Edited by Paul Beatty
D. Scot Miller for East Bay Express
Against a black backdrop, a thin slice of watermelon eaten nearly down to the rind conjures a sinister pink smile on the cover of this African-American humor anthology. Like its contents, the book's cover is both hilarious and haunting. When compiling a collection that is equal parts Afro-surrealist agitprop and talking-book primer, Beatty mined a compendium of the last century's most influential black writers, thinkers, and artists, himself included. From the pathos of Hilton Als to the surprisingly profound musings of Mike Tyson, many of these pieces are funny in spite of themselves. Excerpts from Sam Greenlee's The Spook Who Sat by the Door and Fran Ross' forgotten jewel, Oreo, mix with short stories from Henry Dumas and Darius James and poems from Bob Kaufmann, Harryette Mullen, and more, inspiring the reader to unearth these writers' other, out-of-print treasures. Wary of inside jokes, some readers might be reluctant to dive into the concoction of hip-hop lyrics, speeches, and quotes with which Beatty rounds out the anthology, but since before Brer Rabbit, oral humor has been the occasional vehicle for extreme, radical black thought. As a literary reference tool, it's unmatched. Beatty's selections give Hokum, as Jean-Michel Basquiat might say, teeth.
Our once and future truth-teller
By D. Scot Miller
Wednesday April 8, 2009
PREVIEW Anyone who heard "Big Brother Beat" on De La Soul's 1996 album Stakes Is High (Tommy Boy) was soon saying, "Who's this kid Mos Def?" Still, it's hard to believe that, 13 years later, the radiant voice on that track would become the ubiquitous scion of that good old Native Tongue can-do.
Mos Def can turn up simultaneously in a movie (his next project is a film version of Iceberg Slim's Mama Black Widow) and on a television show (you catch him on House a few weeks ago?), yet still find time to cameo on other people's albums, win an Obie for his performance in a play (Suzan Lori Parks' Fuckin' A), and come out with a book (Black 2.0, due this summer). It's like, wait a minute, there's got to be more than one Mos Def.
His four albums explore his tortured id and black people's rightful place as the inventors of rock 'n' roll and just about all forms of popular music — all that, and they still maintain the dedication to socially conscious protest we've come to expect from our once and future truth-tellers. His fifth, The Ecstatic, is due later this year. He's coming to Yoshi's in Oakland for a few sets with Robert Glasper on piano, Mark Kelly on bass, Chris "Daddy" Dave on drums, Casey Benjamin on sax, and Keyon Harrold on trumpet. Be a part of history in the making. It's not like you have a choice. His name is Most Definite, not Think So.
MOS DEF Tues/14–April 16, 8 and 10 p.m., $55. Yoshi's Oakland, 510 Embarcadero West, Oakl. (510) 238-9200. www.yoshis.com