Interview with Bay Area Hip-Hop Artist Turned Novelist Bret Alexander Sweet on "Among The Veils"

Posted by Billyjam, October 12, 2015 01:30pm | Post a Comment
Bret Alexander Sweet is the Bay Area hip-hop artist turned author who expertly channeled his writing skills as an emcee (Karma with Kemetic Suns, and Fundamentals) into being an accomplished author. This year Alexander Sweet, who works in mentoring inner city youth in entrepreneurship and is the son of prominent Bay Area civil rights attorney and social entrepreneur Clifford Charles Sweet, published his impressive first novel Among The Veils.  With a distinct musical backdrop to its storyline (references songs and musicians throughout) the work of fiction is clearly fueled by Alexander's love and broad knowledge of music. The book is the Oakland, CA resident's first in an ambitious five-part series of publications. Already half completed the author, who graduated from Berkeley High School in 1995, has scheduled the sequel to Among The Veils - to be entitled Sanctuary In The Veils - for a late 2016 planned publication date. 

As a hip-hop artist in the nineties Sweet was a founding member of Kemetic Suns, a member of Fundamentals, as well as founder of the underrated indie label House Kemetic Suns whose releases included the cassette The PatterFall Wars (scroll down to hear). As mentor/teacher Alexander was awarded Certified Teacher of the Year by the National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship in 2004 which led to him a few years later founding the Dualism Group whose mission statement he outlined as an, "early stage venture capitalism firm and consulting arm geared toward helping underserved entrepreneurs launch and expand their companies in order to bring jobs to lower income communities."   Recently I caught up with Bret Alexander Sweet to find out more about his book and its inspiration.

Amoeblog: What inspired you to write your book and had you done anything like this before?

Bret Alexander Sweet: : I wanted to create some body of work that my generation - the hip hop generation, the Marvel and DC first editions generation, the Rodney King beating generation, the Ninja Scroll/Akira generation, could read and see themselves represented. A lot of the book was conceived while I was in the hospital at my father's bedside and it occurred to me that there was something potent about symbols taking on a life of their own. In the Kemetic Suns albums, we were known for doing thematic/concept albums that were almost sci-fi in their tone; it was sci-fi to folks then to talk about desertification but now California is in a drought and the world is running out of water. After a while I realized because it was hip hop, hip hop music, there are places we just couldn't go. With Among The Veils, I started without a single limitation because it was just myself and my ideas.

Amoeblog: How was the experience of growing up as a hip-hop artist in the time you were in and how, as a writer, did it impact you?

Bret Alexander Sweet:   The era I grew up in required that you had to earn your spot to even casually rap. Being an MC was almost like being a licensed contractor or lawyer, you couldn't just jump into a cipher the first day. The people I studied under and rhymed with were juggernauts. They required you to be original, innovative and incredible. No mediocrity. Therefore we all had to know how to rhyme off the head at the drop of a dime. To make my name, I had to battle. One of the best of all time was MURS. He could write entire counter rhymes in his head as his opponent was rapping at him. Since we were friends, he would train me on how to do it. Later in life this turned into sales pitches, speeches, you name it. For the Paper Thrones series, it was all written in my head, all five books. The energy, the rhythm and the emotions that come through my writing are due to the MC in me who still is competitive. When I pick up my pen, I want other writers to take note - Sweet is raising the bar.

Amoeblog: Writing for book and writing rhymes - similarities and differences?

Bret Alexander Sweet: Rhymes are trapped in format; 4, 8, 16, 24, etc. People don't even focus on the rhymes anymore that is why they call them "bars". After a while, you understand how limited putting words to something can be. Bars keep you locked in. Bars are also where you go to not deal with your life. Even then, we could make a list of incredible rhymers who just don't make good songs and vice versa. There is so much freedom in the book. With song writing or rhymes, your rhythm is predicated by your style and your style comes from the music. In writing a book, you the flexibility of the style and rhythm is based on the environments, the characters and story arc.

Amoeblog: Was there a mix-tape for the book and if so what were some of the songs on it? If not what would the top 5 songs that fit the book be?

Bret Alexander Sweet:  There are five books in the series and each has a soundtrack. I suppose the format I put them in is very reminiscent of a mix tape isn't it? I didn't think about that until now. To me it was just the songs in order that I used to write each book that also are connected to the characters. I would say the top five songs for Among The Veils are:

1) "Queens Get The Money" - Nas

2) "A Change Is Gonna Come" - Sam Cooke

3) "Why I Came To California" - Leon Ware

4) "Stand On The Word" - The Joubert Sisters

5) "It was Written" - Damien Marley

Amoeblog: You open the book writing about smoking cigs, drinking coffee, and not been able to sleep - How true to life is that or all fiction you drew from observing?

Bret Alexander Sweet:  Good question.That comes from my lifestyle at that time circa 2006-2009. The people I was around who were Alzheimers caregivers for a family member were all insomniacs who drank a lot or smoked or drank a lot of coffee. Most of the main characters of the book are inspired by the people in the Alzheimer's support group I went to. We would go out for drinks after the meetings. After a while, I stopped talking about my problems or asking for advice; I realized I was taking more than I was giving. I started asking about what these people deal with on a daily basis. Stranger than fiction. Really humbled me and made me realize as difficult as things were for me trying to care for my father, I was getting a pretty easy deal compared to the people who were helping me. Therefore I wanted to make sure I told their story to honor them.

Amoeblog: Your father was a well known figure - how influential was/is he on your life?

Bret Alexander Sweet: My father was everything to me. Youngest of nine born in a born a poor town in Florida. Blinded in his eye at the age of three. Lived through WWII, the Depression and Jim Crow. Came to California and helped my uncle Wester Sweet build the infrastructure for people of color in from the Central Valley up to the Delta. You couldn't tell him no. His mind was free of limits; you couldn't tell him to back down because he was partially blind, black, came from poor people, etc. The beauty, nightlife and small business vibrancy of downtown Oakland? He had that plan for the area as early as 1978 when the factory jobs in Oakland started disappearing. He and my uncle deliberately built coalitions with the Latino and Asian communities. He built Legal Aid into a national model and was social entrepreneur before it was cool. I never wanted to be 2pac or Michael Jordan or Scarface the way other kids growing up did. I wanted to be him. I am going to put out an album about him next year.

Amoeblog: You reference very nicely James Brown's "The Payback" including a detailed deconstruction of the song's recording and how it led to new approach to song structuring.  What made you want to include this?

Bret Alexander Sweet:   Thematically it clicked on multiple levels. One of themes of the book is that when the main character uses their powers, they hear music, ancestral music. James Brown realized the funk; brought it from the collective subconscious to a collective consciousness. There is so many pieces of what has gone before in his music. The Payback however is a great example of the principle James Brown fought for: the 1. Hit it on the 1. Imagine watching a lake fed from over ten different streams and you could see the exact second the waters became one. The premise underlying the creation of the Payback demonstrates the ability to create value that has followed us from Africa, through slavery, through reconstruction, through Jim Crow, through Civil Rights and up to now. I wanted my younger readers to understand that they don't have to create the next Apple to be innovative.

Amoeblog: Can you tell me some of the teaching mentoring jobs you have had over the years and tell me why mentoring younger generations is important?

Bret Alexander Sweet: Part of being a Kemetic Sun, to me, was an attempt to do good works in my community. When I realized in 1998, that hip hop was no longer effective in assisting folks, I decided to get more directly involved. I have student taught, I have volunteered, and I have case managed. Even early on at the label, I gave a lot of opportunities to young people to learn skills and trade. They will tell you as such. Eventually I got sharper and decided to teach small business creation independent of music or arts. I taught entrepreneurship in the prisons for years. I taught it at fosters homes. I helped get lower income students into four years colleges. I have taught college and been a dean of a business program. It is a three part issue for me. One, I am here because of mentors. One thing that makes me upset is to see the culture of hypocrisy that has taken over our country. People want to benefit from a system that they don't want other people to benefit from. I don't understand how I could be mentored and not mentor another. Two, altruism is selfish. Helping others helps me. What kind of place do I want my unborn children to live in? I have to actively shape the community I draw from. Three, I recognize frame of reference gaps. As much as I loved my father, he spoke a foreign language to me. He grew up in Jim Crow and I grew up in the crack epidemic. Mentors are the bridge. I needed the mentors in between our ages groups to translate. That's my job now I suppose. There is a bunch of teenagers who think everything that came from the 90's was amazing. Yes there were some great things but then there was also some horrible things. It is my job to put a context for them. Look out for Sanctuary In The Veils. Coming to a book store near you. 

Relevant Tags

East Bay Hip-hop 1990's (1), James Brown (30), Bret Alexander Sweet (1), Bret Alexander (1), Among The Veils (1), Kemetic Sons (1), Jonathan Sklute (3)