When Dark Comes to Light (My First Novel 14 years later this month)

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Youth are so remarkable.  This is not to say that I ever sleep on a generation.  I mean when I think of all that they dumped on the Gen-X Hip Hop Nation, it’s a miracle that any of us made anything happen at all.   Right after college, as I sat in my first apartment as an adult, I found myself drawn to telling a story about the dudes I left behind, all the young Black Men who didn’t choose higher education, who were trapped between the 9-to-5 life and their boys in the streets, unable to make a choice.  My parents made that choice for me, and I’m thankful to them for it.  I thought that the book that became Dark, my first bestselling novel,  was about other men and me telling stories.  But after I read the book from start to finish to my students last summer I saw all kinds of pieces of myself that I hadn’t recognized before.  I saw people and places, foreshadows of a future I didn’t see coming, that like most of us, I just couldn’t have.

After reading two chapters to this new class, my loudest and most brazen student, a half blonde, half black weave-wearing student with her tats, mid-riff showing and her determination to do things her way, heard my words and saw a truth within them that I couldn’t see clearly until she mentioned it today.  The book, which chronicles the story of Thai Williams, a 19 year-old kid from DC who walks in on his girl with another guy on top of her and the murder the subsequently forces him to leave town for the first time in his life to lay low in an apartment in Charlotte, wasn’t so much about the streets, or Black-on-Black violence, the golden age of hip hop, or anything else.  It was really about my fear, my fear of murdering a boy who betrayed my trust, someone who even now thinks that I didn’t know.  I just didn’t want to believe.  I wouldn’t care about it so much if he’d ever copped to it.  But he’s always assumed I was either too stupid or too loyal to call him out.

Time and distance are a funny thing.  As I’m not the 25 year-old I was when the book dropped, my current perspective clearly explains many things about the path of our friendship then and since.  Because the truth, overwhelmingly, was that he’d saved my life through his selfish betrayal.  That bullet I dodged would have surely killed me slowly as it wound through my gut, tearing me apart from the inside.  And the one with his name on it never left my chamber.  God stepped in to make sure that didn’t happen.

Until today, Dark has been the first child I never felt like I raised right.  I wanted to be Baldwin or Mosley or some literary archetype for the macho male when I was alpha enough as it was.  But I had to figure that out too.  Through all my books I was leaving this trail of breadcrumbs for my lower self to follow, for me to under why it went the way it went and to know that I most definitely wasn’t the loser in that particular triangle.  More importantly I’m glad that almost 20 years later it’s message and characters still say so much to so many.

To you, my dude, you are forgiven.  She was a mess you could’ve taken off my hands full-time.  I was worth more, and though it took me a long time to figure that out the lesson is worth it’s weight in platinum. I’m happy to see so much promise in this new batch of students and to wonder what other mysteries within they might help me unlock.

A Graduation

1 was 12 when my cousin Jesse was born and I was 17 when my sister Annia entered the world.  Now they are both college graduates, now fully-grown adults learning to put up with the same things we all do.  But as we celebrated it wasgood to have the whole clan with us. I hope you can see that in the pics ;)

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Midnight (Wanderlust)

After editing pictures for hours one’s brain needs oxygen.  The Saturday night air had cooled.  My spirits were high and I had for some reason chosen set foot on street at exactly midnight.  This is what is some of what I got,  Check my Instagram for the others.

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Ars Gracia Artis (aka Asphalt Interlude)

It was 1989.  And it was our turn.  Ten pre-teen boys stood in a circle near the open windows of Ms. Sylvia Turner’s choral classroom. My main man Marque Gibson was the beatbox, generating all the rhythm and tempo needed with nothing but lips, tongue and teeth.

Each boy took his turn standing at center, making his best effort at a completely-improvised or “freestyle” flow.  The ones who wrote their rhymes down earned much less respect.  It was all about riding Marque’s beat right there, in the moment.  He had slow ones and fast ones, even an “easy listening” one.  Each boy came and went, but it was my best friend ‘Bo who wore the crown.

‘Bo would come to center channeling a combo of 90s stars like  Big Daddy Kane, Mike G from the Jungle Brothers, and local go-go music artists like The Northeast Groovers and The Backyard Band.  ‘Bo was a monster on the microphone.   Marque was a master of the beat.   This should have been the beginning of a legacy.

‘Bo and Marque did two talent shows together.  Then, as student government president, I had them booked for a pep rally before the annual citywide Math and English skills test. Marque’s human drum skills nearly blew the speakers while ‘Bo struggled to keep his lyrics clean.  The crowd went wild, as rap had only taken the school stage a few times before, and with much less voracity.  I told them that it was time to do an album.

Marque had a Casio SK-1 keyboard and a matching drum machine in his basement. We agreed to meet at his house on a Saturday.  I remember watching Marque play around on the pads as we waited for ‘Bo to arrive.  But he never did.

On the phone he said it had something to do with his mother not wanting to bring him to 640, the rugged part of town where Marque lived.   But what I knew, deep down, was that it was stage fright.  It wasn’t the recording ‘Bo was afraid of.   It was the pressure of any future stardom.   He would grab the mic one more time as a frontman for the school’s go-go music group.  Then he saw Spike Lee’s Mo’ Better Blues and wanted to be a jazz man. Then Marque decided he only wanted to do music for the Lord, and quit hip-hop altogether for gospel.

Back then hip-hop had yet to become a full-fledged business.  There were no celebrity stylists or cliched champagne waterfalls.  Any rapper, even with only a minute or two in the spotlight, carried his own flag, representing his own individuality.  But that was before corporate America got hold, before what you tweeted in a few seconds mattered more than the album content it took you six months to write, and before icons died in the name of blood money, ego and hurt feelings.

Thinking about those playground days makes me feel like an old man, even though I’m still in my 30s.  I remember when you were lucky if new albums hit shelves more than twice a month.  Now you’ve got that many uploaded every 15 minutes…and all the shelves are mostly virtual.

I don’t hate hip-hop in her middle age. After all she’s got kids to feed.  But I do miss the years when she spread like a quiet disease.  We were all willing to try because it was fresh and new, an unstoppable force riding the rails of a tower that was just beginning to overshadow its people.

The Finnish-Chinese Girl Who’s Calling It Quits

I have a tendency to stumble across things.  Sometimes they’re bouncing through my head.  Other times they’re out in the world at large both online and off.  As my second language is movies, any conversation with me will feature references to at least a half dozen films, and Jennifer Tilly has always been one of my pocket fave actresses.  But I dug her most in The Getaway and The Wachowski Brothers Bound.   Tilly has backed away from acting for the most decade or so to focus on playing professional poker. But now she’s thinking about getting out.  She wrote this dope piece for Bluff Magazine that I stumbled across.  And it struck me particularly because I’m thinking about quitting my day job.

As money from writing is absolutely unreliable in a world where the status and tweet reign supreme, I had to find other ways to make dough.  But this particular job forces me to live a nocturnal life that I used to indulge in for kicks.  It’s like I’m going to bed when I should be getting up for yoga. Plus it puts me in contact with all kinds of unpleasant entities, and more importantly, unpleasant truths.  But as I’ve never been a quitter (at least not really) this is a serious conundrum for me, one which I can’t solve in a single blog post.   Nor will I be able to resolve it anytime soon. So I’ll keep deliberating day by day until I come to some conclusion, hoping to find clarity in this Groundhog Day of repetition that somehow manages to pay my bills.  I’ll let you know how it turns out.

Confidence (A Snapshot)

Riding the train today I sat next to a slender dark-skinned Dominican girl of 20 who asked me for directions in Spanish, hoping I knew the language, which I grasped enough of to be of help.  It was a strange moment for me, as a good 15 years earlier I’d run into a similar young lady of a similar age, but in a completely different city.  I was new to Brooklyn then and hadn’t met too many Afro-Latinas in a city full of southern folks.  My game back then was nervous, sloppy, passive-aggressive, and she could smell it the way felines sense my fear.  Bottom line: I got nowhere.

While that first sista had been as warm as a stone in ice water, this one told me about the frustrations of wearing a weave in America when her hair was very nappy and how no one seems to believe that she wasn’t from another country.  She told me my Spanish was good and thanked me for the help.  Now I was just being polite.  Then I was dripping with #thirst.  Now the best thing I could give that little girl was directions, because I knew what a woman was and what I expected of one, and she wasn’t gonna get there until I was damn near 50.

That girl back then was the inspiration for Carolina Martinez, the soulmate of one Dakota Grand, my alter ego and hero of my second novel.  My conversation with this one was a nice little snapshot of how much I’ve grown, or how good it feels to be a man who knows what he wants, only seeking fruit that has matured on the vine and not merely hoping gorge on what I could get between my teeth.   The flick above is a fave of mine that most have forgotten.  But like these moments described, when I saw it I didn’t fully understand the art of the hustle.  Now I do.

Greatest Misses: Pharoahe Monch’s “Still Standing” feat. Jill Scott

I was living in a nightmare when Pharoahe Monch around he time dropped his W.A.R. album in 2010.  Everything had gone wrong and I was walking alone towards and uncertain future.  I needed this record then, but I also wasn’t ready to hear it.  When it came to me today through a cosmic crossroads of social media links, I now know that it wouldn’t have carried the same weight with me back then.  I walked past Pharaohe on the way to one of my first official hip hop journalism gigs back in ’91.  He was one of my favorite interview subjects 8 years later when I was planting roots at Blaze Online.  And he remembered me from that same interview when I ran into him in Union Square just before I left NYC for LA a good seven years later. His lyrics represent the kind of artistry I aim for: always vivid, frightening complex and ferociously raw.  This one’s been on repeat all night.  I think I’ll crank it up again tomorrow too.  I think I’m ready to listen to hip-hop again, which a good thing ;)