Reviewed By Amanda Hildebrand
Poet, activist, educator, and spoken word/rap artist Chinaka Hodge has gifted us with her first book, Dated Emcees (City Lights Publishers, 2016), and shows us how hip-hop’s biggest names are history’s most tragic lovers, cheaters, victors, and martyrs, spitting and singing side-by-side with us in this terrible love game. Hodge takes us through her dating history of ex-emcees and emcee-exes a poem at a time, one for each lover and lesson, bouncing between the boundaries of literature, verse, and memoir.
Dated Emcees is a book of love poems, all things considered. If you feel lost in lovesickness, Chinaka Hodge knows where you’ve been. These are the everywoman’s love poems; poems for the infatuated woman, the dumped woman, the other woman. Hodge lets us into her personal memories of heartbreak that may feel all too familiar, and the reader pictures themselves alongside her in those lonesome gray days, counting quarters for the laundry and waiting for a call back.
Her stories are centered around women’s issues, speaking particularly to black female readers, as she challenges misogyny, violence, and colorism that permeate a popular culture centered on light, white, and straight-haired beauty.
Hodge’s confessional anecdotes are spaced between pieces about, inspired by, and dedicated to legends of hip-hop of now and days past. Haikus for Biggie and couplets for 2Pac; an internal monologue from the mind of “Mr. Carter” on the day of Blue Ivy’s wedding; an interview between Drake and Pac that night in Vegas, the two glaringly different artists reciting together in those last moments: oh my god/ oh my god/ if i die/ i’m a legend. Even though there are pop culture references buried in almost every stanza, you don’t necessarily need to be well-versed in hip-hop or its surrounding culture to understand Hodge’s message; but, as Hodge alludes to, there’s a difference between understanding and knowing. She writes to us as if we know, and we either keep up or we don’t.
Hodge is perhaps most well-known as a spoken word poet, especially for her past appearances on the HBO show Def Poetry Jam. You can hear that influence in Dated Emcees as the poems rush to sound in your head, kicking and jerking, pumping through your chest, begging to be read aloud:
i date lushes faded like grandpas
who crawl sixteen bars and get twisted
they run tabs more than they spit
swallow fake beautifuls
hen and mott’s apple
juiced stuck slurs stirs
one finger skyward
(from title track)
Hodge writes of past loves as if they were songs, their memory reverberating and echoing forever through her story, their words tattoos in Sharpie on the binds of history books, where the people will see them. Her subjects are saints enshrined in the timeless art of hip-hop.
Hodge reminds us of the comfort and healing that can be found in remembering pain as growth.
Female emcees are strangely missing from the armada of hip-hop figures filling the pages, despite the influence women in hip-hop have had on Hodge and her work. Perhaps she simply has never dated a female emcee; perhaps she wanted to focus specifically on masculinity in the hip-hop community. Her stories are centered around women’s issues, speaking particularly to black female readers, as she challenges misogyny, violence, and colorism that permeate a popular culture centered on light, white, and straight-haired beauty.
(from “light privilege or Lili speaks”)
The poems are tied together by the overarching idea that the past, and our ghosts from it, have direct influence on where and how we go in the future. If we watch ourselves make the same mistakes, forsake our histories, refuse to amend damaged pasts – then we’re resigned to the same heartbreak, over and over again. Hodge reminds us of the comfort and healing that can be found in remembering pain as growth.
Chinaka Hodge will break your heart, she’ll make you angry, she’ll make you guilty; but mostly, she’ll tell you the truth. Her confessions of heartbreak in Dated Emcees will speak to those who have loved, lost, and re-found themselves in the small places between the punchlines.