author – activist – faculty – mom
In the early 00s, I was a hip hop and hip hop theater artist. My emphasis was on the latter, but I did do a few club shows, and I even freestyled once on a stage in Wisconsin. At that time, my previous body of work had been developed in spoken word artist and slam. But I quickly became frustrated with the limitations of the form. A three-to-five-minute poem simply wasn’t long enough to tell the stories I wanted to tell. I needed more space to say what I had to say. It’s no surprise that now, twenty years later, Kensington Books has just published my first hip hop novel, QUEEN OF URBAN PROPHECY. As I reflect on my own path to telling longer stories, I find myself looking back to some of the hip hop from two decades ago, and thinking about other hip hop artists who had broader stories to tell. The duo on my mind today is Dead Prez, militant political Black rappers of the late 90s and early 00s.
In QUEEN OF URBAN PROPHECY, the protagonist Deza is a rapper from Chicago who doesn’t intend to engage with politics. She raps mostly about sex, romance and that hot girl hip hop life. But she is totally unprepared when the bonus track on her debut album—about the police shooting of a girl named Shaquana—unwittingly predicts a real life shooting of a girl with the same name under similar circumstances. When Deza is thrust into the national spotlight, she becomes an accidental activist for Black Lives.
For whatever reason, Dead Prez’s classic track “It’s Bigger than Hip Hop” has been playing in my mind in the last few days. I haven’t actually heard the song since summer 2020, when it was on the playlist I made for a series of family actions we organized with Black Kids for Black Lives.
From Dead Prez’s “It’s Bigger than Hip Hop:”
It’s bigger than all these fake ass records
Where poor folks got the millions and my woman’s disrespected
Every listing of their lyrics has always read this way, including the current one on Apple Music. Still, that line never made sense to me. Poor folks don’t have the millions. That’s precisely why they’re poor. But I really liked the song, so I sang along anyway. However, in light of all the developments with the Movement for Black Lives, I wondered if it might be a typo. What if the line was “where po-po’s got the millions…”? Maybe Dead Prez was talking about the need to defund the police, way back in 2000. Which makes sense, because they were connected to many radical Black formations, including the police and prisons abolition movements. Which connects to other police-related lyrics in their song:
…[I] don’t playa hate, I just stay awake, this is real hip hop
And it don’t stop till we get the po-po off the block.
The image in my mind was of cop cars driving away in a Black neighborhood and all the folks on the block celebrating. But what if Dead Prez was actually calling for something larger, a systematic divestment from police and prisons, and a radical reimagination of public safety in Black communities? Even as an activist at the time, I didn’t realize that they were hinting at a bigger picture. Which is also a source of frustration for me with hip hop. The focus on bragging about their hip hop excellence often overshadows the new and interesting things they want to say. As the song ends, they say the following:
DP’s got that crazy shit, we keep it crunk up.
They repeat this five times. I really wish they had used some of that space in the song to expand their critique of police and prisons. But it’s probably not realistic to expect a single hip hop anthem to break down all the analysis and demands of the abolition movement. Which is why I became a novelist. I wanted to be able to say more.
In my 20s, when I first began trying to write novels, I was accused of being too preachy. But these days, I often write about activists. Throughout most of the book, they’re just living their lives. They have interesting conflicts at work, in their families, and in their love lives. But if you write about activists or activism, then there are also moments when it makes perfect sense in the story that someone would make a speech. And in that speech—which is perfectly in character—they say something preachy that I believe and want to have appear somewhere in my book. There’s a scene in QUEEN OF URBAN PROPHECY, where activists from the Movement for Black Lives come onstage at a concert and make a speech where someone has recently been killed by police. In the original draft of the book I even included the number that people can text—in real life—to join the Movement for Black Lives, but my editor made me take it out. Dang. But I recently decided as an activist, that the following two lines: “defund the police” and “divest from fossil fuels” will appear in all of my future novels. Maybe someone will say it. Maybe it will be on a shirt, a button, a bumper sticker. But I want those ideas out there.
Similarly, I’ve decided to make every novel of mine a climate novel. Whatever it was about before, it will continue to be about that, but also about the fight for climate justice. QUEEN OF URBAN PROPHECY lent itself to writing about climate, because it takes place on a national tour. We are far enough into the climate crisis that at any given point there is a disaster taking place somewhere in the US. If a character is criss-crossing the nation in a bus, she would be certain to run into current climate disruption and/or communities reeling from climate tragedy. And Deza does encounter disaster survivors, climate migrants, and cities still healing from past climate trauma. In responding to her audiences, she finds her way to climate activism, even as she finds her way to activism for Black Lives and international labor solidarity.
A few days after QUEEN OF URBAN PROPHECY came out, I was reading another novel and it had a great epigraph—a quote that started the book. I realized that I had forgotten to put one in my own book. I forgive myself—I was finishing the novel as a mom writing and teaching full-time in a pandemic—but I realized I had missed my chance to quote lines from my favorite rap songs.
If I had it to do again, I would offer the following:
Who said the ladies couldn’t make it?/you must be blind/If you don’t believe, well here, listen to this rhyme/Ladies first, there’s no time to rehearse/I’m divine and my mind expands throughout the universe.
And then I would close out the epigraph with the following.
“It’s bigger than hip hop.”
Love this Aya! And I listened to your interview with Susan DeFreitas as part of her Story Medicine. Because of you two strong women I am learning to be a better writer and artist.
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