D O N N E L L ... A L E X A N D E R

The Penultimate
Ghetto Celebrity

Donnell Alexander is the author of the book Ghetto Celebrity, and a journalist who has been published in ESPN: The Magazine, The Source, LA Weekly, and other top publications.

Contact him via e-mail here.

What are the origins of Ghetto Celebrity?

In the general sense, the book comes from a Prince 1984 concert I saw at the Richfield Coliseum. Midway through the gig Prince played the most beautiful, classical-influenced piano for about 90 seconds, then he stopped, leaned into the mic, sneered, and said “Humph.” After this he proceeded to play a boogie-leaning funk run that fairly ripped a roar from the crowd. It was an attitudinous paean to diversity and the power of low-down music. That roaring has remained in my ears ever since.

Specifically, the book derives from an article that ran in L.A. Weekly, back in 1997. Less than a year after the birth of my first son, Forrest, I published a 7,500-word article about the search for my estranged father, Delbert Bilal.

Is Ghetto Celebrity about you or your Dad?

First off, Delbert Bilal is my father, not my dad. A Dad is someone who earns stripes. I’ve put Forrest to bed most nights of his life, reading him books, tucking him in and falling asleep with him. I slept with my father for the first time at my friend Jennifer’s house in Hollywood, back in 2000, when I was researching the book. Delbert’s cool — a little bit nutty, but cool. He can’t ever be Dad to me though.

To answer the question, the book’s about neither of us, essentially. It’s about the title in abstract, a certain kind of marginal renown. I pursued a form that turned out to be GC in order to chronicle a very specific strain of posture, one that buttressed late-20th century cool. As payback for their refusal to cover this utterly newsworthy story, most mainstream journalism institutions go unnamed in this book.

I wanted also to write about language and form — that’s behind the inclusion of Josh Sheppard’s graphic interlude; there’s supposed to be an implicit relationship between his line drawings and the symbols we call words — but my primary subtext is attacking self-congratulation, especially in autobiography. Generally, among the most sketchy people I know are writers. And unless authors are casting themselves as anti-heroes, authors tend to act like they’re the shit for doing real basic acts of kindness. So I thought I’d illuminate the darkness we share, writerly or no. The plan was to start a movement of confessing our collective griminess. I ain’t much grimier than you, but I committed to going first.

What the fuck is up with that GC intro, Mr. Non-Grimy?

Oh. The ‘Warning’, you mean? It’s a device, a way of alluding to the themes my book engages, as well as setting it outside the boundaries of traditional autobiography. Freezing it in time. I knew, for example, that I’d not be in Brooklyn when my book hit the streets. So it was crucial that the Warning’s author, the alter ego ‘Donny Shell’, gave voice it from a Brooklyn perch.

I began the Warning while the 2000 U.S. Presidential election was still up in the air. This was also when I’d made my deal with then-publisher McSweeney’s. Events were so heady that I foolishly set about changing the world and this introduction — product of immense quantities of marijuana and an especially rugged trip on the G Train — became something the remainder of my memoir had to live up to. I think it passes the test.

Why is the book so exhibitionist?

The work is selectively exhibitionist. As it was influenced by Dave Egger’s “A Heart-Breaking Work of Staggering Genius,” GC throws enough bones to keep readers feeling saucy. It does not, however, tell enough to define me. While it talks about youthful exploits with sex traders, drug-dealers and artistic thought, the book fails to illuminate, for example the countless nights masturbating myself to sleep as the Playboy Channel droned on.

I decline to vomit out my personal life for public scrutiny. Here’s a sampling of things I won’t ever write about:

- Anything that happened in a hotel room while on tour. (Excepting the telephone interview I did in Boston for that Saturday morning Dartmouth radio show. I polished off the last half of a joint that someone from the Cambridge reading had hit me off with. It was, on a number of levels, my best interview ever.) (I mention this because all media would, in my opinion, be improved by marijuana in its production. Imagine that TNT hoops pregame show with Kenny Smith toking up while parrying with Barkley. Like, c’mon money, you know you want to hit this! And then they could bring Webber on the set. Must-See TV indeedly-dee!)

- My genius son Wyatt. Our life together is an inside joke I don’t feel like sharing.

- Barry Bonds

- Pops, my sister’s estranged husband. Not ever again.

You just did a couple dozen readings. What was the tour like?

Hectic, but people had a lot of fun. One guy came out repeatedly to heckle me, which I thought was the most oxymoronic gesture ever. Those readings had to have fulfilled dude on one level or another.

I liked that so many friends and supporters came to my event at LA’s Book Soup, as the town’s corporate media has, with minor exceptions, blacked out coverage of GC. The Barnes and Noble in Oakland’s Jack London Square event was priceless. At Unity Church in Kansas City, I fulfilled the life-long dream of literally standing in a place designated holy and cussing like a bastard. The audience, among the smallest of the tour, was as quiet as I was profane. It was two days after the Kobe Bryant rape accusation broke, and I was wearing a #8 Lakers baseball cap. That was really weird. I think they clapped more loudly than on another stop. Or maybe the Unity acoustics were just that amazing.

However, my very favorite, most pure reaction came in the weeks prior to heading out to the east coast to start the ball rolling.

Across from one of my most recent Southern California addresses, I had neighbors who were strung out on heroin. And that’s fine. If you want to ruin your life, I’m not the one to tell you to stop. But the couple’s kids had become good friends with my oldest boy, just as their habit was spiraling out of control. The father was shooting up in his parked car and passing out in clear view of me, my ex, Amy, and both my sons. When the mother, who had just gotten out of jail anyfuckingway, asked me inside to buy their stereo for, like, $.75 — which I couldn’t scrounge up — I showed her a copy of Ghetto Celebrity. (Actually, it was just the cover wrapped around the hardback version of Colson Whitehead’s very fine John Henry Days.)

“I can’t buy your stereo,” I told the wild-eyed mother who, for the purposes of this anecdote shall be called Juanita, “because I’m a waiting on a check, which is what writers do. In fact, I just wrote this book. It’s about my father, who was addicted to smack and how he helped me by getting the hell out of my life.”

Juanita stood next to me. The youngest of her five kids was in the doorway. Juanita’s husband, uh, Jorge was on the other side of their small apartment’s living room. Between them was a guy I’m certain was stupefied off dookie. I made strong eye contact with Jorge, then stared at Juanita and said this:

“Cuz personally, I believe that if you’re strung out on drugs you should just get the fuck out of your kids lives. That’s the best gift you could give them. If my father had stuck around while he was getting high, I don’t know what would have come of my life.”

At this stage of her life, Juanita’s eyes were constantly looking wild. But even here they perked up exceptionally. She grabbed the book.

“Oh my god, you have to let me read this,” she said. “I love reading, especially stuff like this.”

Juanita tilted her head a couple of times in the direction of her husband and rolled her eyes that way too. The four-year-old stayed watching the whole scene.

“Certain people don’t read shit, unless it’s got pictures in it,” she said. “And certain people like to get high all the time.”

I grabbed Colson Whitehead’s book back from Juanita.

“Actually, this isn’t the book. It’s just the cover. But I have one last version at the house. It’s not the final version and there are some notes in it, but I’ll let you have it if you absolutely promise to give it back.”

“Yes, Yes. I promise. Please go get it. I want to read it now,” she said.

So I walked across the cul-de-sac to get my last galley.

“Hey!” Someone called me from the curb.

I was in the middle of the street when I turned around. It was Juanita and Jorge’s little boy.

“I love you man.”

“Uh, yeah. I love you too little dude,” I said.

I turned around quickly, because the junkie’s son made me cry, right there in the sunshine.

At the time, this exchange was hard to comprehend, because I’m a bit of an idiot. In hindsight I would come to understand that the gesture of writing Ghetto Celebrity would outstrip anything that sales or reviews might signify. Certain people are underserviced by popular art, by the music biz and the publishing biz and the movie biz. I’d done my little bit and my shit was going to be at the library, waiting for them to cop.

Next time I saw Jorge, he was getting out of his car, unsteadily. He told me Juanita was on chapter seven. Jorge told me books like mine don’t really appeal to him, that he needs something he can relate to right off. But he had one question:

“How did you get them to let you write all them bad words man?”

“That shit was not easy, Jorge. Not easy at all.”

What the hell is Wet Daddy?

So far it’s 100 people in NCY paying $11 bucks on a Sunday night to hear mind-blowing literary readings and drink and dance and $5 in Altadena to do the same damn thing. Line-ups for 2003 are here, but lack mentions of Franklin the DJ, who put down the dancehall and hip-hop lovely as can be and Rudy Crew, who had people skankin’ at Southpaw. We’ll do it again, only better, next spring.

Wet Daddy is also the name of my company. We hope to start a store, publish books and complete “Touch Down,” a mockumentary I’m making with David Davis and Rashidi Harper, next year.

Can you rap? You keep acting like you can flow.

Let’s fess up: I’m totally fronting. In 2002, at Neal Pollack’s Bergamont Station joint, I froze up worse than Eminem at the start of 8 Mile. However, at a recent dance contest, I exhorted women to shake their asses for prizes of thongs and g-strings and managed to stay on beat.

It’s all about da panties now
That’s right, y’all
Shake it like ya wanna win it
Yeeah yeah Ah sayd
Shake it like ya wanna win it

That’s a start.

Is anyone buying this book? Your Amazon ranking makes GC appear less popular than certain hand-drawn religious comics leaflets?

Yo, don’t sleep on the religious comics. I wish I had their word of mouth.

GC is East Coast product right now, with pockets of exception. No amount of hit pieces by Book World flunkies can make GC’s humorous critique of soul-defeating Manhattan magazine culture less resonant. From what I can tell, media workers come to GC for the satire, stay for the family bathos.

Who’s showing the book the most love? Who are the haters?

GC’s demographic appeal pretty much runs like this:

Clutch book to their bosom:
Young, coastal, urbanites with drug dealing and/or white slavery in their families and who read or buy new music and/or consume lots of sports television.

Middle-American, rural women with drug dealing and/or white slavery in their families, but who read or buy new music and/or consume lots of sports television.

Young, coastal, urbanites that read or buy new music and/or consume lots of sports television, have no acknowledged white slavery in their families, but acknowledge their forebears role in The Middle Passage.

Youthful, second-generation Americans who are stunned by the racism that touches their lives. They never saw it on TV or heard much about it from their parents and are quite a bit stunned.

Find GC perplexing:
Urban males who have never had surreptious outdoor sex, love straightforward non-fiction and don’t know who S. Carter is.

Burn my memoir:
Older, urban males who suck dicks and smoke crack on the ultra-DL and then wag their finger at you while you’re tearing the plastic off the latest from Ludacris.

Self-immolate upon reading the Warning:

What’s up with you and Eggers?
I love the guy. He’s truly great, a maniacal genius. It just happens that I owe him a shitload of cheddar.

Without Dave there would be no Ghetto Celebrity, not as it exists now. (I say this with all due respect to Crown Senior Editor Chris Jackson.) As much as the tens of thousands of dollars Dave coughed up, his encouragement freed me. Editors previously had only demanded I rein my shit in. Eggers said, further, further. Niggas don’t be getting that in the world of commercial prose. So I’m grateful.

Inevitable question, but tell us some of your influences

A lot of that was in GC, but…

I’d especially like to highlight the sonic and visual art of Marina Rosenfeld, Del’s “Both Sides of the Brain,” Tash, Walter Payton’s rushing aesthetic, Shock-G, Eminem, Steven Soderburgh, Lou Reed, David Byrne, Chuck D, Wings of Desire, Motherless Brooklyn, Chameleon Street, Airplane, “Sister Ray,” Lester Bangs, Paid in Full, “Pow,” by The Crack Emcee (with the Brown Fellinis), Master Piece by Paul Mooney, Lisa Davis, Gary Kazanjian, Dr. Jean Stephens, Ginny McReynolds, Medusa, Husker Du, Jerry Springer, Basquiat, Hendrix, and of course Kool Keith.

What’s up with the reviews? Critics can’t seem to decide whether it’s the best or it’s the worst.

The first review of GC I saw came out on AlterNet a few days after my memoir hit stores. It originated out of Connecticut and insisted the book’s not nearly as good as everyone was saying. This is an acceptable pronouncement, except for the fact that next-to-nothing had said anything about the book yet. I think this alleged critique damaged the book’s visibility.

As my friend Brad often points out, reviewers (of all sorts) are too slow to just say, “This was not to my taste.” They pretend to be worldlier than they actually are. Their critiques tattle on them.

I’m going to ramble on about this point because the big papers and taste-making mags have ignored GC, as they tend to ignore the greater ghetto celebrity, and when they finally do cover my book — because it won’t ever, ever go away — they’ll attack me like I’m Gary Webb with good notes on the real effects of media-consolidation.

Village Voice Media has pointedly ignored the book, because GC calls bullshit on their product, specifically LA Weekly. I can’t prove collusion, but it does seem odd to me that a young, left-leaning writer of color — someone who would ordinarily score top-notch reviews presenting even mediocre product — can’t get a review in any of the company’s 300 or so “alternative” newspapers. Village Voice, which also owns weeklies in Seattle, Nashville and Minneapolis — has provided an object lessen in why mediocre leftism is dead as fuck. Blame them for Bush being president and Peter Camejo languishing in October’s California polls.

Having said all that, I’m grateful any time a critic stands up to say they like what I put into the world. It takes a lot of courage. I’m convinced one writer at a daily back east was fired at least in part because he insisted Ghetto Celebrity was one of the best books he’s ever read.

Which part of Ghetto Celebrity is least understood?

Aside from the notion that the book just happened upon its ragged style, rather than being painstakingly crafted to come off like that – you try arranging an 80,000-word punk rock riff – the answer would have to be the Warning.

How’s the fam?

They’re in need of meds, but shit’s otherwise okay. Broke as fuck, but better than dead. Most of them got Jehovah, so they gon’ BE alright.

Seriously though, Mom’s in Sactown, trying to find her space after toughing it out in Santown for a year. Delbert is also in Sacramento. They never see each other. All of my cousins, aunts and nephews and my niece and uncle Rick are in Sacramento, too, living and striving as most people do. They know how I feel about them.

Forrest, 7, is the man, kinda like a superhero and a genius of love. He has a younger brother named Wyatt, who is 2.

I lived with my cousin Kevin when Ghetto Celebrity came out. He’s been an ardent promoter of my career. My nephew Ryan was there in June as well.

As far as I can tell, most of the fam is not loving the book, but I don’t give a fuck. No explanation, I just can’t begin to care. Brenda Graham read up to page 151, where the words “Jehovah Fucking God” appear, and the book effectively ended for her at that point. The words might as well have been The End. Delbert does like the book, according to my sister, who relayed the info to me. It doesn’t seem that my father and I will ever be in regular contact. And I’m not mad at that.

I do however wonder what Geneva Graham, my grandmother, would have thought of my memoir. Even as a septuagenarian, she might have tried to give me a whuppin’. I sincerely hope not.

Gaye is proud of me, and that makes me feel good. She knows what’s true and isn’t blinded by the whole afterlife thing. Also, a relative from Sandusky named Vicki, who, sadly, I don’t remember, dropped an email to tell me she’s proud. That’s nice. Delibra’s been in touch, too. I am overwhelmed.

And what of Amy?

She’s fam, too. Amy Osburn is one of the great people on the planet and, perhaps, the love of my life. We just couldn’t hack marriage. So she and I raise our boys together.

What about everyone else?

I don’t know. Who the fuck I look like, Google?

My old college friends have come through in a major way. (Brad is the webmaster.) In GC, I railed at ESPN like it’s weather or, urgh, God, but what I’ve heard out of that camp is mostly complimentary.

A lot of people aren’t speaking to me at this point of my incline toward fame. But it’s easy to find the status of a lot of the inhabitants of GC. Look at the papers for Chris Webber’s trajectory, a little deeper to see what’s up with Ras Kass or AG. If you want to know the whereabouts of say, Pops, you gotta dig mad deep. Some answers lie beneath a watery grave.

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