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Music man: writer Christopher John Farley's biography of the late pop singer Aaliyah is one of the latest books to capitalize on the success of black music.

Christopher John Farley knows he has a plum gig. As the pop music critic for Time magazine, he has interviewed personalities including the "Queen of Soul" Aretha Franklin, rock legends Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, and some of hip hop's most accomplished artists, such as Outkast and Dr. Dre. Hobnobbing with music icons and, inevitably, some one-hit wonders, 36-year-old Farley has emerged as one of the premiere black music writers in the country. In fact, Farley was one of the last journalists to talk to the late R&B songbird Aaliyah before a fatal plane crash off the coast of the Bahamas claimed the life of the 22-year-old singer and eight others last August.

An author of a moderately received novel, My Favorite War, about a Washington reporter's experiences covering the Gulf War, last year Farley wrote his second book, a full-length biography titled Aaliyah: More Than a Woman, based on his conversations with the young singer. The book capped Aaliyah's life and achievements in the wake of her tragic death, and the subsequent backlash surrounding the horse-and-carriage procession that accompanied the singer's funeral through the streets of New York City.

Nevertheless, Farley sees Aaliyah as more than just another pop star with a pretty smile and some catchy tunes. After conducting more than 50 interviews with her friends and relatives, he was able to portray a maturing young artist who was both protective of her personal life, yet highly motivated and determined in her professional aspirations.

A Harvard grad of Jamaican descent, in his latest project, Farley is returning to fiction; it's something he says allows him to flex his own imagination instead of mining the musings of others. He is busy putting the final touches on The Chocolate Gale, his next novel, which is set in the Caribbean during the 18th century.

Recently, Black Issue Book Review sat down with Farley to get his take on writing about music and fiction.

BIBR: Why was it important for you to write a biography about Aaliyah?

CJF: I interviewed Aaliyah not long before she died. I did a profile of her for Time magazine, and her album was my favorite R&B album of the year 2001. I'd been to a party that she'd thrown. I met her mom.... And then suddenly she was dead. So I thought, this is something I really have to write about.

I'd seen other artists come and go. I remember going to Curt Cobain's [MTV] "Unplugged" concert with Nirvana, and not long after that, he was dead. I hooked up an interview with Biggie Smalls [rapper Notorious B.I.G] to have lunch with him, and the day we were supposed to have lunch wound up being the day of his funeral. So this time around I really thought I had to write something.

Also, I'd been concerned about a trend I'd seen in publishing where black people were not getting a chance to write about black people, and black people were not written about at all. So I didn't want that trend to continue. I didn't want another talent to slip away without getting to weigh in on her--why she's significant, and why she needs to be remembered.

Although I feel that anyone should be able to write about anyone--black, white, Asian, whoever. You should also get to write about whomever you have insight into. I felt there was a lockout for black journalists to write about important figures going on in publishing. Oftentimes, you see major biographies come out about major black figures, and they are written by white writers --black writers get shut out. In this case, I said, `Ok, this is an important black figure in pop culture. Let me not shy away from the task.'

BIBR: Obviously there was a rush to get the book out, right?

CJF: Yes. I wanted to get the book out quickly. I turned the book around in a matter of weeks, not a matter of months. I'm used to writing both quickly and long-term.

My first book, My Favorite War, took me almost half a decade to complete. The book I'm working on now, The Chocolate Gale, which is set in the 18th century in the Caribbean, has taken me over six years to complete. Some books take time. They take research. They take a lot of legwork, even with the fiction you have to put in the work.

Well, with this particular book [Aaliyah], I did put in the work. I had just talked to her, so my notebook was full--plus I got comments from friends of hers, from relatives. I got a lot of information from a lot of sources that were able to tell me a lot of things, and I was able to write it quickly.

Also, I found that a lot of people in Aaliyah's life wanted to talk, and they got back to me quickly. Beyonce Knowles of Destiny's Child was on vacation, and she got back to me that day to talk about knowing Aaliyah, hanging out with Aaliyah, and loving Aaliyah. Alicia Keys never met Aaliyah, but because she respected her so much as a musician, she got back to me in a day's time to give her thoughts and ideas on Aaliyah and how Aaliyah influenced her. Missy Elliott, Timbaland, folks like that who played an intimate role in Aaliyah's career, all talked to me because they knew that this book would be important.

BIBR: Books like this come out so quickly that some might question if the commercial interest is more important than doing justice to the subject.

CJF: No doubt there's a commercial aspect to doing a book like this. I want it to sell really well. It's my take on music that a lot of people buy. But also I wasn't going to put my name on a piece of junk. I wanted to write a book that was as good as it could possibly be, especially regarding Aaliyah. I think it's a well-written book. I think it's a book that has some insight into the meaning of tragedy. And it puts the tragedy in context with others where stars have died young in plane crashes--from Glenn Miller to Patsy Cline to Otis Redding to Richie Valens. People need that kind of information, and people were not getting it in the newspapers, and in the magazine articles that came out.

BIBR: Still, some might direct the same criticism regarding the spate of posthumous music being released toward your book, which came out so soon after her death.

CJF: To some extent I agree with that. To some extent I disagree. It depends on how good the work is, and you have to hope that the surviving family members and the folks who worked with the artists have some quality control. If you just canceled out the work we experienced when people died, we wouldn't have seen a lot of good things.

For example, some of Bruce Lee's best work was released after he died. James Dean's Giant and Rebel Without a Cause were released after his death. You would want his stuff out there. Then again, you have Marvin Gaye sampled on an Erick Sermon song. Would he have wanted to be there? I don't know. Marvin was such a stickler for his own material, making Motown release What's Going On the way he wanted to. Did he want to be sampled by people? I would doubt that.

BIBR: Other music books have come out recently, do you see a trend, a market emerging for biographies about urban artists, music personalities?

CJF: We'll see. There's an opportunity, and there are just as many hip-hop stars branching out into cinema, such as Will Smith. I think that there is an opportunity for hip hop to branch out into literature as well. Fiction and nonfiction have a major impact there. It hasn't happened to a major extent, yet. There have been other biographies about black people in the past, of course. Billie Holiday wrote her autobiography. Aretha Franklin came out with her autobiography. So I think you'll see a lot of the younger figures, as they establish enough of a track record, do that. Puff Daddy had a biography in the works, but he called it off. It's on hiatus, it's not rolling like it was before. And DMX has something in the works.

BIBR: What is more satisfying to do, fiction or nonfiction?

CJF: I would have to say fiction is more satisfying and the reason is: fiction feels like it's more completely yours. It's a world you've created that you invite other people into. When you write about another person, to a certain extent, you're making yourself a little bit subservient to them because you're sort of saying, they're more important so that's why you're writing about them. I always wonder about biographers who spend 10 years researching a subject. I didn't want to give 10 years of my life to anybody. That is why there's an attraction to doing a shorter, instant book. I give up a month or two of my life rather than 10 years. I can't think of a person I'd like to give up 10 years of my life for who's not in the Bible.

Brett Johnson is a freelance writer who primarily covers music and entertainment. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times and The Hartford Courant, and magazines, such as Savoy, The Source and Vibe. He is a writer for MTV News and lives in Brooklyn. Johnson's feature on Time magazine's music critic Christopher John Farley begins on page 28.
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Author:Johnson, Brett
Publication:Black Issues Book Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2002
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