March 19, 2021
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Mateo Askaripour's debut novel Black Buck is a shimmering work of satire, a brilliant and hilarious critique of capitalism from the first page to the last.
The New York Times wrote of the book:
"This winning novel — or is it a self-help book? — opens with a striking proposition: ‘MLK, Malcolm X, James Baldwin, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Frederick Douglass were all salesmen’ . . . Teetering between biting satire and complete earnestness (interspersed throughout are callouts with real sales advice), Askaripour’s novel charts the unlikely metamorphosis of Darren Vender . . . [whose] quick wit provides cathartic delight."
Every book has a rhythm, and I’m not just talking about how words shimmy, strut, and slide across the page. If you read closely enough, you’ll pick up on the beat, switches, and variations of volume, but even if you can’t hear it, it’s there. This is all to say that music is at the core of my novel, my writing process, and my very being.
While writing Black Buck, I’d consume two to three hours of music videos and movie trailers before beginning a day’s session. I did this for multiple reasons: to find new songs and videos that would spur thought, energy, and creativity within me; to revisit my tried and true sources of inspiration that, every time, give me that same thump-thump in my heart; and to prime my mind, heart, and spirit for play, despite the serious intentions I brought to the page.
Then, before bringing my fingers to my keyboard, I would queue up 15 to 20 minutes worth of songs on Spotify, and dance. Yes, dance. I’d get up, do whatever interpretive dance came to mind, and just feel free, which I would then use to “write like nobody’s watching.”
Some of the songs below are ones that I listened to before writing. Others come from music videos that I’ve watched over a hundred times. And some I only discovered after writing Black Buck, but they capture the ebbs and flows of the book so perfectly I feel as though they were with me the whole time.
What you’ll find are songs that focus on the come up, an insatiable desire to make it, as well as the trials and tribulations someone will have to endure, sometimes at their own hands, to achieve success. There are songs of betrayal, love, heartbreak, and triumph, all set to the backdrop of one young Black man’s rise and fall within the world of startups, sales, and self.
To discover more of the music and artists that contributed to my debut novel, you only need to read it, and see the many references throughout––sans actual lyrics, since I was told it would be a nightmare to get them approved––or peruse my acknowledgements section, where I list 40+ musicians who have contributed both to the rhythm of my book and life.
“Oh My” – Westside Boogie
Now, I am not, nor have I ever been, a Blood. But, damn, this song slaps! I’ve watched this music video well over 100 times. The beat itself gets your heart thumping, which is key to my creative process. And not only that, in the video, you can both taste Westside Boogie’s (formerly just “Boogie”) visceral hunger and feel empowered by the fact that he has so many people behind him in almost every scene. As someone who writes alone, watching that every day made me realize that I, too, had people rooting for me, whether they be family members, ancestors, or future readers.
“Yellow” – Russ
There’s a line in the song where Russ says that he’s working for the nine-year-old inside of him, and that if he doesn’t make him proud, then he’ll fire himself. That deeply resonated with me. I can’t say that I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was a kid, or that my protagonist, Buck, wanted to be a salesman when he was younger, but what I can say is that drive isn’t something easily acquired later in life, it’s embedded in your DNA from a very young age. This song reminds me to not take the drive that a younger me had for granted, but to cultivate it.
“Rose in Harlem” – Teyana Taylor
This is a song of betrayal, especially from the ones closest to you, which, without giving away any concrete spoilers, is what happens in my novel more than once. Betrayal, I believe, is one of the worst feelings to ever experience, because it is a combination of anger, sadness, disappointment, and distrust that spreads within you and throughout your relationships with others. In Black Buck, we see Buck betray people, including himself, as well as others betraying him, and we see the heavy toll it takes on him and those whom he cares about most.
“Shimmy” – Aminé
I won’t lie, this is some shit to play when you want to stunt. When I first watched the music video for “Shimmy,” I had to run it back three or four times. Not only was it visually appealing, beginning with the artist, Aminé, scaling a rock wall, but him kicking it off by saying, “It’s my year, my nigga,” invigorated the part of me that hoped 2021, in some way, would be my year, and the year of my book. And what that meant, and means to me now, is that people would read my book, discuss it, grapple with its themes, and, beyond anything else, feel, which is happening. But what I’ve found is that more important than looking at 2021 as “my year,” is the joy that comes from uplifting other Black and brown writers––making it “our year.”
“Emotionless” – Drake
Humans are fickle creatures, we know this. On “Emotionless” Drake describes the people building him up only to later tear him down, including those he looked up to. I suppose it’s in line with “Rose in Harlem” in that way, illustrating minor and major betrayals, but it also serves as a cautionary tale to me––if you try to pander to other people, you will be at their mercy. This message helps me stay grounded and balanced no matter the high praise or serious criticism of my work. In the context of the book, this unchecked belief in others, who may not always have your wellbeing at the forefront of their minds, is shown to be dangerous.
“Pursuit of Happiness” – Kid Cudi
So many of us believe that once we get “it,” as Kid Cudi raps, “I’ll be good.” However, the “it” that we all seek is relative. Still, for anyone who has actually achieved “it,” there is likely some sense of disappointment that it wasn’t as fulfilling as they had imagined it would be, and that the sacrifices they made in order to attain it––personally and professionally––might not have been worth it. This is a big theme in my novel, and life.
“Black” – Buddy
If there were an anthem for my novel, this would likely be it. There are so many characters––Jason, Rose, Jacob, and more––who are unapologetically Black. They do not switch up for anyone, nor do they quiet the loud parts of themselves to get ahead. Instead, they double down on that which makes them special. It’s hard not to get the same vibe from “Black” by Buddy. I listen to it and hear the unmistakable echo of “Say it Loud - I’m Black and I’m Proud” by James Brown, which was featured in the book, as well as other songs, like “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” by the esteemed Nina Simone.
“Lessons” – Sinéad Harnett
While Sinéad Harnett sings about the hurt of not being more than friends with a lover, what strikes me most about the song is the hook: “lessons in love hurt.” Love is an investment and, in Black Buck, we see a handful of people make this investment in Buck, with varying returns. In fact, as I write this, it seems as though every person who truly loved Buck receives a lesson in how painful it can be to love someone so freely and fully, and the true surrendering it requires.
“Get Free” – Mereba
This may be obvious for any writer to say, but I became better acquainted with my characters the longer I worked on the novel. For most of my first draft of Black Buck, I thought that Buck’s motivations were to prove to others that he had what it took to be more than what he was, and, later, to help others become more than what the world expects of them. But then, toward the end, I realized that what he wanted most was freedom, and then to free others. Years later, I read a quote by Toni Morrison that echoed the same sentiment, and it felt good to know we were aligned in this regard. This song is about just that, not choosing to get by but to get free.
“Lotta Praise” – Radamiz
The last song of Radamiz’s 2019 album, Nothing Changes if Nothing Changes, “Lotta Praise” is an ode to trying to make it by any means necessary, and the incredible amount of self-belief that someone has to have in order to get through all of the internal and external doubt that we experience almost daily. This song feels like an album unto itself––tales of broken promises, changing relationships, mounting pressures, and, reaching that place above the clouds, a sense of calm in knowing that you are making a difference through your art, one person at a time. I play this regularly to remember that nothing is ever promised, and that I have to come back to my purpose to press forward rather than allowing doubt to pull me under.
“Black Panther” – Kendrick Lamar
Pressure. That’s what comes to mind when I think of this song, on which Kendrick raps about the expectations that people have of their leaders, whether that means to make their community proud, assume responsibility for creating opportunities for others, or shoulder the burden of being the only one, or one of a few, in their field so that it’s easier for others who look like them. As an author, I do feel it my responsibility to put on for the communities that made me, and help empower others. Buck eventually comes to this same realization, which puts the necessary pressure on him to go beyond himself and help free others.
“100 Grandkids” – Mac Miller
Listen, I’ve never read a book by Tim Ferriss, but when I Googled a quote I heard a while ago, I saw that it was attributed to him. Whether it’s true or not, I don’t know, but I do like the quote: “Money doesn't change you; it reveals who you are when you no longer have to be nice." On “100 Grandkids,” the late Mac Miller discusses how he believed his life was going to change drastically once he made one-hundred thousand dollars. In Black Buck, at no point is Buck chasing money. But, eventually, though making more money doesn’t change him, the circumstances that allow him to make that money certainly do. This forces us to go deeper than “money is the root of all evil.” There are far more powerful, and addicting, substances out there, such as power and love.
“Down for Some Ignorance (Ghetto Lullaby)” – Vic Mensa
Young people do stupid shit. Older people do, too (cue video of Capitol Insurrection), but, in the context of the book, it seems that readers sometimes forget how young these characters are. For the majority of the novel, most of them are in their early twenties, resulting in them going buck wild at times, whether in the name of winning, revenge, or pure ignorance. By the end of the novel, there are two warring factions of young people pulling innovative and equally devastating stunts, which some people view as absurd, partially because they are, but are certainly not out of the scope of what young folks are capable of, which Vic Mensa captures in this song.
“We Dem Boyz” – Wiz Khalifa
When Darren, who is later given the name “Buck,” arrives at Sumwun, the all-white tech startup he ends up working for, he hears Wiz Khalifa’s “We Dem Boyz” blasting. For those who don’t know, Wiz Khalifa is Black. And to reiterate: every employee at Sumwun, other than Darren, is white. This isn’t to say that white people can’t listen to non-white music, but the fact that Darren enters an environment so hostile to his Blackness, despite the people in it consuming Black art, is used to convey what we say play out daily, especially in sports, where non-Black people love to listen to music created by Black people, or watch them play on a field or court, without acknowledging Black people’s humanity beyond the functions they perform that serve them.
“Victory Lap” – Nipsey Hussle
Man, I miss Nipsey Hussle. He was and is a large inspiration to me––from the way he moved in interviews, to his dedication to Black entrepreneurship, to his commitment to uplifting his community––and is the embodiment of many themes in Black Buck. On “Victory Lap,” the first song from his 2018 album that shares the same name, he espouses his values of being a strong businessman, honing his voice, celebrating his gifts, and sharing it with a circle that only became smaller as he became more successful. He gave his entire self to his craft and community, and was ultimately murdered by a coward. But if he were to have known what would happen, and maybe he did, I don’t think he would have done it any other way. By the end of Black Buck, we see Buck in unsavory circumstances, but he is also free, and while there are decisions he maybe wished he could change, it wasn’t all for nothing, and that’s something.
Mateo Askaripour was a 2018 Rhode Island Writers Colony writer-in-residence, and his writing has appeared in Entrepreneur, Lit Hub, Catapult, The Rumpus, Medium, and elsewhere. He lives in Brooklyn, and his favorite pastimes include bingeing music videos and movie trailers, drinking yerba mate, and dancing in his apartment. Black Buck is his debut novel. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @AskMateo.