How Police Harassment and Hip-Hop Helped Turn a Chicago Teen Into a Poet

Some poems are a long time coming. This is the story of one of them.

Nate Marshall was walking on a Chicago street the weekend after his 13th birthday when a police officer stopped and harassed him, he said. Years later, that experience would become “When the Officer Caught Me,” the final draft of a poem he started trying to write just after it happened.

That day forced him to confront the idea that as a black man growing up in Chicago, he could be at risk for harm because of the way someone else perceived him, Marshall said.

“With all the regular discomfort of being a 13-year-old in a 13-year-old body, your body now has a different import, because it’s beginning to mature,” he said. “You don’t just have to deal with how you feel about you. You also have to deal in a very visceral life-and death-way with how people feel about you and your body.”

As a young teenager, hip-hop was beginning to give Marshall an idea for how to voice his anger, a relationship he said he wanted to explore in the poem. “When the officer caught me, my legs crumpled like the stubborn plastic wrapper of a rap CD, finally ripped open and free,” he wrote in the piece.

At the time, “Hip-hop was making me feel like I had a right to be pissed off when things happened to me, and that I had a right to articulate that anger,” he said. “I wouldn’t be a poet without the police, and I also wouldn’t be a poet without ‘F*** tha Police.’”

Spoken word similarly empowers poets to speak to their experiences in a public way, one that is even more accessible to audiences than the printed word, he said.

“If I’m writing poems with the idea that I’m going to present them out loud, or present them in some sort of public way, the barrier for entry is much lower,” he said. “In some ways, I think the difference comes that the set of writers who are thinking in that way are thinking of their work as potentially populist and popular. They’re wanting to make it so that the work is accessible across difference, across class.”

You can see Marshall perform his piece above or read it below.

when the officer caught me

what is the age when a black boy learns he’s scary?
-Jonathan Lethem, “Fortress of Solitude”

Click here to read.

SOURCE: PBS Newshour – Corinne Segal