I remember as if it were yesterday. It was the early ’90s and music journalist Cheo Hodari Coker wrote a scathing editorial for Rap Pages magazine about freshman rap group the Wu-Tang Clan. Master Killer, one of the Clan members, had taken offense to an illustration of Wu-Tang that was published in a previous issue. Instead of taking a diplomatic stance with the magazine’s art department, Killer elected to punch the first Rap Pages representative he came across right in the face.
Coker, although he had nothing to do with the drawing, ended up on the receiving end of Killer’s sucker punch. The incident was among the first in a string of attacks or threats perpetrated by hip-hop artists on journalists or music industry professionals. Enough incidents occurred — Suge Knight vs. Kevin Powell, P. Diddy vs. Steve Stoute, the Almighty RSO vs. the Source editorial staff — to inspire the plot of Kenji Jasper’s second novel.
Dakota Grand is Jasper’s gift to hip-hop journalists who have been itching for the chance to speak out against overzealous recording artists, free of the restraints of professionalism and diplomacy. Grand, an upstart journalist who moves from his native Atlanta to New York City to pursue his love of writing, may be Jasper’s alter ego. In his pursuit, he receives an opportunity to cover his favorite group, Arbor Day. It’s his big chance, and he sticks his creative foot in the story after one deliriously high half of the group, rapper Mirage, shares intimate details of his career — on tape — then forgets what he said. What ensues is a huge beef that escalates into a battle of epic proportions.
Dakota Grand exposes many myths about the glamour of music journalism. Writers have famous bylines, but little financial security. Freelance writing as a career can be very inconsistent work. Jasper uses Grand’s lifestyle — having a respectable profile while struggling to make ends meet on the low — to illustrate this point.
Grand also struggles with personal issues that are magnified by his beef with Mirage. Love is not his forte. He is a 22-year-old writer who adapts to New York well, taking advantage of the abundance of women, but running from commitment like a dealer from Detroit cops during the weed drought. When his heart is captured by Carolina, a masterpiece of a woman of Cuban descent, he’s forced to contend with levels of maturity that cloud his decision-making ability.
It’s here that the story shifts. As Grand grows closer to Carolina, he gets close to landing a long-sought book deal, and gets his ass whupped by Mirage’s crew. Dakota Grand’s plight, at this point, becomes the poster story for any accosted or confronted writer who fantasizes about avenging their dented pride.
Grand’s attempt to wage a personal crusade without ruining his career and love life becomes the stuff of a good Taye Diggs movie. Maybe Jasper is holding out for a screenplay adaptation. The story hints at underlying themes like maturity, professionalism and integrity in the music industry. But the wrestling match between Grand’s beef with Mirage and his personal growth sucks some of the depth from the tale, making the book more of a base urban adventure.
Dakota Grand reads very fast. A good road trip, or a few visits to the latrine, and you’ve read 75 percent of it. Still, Dakota Grand sheds a bright light on a real issue that impacts a very small segment of society. Most readers will read the story through a fishbowl. Writers like me, however, take it to heart and wonder, “If I were Dakota Grand, would I handle the situation the same way?”
Kenji Jasper will read from and sign copies of his novel at the Shrine of the Black Madonna Bookstore (13535 Livernois, Detroit) at 3 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 26. Call 313-491-0777.
Khary Kimani Turner writes about music for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].