De gustibus non est disputandum. Then again, what to do when served a tasteless appetizer when promised a flavorful meal drawn from an eclectic menu? Then again, policing another’s tastes can be another kind of force-feeding. Functioning as a nodal point between detection and punishment, feels, for me, similarly distasteful, to say the least. Then again, writing is a kind of mirror, reflecting back you, who you are and who you aren’t, who you think you are, pretend to be, your givens, your strengths and flaws, your likes and dislikes, your loves and hates, your insights and oversights: a whole history of knowledge and ignorance, of tendencies and biases, of privilege and suffering, and more besides; and as a mirror, it also reflects for others, too, reflecting back things you can never see when you, the writer, are looking at it.
Which is to say nothing of the infinite regress of a mirror reflecting another mirror. Which is to say, what to make of “Ten Musicians Who Could Be Novelists: Bob Boilen on Recording Artists Whose Books He’d Love to Read”?, where not a single person of color is listed? What to make of this seeming erasure? Was it deliberate? You could say, well, these are the writer’s tastes and it doesn’t reflect the publishing venue’s views. But then we’re back to the notion of the mirror and what it reflects. You could say, well, among the responsibilities of an editor and publisher is to highlight the flaws of a piece and ask the writer to address those flaws. Maybe this was done. And they ran it anyway. So be it.
So I’ll redress the primary flaw of the piece by presenting a list, in alphabetical order, of musicians of color whose novels I’d love to read. (I’ve a problem with the whole premise of the original concept of the piece to begin with but that’s a whole other story.) And yes, I intentionally did not title this feature “Ten Musicians of Color Who Could Be Novelists.”
Black Messiah is the sound of this wasteland of a country imploding, an album easily the equal to Sly and the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On. It begins with a caterwaul, a guitar feeding back, ripping a hole in your earhole. What follows is a scathing, smash and scatteration attack on the American status quo, musical and sociopolitical. Plus, it’s funky as fuck. D’Angelo’s novel would be dense, polyphonic, and rhythmically disjunctive, and, like his most recent album, hermetic, its legibility revealed only through repeated readings.
Daniel Dumile aka Metal Face Doom aka Zev Love X aka King Geedorah is a “supervillain,” who sometimes sends imposters to perform live shows in his stead. His novel, a graphic novel, of course, would be peopled by a host of doppelgängers, monsters, and mad scientists, where all kinds of head-fakes and mindfucks ensue.
Hard to choose one member of the Wu-Tang Clan, since their albums and their many offshoots are among the most complex musical productions, featuring lyrics of high lexical density. But if I had to choose one member, it would be the “Genius,” the group’s “spiritual head,” who’s currently working on Dark Matter, a concept album based on a journey through time and space. The tie-in novel would surely be stellar.
When I think of Van Hunt, the phrases “sheer virtuosity” and “outrageously prolific” come to mind. Van Hunt’s command of many genres is dizzying by any stretch. Last year alone, Hunt produced one full-length effort, The Fun Rises, The Fun Sets, a profound album, along with five eps, each of which are brilliant in their own right. His lyrics are whip-smart, often funny or weird, often foregrounding his relegation to the margins. You might call Van Hunt the Percival Everett of music. I loathe such comparisons by the way, but perhaps it’s a somewhat useful tool toward making sense of Van Hunt, who despite voluminously creating some of the most engaging soundscapes suffers from relative and totally undeserved obscurity.
I imagine a novel from Jones would be a genre-trespassing tour-de-force, where supermodels and swordsmiths and sorcerers and vampires and wolf-people collide, where the author engagingly appears as a character, whose identity is as ambiguous as her so-called real life equivalent.
Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam aka M.I.A. is a collagist par excellence. Like her lyrics, her novel would brim over with intertextual references, to politics, pop culture, and philosophy; and its form would be hard to categorize; its narrative taking on displacement, human rights, censorship; its settings shifting back and forth from India to Sri Lanka to London to Palestine to the US.
It would have to be translated, of course, but then we’d have one of the weirdest novels in our hands, defamiliarizing in the Shklovskyan sense, a novel that makes “forms difficult to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged.”
I’ve seen Fishbone countless times, always amazed by the exploratory, improvisatory range of the musicians, their powerful command of the vast spectrum of American pop music, fusing funk, rock, reggae, ska, soul, metal, etc., with an intelligence and virtuosity easily matching that of Sun Ra’s and Frank Zappa’s. Cavorting within that sonic gumbo is Angelo Moore, whose lyrics are among the most incisive critiques of American hypocrisy, of racism, sexism, classism, etc., and are often as funny as any great stand-up comedian’s routine. Ever the shape-shifter, Moore also performs as Dr. Madd Vibe, and as another character—of which Moore says, “Only I can call myself that”—releasing a poetry anthology titled Dr. Madd Vibe’s Comprehensive Linkology in 1993. I suspect a novel from him would have much in common with this infernal country’s greatest comedic writer: Paul Beatty, who blends dizzying erudition with pop cultural connoisseurship, each of his expansively insightful sentences blindingly bedazzling.
While certainly nostalgic for the days when she foregrounded her virtuosity on the bass, I’m always impressed by Ndegeocello’s masterful shapeshifting. Her mercurial mind, her ranginess, her vast conversancy in funk, soul, jazz, rock, hip hop, reggae; her various fusions of all of the above; her intelligent, confessional lyrics; her expansive, provocative takes on sexuality, on identity, generally; all suggest that any novel from her would be difficult, difficult in Lance Olsen sense; a “disruptive, transgressive, nuanced” text “dedicated in heterodox ways to revealing, interrogating, complicating, and, briefly, short-circuiting the comfortable narratives produced by dominant cultures committed to seeing such stories told and retold until they begin to pass for something like truths about aesthetics and the human condition.”
Polystylist, always hybridistic, Prince is impossible to encapsulate, and I won’t try. Obsessively prolific, a novel from him would necessarily be released as a multi-volume set, a trilogy, a quartet, which would be followed by another one a year or less later. It’s thematics would include transgressive sexuality, weird religiosity, individuated attacks on property and ownership, its form fluidly fusing forms and shifting from genre to genre, his trademark orthography used throughout. Prince recently announced the forthcoming release of his memoir, which I suspect will be as meticulously constructed and invented as his many gender- and genre-bending experiments and productions. (I wrote this a few days ago, before the announcement of Prince’s death. I can’t bring myself to take him off this list. I don’t believe he’s gone. I can’t. I won’t.)
I once attended a literature course, where a woman presented a paper, a memoiristic essay detailing how as a child she’d witnessed her mother kill herself. Sade’s first album served as a soundtrack of sorts to her presentation. Now, whenever I listen to Sade’s music, the intensity of this story, the woman’s lifelong grief, always comes to mind, underscoring the mystery, the ambiguity underlying the slow jam form that Sade helped to shape, create the template for. I suspect a novel by Sade would be a noir, engagingly languorous, full of operators, lovers, and other masqueraders.
John Madera is the author of Nervosities (Anti-Oedipus Press, 2024). His other fiction is published in Conjunctions, Salt Hill, The &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing, and many other journals. His nonfiction is published in American Book Review, Bookforum, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Rain Taxi: Review of Books, The Believer, The Brooklyn Rail, and many other venues. Recipient of an M.F.A. in Literary Arts from Brown University, New York State Council on the Arts awardee John Madera lives in New York City, Rhizomatic and manages and edits Big Other.