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December 11, 2007

Book Notes - Abiola Abrams ("Dare")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that is in some way relevant to their recently published books.

Abiola Abrams is best known as the host of BET's The Best Shorts. Her first novel, Dare, is a Faustian tale set in the world of hip hop. Abrams has a keen ear for dialog, and though almost outrageous at times, her characters are believable and often fascinating. Dare may end up in several nooks of your bookstore, filed under "chick lit," "African American literature," or even in the burgeoning "street lit" genre. Don't be fooled by the labels, this is a promising and enjoyable debut.

In her own words, here is Abiola Abrams' Book Notes essay for her debut novel, Dare:

When I started to write DARE it was the pre-Imus age of innocence. If you are reading this in a digital time capsule 10 years hence, I am referring to a 2007 scandal whereupon radio madman pundit Don Imus referred to the young, mostly African American students of the Rutgers Women’s Basketball team as “nappy headed hoes.”

Until this moment, according to a white girlfriend of mine, most whitefolks had no idea that black women minded being objectified and abused by black men in popular hip hop music industry. She just thought that it was “how we all got down.”

This is relevant because the plot of my debut novel DARE, the story of a woman dealing with the madness of the hip hop world has haunted me for ages. I have told similar stories in other formats—an off Broadway play called Goddess City, a couple of my art films, but here it is finalmente and in depth in my comedic debut novel. Like my main character Maya Hope, I grew up loving hip hop. It was fresh; it was rebellious; it was real. I was young and it was 1993. Chuck Dee made me feel informed and TLC made me feel like I was crazy, sexy, cool even before I was sure what any of that meant!

Then everything changed. It became clear that hip hop didn’t love me. Or anybody maybe. The music was abusive and abrasive. I take pride in being nappy but I am nobody’s whore, ho, or however you say it. I bolted for the more loving, groovier shores of Erykah Badu, Lauryn Hill and Lenny Kravitz. Righteous rage. (To be clear though, it is 1,000 percent true that hip hop needs to self-regulate and take responsibility, however, hip hop did not create America’s violence or misogyny.)

Then a couple of years ago, I was in the midst of personal madness. A failed relationship that was supposed to last my whole life, and unexpected family deaths back to back. Somehow, I happened upon the righteous rage that is Nas. When he said, “Made you look, You’re a slave to a page in my rhyme book,” I felt it. My personal posse laughed at me as I delved deep into the Nas/Jay-Z beef songs when they were already making up.

Single for the first time in my adult life, the music was angry and so was I. I saw myself as a rugged survivor of a relationship that tried it’s best to do me in. I had believed and spouted all of the clichés: the personal is political, how you do anything is how you do everything, you’re either part of the solution or part of the problem. Nonetheless I listened to the music at ear shattering levels trying to drown out the sounds of my own tears, but at the same time I couldn’t watch the disgusting imagery in the videos. The contradictions of me as a peace sign wearing, feminist declaring, intellectual artist singing Nas & Puffy’s Hate Me Now, may not have made sense to others, but it was healing.

But the videos. Ugh. Sex is not the problem. I’ve shot empowering feminist erotica. The music video chosen images were the problem—the hyper-masculinity and the over-sexualization. The one note—men are all pimps and women are all hoes was boring. These two dimensional images were not sex, but they were exploitive.
Who had a vested interest in perpetuating these images? As an artist I wanted to push myself and my work, so that means diving into the waters that make you most uncomfortable.

However DARE is not about Don Imus, Snoop Dogg or anyone else. DARE is a chick lit retelling of Faust set in the hip hop world. It is the fun literary tale of Maya Hope, a sociologist who due to unusual circumstances pinch hits for a friend at an audition, and ends up the top female rapper in the land. It’s a comedic fable, a step behind the velvet rope and a wild romp in the world of entertainment. A hip hop Wizard of Oz.

When I started to write DARE it was in the era of my semi-innocence as well. That ended when I handed in my manuscript, which my team loved, and I was told that the publishing was still very segregated. That by choosing a book cover with a black woman’s face on it, the only interested readers would be black women, although my story is a human story that should be of interest to varied readers. No one but black women wants books about black women, they said. An additional conundrum was that the only hip hop novels that the publishing world knows how to market are called “street lit.” Literary magazines, trades and major reviewers we sent the book to didn’t even crack the spine when they read the words hip hop in the description. Black press also assume, oh no not again, before even reading the book! Dare is confusing, I am told in premise, until people read it. Then they find it moving, fascinating, compelling and thoughtful. But how do I get them to read it? Ai Dios Mio.

But back to the music…

The title DARE comes from of the central questions of the novel- What would you dare to do if you knew you could not fail?

Music saves my life on a daily basis so it makes sense that I would tell a musical story. I am a visceral person, kinesthetic, as Maya describes her dream man in the novel. After beginning my day with meditative silence, I really begin the day with a full on solo party, music blasting, playing my personal Fight Song Playlist and having my one-woman dance party. That’s how I start every day—like it’s a party. Literally.

The novel features a fictional battle rap re-enactments. DARE features quotes from female rappers, and also features a Tupac Shakur like character.

Maya is an R&B neo-soul jazz girl until she reinvents herself as the rapper Jezebel. This actually makes more sense that it seems to as jazz was also born as rebellious protest music. The only revolutionary hip hop music at this point can perhaps come from women. Revolutionary art is only created when artists create what people don’t expect them to. Everyone expects black men to rap. Hell, I’m surprised when the bro next to me on the subway isn’t blasting Jay-Z. If I had to create a playlist for DARE though, the DARE mixtape would include a mix of female rappers and jazz artists.

The DARE Playlist
Have a Nice Day by Dr. Roxanne Shante
Charlie Mingus’ Orange Was the Color of Her Dress
Blood on the Fields by Wynton Marsalis
Byrd’s Hothouse
John Coltrane’s My Favorite Things
Miles Davis’ Blue Period
TLC - Unpretty
Salt N Pepa – Express Yourself
Missy Elliot – She’s A Bitch
Meshell Ndege O’Cello – If That’s Your Boyfriend, He Wasn’t Last Night
Queen Latifah - Bananas
Foxy Brown – Ill Nana
Billie Holliday – Gimme A Pigfoot and A Bottle of Beer
Nina Simone – Here Comes the Sun
Sweet T – It’s My Beat
MC Lyte – Lyte As A Rock
Eve- I Gotta Man
Beyonce Ring The Alarm
Joshua Redmon – East of the Sun

Post Script--
Since handing in my fun, fab book, I have gone through a DARE Detox of sorts. I pretty much listen to Kanye West, Beyonce, Alicia Keys, Al Green, and yes, Lenny Kravitz. DARE is about friendship and temptation, love and courage. Despite all of this hip hop talk, you really don’t have to be feeling hip hop to groove to DARE, my readers say. What do you think?

“Difficult takes a day. Impossible takes a week.”
Jay –Z

Abiola Abrams
“Original Goddess”

Abiola Abrams and Dare links:

the author's website
the book's website
the author's blog
the author's Wikipedia entry
the author's MySpace page
the author's IMDb profile

the book's trailer
the book's page at its publisher

Mookychick interview with the author
My Chic Things interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
guest book reviews
musician/author interviews
directors and actors discuss their film's soundtracks
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2007 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2006 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)