Tuesday, October 9, 2012

From Gwendolyn Brooks to Chief Keef

In the worlds of American and African American poetry, Gwendolyn Brooks's "We Real Cool" constitutes the most well-known representation of "bad" black men in Chicago. Those young men in Brooks's poem abandon school, "lurk late," "thin gin," and participate in other activities that suggest that they are less than model citizens. Nonetheless, the catchy alliteration and rhymes of the poem as well as recordings of Brooks reading the piece make the spirit of the piece endearing and memorable.

These days, bad black men in Chicago are notable for their rhyming capabilities, but also because of their over-representation in the headlines for crime, violence, high numbers in prisons. When it comes to cool, bad rappers, Chief Keef is among the most prominent in Chicago. The New York Times recently ran a piece describing the young rappers rising visibility and infamy.    

Maybe someone like Keef represents a kind of descendant of those guys Brooks observed in her poem. Delinquent and defiant. But then, there's far more anger and violence with these cats than Brooks envisioned. In a recent tweet, Keef rhymed "I walk around da city like it don't matter / Da earth my turf nobody try me cuz dey kno better." In the realm of folklore, he is decidedly in the tradition of Stagolee, one of our most enduring bad man figures whose ghost has long haunted black and American culture.  

Brooks's poem, a persona poem written in the plural first-person, concentrates on a group of young men, "seven at the Golden Shovel," a pool hall in the city. The notion of hoodlums traveling together persists among folks like Keef; he is featured in the video for his most popular song "I Don't Like" hanging out, posing, dancing, and smoking with his crew.

I tried to read that crew through the lens of Brooks's work, as simply a group of cool young guys trying to have a good time. Of course, like "We Real Cool," you're inclined to wonder: where are the guiding parental or guardian figures are in the guys' lives? 

Bad Men as Muses for Black Poets
25 poems by or about black men  

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