Chinaka Hodge is an award-winning, poet, playwright, screenwriter, and educator. She's also an Oakland native, Berkeley High graduate, and killer hip hop artist.
A master of many genres, Hodge is well-known for her spoken word performances on HBO's Def Poetry Jam. Her debut book of poems, Dated Emcees, was published by City Lights earlier this year and was described by San Francisco hip hop artist and poet George Watsky as "a dropped microphone, and a direct challenge to anyone listening."
In between speaking at TED Women and revising her play Chasing Mehserle, an ambitious work that addresses the issues of race relations and police misconduct, Hodge made time to share some insight into hip hop, gun safety, and Oakland as a muse.
7x7: When did you start writing poetry?
Chinaka Hodge: Pretty early on. I have a bunch of short poems from when I was five or six years old, and then over the years I participated in a bunch of local competitions. In high school I joined Youth Speaks and The Living Word Project. They were doing performance poetry in the classroom and after school and I just fell right in with those folks. I didn't join the chess team or the football team; slams and open mics and bridging literature and poetry was much more my jam.
How would you give an introduction to hip hop?
First I would ask what music you listen to, what music do you like? Hip hop is all about narrative-based storytelling and awesome bridges (like indie folk). It's also all about a great beat and the improvisation that can happen within 16 bars (like classical and experimental jazz). Hip hop is really a way of people synthesizing all the music that they heard growing up, sometimes speaking over it and sometimes sampling from it. Old and new.
You were in Atmosphere's music video "Kanye West" a couple of years back. Tell us a little about that experience:
The goal was to basically recreate a Bonny and Clyde story with two unlikely subjects. I got to play Bonny, which is definitely more bad girl than I actually am and is a trope throughout hip hop. It was crazy being a love interest and sharing an on-screen kiss with a 72-year-old businessman (former SF arms dealer Andy Takahashi) who had never kissed anyone but his wife. He ended up being a very unlikely friend.
Tell us more about that.
I'm not really one to make friends with an arms dealer, but we had a really great time on set and he sort of changed my position on the way people access guns. On the set we used real guns from his shop and he taught me how to assemble and disassemble real weapons. I feel like knowledge is a tool to safety. An unlikely sense of friendship and an unlikely sense of safety came out of the music video for me. It was a fun project start to finish.
How has growing up in Oakland played a role in your artwork and artistic voice?
Many artists have muses in NYC and we don't really question that. For example, almost all of De Niro's films are set in New York, all of Spike Lee's films are set in New York. I want to set as many things as possible in a home that I know very well, that has stories as varied as its inhabitants. I think that the setting means everything and the Bay Area is one of the most culturally diverse places in the world. Oakland is always at the forefront of political activity. It's a good place to gather intel on race, class, gender—the things I write about most.
Your first play is described as a work of "magic realism"—how would you define that term?
Magic realism doesn't require the same amount of rules as, say, science fiction. Magic can be used as a way to symbolize race, class, or gender. In Mirrors in Every Corner, it's used as a way to identify traditional West African religious practices or traditional native imagery that show up in the work naturally. It's a way for the unseen or the uncanny to show up as everyday and commonplace, which is how a lot of folks of color have to live. It's a survival technique to see magic where others see none.
What was your inspiration for your newest play, Chasing Mehserle?
The main character (Watts) is a character from Mirrors in Every Corner. You meet him as a boy who sees what life was like for black men in the 90s through the lens of watching the Rodney King beatings on TV. He stays inside for the next 20 years and finally makes a resolution to venture out on December 31, 2008, the night that Oscar Grant was killed by Johannes Mehserle. The killing of Oscar Grant was a major trigger. I'd already been commissioned to write a sequel to the first play when that happened and realized that this was what Watts would have been facing if he lived in Oakland. I wanted to explore what kind of effect that would have on the character.
What was the initial response to that play?
We showed it for six weeks in front of sold out audiences from all walks of life—young folks, older folks, all races, genders, sexual orientations. It was really a beautiful crowd. I've had all sorts of folks tell me thank you. People were surprised to feel lighter leaving the theater than heavier. It was a good catharsis for me and I think for a lot of people moving forward. We're going to put it up in NYC next and I think that will be the test.
What message are you most passionate about conveying?
Dated Emcees is probably the least message-driven work of everything I've done so far, but it's the most personal. I managed to write a book that is filled with a lot of shameful issues without a lot of shame. Shame is not as productive as they would have you believe it to be—that would be my message going forward.