Nature versus nurture: the eternal argument about society and the development of human potential. Nature says that growing up in the projects or suburbs hold no strong effect on the effectiveness of a person. Nurture says that growing up in the projects or suburbs has a massive hold on the effectiveness of a person.
George Nelson’s résumé provides the necessary fodder for such theories. Coming up in Samuel J. Tilden housing projects of Brooklyn, he has been a distinctive voice in African-American culture, working with Spike Lee, Samuel Jackson, Chris Rock, Halle Berry and Queen Latifah in authoring 15 books and creating multiple film and television projects – including BET’s American Gangster, Good Hair and Life Support. His latest work, City Kid, is his memoir in explaining how literature became his haven against perilous surroundings. Clutch had a chance to catch up with Mr. George on his latest offering and more.
Clutch: When you were growing up in the Tilden Projects of Brooklyn in the 60s, you felt more “nerdy” than the other kids. You loved Hemingway, Captain America comics and album liner notes. How did these interests make you different from your friends? And how did this juxtaposition have an effect on your adolescence and growth as an artist?
Nelson George: My interest in reading did, over time, separate me from a lot of my peers. By adolescence I was spending more time with my books and my imaginary life than in the streets. I did withdraw a bit from a lot of the stuff going on around me. Through my junior high and high school years I really began to see myself as a writer, really began to define myself as that. I was writing short stories and working at the school newspaper and even doing some interning a local Brooklyn weekly. It wasn’t until I got to college that I became more outgoing and began to use my interest in writing to open myself up to the city.
Clutch: You and your sister were raised by a single mother in a crime and poverty stricken part of Brooklyn. At one time, things seemed incredibly bleak, yet you’ve all beat the odds and achieved success in life. How were you each able to do this?
NG: My mother was an incredible role model. She was all about hard work, planning and focus. I’m still not sure how she raised us, moved us out of the projects and got her teaching degrees. Somehow she managed to juggle multiple balls. In my life that lesson has been paramount: you must be prepared to do a number of things at the same time. You are working full time on one project, researching another and putting the finishing touches on a third. That’s what I learned from my mother and those lessons still apply.
Clutch: In many ways, CITY KID is a love letter to New York in its least lovable days—when heroin returned, then crack outsold heroin; when spiraling crime and collapsing employment set the tone; when bussing, riots and strikes dimmed hope for racial integration. What was your experience growing up during this time? Why did you still love the city despite its flaws?
NG: When you live somewhere that’s all you know. Maybe if I’d been commuting from the suburbs into the city, I would have seen the city’s flaws and been turned off by them. But this was my city and, for all the danger and hardships, I felt like I was learning from it every day. Once I got into my college years, and could really get around, I saw how much it had to offer and felt nourished by it. I definitely had moments of fear and insecurity, but I always had hope. Even today, with all the mounting fear, I am still hopeful about life here.
Clutch: You worked for the Village Voice and Billboard at one of the most exciting times in music—in the 70s and 80s—when soul, rock and hip-hop were either emerging or at their peak. How have you seen music culture change over the last few decades?
NG: The urge to celebrate is primal. And man (and woman) does not celebrate without music. There is no culture in the world that doesn’t utilize music as an expression of its values. So while the business models are being radically altered, the evolution of music continues on. A genre dies and/or mutates. That went on back then and it continues on now.
Clutch: You were there at the beginning of modern black popular culture—writing about, investing in and clubbing with its most influential characters: Russell Simmons, Spike Lee, Chris Rock. What effect did these friends have on you and your career? What was your experience like, being at the epicenter of exciting new eras in music, comedy and film?
NG: Everything starts small. With a line in a notebook or a joke told over dinner or by watching a crowd of people move to a record. I’ve seen the three men you mentioned, and many others, move from being unknown or unvalued to being household names. The possible is possible. Little groups of like-minded people come together, they share some values, some ideas, and what they share turns out to appeal to a lot of people. That journey of understanding and discovery is the magic of any artistic movement – be it grunge in Seattle, hip hop in the Bronx or punk rock in London. I’ve seen things start and I’ve seen them grow and I’ve been lucky enough to have a chance to write about a lot of it.
Clutch: You’ve written over 15 books, but you wear many other artistic hats as well. You’re currently the host of a music and travel show on VH1 Soul called Soul Cities, executive producer of Chris Rock’s new Sundance award winning documentary Good Hair and writer and director of the Golden Globe-award winning HBO movie Life Support. How do you juggle all of these different projects? What was the transition from critic/writer to director/producer like?
NG: It’s all a part of evolving as a human being. I’ve gone from wannabe novelist, wannabe critic, to wannabe screenwriter to wannabe director. At some point I ended up doing all those jobs I was interested in. As you go along in life you win little victories. Each victory leads you a little farther a long the road. Each victory gets you closer to your original goal and, suddenly, you see something else you want to try, something that’s not too far out of reach. That day you have a new goal, so you gotta start piling up your little victories again. I don’t think it stops ‘til you die. In fact I fully believe the day you stop having new goals, the day you stop striving for your little victories, that’s the day you die – your body just may not know it yet.
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