Summer’s pretty much here folks – and so the time is right for an outside party. We all know it and the weather gods smiled last night upon the fair borough of Brooklyn for the return of the FSG Originals Series. In a new venue (well, new to me anyway) and with a new host, it ended up being maybe the best one yet.
First, a note on the space. Interstate is, it would seem, an art gallery – some lovely pieces hung on the walls inside the big open doors (where the bar was located) – but it’s also got this great patio space, where we all ended up. Some benches and corrugated metal on the far side made for an obvious presentation space and I can’t wait to see the video, especially of Deniro’s performance, because it looked cool as all get out as a backdrop.
Our host, Isaac Fitzgerald of BuzzFeed Books, was refreshingly amped up and prepared for the evening – he was primed with questions but also worked to get Deniro and Katherine talking to each other, making it a much more informal feeling conversation. Watching my boss work similar magic in my day job, I know just how much effort goes into making that sort of hosting thing seem effortless – and Mr. Fitzgerald was affable, amiable, and awesome. He started off asking both about the sense of place in their stories, as it turns out both are from North Carolina, and the conversation quickly flowed into an examination of the way Morris evokes that place, very particularly, in the novel. Deniro was in the middle of the book and he called it “a movie in words”, the way that it so viscerally leapt off the page. Morris gave some credit to the fact that it’s very much where she grew up but also to the leanness of the prose – she cut the novel from about 100k down to under 30k. Which is some kind of incredible. (This is where I admit that I haven’t read it yet but I picked up a copy yesterday and I’m stoked to read it post-haste, even moreso after last night.) Fitzgerald nudged the two of them towards a collaboration, too – after Deniro said he could use a word-count cutter-downer, Morris volunteered her services.
They spoke more about the writing process and the idea of both danger and escape in their work. Escape was a particularly interesting subject – danger, inherently interesting of course, but escape resonated a bit more because here are these two artists who came out of that world and came to another. Deniro splits his time between here and NC but Morris said that she goes back at Christmas and even that can be hard – but here they are, sitting in Brooklyn with a book and a record out (respectively) and being celebrated. And the yearning to escape seems to be a theme in both of their work – or, if not the yearning to do so, the acknowledgement that there’s a struggle for more than the present circumstances. And while Morris said that the book isn’t based on her life at all (although all writers include their lives in their work, which she did acknowledge), Deniro admitted that his music very much is.
Which brings us to the music. Deniro, charming and giddy, called everybody close to the stage for the performance and right away he set himself apart from previous musical entertainers at FSG events by inviting the audience in. It’s something that lots of musical acts don’t do, in general – and so it was refreshing to see somebody say “yeah, get close, come see me, let’s be in this together.” And as a result, we got to see one of the more incredible live performances I’ve actually ever seen, ever. Deniro spoke to the way that he wants to bring hip-hop back to its socially conscious roots and his lyrics put his money where his mouth is: he’s talking about his life, about the difficulties everyone faces, and I think Questlove would look at this and think that maybe hip-hop hasn’t totally failed America just yet.
As he cut the backing track on the last song he performed, going solo and acappella, the crowd was riveted. And when he rapped “This is my life” and repeated the line, looking out over the crowd, I saw a tear jump into his eye – and one jumped into mine too. It was an exceptional moment to close out an exceptional evening.