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Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative environment – perhaps to connect with a character, populate a mysterious place, or hold a moment still to explore its depths. This week my guest is attorney-turned aid worker and novelist Ted Oswald @Because_We_Are
Haitian culture is intoxicating, a blend of influences transmuted into something utterly unique and notable. Haitian music is no different.
Serving as the perfect fuel for the writing of my first book, Because We Are: A Novel of Haiti – a murder mystery set against the backdrop of modern-day Port-au-Prince – I often drew upon an amazing library of past and contemporary music for inspiration. Here’s the book’s trailer since it fills in a lot of the back story. For those unable to watch, in 2010, I was a law student and interned in Haiti months after the earthquake. The story is set in the community in which I worked, a notorious slum called Cité Soleil, and follows two unlikely detectives—children: brash Libète and brilliant Jak—as they try to solve the mystery behind a murdered mother and her infant child. But more than that, it’s a story about bigger themes: friendship, the struggle for justice in the face of impunity, sacrifice for the community, faith and doubt in light of tragedy, and the foolishness of scarcity in a world of plenty.
During the drafting and revision stages, completed primarily in the US, I relied upon particular albums and songs to snap me right back to Haiti; to again feel the unrelenting sun baking my skin, to get lost in a sea of spoken Kreyol, to recall hours spent walking vibrant city streets. But beyond a cheap return trip, the music often helped to define my characters and themes.
Special mention is reserved for the track used in my book trailer, a song entitled Nibo. This version is inspired by a piece written by Haitian composer Ludovic Lamothe, the original recording of which was captured by famed ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax during a trip to Haiti. Martha Jean-Claude recorded a version with lyrics in the 70s that immediately captured my imagination. More recently, Nibo has been given new life as a choral piece, Gede Nibo, by composer Sten Kellman. Every time I hear the song’s melody — whether brought to life by a plinking piano or a 40-person acapella ensemble — it powerfully captures the mood, tone, and mystery of Because We Are.
Vodou and rock
But I didn’t just listen to this song on repeat. Konpa is a modern-day mérengue played by prominent Haitian artists like Djakout #1, T-Vice, and sometimes Wyclef Jean (of The Fugees fame). Along with MizikRasin (roots music) which blends folk Vodou elements and rock (of which Boukman Eksperyans is one notable group), acts like these could be heard emanating from countless radios across Port-au-Prince. I was particularly moved by Atis Indepandan’s folk album from the mid-70s called Ki-Sa Pou-N Fe? or What is to be Done?. Listening to any of these strains of Haitian music helped to capture the manic intensity, humor, romance, suffering, piety, resilience, ribaldry, pain, joy, and sadness that so often comingle day-to-day.
Lastly, Because We Are is a story of protest. When volunteering in Cite Soleil, I taught a regular English class for young men using socially-conscious rap and hip-hop songs. Though they weren’t Haitian, artists like Talib Kweli (The Beautiful Struggle), Mos Def (New World Water), and The Roots (Dear God 2.0) capture a view of the world from the bottom up, reflecting the lived experience of my characters Libète and Jak and the young men I taught. I often found myself coming back to these artists and songs for inspiration along the way.
While scratching only the surface, I truly hope my Undercover Soundtrack might lead you to explore some new music and delve deeper into the amazing depths of Haitian music and culture.
Ted Oswald is a public interest attorney living in Philadelphia with his wife Katharine. Written while living in Haiti, after taking the bar exam, and before beginning his new job as a lawyer, Because We Are: A Novel of Haiti is Ted’s first foray into fiction. The book is published by Amazon Publishing’s Thomas & Mercer imprint. It’s available on audiobook here. Follow updates about the book and its mission as a ‘nonprofit novel’ on Twitter and Facebook. Ted can be reached by email at email@example.com.
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Fasten your seatbelts for a trip to Haiti. My guest this week was inspired to write his first novel by a spell as a volunteer after the 2010 earthquake. When he returned to the US he began to write a story of friendship, the struggle for justice in the face of impunity, sacrifice for the community and the foolishness of scarcity in a world of plenty. To recreate that distinctive place and define his characters, he returned to the music he heard pouring out of the radios in Port-au-Prince – folk, rock, rap and hip-hop. He says his work is a protest novel and so he’s donating the proceeds to aid organisations he worked with to help further education, advocacy, justice reform and prosecute human rights abuses. The novel is Because We Are; he is Ted Oswald and he’ll be here on Wednesday with his Undercover Soundtrack.
advocacy, authors, Because We Are, contemporary fiction, Desert Island Discs, drama, education, entertainment, folk, Haiti, Haiti earthquake 2010, hip-hop, human rights, justice reform, male writers, murder mystery, music, music for writers, music for writing, My Memories of a Future Life, Mystery, Nail Your Novel, playlist for writers, protest novel, protest songs, rap, Roz Morris, Ted Oswald, The Undercover Soundtrack, undercover soundtrack, writing to music
Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative environment – perhaps to connect with a character, populate a mysterious place, or hold a moment still to explore its depths. This week’s post is by Polly Courtney @PollyCourtney
It might seem odd that a book called Feral Youth was inspired by classical music. But despite its title, Feral Youth is not just about a disenfranchised young person living on the fringes of society. More, it is about the relationship between that young person – Alesha, 15, alcoholic mother, unknown father – and Miss Merfield: a middle-class piano teacher with an alternative outlook on life and a love of tea and Chopin. It’s about two cultures colliding and the mark that each leaves on the other.
As you might have guessed, my background is more akin to that of Miss Merfield’s than to Alesha’s. I grew up on classical music, playing piano and violin and performing in shows and concerts all through my teenage years. I’m still part of the semi-professional string quartet that plays at venues up and down the UK. But it was my piano lessons in the early years that lodged in my mind and planted the seed for Feral Youth.
Back to that rickety piano stool
Debussy’s Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum was one of the final pieces I learned to play. My piano teacher was an elderly lady, much older than the youthful Miss Merfield but with a strong, forceful manner and a kindly streak. When I hear Debussy, I think of Mrs Luton-Brain (yes, that was her name – ‘Luton where they make the hats, brains for putting under them!’) and I imagine myself back on that old, rickety double stool, filled with a mixture of fear and intrigue as my fingers tripped up and down the keys. Although Alesha’s piano lessons with Miss Merfield were short-lived and took place long before the summer in which Feral Youth is set, they were instrumental in developing the relationship between the characters and I used Debussy to send me back to that place and remind myself of what it felt like, sitting next to Mrs Luton-Brain in that stuffy room.
Key to angst
I also used music to unlock emotions as I wrote. Alesha is an angry character, full of angst at the way she is persecuted by those in power, ignored by those who should care and cheated by those she thought she could trust. I began by listening to grime. Grime is a relatively new genre that grew out of the east London garage/hip-hop scene. Two years ago, I hadn’t even heard of it but as I got deeper and deeper into my research, I heard it oozing from car stereos on the estates, rattling youth club windows and whirring from tinny speakers on phones. Imagine a beat that is so low, slow and dirty you can feel your teeth vibrating in your skull. The wax in your ears starts to shift and it almost hurts to listen, but somehow you keep listening because the juddering, creaking beat draws you in. Here’s a DJ Dice sub-low mix that I used to get myself back to where some of the scenes are set.
In the early stages of writing, I was sketching the outline for Feral Youth on a bunch of Post-it notes and something didn’t feel right. There wasn’t enough of a bond between my two main characters. I realised that something had to have happened between Alesha and Miss Merfield in order for them to behave in the way I envisaged during the book. I was listening to the radio one morning when Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries came on. I turned it up loud. This is one piece that’s guaranteed to set off a swirling cocktail of emotions in anyone. I could feel it surging through me, washing away my frustrations and replacing them with something jubilant and powerful. It was this ‘rinsing’ effect that gave me what turned out to be an important insight into the relationship between Alesha and Miss Merfield. There had to have been a shared experience that bonded them… and I’d just worked out what it was.
We stayed on the floor for the rest of that lesson, like a couple of crazies, staring up at the ceiling as the music crashed and blasted around us. I never told Miss Merfield this, but while we was lying there it felt like some of my anger was leaking out. It wasn’t like proper crying. It was just hotness and tears and this weird lightness coming over me – in a good way. It’s hard to explain. Anyway, that’s why it don’t feel right to be thieving off Miss Merfield right now.
I may have committed a literary cardinal sin by making a movie-style trailer for Feral Youth in which I use some of this music – including the Wagner – to try and transport readers to the place I was in when I wrote it. Perhaps that’s an impossible ambition; I suspect that the links between writing, memories and music can never be transplanted from one person to another. All I know is that for me, music was the vehicle that took me back (and forward, and sideways) and that without it, I’m not sure Miss Merfield and Alesha might have ever met.
Polly Courtney is the author of six novels and a regular commentator on TV and radio. She made her name with debut novel Golden Handcuffs, a semi-autobiographical account of life in the Square Mile. In late 2011, on the publication of her fifth novel, Courtney walked out on her publisher, HarperCollins, frustrated by the ‘chick lit’ titles and covers assigned to her books. She went on to self-publish Feral Youth, which delves into the frustrations that led to the summer riots. Here website is here, and you can follow her on Twitter as @PollyCourtney.
authors, classical music, contemporary fiction, Debussy, Desert Island Discs, DJ Dice, drama, east London, entertainment, Feral Youth, garage, grime, hip-hop, London, London riots, Miss Merfield, music, music for writers, music for writing, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, pianists, playlist for writers, Polly Courtney, Roz Morris, The Undercover Soundtrack, undercover soundtrack, Wagner, Women Writers, writers, writing, writing to music
- The Undercover Soundtrack is a series where writers - and occasionally other arty folk - reveal how music shapes their work.
- It began as a companion to my first novel, My Memories of a Future Life, and now thrives as a creative salon in its own right. Pull on your headphones and join us.
- If you're curious about the novel that started it all, click the image below.
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Alliance of Independent Authors Book of the Month, January 2013
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- All content copyright Roz Morris 2011-2022. Nothing may be reproduced without my express permission in writing beforehand. Photography: Bonnie Schupp Photography, gcg2009 and Roz Morris
What is The Undercover Soundtrack?Sleeve notes here
For the soundtrack of My Memories of a Future Life, you'll need Chopin's Sonata in B Minor, Rachmaninov preludes, lashings of Grieg's piano concerto in A minor and The Clash's Rock the Kasbah (they go together well).
You'll also need Samuel Barber's Dover Beach on piano, although that doesn't actually exist so do the best you can.
And the novel's undercover pieces. You can find them here
- What's on their soundtracks? Zip down to the footer and you can search by artiste or composer. See who shares your taste in inspirational music
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