Monthly Archives: November 2014

Don’t watch the Aaliyah biopic; read about her instead

There are clips floating around out there of the made-for-Lifetime (by now, it’s in a different league than made-for-TV) biopic of Aaliyah, the latest in the channel’s assembly-line output of stars fallen too soon. The Anna Nicole biopic was OK. I didn’t see the Brittany Murphy one. Supposedly a Marilyn Monroe one is on the way.

In theory, the Aaliyah biopic should be lightning in a bottle. It’s a great time for black actors and black stories on TV; not since the peak of UPN and WB have there been so much color on the small screen. And it’s a great time to be nostalgic about 1990s and 2000s R&B. The TLC biopic on VH1 was hot like fire. (Double the references in that pun there, can you catch it?)

The thing about the TLC biopic is that no one wanted to give it a chance. Not only did it feel too soon (I mean, neither of the two surviving members are close to the retirement ages of biopic subjects in the past), but the standards were so high for the actors that we were all skeptical. Fortunately the cast and crew (especially Lil’ Mama as Left-Eye, whew!) proved us wrong. Based on these clips from the Aaliyah movie, I’m not getting that same feeling. Just watch this (clicking the link opens the video in a separate link; click here if that doesn’t work for you. WordPress!).

Aaliyah deserves better. If you’re old enough to have lived in Detroit when “Back & Forth” first hit the radio — I mean, when it first started getting airplay, before the album came out — you remember that everybody claimed to know the girl. Everybody’s cousin used to date her, she used to babysit for everybody, she used to be at all these spots. Keep in mind mid-90s Detroit, where we still had big stars living and still putting out music, we hadn’t had a new star emerge from the city that was correctly positioned on the seismic sound shift that R&B was going through at the time. Several tried before and after; y’all don’t remember Perri or Body or — let’s take it way back — Fabu, do you? But there’s a reason why Aaliyah, Monica and Brandy hit like they did.

History has painted Aaliyah as a private, mysterious person, but in truth she really told you everything you needed to know while she was here. Just prior to her death, she gave a wide-ranging interview to VIBE answering things you should not be asking about today: No, she never was with Jay-Z. Yes, the “Sparkle” remake was originally made for her. There’s a reason why she wore her hair with the single bang. Read it all.

The clip above deals with Aaliyah’s marriage to R. Kelly. (The dude playing him looks nothing like him.) Again, why watch, when you can read all those details here — again in VIBE? But if you read this one and the other article, there’s something Aaliyah does in both situations that tells you everything you need to know. See if you can figure it out.


I used to think about immature things

I try not to jinx things, because when I read too much into what I think are good signs of something, I don’t get the expected outcome. I just try to take things as they come, rather than hope for the best.

But there are some signs I can’t ignore, and they’ve been creeping up little by little rather than all at once. Like for example: A few weeks ago, a literary mag reached out to me about submitting some work for an upcoming issue. I decided my topic, wrote a nonfiction essay draft in two days. I told no one; just was able to get out some thoughts on a topic I’d always wanted to write on. But then, someone on Twitter I went to high school with began reminiscing on the topic I had just written about, and I’m like, “did she hack into my laptop and read my essay?” Signs like that are what’s been happening.

High school — and increasingly college, too — is where my headspace is lately. So another one of these signs come up, and it’s one of my high school classmates (hey, Lhea!) hitting me up over Facebook about jointing a writers’ group she wants to get going. Without hesitation, I say yes.

I’d always wanted to write fiction again. I’ve verbalized this to people close to me, and just in general conversation. What journalist doesn’t want to write a novel? I used to write short stories all the time from elementary school until college. But that stopped. A lot of things stopped when I walked on campus: I stopped working out, and I stopped writing. And every New Year’s resolution for the past few years, I’ve resolved to get back in shape and start writing again. I haven’t stuck to either one.

I’ve started and re-started fiction writing so many times over the years. Somewhere around here is a journal I started when I was living in Grand Rapids 10 years ago for a newspaper internship. Unfinished. Somewhere on automaker press release flash drives are half-written chapters. Somewhere in another journal I kept from sophomore year (I think) until around 2009 is a list of book titles and their accompanying ideas. And now that I think about it, there’s an idea for a screenplay in there, too.

I told the writers’ group today that I spent so many years in journalism writing non-fiction that it’s hard to swing the pendulum back in the other direction. I deal in fact and truth and fact-based opinion and data-based truth, so to pull fantasy out of my head — did you Renaissance people know that I used to bang out those short stories in like, a day? a half-day? — for an all-out story was something I’ve been struggling with for more than 10 years.

So to write, you have to have freedom, and sometimes you gain freedom through catharsis. After our group session ended, my high school homie and I got to talking about high school, and we both offered our testimony in the years since 2002.

I talked about being laid off from my job and nearly losing my sanity during the year I was unemployed, and how I just never expected to find myself in this place. You have to understand, I’d not only held a job — some kind of job — since I was 15, I was always in the same job, usually. Most people who know me don’t know me outside of being a writer, be it on my high school paper, my college paper, or the real journalism jobs I’ve had after college. And when you’ve been doing it that long, you’re supposed to be continuously successful at it.

But I didn’t hide the fact that I was unemployed, and then all these words started falling out. The lightbulbs were going off. Why do we hide our failures? Because we grew up — or did we instinctively condition ourselves? — to hide secrets. There are certain kinds of kids in Detroit, the ones that come up through the Chryslers, the Bates Academies, the Hallys, the Ludingtons, the Casses, Kings and Renaissances, even the GPAs, U-of-D Jesuits, Country Days and the University Liggetts, and then they go on to the States, the U-of-Ms, the Howards, the Harvards — you spend so much time trying to keep up with your Joneses academically, socially, athletically, financially, that you don’t show your blemishes and scars. You don’t tell people about that abusive relationship, that job loss, that repo, that eviction, that abortion, that always negative bank account, that alcohol problem, that closet you still haven’t come out of, that divorce, and you try to hide it until you just can’t hide it anymore. And then black folks, you know we don’t publicly talk about finances and we don’t talk about that one cousin that just ain’t right, and so on, and so forth.

But now we’re 30, and we realize — we all are going through some very real, very adult shit. It’s OK that so-and-so got a divorce, because someone else got a divorce, too. There’s enough kids born to members of our class — two-parent household or not — to cast a “Saved By the Bell: The New Class” version of what we went through, with extras. And it’s OK to talk about these things now, because transparency can help others going through the same thing be transparent with themselves.

So yeah, this is where I’m at. I see all these visions and have all these creative juices. I’m nostalgic, partly because of my Sirius XM subscription. Pop2K plays every song from 9th grade to 12th, from college to my professional life. And Soul Town and The Groove is my mother’s record collection in radio form, the Earth, Wind & Fire records I would listen to and try not to scratch (though there might be a small skip on “Fantasy,” Mom). It’s putting me back in that space where I could write freely.

And why was I so fearless back then? I wasn’t popular, I couldn’t afford to dress the best, I couldn’t even get my hair on point most times, but I never had issues putting my stories out there. I came to this conclusion, too, that I spent so much of my college and 20-something years trying to re-create what I never had in high school — the popularity, the money, the braggadocio — that I might have lost my creative streak. Those stories I wrote were basically mini-screenplays. If they read like soap operas, it’s because they were inspired by the ones I used to watch with my grandmother and great-grandmother. If they borrowed heavily from the pop culture of the time — I specifically remember writing a story with a chapter centering around Jagged Edge’s “Let’s Get Married” — it’s because I was becoming a keen observer of such. I’m trying to find that place again.

I don’t plan to write the Great American Novel. I’m not even sure I want to write a novel right now; I think of the time a few months ago when an agent approached me about writing a non-fiction book about post-bankruptcy Detroit. I pitched, drafted a table of contents and some ideas, and never heard back. But maybe I want to do that. Someone asked me why not put together a book of all the columns I’ve ever written, but then I think — can’t people read that for free? But maybe I’d like to do a Sedaris-type book of essays. I don’t know. I’m just starting to feel excited again, that maybe I can really do this.