First Hip Hop, now Black literature. This society always finds a way to cheapen and rob our artistic forms (hence, our community) of their value and voice. That’s what I thought as I observed the vast majority of books being sold and advertised at the 2007 Harlem Book Fair. I had just finished presenting on a panel with other authors who wrote autobiographies and memoirs. The discussion was lively, spiritual, and informative. It didn’t hurt that CSPAN broadcast it live. Then I went out into the streets and received the shock of my life. The vast majority of books on display fell into the “Urban Fiction” genre.
There is a growing phenomenon within Hip Hop to glamorize and promote the ugly sides of the hood: drug dealing, gunplay, the degradation of women and materialism. As Hip Hop is the dominant commercial and cultural force right now, it wields tremendous influence over the perceptions of our youth. The common perceptions our youth have internalized from this genre are that criminality, ignorance, and violence within the community are not only tolerable, but also acceptable.
Some independent urban magazines have joined the fray, catering to an audience that craves tales of drug dealers, pimps and other and young criminals. Young writers have taken their cue and begun a new genre called “Street Fiction.” The storyline usually centers on a drug dealer that defies law enforcement, consumes every expensive thing in sight, and has his way with women. 98% of the story is characterized by violence, sexism, and America’s favorite dogma, “Individual advancement at any cost.” It is as if Black writers have internalized the worst societal stereotypes of ourselves and regurgitated them back to us in the form of baby mama, promiscuous vixen, and flamboyant drug dealer stories.
My sentiments on this issue magnify when I look back with nostalgia on my adolescent years growing up in Harlem. During the 80’s, I used to walk up and down 125th Street marveling at all the books for sale. Customers had a much larger menu of literary dishes to choose from, and much more substantive also. Carter G. Woodson, John Henrik Clarke, Frantz Fanon, Maya Angelou, Brother Malcolm, Haki Madhubuti, Sonia Sanchez, James Baldwin, and Toni Morrison dominated the typical book table. These intelligent and insightful brothers and sisters viewed writing as a craft, rather than a commercial trend or meal ticket. Readers finished these books with a greater understanding of racism, sexism and class issues. We were forced to confront important social issues and to unlearn centuries of propaganda and ignorance. Our vocabulary improved as did our spelling, and knowledge of good writing. I attribute my own level of political maturity and consciousness to these writers and to resources like the Schomburg Library and Una Mulzac’s Liberation Bookstore. In fact, these writers and their books made it possible for me to become a student activist at Syracuse and Cornell Universities, and to become a diligent father and educator.
Adolescents today are not as fortunate. The literary menu they inherited is narrow and deficient. On street corners and within major bookstores, our youth are now surrounded by too much literary junk food. I see many young people – and a shocking amount of adults – reading street fiction novels. A related new category of novel called “Street Erotica” spins tales of lust and irresponsible sex. While these books attempt to leave small moral messages, they do much to glamorize lifestyles that lead too many of our people into jail, broken families, and the graveyard. I am not at all surprised that major bookstore chains now have small sections for such books. They will sell us whatever food for thought we crave, even if it’s poison. At the risk of being labeled a “playa hater,” I insist that we must eradicate and transform the vices of street life, not promote them.
In an effort to use our young people’s appetites to redirect their thoughts, I co-wrote the life story of the infamous Harlem hustler named Azie (AZ) Faison. I wanted to craft an authentic account of street life from someone who participated in it directly, and who managed to rise above it and place it in its proper context. Unlike many writers of street novels, Azie really did the things he writes about, and more importantly, has become a strong advocate against his former lifestyle. Published by Simon & Schuster, the book Game Over: The Rise and Transformation of a Harlem Hustler was released in bookstores on August 7, 2007, and has appeared twice on Essence Magazine’s Bestseller list.
As a major cocaine dealer in the 80’s, Faison and his partners Rich Porter and Alberto “Alpo” Martinez, “sold enough coke to make it snow” in New York City. Millionaires before they were old enough to vote, this trio stood high on the totem pole of Harlem’s underworld. Their accessorized luxury cars, exploits with women, and expensive jewelry made them hood legends and inspired tons of rap artists (Jay Z and 50 cents to name a few) to emulate them and refer to them in dozens of lyrics.
Conspicuously absent from these songs praising Azie, is an account of the tremendous tragedy that beset him and his crew: Rich Porter’s 12 year-old brother was kidnapped and later killed (organized by his own uncle), Porter himself was killed by his partner Alpo, and Alpo received a long jail sentence for drug distribution and several murders. In 1987, Azie’s stash house was robbed, and he was shot several times and left for dead. He survived, but three others were killed, and two more seriously injured. Azie left the drug game and committed himself to helping youth avoid the path he once chose. He went on to form the rap group Mobstyle in 1989. His exit from the drug game and entry into Hip Hop predated and influenced similar moves by many rap artists decades later. He also wrote the movie based on his life called Paid in Full, and worked with film maker Troy Reed to produce the documentary Game Over.
I’m proud to say that our book deviates from the boatload of street novels plaguing bookshelves today. Much like the classic autobiographies Manchild in a Promised Land, Down These Mean Streets, and Makes Me Wanna Holler, Game Over tells the TRUE story of a young man’s struggle for meaning and identity in the ‘hood, how the streets seduced him, and his remarkable transformation from community predator to community advocate.
It is not enough to describe street life. We must analyze it, understand the forces behind it, and develop plans to transform it. Finally, authors must be responsible enough to know the terrain they describe in their books, and use this first-hand knowledge to help people to understand the futility and dead-end nature of street life. They must help readers understand that such behavior destroys our community and stands in the way of any attempts toward unity, freedom and empowerment. The true goal of such a book should be to paint such a grisly picture of drug dealing and its consequences, that readers are discouraged from entering it. This is what separates a cheap and insulting street novel from a classic autobiography or memoir about life on the streets. Brother Malcolm, Claude Brown, Piri Thomas, and Nathan McCall used references to their former criminal activity to help us understand the need to reorient our thinking and behavior. This is what brother Azie Faison attempts to do with his autobiography.
I encourage readers to support our effort to expose the conspiracy behind thug life in our community and the complicity of law enforcement in permitting this to occur. Let us craft, promote, publish and read books that are authentic, analytical, and transformative, and that portray Black people in sophisticated and multi-layered dimensions.