Trying To Get To You

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

An Interview With Nelson George, Part Two

Here is part two of my interview with City Kid author Nelson George. (Here is part one.) In this segment we talk about the changes in Brooklyn, the example of his mother, the value of hard work, President Obama and the soul revival.

Q: You grew up in Brooklyn in the 1960’s and 70’s, a very challenging time. What are your thoughts about the renaissance of Brooklyn?

It’s funny that you say, “the renaissance of Brooklyn,” because the streets of Brownsville…the projects that I grew up in are still there. It’s got one of the highest HIV infection rates in the country. It’s still got one of the highest crime rates in the city. So the places that are far away from Manhattan – that don’t have nice brownstones – still have the same issues that I grew up with. They have a gang problem – again. That Brooklyn is still unaffected.

Williamsburg is interesting, because it’s one of the ugliest in the borough – but it’s really convenient to Manhattan, so it works. I have mixed feelings about the whole thing – I hate to see my neighborhood become just an extension of the Upper West Side. That bothers me – I don’t want to live on the Upper West Side (laughter).

But I’m a beneficiary. I go to BAM. The Brooklyn Museum has really upped its game considerably and become a much more vital institution. My neighborhood (Ft. Greene) has great restaurants and things going on. The cultural energy that the new arrivals have brought in – I can’t really be mad at it. But I think Brooklyn is still in flux. I think the economic downturn is going to have an effect – as it should. I guess I just have very conflicted feelings.

Q: There’s something almost Horatio Alger-like in your story. Without being preachy, there is an enormous sub-text in your story about the value of hard work – you have a great quote from Quincy Jones about the value of “ass power,” the ability to keep your ass in your seat until you get the job done. What drove you to work so hard?

My mother was an incredible role model. She was working as a checkout lady in a supermarket and she wanted to be a teacher. So she would work all day, come home, feed us, and then take the IRT out to Flatbush and go to school at Brooklyn College, come back to Brownsville, go through the projects, come home, tuck us in, get some sleep, get us up for school, go about her job…and she did this for three or four years in a row.

Q: Were you consciously inspired by her at the time? She went through some harrowing things – she really comes off as an heroic figure in the book.

She really was. I always say, she was my Cicely Tyson. (Laughter). She had a boyfriend who was a teacher, so there was always reading and education around. Education was a huge part of the vibe around me. The fact that you could use education to pull yourself up – and she did it. She got us out of the projects, bought us a house, got a car…she did a lot of stuff that’s amazing.

I also read all those biographies of writers. I mean, Hemingway – this was a guy who was an alcoholic by every description that we would use now – who turned out an incredible amount of work and was super-focused. If you do stuff – good things will happen. A lot of the books I’ve written and films I worked on were things that no one paid me to do – they were things I started on my own, and I figured if I created something good enough, I would find a buyer eventually. I’m a big believer in people creating. That’s partly why I was so drawn to hip-hop – because people were creating on their own, outside the power structure, and over time, they were able to leverage that into other things.

Q: What are you passionate about today, musically speaking?

I listen to a lot of Hot 97 still to keep up with what the hits are. I used to keep up with every producer and writer, but I had to let that go – it was just too much information in my head. I listen to an eclectic grouping of stuff – I listen to Cesaria Evora, I’ve been listening to a lot of Donnie Hathaway lately…I’ve been super-inspired by his writing.

Funnily enough, with the exception of KRS-One, I don’t like to go back to listen to the hip-hop I came up on – that feels like some old-man nostalgia to me. I’m more interested in what’s going on now and what’s going forward. If you dwell too much in what you like from the past, you get trapped in it. I’m interested in what the future holds. That’s what keeps you vital.

Q: There’s a picture of you with President Obama from 2004, when he was running for the Senate. What are your thoughts on his election? How was it for you? What did it mean for you about America?

The funniest thing to me about is how many people that I know in my age group know the dude. I’m one degree of separation from him with about three friends – people who went to college with him, or law school, or know Michelle. That’s kind of a weird thing – to think I could have easily been at some parties with him and his wife. The President to me was always a white guy from somewhere very far removed from me. It is kind of bizarre. (Laughter)

He speaks to the fact a large percentage of the white population have become comfortable with the acceptance of black authority in a way that was unthinkable a generation before. That’s a huge change in the way America sees itself. It speaks to the fact that the country is not as racist as I think black America has feared.

At the same time, there are millions of people who, for racial reasons, are totally freaked out by this. We haven’t reached Nirvana, but we’ve made a lot of progress. He speaks to a level of social mobility that is now possible for black America. The challenge that black people – all poor people, actually, have now is, “Are you ready to take advantage of this access?” Do we have schools and institutions in place that can produce more Obamas? I’m not sure if that’s the case. I still think there’s a lot of wasted genius in the streets.

We’re a country that’s fixated on bullshit. It’s part of an anti-intellectual tradition that exists in this country – I think Bush was a part of that – and I think it’s one of the reasons I think this country has fallen off. Our lifestyle is not as great as we think it is – because it’s not as rich as it could be. We’re not dealing with what’s going on in the world – it’s hard enough to know anything, but if you’re limited to reading People on an airplane, you ain’t gonna know shit. I think ignorance is a huge problem.

I think that’s one thing that Obama can really speak to. Obama knows the value of the word. He’s written books, and I think reading is one of the fundamentals that is under-valued. I have actors that sometimes come in to read who are functionally illiterate. I think we really need to work on education – it’s crucial to the future of the country. All the technology of the Internet, etc., isn’t going to mean anything if we don’t have people to manifest it. And the people that are educated - they're going to clean up.

Q: Last Question. In the past couple of years, there’s been something of a soul revival: Amy Winehouse, Sharon Jones, James Hunter and a few others. Any thoughts about it?

Yeah, I think it’s great! Last year I traveled around the country for a show I do on VH-1 called "Soul Cities." I went to New Orleans, Memphis, Chicago and a few other cities and there are some great singers and performers out there. There’s a huge international audience for this culture that hasn’t gone anywhere. The artists that embrace it will reap rewards, and there are some great young artists doing it. Soul music is kind of like blues music – it’s a building block for so much. Soul music is benefiting from the collapse of the record business because it is a performance based culture more than dance music is. Of all the black music genres, more than hip-hop, more than slick r&b, soul benefits from performance, and with record structures breaking down, the ability to perform is becoming more important than ever –again.


Andrew Sherman said...

Great interview! Thanks

ambersun said...

Hi again

Another great interview.

I liked what he said about Obama. Even in Australia (where I live) many people are positive about the change in US presidency.


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