Bronx Biannual: The Journal of Urbane Urban Literature; edited by Miles Marshall Lewis; Akashic Books, $14.95
In time, hip-hop, like jazz and rock and roll, will gain esteem for its artistic merits and cultural significance. For the moment, however, it remains a rebellious thorn in high culture’s paw. Perhaps that’s why Bronx Biannual: The Journal of Urbane Urban Literature, begins defending itself before you even crack the cover. It’s unfortunate that an ambitious and often engaging new journal of fiction, poetry and essays for the hip-hop generation has to qualify itself with the word “urbane,” for fear the phrase “urban literature” alone be viewed as an oxymoron.
Ideally, the phrase “urbane urban” would be considered redundant, and Bronx Biannual does much to forward that ideal. Editor Miles Marshall Lewis, a former editor at Vibe and XXL magazines, has assembled a diverse collection of new and established writers who make it clear that hip-hop is much bigger than boom boxes and break beats. Highlights include the fiction of Michael A. Gonzales, Greg Tate and Adam Mansbach, who bring us in their respective stories transsexual superheroes, homicidal “nanozombies” and graffiti-writing granddads.
Unfortunately, Bronx Biannual fails in the same way most hip-hop albums fail – because of inconsistent quality and a problematic representation of women. The contributions from new writers are notably raw, and a self-help essay by KRS-One, the legendary MC and biggest name in the collection, runs long and falls flat. Caille Millner, the only female contributor, conspicuously ignores American beauty ideals and their effect on black women’s self-image in her piece on the black hair care industry, and Ferentz Lafargue’s comparison of the sitcoms “Girlfriends” and “Sex and the City” is strangely missing an analysis of gender representation on television.
Graffiti art, turntables, break dancing and MCs are often considered the four fundamentals of hip-hop culture. With Bronx Biannual, Lewis has taken a bold and spirited step toward adding literature to that list. Hopefully he can remove “urbane” from the cover of the second issue and let the work speak for itself. [07/24/06]