Young writers need models. Early in my apprenticeship my predecessors fed me greatly. Still, I was also very eager to find work by young black male contemporaries, which I thought might be more relatable. When I discovered that Richard Wright published Native son around 32, James Baldwin Go Tell it On the Mountain around 29, James Alan McPherson Hue and Cry around 25, then winning the Pulitzer Prize around 35, and Jean Toomer Cane around 29, I thought, surely, there had to be a living young black male fiction writer whom I could turn to as a model. After a dedicated search, I found none. There were some young black male writers producing contemporary works of fiction, but their work seemed determined only to entertain. I was looking for something more, a deeper, richer perspective. Later, after a more thorough and committed search, I did find one young black male writer who seemed to have a deep respect for the art form and the urgent need to try to get life right on the page. Where were the rest?
I found the answer after giving a talk at Northern Illinois University. My audience was a group of young men who were in the university’s “Chance Program.” In an attempt to stress the importance of literacy, I created audio snippets of rap songs that I knew contained direct references to books. For example in the song “Some How, Some Way” Jay-Z says, “Look man, a tree grows in Brooklyn,” which is a direct reference to Betty Smith’s successful 1943 novel by the same name. Talib Kweli and Mos Def’s “Thieves in the Night” pays homage to Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye by creating an entire song inspired by the last paragraphs of the novel. Nas’s “2nd Childhood”, is arguably a reference to a paragraph in Black Boy where Richard Wright explains his existence in Chicago being like “a second childhood.” Using more examples like these, I explained to the young men that the best rappers must be highly literate and the mentioning of books in their lyrics was an overstatement of that fact. After the presentation, I continued to think about literacy and Hip-Hop artists. I thought about the songs that I loved, those songs that were vivid and real, which sometimes took me to a distant place, and at other times, a place of familiarity. The best Hip-Hop songs, those that told stories, excited me as great scenes from books did. I came to the conclusion that my favorite MCs were the young black writers for whom I had been searching.