“The fall in Killadelphia. Outside is the color of corn bread and blood. Change hangs in the air like the sneaks on the live wires behind my crib.”
These are the opening lines of “Buck,” a memoir by MK Asante, award-winning poet, filmmaker, essayist and professor.
There’s a rare beauty in lines like these, paired with a sense of foreboding. They promise a book filled with fresh visions, vernacular grit, electricity and violence. They promise something different, and the book delivers.
And first, it delivers pain and punishment in the form of a police beating a few pages later (Asante, or Malo, was 12); followed by his brother Uzi’s arrest and incarceration in Arizona; his mother’s decline into depression and lethargy (she was “as delicate as eyelashes”); his father, “Afrocentricty” proponent and former UB professor Dr. Molefi Kete Asante’s sudden departure and abandonment (“he turns his back on us and marches into winter”); his best friend Amir’s death; and, along the way, Asante’s expulsion, both from more schools than even he can count, and finally, his own home.
These drama-laden passages keep the book moving, and the reader will go willingly into vivid Philly scenes including thumping porn parties thick with smoke from Black & Milds, and secret basement storage rooms where “Barking, howling, pacing pits and Rots with wet fangs guard the gates to the Garden of Weeden,” – with Malo as a savvy, sensitive, rhyme-slinging guide.
But all is not drugs and desperation in “Buck.” The book is primarily a memoir of a young man’s mis-education, re-education, self-education and street-education. It is perhaps the first true Bildungsroman to come out of Illadelpia and the world of hip-hop. But that doesn’t mean that readers averse to rap, uninitiated into rhyme – those who associate the genre (and the people who live it) with only violence, hate and boasting – should pass on to a more palatable memoir. In fact, those readers have even more reason to pick up this book than most.
Asante is an artist and former drug dealer inspired by the Beat Generation – yes, none other than Ginsberg, Kerouac and Burroughs. (This “bucks” expectations, perhaps, but it makes perfect sense: after all, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,” applies just as well to Asante’s North Philly as it did to the Fifties.) But the author was also – and more obviously – inspired by the other “Beat Generation” – the godfathers of rap: Nas, Jay-Z, N.W.A., 2Pac and Illadeph’s own The Roots. And in showing his love for the masters, whose words he incanted unconsciously growing up, whose hooks reflected and informed a whole bicoastal culture, Asante takes risks and makes something new.
The narrative is delivered in the first-person singular, augmented by epistolary excerpts from his mother’s diary and letters from his brother Uzi, doing time for statutory rape in Arizona. The most innovative feature, though, is his use of rap lyrics throughout the book, where they dovetail – perfectly, terribly, poetically – with his own experiences.
Asante’s is a fresh take on old themes – older than many readers might readily admit.
His words, though, echo an older memoir: Frederick Douglass’, written in 1845: “The more I read, the more I was led to abhor and detest my enslavers,” (note, please, the internal rhyme), “...In moments of agony, I have often envied my fellow slaves for their stupidity. I have often wished myself a beast.”
Locating “Buck” in such a proud literary tradition gives him much to live up to; but it’s clear that Asante’s memoir, like Douglass’ and all the greatest memoirs, is less an act of egoism than a gift of social insight, delivered in a powerful narrative voice, filtered through quick discerning eyes. The lessons Asante learns (and conveys) are both practical and existential. His crew brutally beats him at a gang initiation, all while calling out their mantras: “No slinging in schools,” and “No rape” and, chief of all, “You get three options: (a) get rich, (b) get sent to jail, or (c) get killed.”
Then he turns the light of these lessons on his society and circumstances. He comes to realize that, “America is about the golden rule: those with the gold make the rules.” After being kicked out of his mother’s apartment, with no gun, no weed, and $3,000 in debt, he witnesses a friend sell crack to his own grandmother. He sees his oldest friends age in frames, falling first to cultish millennarian religiosity, and then to crack, heroin, and a “breakfast” of Xanax, promethazine, codeine syrup. Asante finds himself “tripping on how the streets turn you cold, how money has us out there like zombies, killing each other for crumbs,” finally coming to a quintessentially American individualism: “Decisions lead to options, options to choices, choices to freedom. We all design our own reality, write our own script, build our own house … or prison … or coffin.”
And this wasn’t the only instance: in one chapter, titled “On the Road,” Asante sets out, with a full tank of gas, for Texas, probably unconsciously imitating nearly every other great American life writer, using the road as a means of reinvention, the West as a symbol and a sacrament and insisting on his right to start over, again and again and again. You could call this protean spirit one of the oldest tropes in American literature, one of the ideas most central to the national character. Or, faced with Asante’s pressing problems, you could simply say, as he did, that “I’m trying to be the frog that gets the jump on the boil.” In this and other moments, you’ll find him familiar – a little Holden Caulfield, a little Huck Finn.
“Buck” is not the most crystalline of memoirs. There are scenes – such as a mugging, which he narrowly escapes, by pretending to be Muslim – that seem rushed: the reader needs more of the texture of the moment for the page to become a portal. But, conversely, other pages seem dipped in DMT – they effuse a vivid dream. And, likewise, “Buck” surpasses other, similar books. The venerated John Wideman’s “Brothers and Keepers” also deals with the Philly street life, and features a brother in prison – but it was not half as honest. “Buck” is so honest it floats – even while it’s so down-to-earth that the reader feels like an ant peering up from the concrete. It’s a powerful book.
In a broader context, “Buck” places hip-hop squarely in the realm of literature, where it should have been from the day Gil Scott-Heron first took the mic.
Robert Frost once said that poetry without rhyme is “like playing tennis with the nets down.” Yet today, most poets spurn end-rhyme like it’s a drug-addled friend from another life. Who carries the torch?
Not John Ashbery. It’s Nas, who on “Illmatic” turned on the rhyme and let it flow as it hadn’t since Shakespeare; who rhymed like Yeats and spit intricate rhythms like Sandburg like “The People, Yes.” And then there’s 2pac, bleeding onstage, as tender as Keats; and Eminem. Even the violence and misogyny – forgive me for saying, but someone must – is part of a tradition dating back to the last century B.C. (and further) when Catallus wrote a poem to a rival
To be sure, hip-hop has had its hard times (for instance, Lil Wayne and the “NewPac” incident) and Asante has written about this – see his nonfiction book, “It’s Bigger Than Hip-Hop.” But new artists like Kendrick Lamar and Joey Bada$$ are rising up and taking rap seriously again, setting memoir to music and speaking truth to power.
Asante knows this, and that’s why classic rhymes pepper his memoir. That’s also why his own rhymes, freestyled, a memoir in miniature, occupy over four pages toward the end of the book. It’s also why the rest of the book is so wonderful.
So pick up “Buck.” You might even finish it in a single, indulgent afternoon. Asante is a hip-hop raconteur, a storyteller in the Homeric tradition, an American, a rhymer, a big-thinker singing a song of himself. You’ll want to listen.
By MK Asante
Spiegel & Grau
252 pages, $25
Aidan Ryan is a News staff reviewer.