At 32 years old, MK Asante is already easily recognized in the literary world as a masterful storyteller. But with his recent work, “Buck,” the best-selling author and professor is aiming to take his craft of storytelling to a new level — from the page to the stage.
“Buck” chronicles the life of a young Asante, son of acclaimed African Diaspora scholar Molefi Kete Asante Sr. and accomplished choreographer Kariamu Welsh. As Asante’s story unfolds in the streets of Philadelphia, he shares how unconventional teachers and a single, blank page saved his life.
Hundreds of blank sheets later, Asante is trading the pen for a mic in his first music project, “Buck: Original Book Soundtrack.” This summer, Asante joined creative forces with Talib Kweli’s Javotti Media to birth an original soundtrack to his best-selling memoir, with features from Kweli, King Mez, Ras Kass, his brother Uzi and his mentor, the late Maya Angelou. The soundtrack was digitally released for free download on the one-year anniversary of the “Buck” paperback release.
“It’s about bucking the stereotypes. It’s about bucking the traps that they set for us and creating your own path, and bucking the system and doing it with style and grace.”
Asante holds nothing back in “Buck.” He discusses his mother’s mental health, his brother’s time in jail and getting lost in the life of drugs and violence. To relive and write of those events, Asante had to shed many layers.
“Buck is about being buck naked,” he said. “I was very exposed in Buck. I talked about things that were very deeply personal. I felt vulnerable and what I learned in that process was that vulnerability is actually my strength. It empowers me and makes me feel a sense of freedom.”
While on tour earlier this month, Asante made his debut musical performance with Talib Kweli at the Brooklyn Bowl in New York.
“Wasssup Brooklyn!,” Asante shouted as he entered the stage. Amidst harsh beats, colorful lights, and a sea of bobbing heads, Asante’s voice roared while dropping rhymes and later direct lines from his book.
Asante called working with Kweli, whom he describes as a “living-legend,” a learning experience.
“It’s like going to a university,” Asante said. “I’m at the university of hip hop right now and he’s the number one professor. He’s shown me that a candle loses nothing by lighting another candle. He’s a candle that’s well, well lit.”
Kweli told NBCBLK that partnering with Asante feels cyclical. He said he used to sell books by Asante’s father at Nkiru Books, the first black bookstore in Brooklyn where Kweli previously held a part-time job, and later co-owned with hip hop artist Mos Def.
“For a long time when he first started his career, I was confused because I would see the name MK Asante and I was like, ‘Professor Asante is rapping now?,’” Kweli said. “Because I was familiar with Molefi Asante, it took me a second to really understand the greatness that his son was doing.”
While penning his best-selling book, Asante said he imagined it taking the many forms it does today. In addition to the book and soundtrack, he is currently producing a feature film of the memoir with the help of a Sundance feature film fellowship and grant. The film is due release in 2016 or 2017.
“When I think about art, I think about it in languages,” he said. “For me, art is like language. When I had the idea for ‘Buck,’ it was immediately multilingual.”
In Kweli’s eyes, Asante’s multilingual method of storytelling helps to reach different audiences where they are at.
“People embrace things that relate to them quicker than they embrace things that are marketed to them,” Kweli said. “Someone who is passionate enough about their story to write a book, and then have music and then maybe do a movie is [able to] relate to so many people on so many different levels.”
As “Buck” continues to grace best-selling lists and music sites, Asante stresses that Buck’s message is bigger than the forms it takes. For Asante, writing and reading are connected to his emancipation. In the same vein, “Buck” is a movement about literacy and liberation.
“When people wear a Buck shirt, when they have a book in their hand at the bus stop, they know it’s more than just a book, they’re representing something,” he said. “It’s about bucking the stereotypes. It’s about bucking the traps that they set for us and creating your own path, and bucking the system and doing it with style and grace.”
With recent events in Ferguson, Baltimore and Charleston, Asante said young people are frustrated. He said “Buck” is also movement to inspire young storytellers to speak their truth, even when no one is listening.
“The young people I’m around are frustrated,” he said. “When the Young Bucks are frustrated and they start wildin’, I feel that. Martin Luther King said the riot is the language of the unheard. We’re unheard still. “Buck” paves the way for other young people of color to tell their story.”