Poet and rapper Rich Robbins moves with purpose

The Chicagoan will take part in 'Schooled on Poetry' at Lincoln Theatre on Saturday, reading alongside Hanif Abdurraqib, Cynthia Amoah and Tim Seibles, as well as students from five area high schools.
Rich Robbins
Rich RobbinsMouna Tahar

Rich Robbins discovered poetry at a point in time when he most needed it, describing the form as an essential outlet that helped him to navigate a grief that for a stretch threatened to consume him.

“At that time, even the conversation about mental health wasn’t mainstream, so writing poetry became a way for me to cope, because I had just lost a family member who was really close to me,” said the Chicago poet and rapper, who will take part in “Schooled on Poetry” at the Lincoln Theatre on Saturday, May 11, reading alongside Hanif Abdurraqib, Cynthia Amoah and Tim Seibles, as well as students from Dublin Scioto, Grandview Heights, Independence, KIPP and Northland high schools. “And that [discovery] was really just the universe talking and leading me down a path – a healthy path – you know what I’m saying?”

Growing up in Philadelphia, Robbins said he had virtually no awareness of spoken word, receiving his introduction to the art only after his family moved to the Chicagoland area, where he attended school at Oak Park and River Forest High School and studied poetry under Peter Kahn, who would go on to serve as a mentor. Before discovering poetry, most of Robbins’ interests were rooted in fantasy, and he spent his childhood years devouring comic books, manga and anime. These more imaginative flights would frequently spill over into his notebooks, which the youngster filled with fictional short stories and sketches of wild, invented characters. As his once stable homelife started to show fissures, though, Robbins found less comfort in these escapes.

“As a kid, I was really fortunate to have a tight family nucleus. And when that was kind of unexpectedly disrupted, I tried to lean into that more fantastical stuff, but I couldn’t escape in a book, necessarily,” Robbins said. “And I tried therapy, which was interesting, too. But it didn’t really stick for me in the same way that poetry did. There’s something about reading and hearing other peoples’ ways of going through things, and how they synthesize information and traumatic events – even my peers. In high school, I was around people who were also dealing with the very real things I was dealing with, and that I didn’t know quite how to phrase. And that brought the fantasy to reality for me.”

In his first spoken word poem, Robbins unpacked his own self-image, delivering what he described as a humorous take on how he viewed himself in those years. “I thought I had a big nose, and I talked about my hair and being biracial,” he said. “And they were superficial appearance things, but they were also insecurities I was dealing with in high school.” 

Robbins continued to rediscover and refine this poetic voice throughout high school and into college, where he was part of the First Wave Hip-Hop and Urban Arts scholarship program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and learned under Danez Smith – another mentor and source of artistic inspiration.

Robbins has since taken the lessons learned from decades of spoken word and increasingly applied them to music, recording and releasing a series of solo records while collaborating with a who’s who of Chicago rappers, including Saba (“Play Me”) and Mick Jenkins (“Dreams”). “The good thing about being a writer is you can traverse all the different forms of writing however and whenever you want,” Robbins said. “Music and poetry, they’re siblings, in a sense, and I’m absolutely tapping into the lessons PK (Peter Kahn) taught us in high school about balancing figurative language with universal language with personal anecdotes. … All of that is still present in the verses I write.”

Music, however, allows Robbins to paint in emotional shades he said he sometimes found lacking in language, explaining how a piano or a saxophone can convey emotional shades and layers his words at times can’t. “And then we can be in conversation together on the same record,” said Robbins, who vividly recalled the feelings he used to get from music as a child, remembering how he would spin his father’s Earth, Wind & Fire records on family cleaning days, the windows open to the breeze and the summer air crackling with possibility. 

As with poetry, music has allowed Robbins to explore both himself and his surroundings in emotionally vulnerable ways. On the song “Soft and Tender,” for instance, he explored his relationship with his own father, these tendrils gradually spilling outward to explore the concept of Black fatherhood writ large, centering the beauty and vulnerability in this relationship that oftentimes goes overlooked. 

The concept, Robbins said, began to take root not long after he purchased his condo in Chicago, which he described as “this very adult decision,” and which almost immediately led him to consider more carefully the person who raised him into adulthood. “And that is my father,” he continued. “And so, it grew from this dedication to him … into exploring this narrative that Black men have tensions with their dads. And me and my father absolutely have our tensions. But at the foundation of everything is love.”

More recently, Robbins said he has written a number of songs exploring the concept of “anticipatory grief,” or the reality that the people he holds most dear, including his parents, at some point will die. The exploration stemmed in part from a larger internal shift he said has taken place over these last few years.

“I think there’s more purpose to what I make now,” Robbins said. “It wasn’t about purpose then; it was more just fun. Now, it’s like, this is what I do. … It’s about legacy and immortalizing the people that I love. And I think that’s what has been driving everything for me.”

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