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Capturing hard-knock life in hip-hop style

Become a doer, dream pursuer, purpose-driven Past meets the future in between no longer and not yet Rise up, young buck, never forget

MK Asante's youth was rocked by the losses of his stepbrother and father, who moved away; his mother, who was institutionalized; and a close friend, who died. His life changed radically when he discovered literature. He will read from his memoir of his teenage years Thursday at the Free Library. (WILLIAM ASSANTE)
MK Asante's youth was rocked by the losses of his stepbrother and father, who moved away; his mother, who was institutionalized; and a close friend, who died. His life changed radically when he discovered literature. He will read from his memoir of his teenage years Thursday at the Free Library. (WILLIAM ASSANTE)Read more

Become a doer, dream pursuer, purpose-driven
Past meets the future
in between no longer and not yet
Rise up, young buck, never forget

- From MK Asante's "Buck"

MK Asante always seems in a rush, on the run, in pursuit. He had plenty of time to talk in a recent phone interview. It's the way he speaks and the way he thinks that fascinates. It's his extraordinary energy, his remarkable gift for thinking on his feet. He can hardly catch up with himself.

The Philadelphia-raised poet, hip-hop artist, filmmaker, and university professor, who at 31 has accomplished more than some do in a lifetime, will be in town Thursday to read from his extraordinary page-turner of a memoir, Buck (Spiegel & Grau $25), at the Free Library of Philadelphia.

A virtuoso performance and Asante's most mature work to date, Buck is a passionate, first-person account of the author's teenage years in a broken home in North Philly's Olney section.

It's a classic coming-of-age story about an artist coming to self-awareness, but written in a breathless, driving hip-hop prose style that gives it a tough, contemporary edge.

Think of it as Portrait of the Artist as a Young Olney Rhymester.

Born Molefi Khumalo Asante in Harare, Zimbabwe, he is the son of Amina Asante (a former dancer) and Molefi Kete Asante, a Temple University scholar and renowned, if controversial, public intellectual known as the father of Afrocentric studies.

 As the story opens, Asante is a precocious 12-year-old middle-school student enthralled by his 16-year-old half-brother, Daahoud (or Uzi, as he's known in the street), a high-school dropout and nascent criminal. By the end of the first chapter, Uzi is arrested for car theft. Unable to rein him in, his mother and stepfather send him to stay with an uncle in Arizona.

Asante, who teaches writing and filmmaking at Morgan State University in Baltimore, says his world was shattered. "It was a real loss of innocence. But it also was a rise of a new awareness. I think, for me, the notion of self-awareness came when . . . my brother left.

"Until then, I was just Uzi's little brother. I wasn't my own person."

Uzi wasn't the only person to leave. Before Asante knew it, his mother was gone. A manic-depressive who had tried to kill herself twice before, she was admitted to a psychiatric ward. Asante includes in Buck extended excerpts from his mother's journals, which give a fresh perspective on the family's travails.

The young man's world was further rocked when his father left the family and moved to Levittown. Young Asante became more isolated and enraged as his family disintegrated around him.

The rage was all-consuming: He hated his school, refused to read books of any kind, and eventually began to flirt with a life of crime. His isolation seemed complete when one of his three closest friends died, while the other two drifted into addiction.

Life changed radically when Asante transferred to the Crefeld School in Chestnut Hill, where he discovered literature, beginning with Beat Generation stars Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. Their musicality, their sense of beat and rhythm, impressed him.

"You can see the improvisational influence of be-bop jazz in the writing," Asante said. "You also see early jazz in the [writers of] the Harlem Renaissance."

Asante began writing to the hip-hop beat that had always permeated his life.

"Hip-hop is more metallic than be-bop. It has more of the city, the subway and the steel," he said. "It's a harder sound, a quicker sound, and [it's] constantly changing and cutting."

Asante also has been busy writing and recording songs. Buck, which was released Tuesday, will be followed in the next few weeks by a companion CD.

He's also working on a film version he hopes to direct. "Don Cheadle called us last week to say he's interested in being a part of the movie," Asante said.

Asante is on a roll.

Words, ideas, associations, puns, rhymes, memories bursting forth at speed. He rushes, he runs, hoping to capture and express ideas as they rush by, anxious they may evade him.

"It's all the same song," Asante said. "That is what I feel about using these artistic media I work in. They all are connected. . . . For me, all these things are seamless, and an idea comes to me, and a lot of times the idea exists for me already in multiple media. . . . It's not like something I consciously do. . . . I just get the ideas that way."

Author appearance: MK Asante

The author will talk about his new memoir, Buck, at the Central Library, 1901 Vine St., at 7:30 p.m. Thursday. Free. Information: 215-567-4341 or www.freelibrary.org/authorevents. See the book trailer at https://vimeo.com/72457204.