August 15, 2016
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Rion Amilcar Scott's short story collection Insurrections is an auspicious debut.
The Millions wrote of the book:
"By turns heartbreaking, darkly funny, and overall compelling, Insurrections delivers a panorama of modern life within a close-knit community, and the way the present day can be influenced by past histories, past generations. Scott, a lecturer at Bowie State, is a writer you should be reading, and this book serves as a nice entry point for first-timers."
Cross River, MD, my fictional homeland, is awash in music. It even invented its own, Riverbeat—a music rich with drums, scatting and notes played backwards. And here is where we face a limitation of fiction. Riverbeat as I present it in "Razor Bumps," and other stories in my collection, Insurrections (as well as in stories not in the collection), must always remain imaginary since I am not a musician and don't know the first thing about playing a note. There will be as many different versions of Riverbeat as there are readers of my stories which, come to think of it, is not a bad thing at all.
Music has been, and will likely remain, incredibly important to my fiction. There is always a lyric floating through my head and on my lips and when I sit to write I'm trying to find a rhythm within and between my sentences. It's not worth writing without that rhythm. Here's one song for each story in Insurrections that either inspired the story or captures the rhythm.
"Illusions" by Cypress Hill
"Illusions" is a moody hallucinatory song that begins with Cypress Hill's lead rapper, B-Real, rapping, "Some people tell me that I need help/Some people can fuck off and go to hell." It's a sentiment that I imagine, Rashid, the protagonist in my story, "Good Times" has felt more than once and when we meet him he is at his most desperate point, attempting to end his own life. The song, while dark and moody, ultimately ends on a somewhat hopeful note. B-Real's last lines: "I'm trying to find ways to cope/But I ain't fucking around with a gauge or a rope." The song's protagonist has made a decision to keep living.
"Home is Where the Hatred Is" by Gil Scott-Heron
This song is the tale of a drug addict estranged from his family and everything he knows. The only thing that gives him comfort is the thing that is destroying him. "You keep saying kick it, quit it, kick it, quit it/But, god have you ever tried," Scott-Heron sings with an excess of pain and authority. For most of his adult life, Scott-Heron battled an addiction that eventually destroyed him. Of all his incredible songs, this is the one I return to most often. It's a masterclass in making art out of the thing that pains you most.
The narrator in, "Everyone Lives in a Flood Zone, the second story in Insurrections, is searching through a flood for his drug addicted brother. The story is told from the perspective of the estranged "responsible" older brother, but if it were told from the perspective of Stephen, the addicted younger brother, it would be "Home is Where the Hatred Is."
"Rainy Day Women #12 & #25" by Bob Dylan
The boys in "A Friendly Game" one up one another by tossing stones at a vulnerable woman. Before I settled on an appropriate title for the story, in a fit of pretentiousness, I named it "Rainy Day Women #12 & #25." The story alludes to a rain storm that keeps the characters from their daily routine of basketball and trash talk and there are two women at the center of the story. While I was in graduate school, I took the piece into workshop with the Dylan title to see if anyone would get it. No one did. I refused to tell them where the title came from. Dylan also won't let on what the title means. I think my classmates were more annoyed than intrigued. Probably not my most pretentious moment, but it's up there.
"Shaka Shaka" by Bally
"Boxing Day" is told from the perspective of a young boy as he watches his father become consumed by depression. When I think of my boyhood I think of one of my most treasured memories: beach trips with my family. We listened to my parents' favorite calypso tunes and whatever was popular in Trinidad that year. Sometime before Nelson Mandela found his release from prison, Calypsonian, Bally, released "Shaka Shaka" a stirring tribute to a hero of apartheid resistance, a call for him to be freed from prison, a call for black unity, a call for unity in the wider human family, and a jamming tune all in one. I had my parents play the song over and over on trips until my family grew tired of it.
The hard slap of the drums in the song also reminds me of the father in "Boxing Day" and the hard slaps of his gloves against the boxing dummy.
"Proud Mary" by Ike and Tina Turner
It's hard to imagine a story and song that so aptly dance with one another as "Proud Mary" and "The Slapsmith" do. Both song and story concern themselves with a woman wandering from a hinted turbulent existence. Tina Turner is famously known for walking away from an abusive relationship with collaborator, Ike. Nicolette, the main character in "The Slapsmith," thinks back to a time when, "a man's hands flew toward her face. Slaps and punches." The other parallel is the tone of both song and story. Tina says: "We gonna take the beginning of this song and do it easy and then we gonna take the end and do it rough." That's Nicolette's journey all over.
"Walking Through the Darkness" by Tekitha
"202 Checkmates" is a story of a daughter and her father bonding through chess. My interest in chess comes directly from my love of the Wu-Tang Clan. The group references chess moves in their lyrics nearly as frequently as they mention kung-fu movies. When I realized I'd never be any good at chess I wrote, "202 Checkmates." In "Walking Through the Darkness" Wu-Tang affiliate, Tekitha, sings about a man who maintains his dignity in the midst of life's difficulties. "202 Checkmates" could be thought of as a song sung by a little girl who loves her father even as he struggles to maintain his dignity.
"Nutmeg" by Ghost Face Killah featuring the RZA
Every time Ghost Face raps, particularly when he is doing his abstract style, can be considered a celebration of language. I imagined the story, "Juba" as a similar celebration of language, particularly African-American Vernacular English. Wu-Tang is animated by the lyrical clash between rappers who rap chaotically and abstractly and rappers who rap in a more straightforward and orderly manner. At the end of the song, "Nutmeg," Wu-Tang leader RZA enters to display a straightforward verse that matches the intensity of Ghost's abstract rhymes. The tension between the verses reminds me of the clash between the protagonist in "Juba" and his doppelganger, whom he searches Cross River for.
"Rump Shaker" by Wreckx-N-Effect
The video for "Rump Shaker" was popular amongst my friends when I was a pre-teen, mostly (or wholly) because of the shots of the scantily clad dancers. The rap lyrics in this story were inspired partly by this song and the story, "The Legend of Ezekiel Marcus," itself draws from the days in which my friends and I would flip from video channel to video channel in search of videos like "Rump Shaker."
"Jesus Can Work it Out" by Dr. Charles G. Hayes & the Cosmopolitan Church of Prayer
Once upon a time, "Jesus Can Work it Out" played every morning when my alarm went off. I never wanted to go to school as a teenager—I'm not a morning person—but I dare you to listen to this song and not come sharply to life. It doesn't matter your religious or cultural affiliation, the joy and devotion expressed by this choir is infectious. "Confirmation" deals with a teenager's crisis of faith on the verge of his confirmation ceremony. I like to think the main character, Bobby, heard this song daily and it confused him, but it also gave him an inexplicable joy.
"Get Low" by Lil Jon and the Eastside Boyz featuring the Ying Yang Twins
"Get Low" is pure ignorance. If I believed in "guilty pleasures," this would be one. Louis Smith, the main character in "Party Animal: The Strange and Savage Case of a Once Eloquent and Erudite Young Man," devolves into a creature animated only by his baser instincts. If there is a song for that "Get Low"—with its emphasis on sexual hijinks and screamed vocals rather than technical skill—would be it.
"They School" by dead prez
"Klan" is one of the few flash fiction pieces in Insurrections. I think of it as brief and incendiary. The story concerns a strange incident at a historically black college called Freedman's University. Much of dead prez's first album, Let's Get Free, can be described as brief and incendiary. I discovered it when I was a failing college student. The song allowed me to rationalize my poor showing as a student as some sort of political statement. Now that I teach college students I listen to the song as a reminder to work hard at challenging my students to confront any white supremacist/homophobic/misogynist ideas they may have to picked up along the way. This means confronting those ideas in myself and not feeding them to my students in either the content or the structure of my classes. It's often a losing battle.
"Run Joe (Live)" by Chuck Brown
Riverbeat, Cross River's indigenous music, is inspired by go-go, the sound of my birthplace, Washington, D.C. The late Chuck Brown is known as the Godfather of Go-Go, he invented it to keep the groove going at shows. In "Razor Bumps," a Riverbeat artist is trying (and failing) to make a name for himself. In the background of the story there is a fugitive on the run, just like Chuck's song. I've always loved this particular song for its drums, its chanting and its raw energy. Since coming up with Riverbeat, I've renewed my love for this song. It's the closest thing to a Riverbeat tune in the real world. Though Riverbeat would likely sound nothing like this.
"Nah Leaving," by Denyse Plummer
In the winter of 1979 there was a blizzard. My grandmother and brothers dealt with the piling snow and its melt, which leaked water into the basement, while my parents celebrated carnival in the warmth of their tropical motherland, Trinidad & Tobago. Granny used to often say to me, "They went away to carnival and came back with you." Whenever I hear Denyse Plummer's, "Nah Leaving," her beautiful ode to Trinidad, I think of the wonderful island I haven't visited in so long, but I also think of my fictional homeland of Cross River. Plummer sings about Trinidad: "There where conceive me and there I go' dead." Cross River is with me wherever I go, I am always there. It's as real to me as the places in D.C., Maryland and upstate New York, in which I've lived. I'll write about Cross River as long as I believe in and love words. When I hear Plummer powerfully declare her love for Trinidad from conception to death, I imagine myself an old man with a full head and beard of gray, sitting in the house in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad where my mother and grandmother were raised. There are stacks of paper around me and I'm putting a period on this life and the last words that will ever be written about the land in my heart.
Rion Amilcar Scott and Insurrections links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays
100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
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guest book reviews
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weekly music release lists
Word Bookstores Books of the Week (weekly new book highlights)