An Interview with M. K. Asante

An interview with M. K. Asante (b. 1982) by Susan Thornton Hobby, originally published in Little Patuxent Review in 2015.

Deep under the years at Lafayette College and the University of London, beneath the graduate work at UCLA Film School and the years of being ashamed of his history, M. K. Asante found a voice.

Malo spoke.

The best-selling memoir, Buck, is Asante’s book about his teenage years when he was nicknamed Malo. Malo tells the story of his life in Killadelphia, Pistolvania, the city in which Asante plunged from a comfortable middle-class home into tagging rail cars, joining a gang, selling drugs, having lots of sex and going to jail.

A filmmaker, rapper and the author of two collections of poetry (Beautiful. And Ugly Too and Like Water Running Off My Back) and a nonfiction book on the sociopolitical and activist aspects of hip hop (It’s Bigger Than Hip Hop) by the time he was 21, Asante became a professor at Morgan State at age 23, and got his tenure at 25. He grew up fast.

“A master storyteller and major creative force,” CNN has called Asante.

He’s now married to Maya Freelon Asante, a mixed-media artist who also attended Lafayette College, and has a 4-year-old son; Asante splits his time between Baltimore and Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where his family lives.

Family is the central pillar in Buck, which came out in 2013, and slowly rose to number six on the Washington Post bestseller list in October 2014. His father, Molefi Kete Asante, a Temple University professor known as the father of Afrocentricity, was born in Valdosta, Georgia, to a family of sharecroppers. M. K.’s mother, Amina Asante, was a dancer and choreographer born in Brooklyn as Carole Welsh. When his parents married, they changed their names to African chosen names and moved to Zimbabwe, where his mother directed the Zimbabwe National Dance Company. Asante was born there, but the family moved back to America when he was only 2.

He and his brother attended a private, mostly white, school in Philadelphia, played basketball, went to African festivals with their parents. Then his father left the marriage, his mother fell into despair and mental illness, his brother went to jail, and Malo was expelled from school.

The dissolution of his family leads Malo to dissolve as well, falling into what he calls “the darkness.” Malo found solace in the corner boys, one of whom was his cousin’s boyfriend, a drug dealer. Through Malo’s voice and journal entries from Asante’s mother, readers descend the rings of Philadelphia inner city hell into basement crack dens, ritual gang fights, sex clubs and a last-resort public high school with craps games, metal detectors and daily fights.

Buck is sprinkled with rap lyrics, centered in bold type, from Black Star, Jay-Z, 2Pac, Common, RAM Squad, Public Enemy, that parallel Asante’s story.

Malo crashes at acquaintances’ houses, flees to Texas when a friend is wanted in Philadelphia and returns when his mother overdoses. In the hospital, she exacts a promise from him: If she finds a school that will take him, he will go. He winds up at Crefeld, an alternative school, in an English class. The teacher gives the students blank sheets of paper and pens.

“Write,” she says. “Don’t stop writing.”

Malo writes, “Fuck school.”

“Good,” she says. “Keep writing.”

“The blank page is the starter pistol that fires and triggers my mind to sprint,” Asante writes in Buck. “I hear myself take a breath, then exhale, deep like I just rose from underwater. My hand shaking, trembling like it’s freezing. Then it hits: a silence louder than all the music I’ve ever heard in my life. All the light in the world, in one beam, before me. … I am a blank page.”

Asante said his reason for writing, teaching, and speaking around the world, including speeches at Yale and Harvard as well as Baltimore high schools and jails across the nation is this: “I found my voice. I always wanted to help other people find their voice.”

Poet and novelist Maya Angelou became one of his mentors when as a student at film school, he simply called her office and she answered the phone. He explained that he wanted to make a movie about Kwanzaa and African-American history with her as a narrator. She agreed, told him not to pay her, and guided him for years until her death.

On the top of Buck’s cover is emblazoned Angelou’s imprimatur: “A story of surviving and thriving with passion, compassion, wit, and style.”

Asante is making a movie out of Buck, and has won a Sundance Film Fellowship to write the screenplay and produce it. Asante’s soundtrack to Buck, which he has recorded himself with fellow musicians, was slated to come out in the spring.
The San Francisco Book Review wrote about Buck, “Every fifty years or so, a book is written with the power to change lives and reveal a totally new way of looking at the world. Buck is a work of genius and is such a book. To such writers as Dickens, Twain, Douglas, Lee, Angelou and Kerouac we now add the name Asante.”

Asante spoke with me on a frigid day in February from his sunny corner office, where he watches a steady stream of Morgan State students funneling across a campus footbridge. Wearing drop-crotch black trousers, a patterned fleece and a Milwaukee Bucks green fitted cap, Asante occasionally broke into reciting his verse and rapping lyrics to his new album. A dog-eared copy of the paperback edition of Buck was propped on a stand on his desk.


Susan Thornton Hobby: Did you keep journals or write things down when you were younger?

M. K. Asante: No, my mom had a journal. The only thing I kept was the stuff from Crefeld, the alternative school. There’s a couple of things that are interesting that I learned about memory, writing a memoir. One is that, in terms of the process it took to write the book, the most critical time was time spent, not writing, but going back in my mind. So it’s not really a memory thing, it’s a reliving thing. Hard to explain only because we don’t really do that. We usually just remember things. But it’s different to relive something, and that’s what creates that literary experience to me, because it’s not just memory. … I’m just writing what is. Because this is my new reality, and I’m back there. Also talking to my brother and my mother and piecing things together from what they’re telling me. But really it’s that psychic, mental, spiritual thing of going back and reliving.

STH: How did you switch between the voice of M. K. the professor and Malo?

MKA: Malo never left, that’s the first thing you have to understand. Malo is still in me. You’re going into interior. M. K., Malo, it’s me. But I had to go into a place to tap into the language, into a place that I haven’t opened in a long time. That’s what took the most time, not the writing. Because once I got to that place, then it flowed. All I had to do was just talk. I wasn’t having to try to write like Malo, I was Malo and all I had to do was just talk. It was a real mind fuck, I’ll tell you.

STH: It sounds like what happens with actors, who go into roles, then have trouble getting out of character, like Pacino, and just live as their character. Is that what happened?

MKA: That’s exactly what it was. The only reason why I’m hesitant, is that actors are usually not playing themselves, they’re playing someone else. The similarity is the complete immersion of oneself into something. And that doesn’t necessarily have to be with writing and acting, it could be something else. But when you lose yourself in something so deeply that there’s no separation between yourself and what you’re doing, that part I think is very similar. This is the deeper level, we are all connected. …

Because we’re human and we all share those emotions and archetypes, telling that story is telling your own story. That’s why I always thought if I tell Buck authentically, it’s not just going to be my story, a lot of other people, who maybe don’t look like me, will be able to feel that and relate to that. That acting analogy, once you get that voice, once I’m Malo, there is no coming back right away. From a writing perspective, that would be the hardest part. It's not that I became Malo, but my voice became Malo. And so it took me a while to write something else that was not in the Malo voice. But even Malo’s voice grows and changes over the course of the book, so that’s another dimension to it. The goal for the writer and the goal for me and the goal for the artist, and the goal for the basketball player, is the suppression of the prefrontal cortex, so you lose yourself in it, so you’re not even thinking about it any more.

STH: You’ve said that you wrote the books you needed when you were younger — could you explain?

MKA: And that I want now. I would read Buck now. But at 16, too, I knew I would read it at 16. It’s cliché to go back to the Ghandi thing, but "Be the change you want to see." The reason why I rap is because I read a quote that said, "The most powerful form of critique is creation." I got tired of critiquing hip hop music, talking about what’s wrong with it. I thought, "Why don’t I just make the shit I want to hear?" That world view resonates with my soul, people who just say, "We don’t have this thing, we need this thing, so let’s make this thing."

STH: You have what you call “hip-hop Tourette’s,” where you spout lyrics. Could you talk about it, as well as the role of the lyrics printed in Buck?

MKA: I listen to hip hop every day, I walk around with lyrics in my head all the time. … I always look at things in layers. Like Buck [quoting from a poem printed in his book] it’s "Young buck, buck wild, buck shots, buck town, save buck, black buck, make buck, buck now," but it’s also buck naked. It’s all of these things. The lyrics are a reflection of what I’m going through. The lyrics are the soundtrack of my story. The lyrics are a chronology cause there’s no dates in the book, so how do you keep time? The lyrics posit the idea and the notion that what we listen to affects what we do and what we do affects what we want to listen to. The lyrics also serve as a history of hip hop, and how hip hop changed from 1996 to 2000, just based on the lyrics.

And on top of that, it’s fresh. When I look at a page, I look at a page like a painting. I don’t always like to see just blocks of text; that’s boring to me. That’s why I have to do things like lyrics, or if you look at something like this early on [in his copy of Buck, he points to questions his parents ask him, which are in bold]. I’m trying to write something that I really like, and that’s what I like, so that’s what I do.

STH: What about the soundtrack to Buck, coming out this spring?

MKA: It’s original music, a free project, twelve songs. There are readings in some of the songs. It’s all related to Buck. [He raps his lyrics] “M. K. from the city of the Fresh Prince, where they carry that west and then they Will Smith. This is real shit, gotta deal with, broken bodies under streetlights, … still can’t get right, cause we got vision but we’ve lost sight. Had a best friend, but he lost life. Senseless ’cause nghz were cent-less. Ripe for destruction, so seductive, got half the parts with no instruction, so they look the part but lack substance. …” You listen to that, that’s obviously right from the book. … It’s my story. It’s called Buck: Original Book Soundtrack. It’s going out for free, with promotional copies at events, but it will live on the Internet. We’re partnering with a music web site.

I’ll do shows around. My vision for shows is the blending of art forms. So I envision a show where there is music, where there is cinema, where there is reading over music — I love that — where there is some talking. I don’t like the words inspirational talk, but when I talk, people say it’s inspirational. I envision a show that kind of combines all that. Sometimes things are so academic or intellectual that they’re not fun and there’s no energy. But then sometimes things are so fun and so energetic that there’s no profundity or intellectuality. That’s what I try to do in Buck. … For me, it’s all about finding that balance. …

STH: Sherman Alexie (a Native American poet, comic, filmmaker and novelist) visited your college, and you said he changed your life. Could you describe that?

MKA: I was blown away. He showed me that you could do more than one thing at a high level. He showed me that you could be yourself. A lot of the people that came, they bored the fuck out of me. He showed me that you could just be yourself and be alive. Sometimes we even put on a boring voice because we think that’s more intellectual or something. … He was free. He goes, ‘If you’re rich and you don’t read, you’re an asshole. If you’re poor and you don’t read, you’re fucked.’ The way he talked about race and class was really funny.

I was like, ‘This is what he does, he’s a writer and he talks about things. He makes movies. He’s a slam poet, so he has that performance in him.’ I thought, ‘Wow, what if I could do that?’ He talked about race in a real way, that was even revolutionary in some ways, but did it coming from a place of love. It wasn’t aggressive and angry necessarily, even though his people have a lot to be angry about, but it came from a place that was so real and it was so brilliant that no matter what your position or what your race is, you can’t deny it.

STH: At one point, in Buck, you write: “Far as I can see, money buys everything: hoes, cars, clothes, land, even freedom.” Do you still feel that way?

MKA: Yeah, in a lot of ways. It doesn’t buy love, I didn’t say that. But if you look historically, people bought their freedom. If you look, right now, people are buying freedom. Yeah, we live in a hyper-capitalist society and everything’s for sale. Even your art has to get turned into a product. So even though it’s hard to read that, it’s hard to hear that, even for me. But you want to argue it? You can’t argue it. You mean to say you can’t go out there and buy all that shit I said?

But what’s important there is the absence, what’s not there. Love isn’t there, family isn’t there. You can’t buy family, you can’t buy love, you can’t buy friendship. So that’s what’s important. But cars and hoes and land and freedom to some extent, sure, seems like it’s for sale. That’s the freedom of being able to write Buck. Because would professor M. K. put it exactly in that language? I might say the same thing, but put it in a nicer package, ‘because we live in a hyper-capitalist society … .’ But when you read the harshness of that, you see, damn, it’s fucked up. We should question that.

STH: How did you get your mother to agree to have her very private journal entries made so public?

MKA: That was her idea. I was talking about it. She was like, [he speaks in a soft, proper voice], "Well, If you want to use my journals, I think it would be really powerful because even if it’s exposing me, I think it would help people talk about mental health issues." She reads voraciously, so you can tell from her writing she’s an incredible writer. She understood that [her journals] would be a powerful layer in my book. I get my literary sense from my mom. She’s a reader, she’s an artist, she has the complexity and nuance. … She sees the beauty in language, all language.

STH: You teach in prisons, in high schools — what happens there?

MKA: When I get there, I see myself. If I’m in a high school, I see myself. If I’m in a prison, I see myself. … I made a choice to be myself, as a writer, as a person. … I feel like that choice has liberated me, it’s made me very comfortable in these environments. … I’ve had a lot of people in my life in jail. … I know them. They’re my homies. "I know you, you’re not a monster." Well, some of you are, [he laughs] but they don’t usually put me with those guys. For the most part, you guys are just poor, and don’t have a lot of opportunities for a good education. I just try to be the light, just try to be radiant for them. Just be light.

STH: What do you learn from your students?

MKA: They teach me about what’s going on, cause I’m getting older. They keep me up date. [he mimics an old man’s voice]: "What are you kids doing out there in the streets nowadays?" They give me interesting perspectives. That’s what I love about my life. I’m in a lot of different worlds. There’s a professor that I know, and we always have these hard-core debates. It’s not a professor here. We probably don’t really like each other that much. But we’re cordial. We don’t really agree on much. … My issue with him is, "You don’t associate with anyone who’s not in your class. So I don’t want to hear you talk about poverty. You don’t even know a motherfucker on EBT [Electronic Benefit Transfer — food stamps and welfare]. You don't know what it’s like."

One way to grow in the world is to associate with people who are different from us. That’s why I associate with him, because he’s different. I find there’s value in that. If you’re only around people of your class or race or whatever, you have no perspective, no sympathy. Everyone is just like an object to you instead of a person. I’ve had days where I’m on the phone with David de Rothschild, the heir of the Rothschild family, and we’re talking about business and ideas and creativity and his adventures around the world (he travels the world on a little sailboat). Then on the other line, I have to go, it’s one of my homies from jail or whatever, asking me to Western Union them $40. That’s an extreme range of two phone conversations I can have in the same day. A guy whose family invented capitalism and one friend who just needs $40, Western Union. … It’s made me see other people’s views. … Exposure helps everything.

STH: I know you’re working on the screenplay for Buck, but are you writing anything else?

MKA: I’m writing a new memoir called Go. I don’t really talk a whole lot about the things I’m working on because I don’t really know yet what they are, but it’s a road memoir. It’s all about the necessity of going, for everybody. It takes place in Africa, juxtaposing the Zimbabwe that I went to at 25, and the Zimbabwe that my parents knew. Mom’s journals make another appearance here. It’s a memoir of searching. I’m searching for the woman who raised me for the first two years of my life. It takes place in Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, Swaziland, all around southern Africa.

I’m writing the proposal for it now. I say, "This is not Chinua Achebe’s Africa. This is Buck in Africa in a lot of ways." It’s not Buck in Africa, [he laughs], but it’s about being a young black man going back to Africa, experiencing things that I haven’t read in African literature yet. …

I’m working on a new book on hip hop, called Godz in the Hood: The Resurrection of Hip Hop. That’s basically a book about the paradigm shift that’s occurring in hip hop, in terms of a spiritual shift, a lyrical shift, an artistic shift, a character shift. Hip hop is returning to its roots, in a way, and I want to document that, to celebrate that. There’s a whole new generation of artists that are really using hip hop in a way that’s profound and powerful and uplifting. And moving away from where we were, which was a very dark place, for the last ten years. Godz in the Hood is also about the paradigm shift in technology, …. in which artists can cut out the middleman.

Then, I’m working on another idea called The Blank Page. It has to do with creativity and voice and creative writing, but it’s not a how-to. It’s not a memoir, it’s not a self-help. It’s not a history, not any of that. Maybe it’s the story of the blank page. Maybe it’s the blank page telling its story and why it’s important in all of our lives. I want it connected to life, not just art.

And I’m making a movie called Waiting on Wonderful. It’s about my son, Wonderful, who passed away Nov. 2, 2014. He was born October 31st; he had something called anencephaly [in which a baby is born without a portion of skull]. It’s a celebration of his life and his legacy. It’s not a sad documentary. We documented the whole experience, from when we found out until his birth. I caught him when he was born and he passed away on my chest. The whole experience, we documented. We’re working on trying to tell that story. It’s given us a lot of life to work on the story.

We really took a different approach from the moment we found out. We decided that we were going to celebrate his life, however long he’s here. That’s what we did. We had a party when he was born, he partied with us. We did so much with him. We cremated him on our property in North Carolina. It was a very spiritual experience. And it actually is the reason why I can do music. His name was Wonderful. He taught me not to be afraid of anything, not even death. I was always scared to do music, and he made me not afraid to do it. After he died, I started researching the name Wonderful. I came across Boddhisatva, Wonderful Sound, in Buddhism. The Boddhisatva, Wonderful Sound, was a being that was sent — well, he sent himself — to Earth to save the people here through music and art.

STH: Did you know that before you named him?

MKA: No! So, Boddhisatva, Wonderful Sound, was only here for a short period of time. He knew 76,000 instruments. He had studied with another Buddha named Cloud Thunder Sound King (that’s my AKA as a rapper). The name of my record label is Wonderful Sound Cartel, so I created a label after my son passed away. He gave me the nod and told me not to be afraid, and it also reinforced that every time I do music, it has a higher purpose.

© Susan Thornton Hobby, 2015. All rights reserved.