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How police harassment and hip-hop turned 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”

me & darnell crossed
at the stop sign
in front of a car ready
for getaway, like every car
in our neighborhood.

the voice shot out, a stray bullet
of accusation. stop, police.
our jog became sprint.
how could you blame us?

we were terrified

at the potential
of older versions
of us hopping out of the car
ready for the come up.

when the officer caught me
my legs crumpled
like the stubborn plastic wrapper
of a rap CD, finally ripped open & free

when the officer caught me
my grape pop tumbled to the crabgrass,

spilled like piss. my fear
or the fear i now evoked
when the officer caught me
i cried. i gulped

answers to his questions
i endured the slip of hand
into pocket. the groping
of birthday money

& the accusation of drugs
this was the first time i used
my magnet school namedrop
to subdue my scary

it was not the last time.

when the officer caught me
i fell hard into the reality
of being 13 & black
& wild hundreds.

darnell in his 3 year older wisdom,
a witness to my new manhood.
my answers to interrogation
a reading of torah.

the cop a rabbi at this bar mitzvah
this is how black boys are baptized
into black manhood while they are still
boys & scared & going

to get their backpack from grandma’s
crib for school tomorrow & scared
& learning how to steel a sobbing face
into a scary one.

This poem appears in Blood Percussion (Button Poetry, 2014). Nate Marshall is the author of Wild Hundreds (University of Pittsburgh) and an editor of The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop (Haymarket Books). His last rap album, Grown, came out in 2015 with his group Daily Lyrical Product. Nate is a member of The Dark Noise Collective. He won a 2015 Ruth Lilly/Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowship. He is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Wabash College.