"Hip-Hop Isn’t Just Music, It’s a Culture" | An Interview with Tiffany D. Jackson

Award-winning writer, hip-hop professor, and author of The Roots of Rap, Carole Boston Weatherford talks to Tiffany D. Jackson about Jackson’s new book Let Me Hear a Rhyme, a love letter to 1990s Brooklyn and the hip-hop generation.

Tiffany D. Jackson sets her third YA novel, Let Me Hear a Rhyme (LMHAR), in Brooklyn, her hometown. In 1998, the borough is still reeling from the unsolved murder of hip-hop heavyweight Biggie Smalls, when aspiring emcee Steph is gunned down at age 16. Steph’s sister Jasmine and his friends Quadir and Jarrell vow to keep his legacy alive through his lyrics and to solve the mystery of his murder. The trio find not only Steph’s notebooks and demos but also a shoebox whose contents could tarnish Steph’s memory. As the teens pursue a recording deal for Steph, they confront their own dreams—and the dangers that could derail them. Jackson teams up with lyricist Malik “Malik 16” Sharif to deliver a love letter to Brooklyn and a message of hope to the hip-hop generation.

CBW: How do the setting and plot reflect the Brooklyn of your formative years?

TDJ: LMHAR is set during 1998 in Bed Stuy, Brooklyn. It was a different type of Brooklyn back then. There was a gritty rawness, mixed with beauty and culture. Drugs were prevalent, crime simmered, but above all, our communities were grounded in pride, because Brooklyn belonged to us. It was ours and ours alone.

CBW: Talk about your creative process. Where do your memories end and your historical research begin?

TDJ: When I started writing Rhyme, I decided to dial back to 15-year-old Tiff by asking myself some general questions: Who was I listening to? What was I wearing? Some memories were easy, like where I was when I heard Biggie died. Other were impossible, like remembering exactly who was on the cover of the October Vibe magazine. I researched to confirm my own memories; then I looked to friends and hip-hop heads to affirm regional specifics. For example, slang used in one part of Brooklyn may not have been used in another.Let Me Hear a Rhyme cover

CBW: Why did you want to write a YA novel set against a backdrop of hip-hop?

TDJ: When I think of growing up, I think of how hip-hop set a societal tone. It affected the way we dressed, what we played at parties, the way we schedule our day just to listen to our favorite deejays on the radio…. I wanted to remember what it was like to have music rule every aspect of a kid’s world.

CBW: Why did you tell the story in multiple voices, and how did you create each voice?

TDJ: Hip-hop has so many subgenres, and I wanted each of the characters to represent some of the more prominent ones of that era. So Jasmine represents the "Lauryn Hills" of the world. Quadir the "Nas," and Jarrell "The Lox." Giving each character their own vocabulary and goal in the story made it easy to write in different voices. But honestly, they’re really just three parts of my personality. Some days I’m sassy like Jazz, others I’m a clown like Jarrell, proving that no matter where I go, no matter how many degrees I rack up or books I publish, at the end of it all I’m still a smart-mouth kid from Brooklyn.

CBW: How did the collaboration work between you and Malik-16?

TDJ: Malik-16 is honestly my “person,” my day-one from college. He’s an incredibly talented rapper and songwriter. I’ve watched his hustle from the very start. When I first came up with this idea, I thought about writing the lyrics on my own, but then I thought, why do that when your bestie is a genius? Working together went surprisingly well, considering we fight like brother and sister. I sent him chapters, explained the mood/feeling I was aiming for, and he captured the essence needed. We perfected most of the lyrics via text or during one of our weekly catch-up calls.

CBW: The text alludes to numerous rap songs. I also allude to music in my books, most notably in the verse novel Becoming Billie Holiday. That almost creates a built-in soundtrack. What affect does that have on that narrative? On readers?

TDJ: Isn’t it amazing how music has the ability to transport you to another time and space? You may not remember every detail of every moment, but somehow you remember the song you danced to with your crush at the eighth grade dinner dance or the hottest song during graduation. That’s what makes music such a powerful tool in this story. Listen to a song from the '90s and it’ll drop you in that era, no time machine necessary.

CBW: I liked how you imparted the history of hip-hop and Black Brooklyn. Why was it important for you to honor the past?

Living in Brooklyn now…is somewhat heartbreaking. The ecosystem has vastly changed; the landscape and its people are almost unrecognizable. Knowing that black history is overwhelmingly oral history, I wanted to pay tribute to some unsung heroes and pillars of our neighborhoods that will never be written about in history books yet had a significant impact on hip-hop culture. It’s important for kids to recognize that hip-hop isn’t just music, it’s a culture. Born, nurtured, and rooted in communities like Brooklyn. I might sound like the little old lady on the corner waving her Tiffany Jackson headshotcane, screaming, “Show some respect…” but I’ll be that. Proudly.

CBW: I teach a college-level hip-hop course. To me, it seems as if freestyling and rapping are almost a rite of passage, especially among boys. For urban youth, are hip-hop dreams surpassing hoop dreams as a perceived way out of poverty?

TDJ: That is so awesome, I really want to take your class! To me, music has definitely surpassed hoop dreams mostly due to its simplicity. Before, you had to know how to freestyle, write rhymes, save up money to book studio time, cut a demo, and hope to be discovered! Now, you can make entire albums on your iphone and release it on your own platform with little to no skills. Sure, it may make you money quick, but will it sustain you? Quality music is a marathon, not a sprint.

CBW: The late rap legend Biggie Smalls figures prominently in the text. What did Biggie mean to Brooklyn?

TDJ: Biggie was one of us, a black kid from the hood who “made it”! Our unofficial King, representing the people who felt society didn't care about. Losing him felt like losing family. But his success paved the way for many of the artists kids are listening to today. He should be honored.

CBW: Who are the top five on your hip-hop playlist now?

TDJ: Yikes, hard one! OK, here goes:

Biggie (I mean, of course)

Rakim

Jay-Z

J. Cole

Lauryn Hill

CBW: All of the characters are fronting in different ways. Do today’s youth feel pressured to front? How does your book encourage authenticity?

TDJ: From now until probably the end of time, kids will be under immense peer pressure to be anything but their true selves. The story lines of each character are braided in a way that helps readers see how life is so much better when you just keep it real with one another.

CBW: You expose the tragic double-standard of snitching: gangstas snitch on their victims yet victimize responsible citizens who snitch on them. How does that code complicate the plot?

TDJ: Snitching is a gray, sticky subject in our community. I wanted to tackle it by laying out the hypocritical aspects of the rule as well as the consequences of not following it but still leaving it open to interpretation. There is no one right way to live your life, but if you know better, you do better.

CBW: The trio of main characters are fighting to define their own identities, to realize their dreams, and to determine their own destinies—all the while confronting the inevitability of premature death. Jasmine, Quadir, and Jarrell want to avoid becoming statistics like Steph, victims of the epidemic violence whose murders remain unsolved. What does your book say about youth who are coming of age knowing their lives are endangered and undervalued?

TDJ: This is ultimately a story of how a kid’s legacy should be valued, even after an untimely death. But moreover, we should cherish and champion the lives of youth as they are living today. Why wait to praise and uplift one another? Spread love now.


Carole Boston WeatherfordAward-winning poet and biographer Carole Boston Weatherford is the authoRoots of Rap coverr of three Caldecott honor books—Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom; Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer, Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement; and Freedom in Congo Square. Her verse novel Becoming Billie Holiday won a Coretta Scott King author honor. She is currently a professor of English at Fayetteville State University in North Carolina, where she created a hip-hop course. Her latest release is The Roots of Rap: 16 Bars on the 4 Pillars of Hip-Hop.

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