Artistic Parallelism: Miles Marshall Lewis
“I love the Boogie Down,” Miles Marshall Lewis confesses about his birthplace. Although the seeds for a massive global culture were planted in his hometown, he didn’t initially realize the essential role that Bronx, New York, would play in his life’s parallelism with hip-hop. Scars of the Soul Are Why Kids Wear Bandages When They Don’t Have Bruises is the written manifestation about how eating an Italian icee as a youngster while Kool DJ AJ spun records in a park yielded a supreme connection to the culture. “But my wonder years spent at a certain time (the golden age of hip-hop) in a certain place (hip-hop’s gestation period),” Lewis writes, “guaranteed that I would be only a scant degrees of separation away from certain seminal figures, further cementing my visceral connection to the culture.”
Books recounting personal relationships with hip-hop are not new. What makes Lewis’ approach appealing is the appearance of both the physical and intrinsic associations he has with the culture. With hip-hop turning 30 years old this November and Lewis only a few years older, his life provides an attractive juxtaposition, including stops for social, political, and spiritual stages of both subjects. And naturally, his vantage point is heightened from the years he spent chronicling the culture.
Named after both Miles Davis and James Marshall Hendrix, it isn’t surprising that Lewis’ creative prowess would eventually dominate. Although he kept journals since the age of fifteen, his writing talent was mostly cultivated during the period that some refer to as the hip-hop literati movement. Gaining his start as a contributing writer for The Source (“then the primary organ of hip-hop culture, music, and politics,” he writes), it was Vibe’s test issue that was the precursor, in Lewis’ eyes, for a movement of young urban writers acting as cultural narrators similar to past literary circles such as the Algonquin Round Table and the Beat generation. Lewis eventually racked up writing credits from The Village Voice, Rolling Stone, The Fader and The Nation and editor’s roles at Vibe, One World and XXL.
But reality ultimately set in, sparking an uneasy awareness. An essay in Scars of the Soul entitled “Famous Negro Writer #77” describes how romanticism was a driving force in his involvement with the literati scene and maturity became the stimulus behind his disconnect. “There is a reality behind the fantasy,” he tells me, “and you’re not going to get along with everyone and you’re not going to want to hang out with everybody. People whose writing that you admire may turn out to be assholes.”
A little refocusing was necessary to recover the original feelings of why he became a writer in the first place (which sounds very familiar to the struggles of some hip-hop artists). He notes, “Somewhere around the time I chose to make a living as a writer, I decided that part of my purpose is to refract life experiences through my own personal prism, as well as to champion independent thinking.”
It was this skill of refraction that caught the eye of Johnny Temple, publisher of the funky Akashic Books (whose tagline is “reverse-gentrification of the literary world). “Johnny got in touch with me and asked if I was working on any long fiction or lengthy book material,” recalls Lewis. “I had a novel that I’d written when I was 24. It was a coming of age romance, triangle type of book. I submitted it to Johnny and he wasn’t feeling it. But we kept in touch anyway and he would occasionally mail me new Akashic books.”
The idea for the book hit Lewis in 2000 when he noticed that his disillusionment with hip-hop began seeping into his music journalism. An urgency to release these emotions was apparent, a book proposal was written, and Lewis serendipitously received a new title from Akashic in the mail. Scars of the Soul was birthed.
The book begins with the seemingly resolute statement, “Hiphop is dead.” Quickly however, Lewis notes that he began writing Scars of the Soul working backward from this forgone conclusion, changing his opinion very early on. “I decided to deal with hip-hop in the context of compassion, rather than wash my hands of the whole thing.” He adds, “Of course hip-hop has its problems with the materialism, violence, and the lack of creativity. However the problem really is with the rap industry and with mainstream hip-hop.”
The collection is divided into two parts: the first harnessing the majority of the memoir writing with reminisces of visiting Grandma, his father’s addiction, and Boogie Down vignettes. The second, entitled “The Def of Hiphop,” is a series of interviews with Russell Simmons, Afrika Bambaataa, ?uestlove, KRS-One and other hip-hop players. The fluidity of the collection is not found in the sequence or linkage of essays, as some were previously published elsewhere, but rather in the artistic thread that is hip-hop. In its entirety, the book, which examines the nascent Bronx gangs and the most recent U.N. hip-hop proclamation, could serve as a mini history lesson for youngsters who think old-school hip-hop is “Juicy” by Notorious B.I.G.
Additionally, Lewis, meticulous facts, and a propensity for name-dropping surrounds details in an undeniable voice that rarely abandons the reader. Coupled with a passionate tone, you feel like you’re sitting on a bench with Lewis, in the Bronx’s Co-op City as he disjointedly raps to you about everything from a weird undergrad experience to his first participation in a peace circle, all through a hip-hop lens.
Music is definitely an aspect of the collage of artistic interests reflected in Lewis’ writing style. But it is obvious that he draws upon other domains, such as photography. “Worldwide Underground” (one of two nods to Ms. Badu, the other one being an essay entitled “Mama’s Gun”) is a collection of snapshots that plays in first and third person, where Lewis sets up and participates in the image.
He credits Scars of the Soul’s eclectic mix of memoir, essay, and commentary to inspiration from Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem. “This book is about the fall of a certain way of life,” he explains. “Didion constantly referred to her childhood in California and how the values that once existed seemed to be coming apart at the seams. Reading this book, I felt like I could write something similar about hip-hop and reference the Bronx, like she referenced California.”
“Hip-hop is coming apart at the seams a bit and is having some growing pains,” he adds. “But, it is still a baby and if it’s not going anywhere, than it is bound to evolve. It may just be rebirth time.”
Lewis began his own rebirth with a recent move to Paris, where he is concentrating on his fiction writing and sensing the spirits of Baldwin, Wright, and Hemingway. Without change there is no growth.
In the end, Lewis doesn’t leave readers with a definitive stance on hip-hop’s future. But you are led to believe that after winter, must come spring. “Scars is one of the words in the title of my book,” he informs me, “because a scar appears once you have something that is healing.”