This Woman's Work 

Groundbreaking music journalist Danyel Smith publishes her first novel about Oakland.

One of the first articles Danyel Smith ever published was a reminiscence about seeing Michael Jackson's Victory tour in 1984, and how much the singer meant to her. It ran in the Express, and it stood out a mile. At the time, everyone on Earth was talking about how vile he was, not how important he'd been to their childhood -- of course, by "everyone," we mean "rock critics": that is, men whose formative experiences were spent holed up in rooms smoking pot and listening to guitar bands. To them, Jackson's frothy pop persona was anathema. But what about the rest of the world? Don't they have other pleasures that are worthy of serious thought? Reading Smith's words only emphasized the fact that she was speaking from a perspective -- young, female, black -- which we almost never heard regarding rock 'n' roll. Smith went on to become a pop critic at The New York Times, editor-in-chief at Vibe, and a correspondent for Time/Life.

In short, Smith is probably the most highly placed writer the Express ever fostered, but she is still only one of the few African-American women to penetrate mainstream music media. Now she's written a novel, More Like Wrestling, about two sisters growing up in Oakland in the '80s surrounded by friends who casually fall into a world of crack-selling and violence. It's timely subject matter, given Oakland's current mise-en-scène, so one can only hope that her somewhat unusual perspective (the sisters become, as one of them puts it, "secondhand crack dealers") will be listened to.

More Like Wrestling -- the title is a paraphrase of a quote from Marcus Aurelius, "Life is more like wrestling than dancing" -- loosely fits into the "coming of age" genre, but it's really more about a time and a place. "You know how Gertrude Stein said, 'There's no there there' about Oakland?" Smith comments acerbically. "That always really bugged me. I grew up in Oakland, and I think I was addressing that in this book. There's a huge there there; a deeper there there."

Residents will recognize descriptions of Lake Merritt, Telegraph Avenue, Children's Fairyland, the Acorn projects, the MacArthur BART station, the 40 bus line, Laney College, and countless other places most of us know well. In fact, all of Northern California comes into focus, and the novel reads like something of a love letter to the Bay Area.

Smith admits as much. She currently teaches writing at the New School in Manhattan, but is, she says, perpetually looking for a way back to the West Coast. "It must be a joke to all my friends here," she says. "I've lived in New York for ten years, but whenever anyone talks to me and asks me what I'm doing, I'll say, 'Well, I'm trying to move home.'"

She says the book isn't autobiographical, although she does cop to having a sister two and a half years younger than herself, as does Paige, the book's main character. "My sister read it and said, 'That's not me,' and so did my mom. But I lived here in the time I wrote about and knew some of the characters I invented. And I hope that it shows my great love for Oakland. I really wanted people to see that good, the bad, and the ugly."

The '80s were, of course, a time of great strife in Oakland, when crack use was on the rise. But they were also a time of enormous creativity, thanks to rap innovators such as Digital Underground, Too Short, Tupac, and others. Smith was witness to that renaissance, but even so, More Like Wrestling is not a novel about hip-hop, rap music, or a young girl whose life is shaped and informed by her participation in a nascent hip-hop scene. It's not about meeting Tupac, Too Short, and Humpty, or about becoming a writer, role model, and spokeswoman for black women.

Indeed, barring the occasional mention of Oakland's old-school heroes the Whispers, or a character turning on The Quiet Storm, music and its role in the lives of the book's heroines is never mentioned. "There's just one scene, set at the Rusty Scupper," Smith says, referring to the Jack London Square restaurant which used to hold hip-hop dance nights. "New songs were sending bolts from the five-foot speakers," she writes. "Every pump of bass, every otherworldly shake of metal bells was a body blow -- every rap original and bizarre, but still like it was assembled from the cells of my brain. The new music was familiar as my own pulse, genuine and particular as the warm place at the top of my legs."

Smith admits that the lack of music references in the book will come as a surprise to those who know her as a music writer, but that is part of the reason she wrote the book in the first place. "I love music, but I was tired of it," she says. "And I was even a little bit mad at it for being so good to me, if that makes sense. I mean, there's just a lot more to me than being a fan -- as much as it has informed me and my life, it's not all I'm about.

"That's the crazy thing about being a fan -- it really is enough for a while. It rules your life, the beat of your house, the concerts and parties you go to, even who your boyfriend is," she adds. "When you're involved in it, it's so heavy; you feel like you're part of a world and a scene and a community. And you are. I wouldn't trade that for anything, but that said, it's time to move on. You know I don't want to be a person who's always thinking things like, 'You think Jay Z is a good DJ? Man, you should have seen Chuck D!' I still love it, I just can't live it. And I think I'd look like a fool if I tried to."

Smith wrote much of Wrestling while living in "cold-ass" Evanston, Illinois, on a journalism fellowship. Since then, she's moved further and further from the job title of "rock critic." She also feels betrayed by the business, which can kill anyone's enthusiasm. "As a writer, I began to look at it as 80 percent deadlines. Going to four shows a week, calling in a review, having some heartless copyedit over the phone, with no chance to enjoy things," she says. "At Vibe, I loved it, but what it all came down to every month was, who's going to be on the cover? And that's not such a great way to look at music, because it's not a fan's decision. ... In the end, no one gave a shit about the music, it was all just math."

That said, there were some good times. At Smith's book launch party last week, the founders of Vibe got together and reminisced, and it felt good. "When we began, we felt like we were on a mission from God," she says. "The illusion was beautiful -- but it was like being in the Matrix. It seemed like it was all about whether the band was def, the singer was hot, the beats were great."

Now, Smith says, she's disappointed in most of the criticism and music she reads and hears. "I can't tell if it's that the writers aren't as good, or if the music is so formulaic and prefab that it doesn't inspire the kind of passion we had to write about it."

But she isn't bitter. "I'm bitter about the politics of this country, but I refuse to be bitter about men, or work. It's too time-consuming."


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