Chinaka Hodge Filters Life Through Hip-Hop
"Dated Emcees," the Oakland poet and playwright’s new book, expresses her views with a hip-hop perspective on societal phenomenon from rape and race to death and truth.
Chinaka Hodge reads at The New Parish during a book release party for "Dated Emcees."
Photo by Pat Mazzera
Poet and playwright Chinaka Hodge is the master of humor that hurts. Reading the 25 poems collected in the Oakland native’s latest book, Dated Emcees (City Lights Publishers), you laugh, then feel the pinprick chaser of hard truth.
“Usually people don’t describe my work as fun or light,” said Hodge, in a recent interview. “Most people talk about my plays and poems being race-based or charged. With this first major book release, it’s the most fun I’ve had.”
Hodge, who holds an MFA from the USC School of Cinematic Arts, has been recognized as an emerging talent, has made poetry her livelihood for more than a decade, and is a founding member of a collaborative hip-hop ensemble, The Getback. Her writing has been featured in national and local outlets as well as on HBO’s Def Poetry.
Currently, when she’s not enlightening audiences as curator of contextual programming at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Hodge is toppling domino opponents. “I’m currently ranked 12th in dominoes. There’re 70 members in the league, mostly men. They don’t care about my life as a performer or writer,” she said.
Hodge grew up “all over” Oakland, the eldest in a middle-class family with eight kids. Although the bonds are tight—brother Chukwudi Hodge collaborates with her on music to accompany the Dated Emcees poems—she suggests that having outlets to ease a world of hurt is necessary for her and her brothers. “Black men are seen as either beasts or magical creatures; two things that can’t be controlled. There’s no choice for them to be something other in society.” Hodge’s other forms of release are binge-watching Law and Order: Special Victims Unit and taking West African dance classes that make her sweat but also release words that come “one little piece of a line at a time.”
“My best writing has been after a breakup, or after a big fire we had—and other moments of tragedy when my own grief is surprised and pride isn’t in the way,” she said.
Dated Emcees illustrates hip-hop’s influence on her perspectives on love through a variety of voices. Black culture emerges as the superstar, but in Hodge’s deft, subtle hands, universal themes, stark truths, haunting implications, and ironic twists transcend race, age, and other dividing categories.
Ending the 24 haikus that compose “small poems for Big,” Hodge writes: “of all the lyrics/the realest premonition/rings true: you’re dead. wrong.” Rapper Christopher Wallace—The Notorious B.I.G.—was killed in a drive-by shooting in 1997. “I wanted to get out of the poem with the lyric. That hook is so final. Just the sound of the beat is a dirge.”
Hodge said Wallace was prophetic about his life. “Over and over, he called for his death, bullied people into it. I just wonder about that disposition in a black man that would ask for death to come. What responsibility do we, does the shooter, and did Biggie Small have? If you say something enough, you can bring it into fruition. He was asking to die. Could he have undone it by speaking more life than death? People who know his lyrics well—I get a little jolly out of people laughing, then getting a little pain out of that moment.”
Other poems including “on being the other woman” ricochet like a rant. “It was cathartic, but I’m so glad I didn’t get what my 24-year-old self wanted. That poem’s most like a baby picture,” the 32-year-old writer said. If it is, it’s balanced by the nuanced and sophisticated imagery and symbolism of poems like “bouncing back.” Working with ideas that she relates to rape—weightlessness and traps—Hodge thought first of butterflies. But a moth in a shoebox is also beautiful and haunting, she said. The poem reads, in part, “I will turn my thoughts to moths and free them one at a time into a shoe box. I’ll shake the cardboard and rattle the flightless things ’til their wings fall off.” Hodge wonders if victims of sexual assault by well-known musicians miss out on healing when they hear their assailants’ songs on the radio.
Hodge decides which poems are best for stage or the page by performing them in front of a mirror. A quiet poem that builds slowly and transcends pop culture references will progress to a book. A poem like Bulletproof Dress will never make it to a book, she said, but spoken aloud, it fuels her courage to deliver other poems whose rough, raw content might cause her to pull back. Hodge’s ear for rhythm and pace—and a hyperawareness about delivering surprises—is always evident.
Primarily, Hodge chases a muse that telegraphs intimacy before intricacy, truth behind trauma, and love that tickles hard enough to hurt.
Published online on Sept. 12, 2016 at 8 a.m.