy Carter showed up to the South Bronx in a bullet-proof limousine and waved to the people from the moon roof like a king.

And yet, in this despair, in that moment of chaos, deliberate disinvestment and lack of resources, young people took the tools they had access to, the things the culture had no use of, the fragments and shards of a rapidly deindustrializing economy—cardboard from refrigerator factories, their parents’ old vinyl, empty pools, aerosol cans—and formed radically inclusive communities based off of new and ancient creative practices. Graffiti art is to the Egyptian hieroglyphs as rapping is the oral history of scripture before its codification. Both arts form a public disruption or contestation to simply state: I exist, I am here!

And hip-hop’s first act, and I would argue skate and punk culture’s as well, was a celebratory gathering of a community—a party. Kool Herc’s Back to School Jam on August 11, 1973, at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the South Bronx, spilled over from the rec room into the adjacent lot and the imaginations of other young people around planet who had a similar drive to gather, and whose own internal compass was pointing them toward disruption, driven by the innate understanding that something was not right.

So listen to that voice. And gather with others in radically inclusive spaces to celebrate, debate and forge a new path ahead that is future-facing, fresh and accounts for us all.

Kevin Coval is an Emmy-Nominated, award-winning poet and author of Everything Must Go: The Life & Death of an American Neighborhood, A People’s History of Chicago & ten other collections, & anthologies. He’s the Creative Director and a founding editor of The BreakBeat Poets imprint on Haymarket Books. Coval serves as the Executive Creative Director of the Midwest for Momentum Worldwide and is based in Chicago, IL.