I rarely drive, so I rarely listen to the radio. That might not make sense for many, but I know that some will understand. The radio is simply not part of my home life.
But anyway,there were reasons for my being behind the wheel this past Thursday and I was listening to RadioTimes on Public Radio (Marty Moss-Coane on WHYY in Philadelphia.) The guest was MK Asante, a hip-hop singer, filmmaker, writer and creative-writing/film teacher at Morgan State University.
Asante was plugging his new book, Buck: A Memoir about his life in “Killadelphia” during the 1990s. At the same time it is the story of his family’s breaking apart and then coming back together.
Asante was born in Zimbabwe and raised in Philadelphia. His parents’ marriage disintegrated, his idolized brother had a series of run-ins with the law and was imprisoned, his mother suffered from clinical depression, and he grew up in the “hood” full of anger, confusion, and energy.
This coming-of-age story is probably more familiar than it ever should be, but, oh, the language itself is extraordinary. Like nothing you ever heard.
Here is the first paragraph of the book: (Asante reads it in the interview attached below):
The fall in Killadelphia. Outside is the color of corn bread and blood. Change hangs in air like sneaks on the live wires behind my crib. Me and my big brother, Uzi, in the kitchen. He’s rolling a blunt on top of the Source, the one with Tyson on the cover rocking a kufi, ice-grilling through the gloss. Uzi can roll a blunt with his eyes closed.
Cracks, splits, bits.
The rawest crews in Philly are all three letters,“ he tells me. I read the cover through the tobacco guts and weed flakes: “The Rebirth of Mike Tyson: ‘I’m Not Good. I’m Not Bad. I’m Just Trying to Survive in this World.’”
Awakening crews in a rude fashion
On they ass like Mike Tyson at a beauty pageant•
I do this–spit lyrics to songs under my breath–all day, every day. The bars just jump out of me no matter where I am or what I’m doing. It’s like hip-hop Tourette’s.
Dumps, spreads, evens.
“JBM–Junior Black Mafia. Of course us, UPK–Uptown Killaz. PHD–Play Hero and Die.”
Tears, licks, wraps.
“HRM–Hit Run Mob. EAM–Erie Ave. Mobsters. ABC–Another Bad Creation.”
Folds, rolls, tucks. Another perfect blunt, jawn looks like a paintbrush.
Jawn can mean anything–person, place, or thing. Sometimes if we’re telling a story and don’t want people to know what we’re talking about, we’ll plug in jawn in for everything. The other day I was at the jawn around the corner with the young jawn from down the street. We get to the jawn, right, and the ngh at the door is all on his jawn, not nowing I had that jawn on me. Man, it was about to be on in that jawn.
“ Wreck Your Ears (Can Do),” The B.U.M.S. (Brothers Under Madness), 1965
This is language at its most alive, its most energetic. (To hear him read it is even more electrifying.)
Asante mentions in the interview that the first book that turned him on was Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. Besides the plot of the novel–drugs, sex, wildness–which he was surprised to learn could be the focus of serious literature, it was the style of the writing that attracted him, the energy, the speed, the exuberance. As he said, from it he learned he didn’t have to worry about commas.
MK Asante’s journey from the hood to plugging his books on national radio is one story. But it is a minor story. The true story is the language of this memoir. It is hypnotizing, energetic, alive and present. It puts me to shame.
In two more weeks I begin teaching a class in creative writing. My students are quite a distance from the world that MK Asante grew up in. Nevertheless, I am opening class with readings from the book. It is a lesson in being true to oneself, in being true to one’s voice, in being able to plumb one’s life for the story we all need to tell.
Here is the interview in its entirety: (this is Radio Times web site and will feature the day’s current show. Scroll down to the middle of the page to hear MK Asante on yesterday’s show. As time passes, the 8/22/2013 show will be placed in the easily accessed archives. And check out MK Asante’s web page, above, to see trailers, past works, etc.)