by Jarold Imes
Jill Scott invited me to our “Family Reunion” one December morning. I reminisce over uncles and aunts I haven’t seen in a while; cousins who feel that my eclectic southern gangsta vibe has been out of style.
The wind chill reached its peak when my older Sistah Souljah brought The Coldest Winter Ever and the game was frozen solid. The successes that she and Teri Woods brought were True to the Game and revived a genre that was once reserved for literary greats like Iceberg Slim, Donald Goines and Chester Hines. The authors, who would gain success later such as Vickie Stringer, K’wan, Shannon Holmes and KaShamba Williams began to dominate bestseller lists. Industry insiders praised the writers for simultaneously increasing the number of new male and youth readers while increasing the shelved devoted to African American literary works at stores like Borders and Waldens. Not to mention helping save some of the African American bookstores who were looking for a new audience in their quest to provide knowledge to the community.
However, everyone wasn’t able to enjoy the success that seemed to be shared by a growing number of authors. Prominent book clubs criticized the books for a “lack of substance.” Established authors, some of whom were jealous that their sales hadn’t grown by leaps and bounds, rejected and outright wished harm against and spread hatred to (on the sly of course) some of the authors. Book reviewers did their best to write damaging reviews, often targeting the less successful or first time authors in full out assaults on Amazon.com and BN.com.
In spite the amount of hatred and viciousness directed to the genre known as street, urban or hip-hop fiction, the genre continues to grow. In 2001, Stringer and Holmes pulled their resources to form Triple Crown Publications (TCP), a company that has enjoyed seeing a title by an artist affiliated with their camp on the Essence Bestseller’s List since the publications of A Hustler’s Wife by Nikki Turner and Gangsta by K’wan. Black Print Publishing and Urban Books would eventually share the influence and guidance of National Bestselling author Carl Weber. Other companies, like Q-Boro Books, Amiaya Entertaiment, Street Knowledge Publishing and Relentless Content among others all enjoyed success on the shelves and the streets. And don’t think that major New York publishers haven’t taken notice either. Simon & Schuster’s Atria imprint would snatch up TCP founders Holmes and Stringer while St. Martin’s Press, Random House and Urban Books/Kensington would sign many of TCP first round draft picks. HarperCollins would enter the game with author/entrepreneur Darren Coleman, author of Before I Let Go and Do or Die and St. Martin’s Press would strike gold once again by signing Q-Boro Books founder Mark Anthony and Relentless Content’s Relentless Aaron to multi-book deals.
Unlike the leaders of the nineties literary renaissance, the street/urban/hip-hop authors and publishers would do more to insure that African Americans and others in love with hip hop found success in other areas of publishing. Companies like MarionDesigns.com, Sublime Visuals, CandaceK would dominate the market supplying book covers, websites and other marketing material, mimicking the popular marketing campaigns of traditional record labels. Leah Whitney, Chloe’ Hilliard, Carla Dean became household names for editing and clubs like TCP Messageboards, Coast2Coast Readers, Keep N It Real and now Urban Book Source would become popular online hubs where authors, fans and critics could come together, encourage one another and discuss literature.
So even with this growth, where is the future of street/urban/hip-hop literature headed? The critics of the genre would be disappointed to find that these authors on the shelves next to Stephen King and Michael Crichton or in the romance section, heating it up once again. Other authors are trying their hands at entrepreneurship, signing their own authors to publishing and distribution deals. Many more are moving into movies and starting to finance their own projects. Unlike the predecessors, even more are giving back to help aspiring and upcoming authors reach their dreams. Eventually, one, maybe two of them may head a large division of a New York publishing house.
What needs to happen now for the genre to continue to grow and expand would be unity among the authors. Not just the street/urban/hip-hop authors but all Black authors in general. It would be nice to see more and more authors work on literary projects together. The legends could reach back and help upstart labels get on good footing so more high quality literature can be produced. Maybe three or four authors could go on a national tour together, which would benefit bookstores and authors alike, and those tours could double as seminars or celebrations of special topics and ideas. Plus, it would be nice to do something with our musical and theatrical counterparts. McDonald’s says it could happen and I believe that.
Now that the reunion is over with, this is where we are at. We are growing and we are turning many haters into followers. We are taking inventory of our assets and weeding out the tares from the wheat. As we celebrate the first North Carolina Black Book Festival and anticipate the annual Harlem Book Fair, where will we be? We’ve already proved we can take the literary world by storm, now all we have to do is keep the storm moving. Like Sydney of Brown Sugar, I remember the day I fell in love with hip-hop, but I also remember when I fell in love with literature. That was the day I would pen what would become my first two novels. My love of literature has caused me to challenge readers and fans to demand the best of us… don’t settle because that’s your favorite author, or you like this company (which used to not be the case three years ago). As you support us to reach our dreams and goals, make sure that we don’t get out of control. Make sure the authors keep the beefs to a minimum (I need to keep that in mind because I’ve been known to set it off a time or too myself) and they aren’t in it for the love of money but for the respect of the craft. Keep our entrepreneurs in check and the big heads to a minimum. But most importantly, hold us accountable to make sure that we do reach back because after all, we are supposed to be family.
Jarold Imes is a contributing writer for The Urban Book Source and author of Hold on Be Strong; he is the creator of online soap opera: Hold on Be Strong (www.holdonbestrong.com), send emails to:firstname.lastname@example.org
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