This summer I had the pleasure of attending the Harlem Book Fair, the nation’s largest African American book festival, whose aim is to honor and celebrate the rich literacy history of black authors. Located between New York Public Library’s Countee Cullen library auditorium and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, thousands were in attendance to partake in music, panel discussions, food and workshops. Since the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, Harlem has been known as a major African-American cultural center, on the cutting edge of black life and culture which was in full effect in this year’s offering.
One of the more lively panel discussions featured three well-known urban fiction authors, Albert “Prodigy” Johnson, one half of the hip-hop phenomenon Mobb Deep; bestselling author of Eviction Notice and Animal, K’wan; and New York Times bestselling author of Murderville 2: The Epidemic and The Dopeman’s Wife, JaQuavis Coleman. Yes, he is one half of the husband and wife writing team JaQuavis and Ashley, authors of the white hot series, The Cartel. Infamous Lives, Infamous Stories: Doing Hard Time on Main Street – Urban Fiction Breaks Through provided a platform for the three authors to contextualize their experiences as writers in the larger historical movement of African American entrepreneurship, authorship and self-determination. While best known as Prodigy, one half of seminal hip hop duo, Mobb Deep whose dystopian street tales were shocking considering the duo’s youth when they created their first album. Prodigy was deeply influenced by his grandmother, Bernice Johnson, owner of Bernice Johnson Cultural Arts Center Queens. In an era when there were seemingly few successful African-American women business owners, she managed to own several prime pieces of real estate while establishing an important creative space for black artists. Alumni of her school include the Tap Dance Kid, Savion Glover and Michael Jackson’s choreographer, Michael Peters.
Because rapping is essentially storytelling, the leap into writing fiction which reflects on and mirrors both popular culture and contemporary African-American thought and issues, was not a difficult one for Prodigy. Writers JaQuavis and K’wan’s path to writing was more traditional-the former began writing stories in grade school, and the later developed an interest in writing while employed as a broker. These three authors share a determination to infuse a cultural aesthetic into the urban-lit tales they create. As a group of writer under 40 years of age, they have drank deeply from the “keep-it-real” aesthetic of hip hop culture but have also drawn strength from the collective experiences of African-American writers to craft fiction that expresses our unique experiences. K’wan and JaQuavis have become successful writers because they’ve developed a narrative in their storytelling that rings true to their readers. K’wan’s Hood Rat series depicts the lives of young women who sleep around to get what they want in life-the consequences of which are drama filled. And JaQuavis’ most successful series, The Cartel, follows a group of high profile drug dealing men and the women who love them. The street tales these three authors write about continue to draw more and more fan who wait with baited breathe for the next book in the series to be released.
Titles for further reading: