Lyrical Gangstas


Pithy Navel-Gazing Insight #1: Hiphop music journalists consider themselves “real writers.”

Three years ago, I wrote in a hiphop publication, “There was once a time when writer James Baldwin would get drunk with playwright Lorraine Hansberry in her Greenwich Village apartment, Miles Davis would kick it with Pablo Picasso playing jazz clubs in Paris, and pop artist Andy Warhol produced albums by the Velvet Underground. Decades ago, a stronger sense of community existed between artistic folks. Painters, singers, poets, writers, and musicians stoked each other’s creative fires.” Legendary arts communities of the past are often touchstones for hiphop writers with aspirations beyond mere music journalism. For the prototypal hiphop journalist—somewhere between his badge-wearing embrace of that identity and his fierce, discomfiting disdain of same—the romantic, highfalutin hope is to go down in history as a seminal writer in a similar collective. Something like what poet-essayist-music critic Kevin Powell dubs “the Word Movement” in Step Into a World.

The seductive rationale is that, quoting Powell, “the Harlem Renaissance had the blues, the Black Arts Movement had jazz and the sounds of Motown, and the Word Movement has hiphop.” Spurred on by the inspiration of brilliant confessional, critical tomes like Greg Tate’s Fly Boy in the Buttermilk, Lisa Jones’s Bulletproof Diva, and Nelson George’s Buppies, B-Boys, Baps & Bohos, the nascent hiphop journo hustles to make his own mark. He meets his peers, his favorite bylines made flesh, and shares intracultural insights with his fellow rap scribes. (Of the 106 writers featured in Step Into a World, I know nine personally, though not well enough, say, for any to have attended my birthday party two weeks ago.) Inevitably, he shares a blunt with his favorite MC. And he eventually has a falling-out with whatever mentor/guiding light he’s formed a relationship with by this point.

Pithy Navel-Gazing Insight #2: If you have to explain why you’re cool, you probably aren’t.

Writers are infamous for the web of egocentricity, insecurities, neuroses, and jealousies that dominates their psyches, fuels their art, and drives their mates insane. Over time, this revelation (undoubtedly related to the break with the aforementioned mentor) dashes the hiphop journalist’s hope for any Beat-like movement for his generation. He decides to go for delf and grow the fuck up. End of story?

Not necessarily. For as Step Into a World proves, the story is continuous. As the naive-if-ambitious hiphop journalist seeks to write disseminations on rap music to rival Baldwin’s reflections on cinema in The Devil Finds Work, Powell’s anthology freely sizes itself up against such era-defining collections as The New Negro and Black Fire. The hubris implicit in any of these endeavors lies in the declaratory, self-mythologizing nature of the acts themselves. (Zadie Smith—whose “The Peculiar Second Marriage of Archibald Jones,” included here, is an excerpt from her much lauded White Teeth—didn’t declare her own debut funny, serious, and astonishingly assured. Salman Rushdie did that for her.) Though Powell’s opening essay, “The Word Movement,” is insightful and largely persuasive, it nevertheless leaves an aftertaste of placing the cart before the horse. The work should come first, and following its influential reverberations, the espying and espousal of Movements should follow.

Poet Elizabeth Alexander, quoted in Jabari Asim’s spot-on critical essay “Angles of Vision,” says, “I didn’t want to write a poem that said ‘blackness is,’ because we know better than anyone that we are not one or ten or ten thousand things.” The absence of a monolithic black paradigm makes it problematic to group these hundred-plus writers under any collective banner. Divided into essays, hiphop journalism, criticism, fiction, poetry, and dialogue (a catchall that includes stuff like e-mail, a diary entry, and a snatch of panel discussion), Step Into a World does an effective job documenting these disparate voices. Most of the pieces featured have been previously published. The inclusion of mainstream writers like Edwidge Danticat, Zadie Smith, and Junot Díaz widens the net cast in Powell’s first anthology, In the Tradition: An Anthology of Young Black Writers, coedited with Ras Baraka in 1993.

The critical essays in this new volume are the high point, exploring postmodern African American issues like the dubious ebonics debate (Erin Aubrey’s “The Soul of Black Talk”), the Caribbean cultural significance of literature (Kevin Baldeosingh’s “Do Books Matter?”), and the post-Soul intelligentsia (“It be’s that way sometimes ’cause I can’t control the rhyme,” a rather dense intellectual treatise by Mark Anthony Neal). A white-flight essay by Taigi Smith (“What Happens When Your ‘Hood Is the Last Stop on the White Flight Express?”) deftly explores the effect of affluent whites Starbucking her old San Francisco neighborhood. There’s also fiction from Christopher John Farley (“the missionary position”) detailing the tribulations of two journalists caught amid the bombs over Baghdad.

Pithy Navel-Gazing Insight #3: Lester Bangs was never in any ’70s literary anthologies.

Lester Bangs, Mikal Gilmore, Ralph J. Gleason: All were responsible for revolutionary journalism during the virginal rock crit era of Crawdaddy! and early Rolling Stone. None, to my knowledge, were ever included in any ’70s anthology of literature. As a former music editor of Vibe (where Powell served for years as a staff writer), I understand how hiphop extends beyond the music into youth culture worldwide; I have no objection to the inclusion of hiphop journalism as a section of Step Into a World. But as I read the reprinted pieces Powell chooses, stronger work in the field springs to mind, from writers Bönz Malone, Karen R. Good, and Selwyn Seyfu Hinds—all absent from this collection. The omission of Saul Williams from the poetry section also seems curious.

In championing the Word Movement, Powell places himself in danger of being sidelined by whatever movement actually does emerge from the rumblings of writers amassed in Step Into a World. John Clellon Holmes suffered a similar fate; the novel Go would never receive the recognition of On the Road, though Go could be considered the start of the Beat movement. The problem with Powell’s postulation is, while his will to tag this movement is compelling, the hindsight of historical perspective may be the only proper barometer for determining whether he’s onto something or selling himself a dream.