The common arc of an artist proceeds from discovery to mimicry, curves up to craft and experimentation, and then, through that strange alchemy of experience, mentorship, labor, and luck, falls into the self-possession (if not always confidence) that delivers a unique voice toward its fullest powers of expression.
Because of biography and history, we all march inexorably toward questions of identity. I grew up in Hawai’i in a thoroughly multiracial Chinese Hawaiian family, always feeling in-between — between town and country, wealth and working-class, here and there. I am in my 40s now and so I came of age on the continent during the last flaring of the culture wars in the late '80s. On campuses and in cities, race and identity were intensely contended themes of our daily lives. The canon was being rethought. “diversity” was a buzzword, but not yet a cliché.
In trying to make sense of those strange polarized days, many of us found ourselves studying James Baldwin
, Malcolm X
, Frantz Fanon
, Angela Davis
, bell hooks
, Ron Takaki
, and Gloria Anzaldúa
with rage and fervor. We found refuge in the work of Maxine Hong Kingston
, Zora Neale Hurston
, Toni Morrison
, and Jessica Hagedorn
I think that the moment I decided I might be able to write — and this moment came long before I could even fantasize of becoming a writer — was when I discovered the work of people like Greg Tate
and Joan Morgan
in the Village Voice
. They were writing about a music and a culture that I loved — hip-hop — in astonishing ways. They had verve, ideas, unapologetic love for the vinyl and bound paper that lined their shelves, and style for days. They insisted there was no dichotomy between “American” and “American of color,” “high art” and “pop,” fierce intelligence and body-moving beats. They namechecked as many Black thinkers and artists as Chuck D did, and their prose was as fluid as the records that extended our parties late into the morning.
The list I wanted to share with you is populated by writers who made me believe my passions and my in-betweens weren’t a private hell but a place to start my own arc, a journey towards finding my own voice. I’ve learned from and through them, I’ve mimicked them, and their work is still resounding in mine decades after I first discovered them.
Greg Tate’s germinal collection of essays from the Village Voice
— including influential essays on Public Enemy and Jean-Michel Basquiat, as well as gems on Rammellzee
and Don Delillo
, and the post-Black Arts statement-of-purpose, “Cult-Nats Meet Freaky-Deke” — are collected in Flyboy in the Buttermilk
, which is blessedly back in print after decades of neglect.
Just as awesome, Flyboy 2: The Greg Tate Reader
is now out, moving from Bill T. Jones, Thelma Golden, WuTang Clan, and Bob Dylan to a genius essay he calls an “Kalahari Hopscotch, or Notes Toward a Twenty-Volume Afrocentric Futurist Manifesto.” It’s not overstating the case to say that he has influenced two generations of writers, from the hip-hop journalists and scholars to Black Lives Matter-era cultural critics. These two books will tell you why.
Three Bronx writers whose work followed Tate’s elaborated ideas at the intersections of race, class, gender, sexuality, and pop culture that have defined the field of hip-hop studies, and more broadly, formed the foundation for the work of younger writers like Jesmyn Ward
, Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah
, Mychal Denzel Smith
, and Kiese Laymon
Tricia Rose’s bold and magisterial Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America
helped ensure that hip-hop would be considered seriously for generations to come, and also crucially set the tone by centering women’s narratives for all the race thinking and cultural scholarship to come. Joan Morgan’s book of essays When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost
inaugurated hip-hop feminism and still reads today as one of the most urgent explorations of the Third Wave. Her best friend from childhood, Mark Anthony Neal, was moved to write New Black Man
, now in a 10th anniversary edition, an expansive rethinking of Black masculinity. Both books pointed forward to the inclusive, transformative stances around race, gender, and sexuality now championed by the Movement for Black Lives.
The turning point for many of us — our Selma moment or Ferguson moment — came in 1992 in Los Angeles, when the city erupted for four days after the acquittal of the police officers who had beaten Rodney King. The book that predicted that moment, and that set the standard for inquiry into the changing conditions of the city and the suburb, was Mike Davis’s City of Quartz
. In that book and subsequent works like Dead Cities
and The Ecology of Fear
, Davis tracked with masterful research, vivid detail, and righteous rage the movements of capital, police, and politicians, and even ordinary homeowners that have left our nation resegregated and repolarized almost a quarter century later.
And yet despite the odds, here at the end of the first Black presidency, it’s impossible not to have hope that we may be able to overcome the dark forces that separate us. While living through a time that feels even more besieged by belligerence and dimmed by despair than even the culture war era in which I came of age, I have been sustained by the hope of two books in particular.
Before passing last year at the age of 100, the late Grace Lee Boggs wrote a book with Scott Kurashige called The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century
. Informed by decades of organizing against the backdrop of the rise and fall of industrial Detroit, Boggs reimagined what not just a new city but a new society might look like. She came to see revolution not as a bloody break in history, but as an unfolding upwelling of communities richly informed by notions of ecological balance, MLK-style mutuality, and a faith in boundless human creativity.
Robin D. G. Kelley’s Freedom Dreams
came in part out of his long-term engagement with Boggs and her ideas. He creates an alternative Black history, focusing on organizers, activists, musicians, artists, and poets who explored feminism, surrealism, communism, nationalism, and futurism as vehicles to conjure new ways of relating to the land, liberation, reparations, and each other. Their collective goal was simply to be and also to be seen as fully human. Kelley salutes these unruly characters and their strange ideas and practices as potentially liberating for all. He concludes, “Now is the time to think like poets, to envision and make visible a new society, a peaceful, cooperative, loving world without poverty and oppression, limited only by our imaginations.”
Does it make me a dreamer to read these words during a time of political inertia, public shaming, massive distrust, and devastating violence and feel enheartened? Thankfully I’m not the only one.
÷ ÷ ÷
is the author of Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation
and Who We Be: A Cultural History of Race in Post–Civil Rights America
. He has been a USA Ford Fellow in Literature and the winner of the American Book Award and the Asian American Literary Award. He is the executive director of the Institute for Diversity in the Arts at Stanford University. We Gon' Be Alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation
is his most recent book.