"A must-read for fans of Walter Dean Myer's All the Right Stuff and other lovers of proud urban realism." —Kirkus Reviews
The summer of 1983 was the summer hip-hop proved its staying power. The South Bronx is steeped in Reaganomics, war in the Middle East, and the twin epidemics of crack and AIDS, but Raymond “Smiles” King and Guillermo “Nike” Vega have more immediate concerns.
Smiles was supposed to be the assistant crew chief at his summer camp, but the director chose Cookie Camacho instead, kicking off a summer-long rivalry. Meanwhile, the aspiring b-boy Nike has set his wandering eye on Sara, the sweet yet sassy new camp counselor, as well as top prize at a breakdancing competition downtown. The two friends have been drifting apart ever since Smiles got a scholarship to a fancy private school, and this summer the air is heavy with postponed decisions that will finally be made.
Raw and poignant, this is a story of music, urban plight, and racial tension that’s as relevant today as it was in 1983.
About the Author
Sofia Quintero is a writer, activist, educator, speaker, and comedienne. She is also the author of Efrain’s Secret and has written several hip-hop novels under the pen name Black Artemis. This self-proclaimed “Ivy League homegirl” graduated from Columbia University and lives in the Bronx. Learn more about Sofia at SofiaQuintero.com.
Read an Excerpt
Saturday, June 25, 1983, 3:24 p.m.
539 East 139th Street
The vintage postcard with the photograph of the Champs-Elysees is wedged between Pop's union newsletter and a bill from Bronx-Lebanon Hospital addressed to Mama. I flip it over and read it.
This is the view from my window. Impressed? Don't be. I'm bored out of my skull. I racked up some cool points though playing that tape you made me, since kids here hadn't heard of Run-D.M.C. yet. How's your summer going? Write me back at this address. Maybe I'll bring you back a French girlfriend, ha, ha, ha.
Eric said he would write me from Paris, but I never believed he would. Not after what I overheard him telling Sean Donovan when he lost that final debate to me. Maybe I should write him back, and perpetrate a fraud like everything is copacetic. Like Don Corleone in The Godfather said: Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.
I tuck the postcard into my back pocket and head out the building to Nike's to listen to Eddie Murphy's album again.
On my stoop rocking his white kufi and flowing like Kool Moe Dee, KevinI mean, Qusay is politicking with Booby, Pooh, and some other homeboys while they follow along with carbon copies in their hands. Save a few wrinkles about his eyes, you'd think Q was an older brother even though he came up with Pop. The man's the epitome of Black don't crack.
"What's up, y'all?" I say. I lower myself onto the step beside Pooh to put on my roller skates and sneak peeks at his sheet, glimpsing a word here and there. Knowledge. Wisdom. Freedom. Funny how it feels like home to sit here when it's been months since I hung out with these cats. I used to chill with them all the time, but then Nike moved to the neighborhood, I enrolled at Dawkins, and Mama died. Even if Booby and Pooh be frontin' to impress Junior, who's got beef with Nike, I miss hanging out with them on the stoop like this.
Q says, "Peace, G." Everyone else welcomes me to the cipher with a nod. He offers me a carbon copy.
Before I can tell him I can't stay long, my grandmother throws open the kitchen window of our fifth-floor apartment. "Raymond!" I swear Nana must've been a bat in a previous life and is gonna be a dolphin in the next.
Qusay looks up and waves to her. "Good afternoon, Queen Beatrice."
"That's Mrs. Hastings to you!" Then Nana looks back to me and busts out with the patois. "Raymond, tek weh yuh self."
The homeboys laugh, and I can't blame them. "Nana." I shrug, playing the role. "No ting nah gwan!" But she has already slammed the window shut.
"The Nana has spoken," says Boob. I laugh along with the homeboys. No static so long that's all he says about my grandmother.
I say to Q, "Sorry 'bout that."
"Ain't no thing but a chicken wing." Just like Nana with her patois, Qusay sometimes breaks out with slang to prove that despite his conversion to Islam, he's no stick-in-the-mud.
"Now wait a minute. You might want to hold on to that wing." I'm not going to be outdone on my own stoop. "Seeing as Allah forbids you to dine on the swine and all."
Qusay and the homeboys laugh. "That's a good one, G. You inherited your mother's good looks and your father's quick wit. Do me a favor and give Derrick my regards, will you?"
"Will do, Q."
Nana throws open the window again. "Raymond!" She flings her gold, black, and green coin purse through the window guard. "Go to see Father Davis now." The purse hits the pavement with a loud slap. With only one skate on, I hobble to pick it up. In the purse is a folded check made out to St. Aloysius. On the memo line it says "Ethiopian children." Nana done just concocted an errand to get me away from Q. The lecture she's going to give me when I come back from the church is already running through my head. That Qusay can tun duck off a nest, Nana'll say. When that man come roun', you see and blin', hear and deaf. Understand?
She'll get over it, though. What Nana says about Five Percenters she used to say about b-boys. She swore Nike was a thug and that Rock Steady, the Dynamic Rockers, and all the b-boy crews were just gangs in disguise. I thought that was hilarious and made the mistake of telling Nike, underestimating how sensitive he still is about his so-called image. Was he POed! Then I started imitating a b-boy uprocking his way through a bodega robbery and sticking up people while rhyming, What people do for moneeey? Once I had him rolling on the floor, Nike forgot all about my grandmother's cockamamie theories.
I had explained to Nana that Afrika Bambaataa was a former Black Spade who left the gang after making his own pilgrimage to Africa. "He's like a hip-hop Malcolm," I had said. "And now he throws jams to bring gangs together in peace. They battle now with their feet instead of their fists." Trying to build my case, I almost told her about the time that Nike and I went to a party at the Fever and some Five Percenters broke up a fight. Lucky I came to my senses.
Nana stopped fussing for a while, but now she's anti-Nike again. I never should've told her about the crack he made about Dawkins, but just like Mama, my grandmother has a way of getting things out of me. At least Mama liked Nike. She understood that even though he's "status conscious"one of her social-worker terms, I guesshe's no Savage Nomad.
Qusay asks, "What's the word on the strike, G?"
I shrug and plop onto the ground to put on my other skate. Nana and I follow the news on the negotiations between Pop's union and the MTA, but he won't talk about the possible transit strike. Last week the Con Ed workers went out on strike, and we're all waiting to see how that pans out. You'd think not talking about it is going to prevent it, but that tactic didn't save Mama.
Qusay motions for me to retake my seat beside Pooh on the step. "Stay and build with us a little."
"Thanks, Q. Some other time." I tie my sneakers together, hang them around my neck, and kick off. Before I hit the curb, however, I think, Why not ask? I turn and skate back toward the group. "Actually, I have a question. The men who killed Malcolm were down with the Nation of Islam, right?" With all eyes on me, I choose my next words carefully. "What would you say to those people who believe his killers were also Five Percenters?" I leave out that "those people" also believe Five Percenters are a street gang so no Qusay fanatics bum-rush my grandmother after bingo. If they try it, I'm going to have to fly their heads, and I'm too good-looking to die so young. "Were they?"
"That's a bold question, Mr. King." Qusay motions toward the steps, directing me to have a seat. "Bold but fair." After sneaking a quick glance toward my kitchen window, I skate to the stoop. Qusay says, "Not only was the man who founded the Nation of Gods and Earths himself a pupil of Brother Malcolm, he was excommunicated from the NOI almost two years prior to the assassination." He's back to speaking like a rapper. "Clarence 13X greatly upset the NOI for teaching the people exactly what I'm sharing with the brothers today."
"Word?" I've read everything I can find about Malcolm, but none of the libraries have anything on the Five Percenters. Teaching myself about Black activists from W.E.B. Du Bois to the Black Panther Party left me feeling like I was born too late until Q returned from Sing Sing and started having parliaments around the block. I have to learn more about the Five Percenters, and what little I've learned so far, I heard on the streets. You know that don't mean squat.
"Furthermore, G, the Nation of Gods and Earths does not preach a doctrine of violence. To have a hand in the assassination of El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz would be the height of hypocrisy. We can hardly call others to righteousness if we ourselves are not righteous."
"Well, now you sound like Martin Luther King." I didn't mean to crack a joke, but the other guys laugh. I lower myself onto the stoop as Pooh scoots over so I can sit beside him, and just like that, the homeboys accept me into the cipher. No need to fake the funk to fit in, like with the rich white boys at Dawkins, only to find out that they front, too. "C'mon, Q. Make up your mind. The ballot or the bullet."
Qusay laughs and gives me a handout for the lesson. Across the top it reads SUPREME MATHEMATICS. Down the sheet are the numbers one through nine, then a zero. Next to each number is a word followed by a definition. One is knowledge, two is wisdom, and so on. As I scan the page, Qusay says, "Along with the supreme alphabet, these numbers and the concepts they represent unlock the keys to the universe."
How many times can Nike and I listen to the same comedy album? It won't kill him if I show up a little late. I flip the page over, looking for English translations of the Arabic letters. "Where's the alphabet?"
"One lesson at a time, Brother Raymond," says Qusay, smiling. "Although these are urgent times, one must approach the one hundred and twenty lessons as one would a marathon, not a race. In order to gain knowledge of self, we must master each lesson, one at a time."
Saturday, June 25, 1983, 4:07 p.m.
215 Saint Ann's Avenue
That rooftop scene in Five Deadly Venoms got me inspired, and I've been stifled in this hot apartment waiting on Smiles too long again. Junior and the Barbarians are probably dealing at the park anyways, so better to stay clear of there. I grab my boom box and linoleum and pray there isn't anybody shooting up on the roof of my building.
As usual, Gloria's in the hallway running her mouth on the phone. "When will it end?" I say, imitating Ma Chow, the Scorpion. As I walk past her, I give her a soft kung fu kick to the back of her knee. "She goes on forever."
My sister dips, her bony knees bumping the table. "Stop, Willie!" she whines. "Can't you see I'm on the phone?"
"No crap, Dick Tracy. When aren't you?"
Gloria shoves the receiver in my face. "Nessa wants to talk to you."
Figures she'd be talking to my ex. I debate whether I should speak to her. I put down my radio and mat, then take the receiver. "Yo, when are you giving me back my buckle?"
"That's all you have to say to me, Nike? Where's my buckle? You're so rude."
"Why I'ma ask you where my buckle is when I know you got it? You best be taking care of it. Don't be cleaning it with no Brillo pad and scratching it all up or you gonna have to buy me a new one."
Before I can add Call off your brother already, she yells, "Just put Gloria back on!"
Instead I press the hook, hanging up on Vanessa, and dial Smiles's number. Wonder what excuse he's got this time for leaving me flat. While the phone rings, Gloria curses at me and punches me in the back. "Stop or I'll tell Ma you were acting up while I was on the phone with Smiley's nana. Geez, I'm only gonna be a minute." When Smiles's grandmother answers, I pretend to be some white boy from his bougie school. "Good afternoon. May I please speak to Raymond?"
"Raymond is not here. I expect him soon. Would you like to leave a message?"
She never be that nice to me, man. "No, thank you. Good day." I slam down the phone and grab my stuff. "It's all yours, acheface. Go to town."
"What Ma told you about calling me names?"
"I'm so scared."
When I get to the roof, no one's there, thank God, so I set down my radio and mat and look over the edge. Sure enough, Ma's on the stoop playing dominoes with the rest of the bochincheras. Today's victim is Dee Dee, my ex-ex's mother. Word is she's a crackhead now, thanks to Junior. Ma's going on about how sorry she feels for Blue Eyes and her sister, Sandy, and Sandy's new baby. I almost yell, Like you Mother of the Year.
I stretch while rewinding the mastermix I recorded from WBLS last Saturday night. Hip hop, be bop, don't stop. I flip the cassette over and over, practicing the new flare I learned on my last trip to the Roxy and building a routine around it. Time disappears, and night comes.
Just when I finally master transitioning from the flare into a headstand, Jerry Del Valle races past me, hitting me with his telescope. I crumple to the linoleum. "Get lost, Professor!" I like having the roof to myself, and I'm not sharing it with a ten-year-old know-it-all. I'll snatch him and Donkey Kong his ass down the fire escape if I have to.
But Jerry's soon followed by half the block, including Gloria and Vanessa. I get stupid nervous waiting for Junior and the Barbarians to bust through the door. Then I see that people in other buildings are rushing to their rooftops and fire escapes, pointing at the sky. Finally, I notice the moon. Tonight it looks like someone sliced the head off a quarter and it's bleeding. It reminds me of what Smiles told me about his mother's illness, and I kiss my crucifix in memory of Mrs. King.
"Let me see, Jerry," says Vanessa. The Professor be crushin' on her, so he forks over his precious telescope. You'd think it was official NASA property instead of a plastic toy. Nobody around here who can afford the real thing would spend money on something like that anyways. Even the neighborhood nerd spends his money on fake Pumas with the panther on the logo looking more like a hedgehog and whatnot Vanessa peers through the lens. "Wow, imagine," she says. "Everybody all over the world is watching this right now." She's pretty when she contemplates like that. I move behind her as close as I can without touching her. She rolls her eyes but doesn't move away, because I still got it like that.
But leave it to the Professor to rain on the parade by dropping science. Literally. "No, it's just going to be a partial eclipse," he huffs, all condescending. "And it can only be seen wherever it's night. If it's night over here, it can't be night in, like, Lebanon."