Drumming up musical ghosts 


In many African cultures, the drum represents the rhythm of life. Depending on the context, it can symbolize the beating of the heart, the body's main generator at work. In simpler terms, it's the sound bed on which messages are laid.

Just as African people are known for weaving the drum's rhythm into their spiritual and social philosophies, noted author-comedian-sociologist-talk-show-host Bertice Berry believes it's the drum that makes hip-hop the dominant rhythmic lifestyle among youth and young adults: "Hip-hop is the drum brought back," she says. "I hear those rhythms ... polyrhythmatic things going on, laying one layer on top of another layer. Something's going on. Then I hear the lyrics and I go, ‘How did they get that far apart?'"

In her newest novel, The Haunting of Hip-Hop, Berry explores her question through an amalgamation of characters. The story revolves around three figures. Harry "Freedom" Hudson, the top producer in hip-hop, has yet to reach his full potential because he lends his abilities to rappers with lifeless messages. Ngozi, an enslaved African drummer who lived long ago, resides in limbo and cannot complete his transition from physical life until the story of his drum is told, preferably to Freedom. Ava Vercher, Freedom's lawyer and one of the stabilizing influences in his life, appears to be the stereotypically strong black woman, but is truthfully much more complicated.

Berry weaves a host of supporting characters into the lives of these three. The book begins with a string of short chapters, a challenging structure that requires the reader to remain vigilant until the pieces of a complex puzzle begin to fall into place. Quick scene changes flow like a soap opera but make for very fast reading. And when the picture becomes clear, "The Haunting" offers poignant commentary on hip-hop's failure (and potential) to change the world through "the drum."

Berry has described Ava's character as "genius being destroyed, because it doesn't come in the right form." The same argument, however, might be made about Freedom, the one character who is complicated from the first page. A 20-something player, his appetite for women battles his Southern-influenced upbringing, challenging the values instilled by his spiritually rooted grandmother. His corked genius is reminiscent of Marvin Gaye's. Thus his grandmother, his mother and Ava are the only women he holds in high regard, because they represent his highest ideal -- the ultimate rhythm, within ultimate women.

Berry has a tendency to forecast the issues each character will face -- an awkward tactic, but one that makes sense by the book's end. While Freedom deals with his own incompleteness, Ava, a cultured and civic-minded individual, deals with the habit of marking others by their faults. Charles, a childhood friend who grows up with too many European ways for Ava's tastes, proves to be a key component in her healing.

Berry's book, by her own admission, began as a ghost story and maintains mysterious elements that help to give the narrative a tinge of intrigue and even suspense. Supporting characters such as Johnny, a spirit murdered in boyhood, and Dora, Charles' deeply spiritual and psychic grandmother, are crucial to understanding the book's deeper messages. Dora, especially, is essential to grasping Berry's intended scope: The older characters possess wisdom, but it's not accepted by the younger ones, who are still holding them responsible for what they did or didn't do.

Freedom's frequent lyrical collaborator, gangsta MC Elum N Nation, stands next to Freedom like a monkey beside a mastodon. Similarly hip-hop, the drum made perfect, is "haunted" by irresponsibility and cultural disconnection. Berry's argument is that a medium so powerful wastes itself promoting regressive thought processes. Once it reconnects with its traditional spirit and rhythm, it may, as Chuck D of Public Enemy once commented, become black folks' CNN and not their Cartoon Network.


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