Advertisement

How rap and writing help heal a family’s old wounds

M.K. Asante
(Courtesy Amistad Books)
Share

Book Review

Nephew: A Memoir in 4-Part Harmony

By M.K. Asante
Amistad: 208 pages, $26.99
If you buy books linked on our site, The Times may earn a commission from Bookshop.org, whose fees support independent bookstores.

In his new book, M.K. Asante, a recording artist and bestselling author of the 2013 memoir “Buck,” details the history of his older half-brother Uzi. Asante’s latest memoir, “Nephew,” is framed as a letter to Asante’s nephew Nasir, who is on the verge of death in a Philadelphia hospital after being shot nine times. Asante’s intent is to tell his nephew the story of Uzi, the estranged father whom Nasir never knew. What follows is an emotionally powerful family history that explores the essential role of music and language in healing old wounds.

Nephew” bears the intriguing subtitle A Memoir in 4-Part Harmony, which points to the book’s strongest element: the layering of multiple first-person voices to create a compelling rhythm and flow. In addition to Asante’s voice, which combines an emotional directness with insightful reflections on Black history and music, the book features letters and writings from several of Asante’s family members, including Uzi, their mother, Nna, and Uzi’s father, Bob. These direct first-person accounts not only create the narrative’s complex harmony but also add a raw authenticity. A fifth voice, meanwhile, is Nasir, whose rap lyrics are interspersed throughout the text, providing additional commentary on the story.

Advertisement

These voices, each of them rhythmically distinct, are brilliant in how they play off one another, but it is in Bob’s letters, which begin to appear halfway through the book , that the raw emotion reaches a perfect pitch. Bob, Uzi’s estranged father, is a heroin addict desperate for salvation who begins writing letters to God. “Dear God,” the first letter begins, “here’s my situation as it stands now.” Such directness makes these confessions beautiful and achingly vulnerable, and they provide a wonderful complement to the other voices in the memoir.

In an example of Asante’s insightful ability to draw connections between different generations and historical contexts, he notes that Bob’s first letter was written in 1971, just as Apollo 15 was landing on the moon. Asante links this to a song Uzi wrote called “NASA” and uses the famous saying from Neil Armstrong, who was on the moon-landing mission of 1969, to draw a thematic connection between Bob’s letters and Nasir himself. “Bob passed before you were born,” Asante writes to Nasir, “but I don’t think he ever imagined that you or anyone would one day read his words, yet here we are, two generations and nine shots later. … The letters may have been a small step for Bob, but they were a giant step for us.” In this way, Asante gives the letters a sense of historical weight, and we read in them not just the words of one man struggling for absolution but also a necessary link between the past and the present.

Throughout the book, Asante deftly contextualizes his family’s story within the larger history of the Black American experience. Every chapter is full of a wonderful mix of references that link the present and the past in a complex web of thematic relations. In the second chapter, for example, Asante analyzes the lyrics of Nasir’s music and brings up Ancient Egypt, the Greek god Apollo, Aretha Franklin, W.E.B. DuBois, Langston Hughes, Fannie Lou Hamer, Malcolm X, Assata Shakur and eventually George Moses Horton, who becomes the focus of the chapter. A poet who was born enslaved and who taught himself to read, Horton began writing poetry, which helped him eventually buy his freedom. This chapter is just one illustration of Asante’s use of history to provide an insightful thematic commentary on the present.

The story of Horton also functions as a symbol for Asante’s larger thoughts on the essential role of art and music as a path to liberation. “Horton’s poetry,” Asante writes, “is the North Star that delivered his freedom.” For Uzi and Nasir, their music and lyrics play the same role. In one of the book’s more memorable scenes, Asante describes how, when he was 10 and Uzi was incarcerated in Arizona, Asante played the rapper Nas’ “N.Y. State of Mind” for his brother over the phone. This is 1991, and Asante has to hold the corded phone to his boombox speaker. The music is so revelatory that the other inmates gather to listen with Uzi over the phone. They react to Nas’ “bars as if they were NBA dunks,” Asante writes. “I hear the click boom clank of Black fists beating on stone and metal. I can feel their heads nodding, their arms flying in approval and solidarity.” It is, for Asante, a mystical, magical moment, connecting with his brother via music through prison walls on the other side of the country.

The other major character in the novel is Asante’s mother, contemporary dance choreographer Kariamu Welsh Asante, whom he affectionately refers to as Nna. Her voice is once again different from the others, and the distinctive rhythms give the book its tonal and musical complexity. As with the other characters, though, hers is a story of a passion for art and music, in her case through dance. You can feel Asante’s love for his mother in the way he relays her story, and their relationship is a key emotional foundation of the book.

Advertisement

There are moments toward the end of the book when one might wish for more detailed scenes, and some parts of Uzi’s story can feel a little rushed. But the way Asante ends his journey is so emotionally powerful that you can easily forgive any minor flaws. It’s a gut-punch of an ending, bringing together all the threads of this complex family history that he’s been setting up, and it completes the story on the perfect note. As with a great piece of music, the emotions and rhythms of that final chapter lingered in my mind long after I’d put down the book.

Aatif Rashid is a writer in Los Angeles and author of the novel “Portrait of Sebastian Khan.”

Advertisement