by Laura Valeri
On October 14, 2015, we had the privilege of sitting with MK Asante for an interview during his tour for BUCK: Coming of Age in Killadelphia, the memoir and the soundtrack. Praised by the L.A. Times, NPR, and NBC, the book has been called “Frequently brilliant and always engaging… It takes great skill to render the wide variety of characters, male and female, young and old, that populate a memoir like Buck. … A powerful and captivating book.”
Asante gifted us with some tidbits of wisdom about being creative and seizing opportunities to turn life into poetry, song, or story.
“As a writer, as an artist, I’ve learned to run towards fear.”
LV: Welcome to the Winter 2016 edition of Wraparound South. I’m Laura Valeri and I’m sitting here with MK Asante, best-selling writer, award winning film-maker, Renaissance man, hip hop artist…There’s nothing he hasn’t done. He is here at Georgia Southern University to read, and to give a performance based on his book BUCK: Coming of Age in Killadelphia.*
Buck is the story of a precocious boy growing up during a difficult time in his family’s life and surviving poverty and gang violence on the streets of Philadelphia through the power of writing. Maya Angelou commanded the memoir calling it “a story of surviving and thriving with passion, compassion, wit and style.”
Let’s talk about Buck. How would you summarize it for people who haven’t read it?
MK: Thank you. It’s great to be here. BUCK is the graceful survival against impossible circumstances. That’s what it’s about. It’s about my journey, it’s about my miseducation, my re-education, my street-education, my self-education, and me finally realizing the difference between school and education.
LV: At the end of your book you have a scene in which you’re writing the first pages of BUCK in High School, but you actually didn’t complete the book until around 2012-2013? You had written already two books of poetry and another book of nonfiction, It’s Bigger Than Hip Hop. So what made you decide to go back to your youth and writing about it?
MK: You know it was the most difficult thing. I feel like as a storyteller there’s always that story in my head, right? That one story that pretty much haunts us. We’re scared of it. We don’t want to touch it. And that’s what we need to write. Buck was that for me. It was the thing that scared me the most. As a writer, as an artist, I’ve learned to run toward fear.
LV: There are many complex themes in BUCK. You talk about racial and social economic issues, you touch upon mental issues, you touch upon our system of education, how did you manage to make this book come together. It feels so seamless as you juggle all these different aspects of being.
MK: It’s interesting. I feel like part of it is that it’s already in us, in our experience. We all experience all those things in our lives in our journeys. So it’s really about, ok, how can I weave those things together in a way that is organic to who I actually am. A lot of late nights and yerba mates. And frustration, you know? And struggle. Nathaniel Hawthorne has one of my favorite quotes about writing: “the easy read is a damn hard write.”
LV: That feels right about BUCK. It’s how that feels.
MK: There’s a lot of struggle that goes on behind the scenes. When you read something that’s easy and seamless and flowing you ought to know that the writer struggles.
LV: One part of the book that I really liked was that your voice was quite distinctive, very lyrical and rhythmic, and then there’s a tonal shift right about one third into it. You switch voices. You go into your mother’s voice through her journal. Now I know that you got in trouble because you said so in the memoir for using her journal. I just wanted you to talk about how you switch voices, how you manage the flow of the narrative.
MK: I think my mom saved me. She really added interesting complex layers to the book that gave it a lot of depth and substance. And, it also, like you said, lyrically, tonally, it represents a shift. Especially, I think that’s what keeps BUCK relevant for a wide range of readers. Because you have Milo’s 13, 14 year old voice and he’s talking in slang. He’s interpreting everything, and it’s fast and it’s hip hop, and it’s all that going on and it’s in real time. Because I wrote the story in first person present tense there’s not much room for reflection and introspection for Milo’s character. He’s mainly just living and experiencing and seeing things and realizing things. When my mom’s voice comes in through her diaries, it gives us first of all a chance to just shift the tone and voice and calm down a little bit. Milo is all over and my mom is much more (sighs) composed. Also, the weight of what she’s saying is heavier in a lot of ways because it’s infused with this sense of time and reflection and experience and depression and sadness and it’s almost like she knows what’s going to happen or what’s happening or what will happen, you know? She’s got this hindsight. I really loved that. And I loved how my brother came in, my brother’s prison letters. There’s two of them in the book. They also represent a shift, and also it really helps us understand how my brother kind of grew up in jail and how he changed. Then you have one letter from my sister also in the book who has schizophrenia, and she’s giving her ideas and her thoughts. Yeah, I really liked including the different voices, but my mom’s obviously takes the cake because it’s throughout. It’s consistent. It’s one thing to hear me talk about going to school and one thing about the school system, but then you hear my mom reflecting on the deep, deep challenges of sending a black boy to Philadelphia public schools and knowing what the deal is. It’s powerful stuff. Or to hear her talk about suicide, depression, and mental health.
LV: With your sister, there’s also some of that from your sister’s perspective.
MK: Definitely. Right from someone who is totally in it. Who totally believes that we’re related to Marilyn Monroe and all of that.
LV: I really loved how you treated that part [about her mental disorder] with a lot of compassion but also a sense of humor, and it was truly enjoyable to read. I have to ask as a reader are they ok?
MK: [Laughs] Yeah, yeah, everybody’s good.
LV: Maya Angelou wrote a truly beautiful comment. In the end she says, and I quote. “MK Asante pleads to continue to live, to accept your liberation to accept how valuable you are to your country.” Tell us about how you came in contact with Maya Angelou.
MK: Auntie Maya. Maya Angelou, she was one of my mentors and I met her in 2007 I think was the year. No, it was 2005. I was in grad school at UCLA and I was working on a film called The Black Candle. It wasn’t called The Black Candle at the time, but I knew it was a documentary that was going to deal with Kwanza and celebrating the African Americans, and I reached out to Dr. Angelou. I didn’t know her at the time, and she was so warm and receptive. She agreed to look at my proposal. I met with her. She agreed to narrate the movie only if we could write it together. So we co-wrote the movie. She wrote the poetry for the movie. She narrated it. It was an amazing experience. After that, we kept in touch. I even did things like …she needed a website. I made it. I used to maintain her website for her. Little things like that. She was always correcting me, in a good way, like she would tell me things, and she was always so sharp. She would just read so much that she would always know. She had all these poems memorized. She would just start reciting them. Just really a funny person. She is the reason why if a young person comes up to me and wants some help then I’m going to try to help them. Especially if they have it together.
LV: You come from a politically active family. Your father is well known in the Civil Rights movement and father of Afrocentrism. Do you consider yourself an activist or just an artist — is there any way to separate the two?
MK: I used this term in my book, It’s Bigger Than Hip Hop: Artivist. An artivist is someone who uses art towards activism. I believe that all art is political. I believe that whether it’s blatantly political or if it seems like it’s not political, then it’s really supporting the status quo. That makes it political. So everything is political. I call myself an artist. I consider myself an artist. And there’s a real important reason why. As I got older and sometimes I hear the word activist thrown around, that’s problematic for me. The reason why is because as someone who knows organizers and activists who are involved, that’s what they do on a full time basis, I would never call myself that. It’s not what I’m committing my life to. That kind of work is so intense and exhausting. The energy that it takes every day to organize or mobilize people and be on the front lines…Activism to me is someone who is to politics the way I [am to] art. This is my life. I’m breathing art, living art, doing it every day. I’m an artist. What I like to do is art, and it should be substantive. It should be conscious. It should raise awareness. Art should lend itself to the spirit of activism, the spirit of the social movements that are going on in the day, but I would never be under the illusion that I’m some kind of activist because it’s not what I’m doing, really. I’m making art. I have so much respect for the brothers and sisters who every day are being activists and organizing and mobilizing and creating movements. That’s a whole different thing, you know. You can’t just say, I’m an activist. I support the movements and I’ll march, but in terms of that kind of work, that’s really difficult work, and you can’t just throw it around.
LV: I know that you’re working now on a sound track – actually you finished the soundtrack, and now you’re working on a film. Tell us a little bit about what the soundtrack and the film add to the experience of reading the book.
MK: The soundtrack for me is another language to communicate some of the ideas in the book. It’s a way to actually get people to the book. People who listen to the soundtrack are like, this is dope. Someone’s like, do you know this is a book, too?And they’re like, what? They don’t even know it’s a book. They just heard the music. [The soundtrack] is trying to get people to read. …I heard the music as I was writing BUCK; I heard the music to this. Even thinking about how books are released: a book comes out and it’s a hardcover. That’s the first release. Than there’s the paperback. I think I wanted one more moment. And the soundtrack was to reflect on the book and push the book. That worked out well, too. The soundtrack also… A lot happened between the publishing of BUCK and the soundtrack coming out, and I just wanted to work on that and give people another way to experience BUCK.
LV: Will we get new scenes in the movie? Is there something coming up in there?
MK: Definitely, but it’s the same story.
LV: Well it’s never the same when you go from book to film.
MK: It’s true. It’s true.I think film gives more creative license. You can go a little bit off. And Uzi is going to be in the movie. His character, that is. He couldn’t play Uzi because he’s much older now. But he could definitely have a cameo as one of the guys, one of the old heads.
LV:What about fiction? That’s one genre you haven’t touched. Is there a novel in your future?
MK: I think there is. There definitely is. I’ve got a bunch of ideas. At some point that’s going to happen. I did talk to my editor about an idea in particular that I had, but I don’t know. I’m so wrapped up with some other things right now that I don’t know when I’m going to get to them. It will definitely get done.
LV: One last question. You are so creative. You are completely comfortable with music, film poetry, writing, how do you give that enthusiasm to your students in the classroom or to people who follow you. What is your message to them?
MK: I think part of it is just I give you the perfect example. I had a professor in college named Lee Upton. Do you know Lee Upton? She’s a poet. It was a creative writing class. I think everyone has … I’m that guy, now, I realize, but everyone has this creative writing professor in college who is like super enthusiastic about stuff and she would just be … she had this really great accent, she would be, “Oh your poem! Oh!”she’d be so into it. She’d be like “the rhythm! The pitch!” She would just be … is she serious? Is she really like this? It was so enthusiastic and [she was so] energetic about everyone’s writing and what she brought to class was so contagious, it was pure. It was so pure that you had to just love it. She was quirky but she had such a great energy about it. She was passionate. I think the best way to teach, the best way to convey that, is to just be passionate yourself. For me the way that I convey that to students is I’m passionate when I read their stuff, and when I read other stuff. Bring energy into it. They get enthusiastic about it because I am.
LV: Do you encourage them to go and try other genres like some music or tell them about possibilities of different expressions?
MK: This is the crazy and cool thing. I’ve got students coming in that are already doing it. They’re showing me their youtube videos and they’re showing me their music already, so you know they’re coming in giving me ideas, giving me inspiration, so it’s definitely reciprocal. I have a lot of students who are.. the younger generation is definitely more comfortable doing a bunch of things. We even live in an economy now where you can’t just only do one thing. I think young people have this notion anyway of doing this and doing that. Because we live in such a multi-tasking environment they’ve always got windows open, even if they’re minimized, still, open.
LV: Let’s tell everyone where they can find your book and soundtrack.
MK:They can find everything on MKAsante.com. I maintain my website. And i put a lot of new interviews and books and music and all that stuff is on there. I’m coming up with a lot of new music. A new album comes out November 6. The Buck film will be coming out soon.
LV: Thank you for coming and for speaking with us.
MK: Thank you for having me and for being who you are.
For more information on MK Asante visit his website: mkasante.com
**MK Asante’s residency at Georgia Southern University in October 2015 was sponsored by a grant from SouthArts in partnership with the NEA, and by Georgia Southern University.