Can't tell a Buppie from a B-boy? This collection can be your guide

March 21, 1993|By M. Dion Thompson


Nelson George.


329 pages. $20.

The early 1970s. The last fires of the rebellious 1960s are burning out, though violent flare-ups still occur -- Kent State, Jackson State. The United States is getting out of Vietnam. And, for Nelson George, who was Billboard's black music editor for seven years, black American culture turned a corner, became post-soul.

This collection of commentaries, many taken from his Village Voice column, documents this new era. He points to the release of Melvin Van Peebles' film, "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song," in 1971 as the beginning.

The film told of a black man's rebellion against the police and his subsequent flight to freedom. It was different. It was not about a noble Sidney Poitier character. It was a film from the urban black perspective -- that was the difference.

In the introduction he writes: ". . . all of us have seen African American culture evolve (or, as some old jacks argue, devolve) from gospel-and-blues rooted with a distinctly country-accented optimism to assimilated-yet-segregated citified consciousness flavored with nihilism, Afrocentrism, and consumerism."

For him, that means post-soul, post-civil rights-dream of integration. Today's black youth have black mayors and urban decay. Martin Luther King Jr. is history. The sentiments of his era are anachronisms. Post-soul culture gives us Justice Clarence Thomas and Chuck D. of Public Enemy, Anita Hill and Sister Souljah. They are, in a sense, children of the 1960s, reflections of that era seen through a shattered mirror.

Mr. George divides these children into four broad categories. Buppies are the acquisitive urban professionals. A B-boy is "molded by hip hop aesthetics and the tragedies of underclass life; the Black American Princess or Prince a/k/a/ Bap . . . enjoys an expectation of mainstream success and acceptance that borders on arrogance; and the Boho, [is] a thoughtful, self-conscious figure like 'A Different World's' Cree Summer or Living Colour's Vernon Reid, whose range of interest and taste challenges both black and white stereotypes of African-American behavior."

I'd put Mr. George in the Boho category, with a B-boy twist. A graduate of St. John's University, he hasn't been "molded by hip hop aesthetics and the tragedies of underclass life," but he has tried to understand it and observe it. In "Strictly Business," a film he co-authored, a B-boy brings understanding to a Buppie. He also co-authored the current movie "CB4."

Mr. George sympathizes with the B-boy, who is the author's main man. Small wonder this collection opens with New York's young men and their gift to the world, rap.

If you don't already know rap's history, the book's opening section could be a primer. It chronicles rap's underground beginnings in the New York clubs of the mid- to late 1970s, its ascendancy to where it became the voice of young, urban black America, the voice of anger and generational alienation.

It has since splintered. Rap teaches, but it also degrades women, exalts violence and preaches peace. Its influence is everywhere. In a current McDonald's commercial, the physical gestures of the white sales kid behind the counter are right out of a boasting rap video.

A hip, smooth style informs Mr. George's writing -- call it Boho meets B-boy. When he writes of "blacks with a little bank," he doesn't mean black folks running around with piggy banks.

Here, too, is extreme sensitivity. "Mother's Day" tells of a woman who "has watched her community devolve from promised land to killing field," a 1950s world view struggling to understand post-soul black America.

In "Brooklyn Bound," he sees in contemporary New York a tribalism where the "black activists, the youths of Bensonhurst, and the merchants of Flatbush are warring tribes whose antagonism flows through the city, united only by hostility and geography."

The collection is like a richly veined mine. There are gems here, along with the not-so-good, but even Willie Mays struck out once in a while. Still, Mr. George provides an incisive and intelligent look at black culture.

Mr. Thompson is an editor at The Sun.

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