Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Much Ado About Street Lit - Part II*

True, hip hop came from the streets. Theres also no denying the overlap that exists between some aspects of hip hop subculture and the underground economy, and this is most notable in the musical genre called gangsta rap. But anyone who truly knows both the history and politics of hip hop knows that hip hop and gansterism are NOT synonymous.

Nor does one need to know that history to see how false this equation is. Just think for a moment. Al Capone, Meyer Lansky and James Whitey Bulger were all gangsters. Are they hip hop? We cant deny that Mos Def, Lauryn Hill, Common and Queen Latifah are hip hop. Would you call any of them gangster?

When people like C. Delores Tucker and Stanley Crouch unilaterally dismiss hip hop, its because they do not know its socio-political history. They do not know, for example, that when Afrika Bambaataa Aasim founded the Universal Zulu Nation in the Bronx River Projects and helped develop this phenomenon we call hip hop, his intention was to combat gangsterism. A former division leader of the street gang the Black Spades, Bambaataa turned away from gang life after a life-changing trip to Africa. Wanting to put an end to the useless blood shed, Bambaataa encouraged youth to channel their energy through creative expression and artistic competition. The block parties he organized were about keeping the peace and building community. Therefore, at its birth, hip hop subculture was an alternative to violence and a rejection of gang activity.

There are many hip hop artists and activists who uphold this socially conscious vision for hip hop that you will never hear on commercial radio or see on mainstream television. And just as hip hop has gone global, these people are all over the world. We could discover them if were less addicted to the U.S. mainstream media and more active in our quest for alternative sources of information.

I confess that I tend to be a purist when it comes to how I define hip hop (or haven't you noticed?) When I say hip hop, I refer to the four creative elements that comprise hip hop subculture DJing, MCing, b-boy/b-girling and graffiti. When conversing with people about what constitutes a hip hop aesthetic or sensibility in something like literature or cinema, my narrow definition has received some compelling challenges. So compelling that I am considering broadening my view. However, I have yet to hear a single credible argument why Scarface should be considered a hip hop film or that any street lit novel should be referred to as hip hop lit.

Ask the majority of street lit authors who are their literary influences, and they almost always name Donald Goines and Iceberg Slim. Indeed, they are very proud to do so. They are quite knowledgeable of these authors's work and strive to follow in their footsteps.

As a hip hop novelist, I identify with a different literary tradition. When asked whose literary legacy I hope to follow, I name authors such as Richard Wright and James Baldwin who were known for their very gritty yet politically charged tales. I also claim the poets of the Black Arts Movement of the 60s and 70s because they are the artistic forbears of hip hop especially rap. Emcees, lyricists and other hip hop practitioners of the spoken word who also pride themselves on being socially conscious individuals and cultural activists cite such poets as Amiri Baraka, Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez and Gil Scott-Heron as their literary godparents.

What of The Coldest Winter Ever by Sister Souljah? I have tremendous respect for Sister Souljah, and I ate up her debut novel as did millions of other readers. Her activist credentials and her grounding in hip hop are unassailable. But despite my admiration of Souljah, I cannot be consistent in my definitions and consider her work to be hip hop lit.

If anything, The Coldest Winter Ever is street lit of the highest caliber. I just wish that more authors who claim Sister Souljah as a literary influence were as enamored with her command of craft and her ability to interweave relevant social issues into a page-turning story as they are with her realistic language and dramatic plot twists. Of course, Im no different than they are in the desire to see my novels one day enjoy such a wide readership. But for too many authors, the desire to emulate Sister Souljah stops merely at matching the number of copies she has sold. (In fairness to authors of street lit, this can be said of most novelists in every genre in the publishing industry, and I have expressed similar dismay with the prevailing mediocrity in all factes of entertainment.) It saddens me that in the wake of her commercial success, people have overlooked some of the profoundly and unapologetically political elements of The Coldest Winter Ever. True to the activist that she is, Sister Souljah has several important messages in that novel, and they are rarely acknowledged let alone discussed.

So I often say at my readings and signings, If it isnt about hip hop, dont call it hip hop lit. And I make it clear that it need not be about the entertainment industry for it to be a hip hop novel. Millions of people around the global are practicing hip hop, none of whom well ever hear or see. And believe it or not, some of them couldnt care less if they ever sign a record contract or appear on television.

Does this mean that a book cannot be both street lit and hip hop fiction? Absolutely not. Some fundamental connections between hip hop and the streets exist, and these positive and negative alike are obvious to us all. But hip hop and street life are not one and the same, and I have read very few novels that straddle the two genres.

Why does any of this matter? It matters because contrary to popular belief, entertainment is not apolitical. If we look closely and speak honestly about the recent trends in the publishing industry with regards to Black fiction, we discover just how political entertinament truly is.

* This commentary remains incomplete and will be written in multiple parts. At this time, I anticipate that there may be three to five segments in total over the next week or so. Therefore, please understand that I will not publish your comments or post my replies until the complete piece is finished. Thank you.

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