George, Nelson 1957—
Nelson George 1957—
Nelson George’s writerly ambition is matched only by his versatility. After establishing himself as one of the keenest critics of African-American culture, he ventured into novels and screen-writing; by his mid-30s he had already amassed an impressive body of work. He has traced the histories of musical genres, studied the effects of Hollywood on black people and vice-versa, penned broad cinematic comedies, and engaged in deeply personal ruminations on black masculinity. “I’m trying to expand what I’ve been doing,” George explained in the British periodical The Weekly Journal. “Instead of writing about other people’s work, I’m trying to create more things that express my point of view.”
George grew up in Brooklyn, New York. His parents divorced when he was a young boy, and young Nelson was raised by his mother; his literary ambitions manifested themselves early on. “At the age of three, “he wrote in a biographical essay distributed by his publisher, “my mother taught me my ABC’s and I was reading before I entered the first grade. “He added that his mother later worked as a schoolteacher, introducing other children to the joys of reading over a period of 20 years. In an Essence magazine roundtable on black masculinity, he credited his mother’s post-divorce relationship with helping him develop a healthy perspective. “Fortunately for me, she had a relationship with a guy she went out with for about seven years. He taught me how to shoot a layup, but more important, the interaction between my mother and him was always very affectionate and very warm. I got a lot out of that that was subliminal, a lot to do with respect for women. So much of that respect comes from seeing how your father, or an adult male, deals with women on an individual basis.”
Layups, however, would not be George’s passion-though he would describe them in his elegant prose many years later. He was, as he put it in his press bio, “the biggest bookworm in the Brooklyn projects,” devouring everything from comic books to the stories of Ernest Hemingway, which “made me want to be a writer. The master’s tales of growing up in Michigan were written in a (deceptively) simple style that, I, like
At a Glance…
Born c 1957, in Brooklyn, NY. Education: Attended St. John’s University, Queens, NY.
Writer, c. late 1970s-. Worked as intern at Amsterdam News, New York; black music editor, Record World, 1981-82; black music editor, Billboard, 1982-89; published first book, Top of the Charts, 1982; columnist, Village Voice, 1989-95; associate producer of documentary film The Making of “School Daze”; co-executive producer of film Def By Temptation, 1990; co-writer; associate producer of film Strictly Business, 1991; co-producer of PBS television special Everybody Dance Now, 1992; author of liner notes to James Brown CD compilation Star Time, 1991; writer and co-producer of film CB4, 1993; associate producer of film Just Another Girl on the IRT, 1993.
Awards: Peabody Award for Everybody Dance Now, 1992; Grammy Award for best album notes for Star Time.
Addresses: Home— New York, NY. Office—G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 200 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10016.
generations of young writers before me, thought could be easily imitated.” George’s attempts at aping the legendary author led to the emergence of his protagonist Dwayne Robinson who, like Hemingway’s Nick Adams, served as an autobiographical double. Dwayne emerged many years later as the hero of George’s first novel, Urban Romance.
George attended St. John’s University in Queens, New York and immediately found his way into some journalism internships. From the very beginning, he covered a wide range of subjects, from film and sports writing for the Amsterdam News and music articles for Record World and-thanks to a well-connected friend-the recording industry bible, Billboard. By 1982 he was the latter publication’s black music editor.
He spent seven years at Billboard, during which time he also authored several books, among them a biography of pop megastar MichaelJackson, and Where Did Our Love Go?: The Rise and Fall of the Motown Sound, a book about Detroit’s soul music label. George’s researches into Motown were not welcomed by the company’s founder, Berry Gordy, Jr.; the writer told the Chicago Tribune after the book’s publication that he had experienced “subtle intimidation” from the record company. His unflinching portrayal of the label’s history, however, was among the first to examine the contributions of the house musicians who toiled in relative obscurity but helped make countless Motown hits. In writing the 1986 book, George related, “I had two responsibilities: to deal with the history and who recorded what when; and to try to give as many people behind the scenes as much [credit] as possible.”
1988 saw George publish a broader examination of soul music’s commercial fortunes, The Death of Rhythm & Blues. Mark Feeney of the Boston Globe gave the tome a typically mixed review, deeming it “ambitious, provocative, disappointing,” and asserting that “the passion that often makes his book bracing to read also produces considerable sloppiness” of style, argumentation, and research.
In 1989 George began a six-year stint as a columnist at The Village Voice, arguably the hippest “alternative” paper in the country. In his press biography he referred to his tenure there-producing a column called “Native Son “-as “the turning point in my creative development.” This sort of writing, he noted, differed from his prior journalistic efforts in that it “required creating a mood, painting small pictures with words. “He recollected that one specific composition, “To Be a Black Man”--a particularly fervent creed about racism-”generated a strong emotional reaction. This response renewed my confidence in my ability, not just to analyze, but provoke. “A number of his Voice essays would be collected in his 1993 book Buppies, B-Boys, Baps and Bohos.
George pursued a dizzying array of projects during the early 1990s. Dismayed by the increasingly violent and cynical content of much rap music but opposing any kind of external censorship, he helped recruit a number of hip-hop artists-among them KRS-One, Chuck D. and Flavor Flav of Public Enemy, Kool Moe Dee and M. C. Lyte-for “Self-Destruction,” a single that counseled against violence and drugs and stood in favor of education and community survival. The record became Bill-board’s top rap single of the year and sold half a million copies. “The idea is unity,” George explained in the Boston Globe. “These were very disparate rappers, but they came together as a community. One of the words rarely used anymore is ‘brotherhood’-and that’s what we’re aiming for.” George, who has long argued that rap can serve as a tool for communication and education, edited a book to accompany the recording; Stop the Violence: Overcoming Self-Destruction put the song’s argument into cogent prose.
George also ventured into the film world, serving as co-executive producer on the horror spoof Def By Temptation and co-scripting and associate producing the comedy Strictly Business. 1992 saw the public television special Everybody Dance Now-which boasted George as a co-producer-win a Peabody Award. He was the sole writer and a co-producer on the 1993 rap parody CB4, featuring Chris Rock of Saturday Night Live, and saw his writing skewered by many of his peers in the press.
In the meantime, he penned a book on basketball, Elevating the Game, won a Grammy Award for his liner notes to singer James Brown’s CD compilation Star Time, and published Buppies, which explored four paradigms of African-American identity. The Chicago Tribune cited an explanatory passage from the book: “There is the Buppie, ambitious and acquisitive, determined to savor the fruits of integration by any means necessary; the B-Boy, molded by hip hop aesthetics and the tragedies of underclass life; the Black American Princes or Prince a/k/a Bap, who whether by family heritage or personal will, enjoys an expectation of mainstream success and acceptance that borders on arrogance; and the Boho, a thoughtful, self-conscious figure ... whose range of interest and taste challenges both black and white stereotypes of African American behavior.” George, the Tribune’s reviewer observed, seems to fall into the latter category, and this fact “is what makes this collection of columns enthralling.” Entertainment Weekly disagreed, opining that “As hip-hop, like jazz before it, makes its way into all facets of American life, we could use a thoughtful examination of its meaning. This isn’t it.”
George tried his hand at novel-writing with 1994’s Urban Romance, which examined male-female relations against the backdrop of rap music’s development. Dwayne Robinson, the character George developed in some of his earliest forays into fiction, is the book’s protagonist; his B-Boy roots doom his affair with the “Bap” Danielle. “I worked on Urban Romance for six years,” George told the Amsterdam News, “and kept peckin’ away because it was something I always wanted to do-write a novel. I wondered sometimes if I’d ever finish the thing.” While working on other projects, he produced his narrative sporadically. “Early last year  I got a break-through,” he added, “and figured out how to do it. Before I’d been doing reporting, but I learned from making movies how to structure my novel.”
He observed in the Weekly Journal that he “enjoyed writing the novel because it let me deal with the more emotional side of my life,” and expressed satisfaction “that the book got a good reception from women. I’ve been touring around with it and a lot of women come to the readings. I think it’s because I tried to write about folks in a very holistic way: dealing with every aspect of the characters, i.e. emotions and family contacts. “After the mainstream success of Terry McMillan’s Waiting to Exhale, a tale of black women’s romantic frustrations that later became a smash film, readers were evidently ready for a similar book from a black man; Urban Romance sold well, and the HBO cable network saw sufficient merit in the work to buy the film rights for a projected 1996 production.
Once again, critical reaction was mixed. “Though Urban Romance is an enjoyable novel it lacks something,” ventured Alice Charles in the Weekly Journal, “mostly due to the characterization. Often it seems that Danielle and Dwayne are not fully human, but serve only as vehicles for George’s posturing on the state of the music industry.” The Philadelphia Inquirer complained that “the narrative voice of Urban Romance fails to recognize the subtle complexities of love in the black community,” causing the book’s central relationship to seem “superficial.” Bryan Thompson of the Indianapolis Recorder, on the other hand, deemed the novel “a thought-provoking work of art that delves into the psyche of Black men as it relates to sex, career mobility and machoism.”
In 1995, George published Blackface: Reflections on African-Americans in theMovies, which mixes critique and memoir in its exploration of the black screen experience. The Quarterly Black Review of Books described the work as “a heterogeneous little book that stuffs autobiography, criticism and How I Made CB4 into 200 schizophrenic pages” and complained that George “sometimes stretches too far to get a connection between the personal and the cinematic.” For Michael E. Ross of Entertainment Weekly , however, the work was ”insightful as a chatty personal perspective, and comically caustic view of the often dispiriting way in which movies, like so much creative sausage, are made.”
George’s second novel, Seduced, was published in 1996. In his essay accompanying the publisher’s publicity materials, he described the book as “basically an accumulation of many life experiences. It is set in the record business, where I worked for many years, and the black middle class sections of Queens, where many of my friends reside. Most importantly, it depicts an artist trying to balance professional ambition with his personal life—a problem I, myself, have experienced. “The book’s central character this time is an aspiring songwriter-musician named Derek Harper, whose personal and professional odyssey through the music business yields a number of revelations. George wrote not only prose but also lyrics for the narrative.
While still relatively young, Nelson George conquered a startling range of media, from journalism to film to novels. Through it all he has attempted to chart the Black experience through the filter of popular culture, from the largest political developments to the most personal struggles. And he has been at pains all along to record the range of identities that fall under the blanket designation “black. “As he noted in Essence, “there’s so much diversity to who we are. But our diversity doesn’t get acknowledged within our own descriptions of ourselves.”
Top of the Charts, New Century Books, 1982.
The Michael Jackson Story, Dell, 1984.
Where Did Our Love Go?: The Rise and Fall of the Motown Sound, St. Martin’s Press, 1986.
The Death of Rhythm and Blues, Pantheon, 1988.
(Editor) Overcoming Self-Destruction, Pantheon, 1990.
Elevating the Game: Black Men and Basketball, HarperCollins, 1992.
Buppies, B-Boys, Baps and Bohos: Notes on Post-Soul Black Culture, HarperCollins, 1993.
Urban Romance, G.P. Putnam’sSons, 1994.
Blackface: Reflections on African-Americans and the Movies, HarperCollins, 1995.
Seduced, G.P. Putnam’sSons, 1996.
American Visions, April 1993, p. 32.
Amsterdam News (New York), March 25,1994, p. 23.
Boston Globe, July 17, 1988, Books section, p. 90; May 24, 1990, Arts and Film p. 81.; March 15, 1993, Living, p. 32.
Chicago Tribune, February 20, 1986; September 5, 1988; March 13, 1994.
Commercial Appeal (Memphis), March 14, 1993, p. G3.
Entertainment Weekly, February 26, 1993, p. 53; February 18, 1994, p. 111; January 20, 1995, p. 49.
Essence, November 1995, pp. 97-98,105,152-154.
Indianapolis Recorder, June 11,1994, p. B4.
Philadelphia Inquirer, February 13, 1994, p. HO2.
Quarterly Black Review of Books, February 28,1994, p. 8; February 28, 1995, p. 20.
Washington Informer, January 26, 1994, p. 12.
Weekly Journal (United Kingdom), October 6, 1994, p. 9; October 27, 1994, p. 9.
Additional information was provided by G.P. Putnam’s Sons publicity materials, 1996.
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