The Haunting of Hip Hop
by Bertice Berry
Published by Doubleday
210 pages, 2001
Buy it online
Reviewed by Lincoln Cho
Bertice Berry's second novel manages to be both lyrical and empty: a bit of a tragedy because the promise of The Haunting of Hip Hop is enticing. However, despite Berry's very real talent, it's a promise she doesn't manage to fulfill.
While Berry's first novel, the bestselling Redemption Song, would have been a tough act for any writer to follow, it is perhaps the very success of that book that keeps this one from reaching its potential. Even in this novel, Berry seems unable to move beyond the wild success of that book and has her characters plug it in The Haunting of Hip Hop:
Ava looked down and saw that what Valentine had retrieved was in fact a manuscript. It was the original manuscript of Redemption Song, that book that had been like a Celestine Prophecy or Alchemist for black folks. Ava had read Redemption Song and enjoyed the way it weaved the story of love between an enslaved man and woman with the love of their modern-day descendants. It was a fun read and had become a popular and almost cult-like phenomenon.
The Haunting of Hip Hop spins around Harry "Freedom" Hudson, a successful hip hop producer who is no longer required to be truly creative, only to continue to produce "the phat sound that put all of his artists on the charts and brought renewed prestige to a sinking music corporation."
Freedom is a morass of conflicts. On the one hand he is very, very good at what he does. When he was breaking into the business, "Freedom ignored the criticism and just did what he felt. 'Go with your heart,' his mother had always told him. And it worked almost all of the time. Almost." This establishes that Freedom is someone who has found fame and fortune on his own terms. On the other hand -- and not even a half page before -- "he wasn't convinced that the record companies truly wanted or understood his creativity." Yet, throughout our encounter with him, Freedom strikes the reader as fully creative and entirely free.
More conflict: Freedom has very strong relationships with his mother and grandmother, both of whom are powerful women who have supported and loved him well. Yet, despite this solid foundation, Freedom finds it impossible to commit to one woman. Worse: he treats the women he does become involved with -- the casual flings and one night stands -- in a manner so cavalier it marks him as someone whose contempt for the fairer sex is palatable. This part of Freedom's character is attributed to an experience of rejection in the sixth grade but get over it, Harry. If everyone who was rejected romantically during puberty shied away from relationships through adulthood, a lot of perfectly good wedding chapels in Vegas would go out of business.
Most of the characters in The Haunting of Hip Hop are alarming stereotypes. The Brooklyn-born lawyer who returned from law school more white than black: the Oreo who no longer feels comfortable in his old 'hood. His Harvard-educated former schoolmate who, upon passing the bar went the other way and now wears "African-inspired clothes such as the kind designed by Moshood" both in court and when volunteering at her local women's shelter. The white characters are practically beneath notice: remarkable only in the fact that they are contemptible wannabes who are outside of something. This scene, that occurs right after Freedom and his lawyer have left a conference room filled with movie people, is quite telling. The head filmmaker is doing the talking:
"I'm so glad they're doing the script," he said. "I have no idea what those people are saying or thinking."
The us-against-them tone that threads its way through the book is unsettling. Haven't we moved beyond this yet? It seems to be apparent to all but those directly involved that American blacks and American whites at this point and in this age have more commonalties than differences. We are all human beneath this skin, after all. The same species, of course. The same hopes and dreams and fears. This sort of denigration is no more attractive than the type practiced by some white novelists in earlier ages. Racism is racism no matter how it's packaged.
The "haunting" in The Haunting of Hip Hop comes from a house that Freedom wants to acquire -- which brings the lawyers on the scene. It's a house that has been empty for quite some time and that is rumored to be haunted. The rumors prove to be well founded: the house is haunted. It has, in fact, become a gathering place for those that have left this life but have been unable to reach for the next one without passing on their stories. The story that concerns Freedom most fully comes from the most ancient among them: the spirit of an African slave, brought to America in chains, who must pass along the music within him. "The sounds that I've played have been heard by others who are unconnected. They do not know who they are, and yet they attempt to make music that tells our story. The beat is powerful, but their message is hollow." Freedom must hear the music to fulfill his destiny. Or so it would seem.
Bertice Berry is a competent storyteller capable of weaving stories that will entrance readers from all walks of life. Unfortunately The Haunting of Hip Hop is short on the magic she has previously shown us. | February 2001
Lincoln Cho is a freelance writer and contributing editor to Blue Coupe Magazine.