Stories Still Matter: A Writer Writing About Why He Writes [EDITORIAL]

Manny Faces - Birthplace Magazine

It’s true.

Stories still matter.

Even reputable media organizations, once bastions of journalistic integrity, have found themselves distancing themselves from this philosophy as they spend more time and effort chasing and posting about trending topics, breaking stories into multi-part “galleries” to induce extra clicks and luring readers with salacious and occasionally misleading headlines.

Most of these adopted “tricks of the trade” were actually created by claw-scratching bloggers in an attempt to master the new media art of giving the people what they think they want. While many of these amateur journalist voices are less than noteworthy, the phenomenon has helped change the methodology of news delivery, nearly toppling an entire industry at the same time.

Bloggers. The accidental locusts of Newsmageddon.

Despite the doom and gloom, some outlets continue to offer long-form, narrative journalism of old, but in an effort to attract every stray eyeball, many newspaper, magazine and online-only publication sites have become virtual carnival barkers, relying on slight-of-hand tactics to increase page rank.

The 5 Ws are being trumped by an S, an E and an O.

While old media continue to struggle in a new media landscape, battling the economic confusion that permeates the industry, they are often found joining in the tactics employed by the rise of layman journalism, further distorting and destabilizing the storytelling universe.

Hip hop storytelling has fared even worse. Hip hop has always been a tough subject for mainstream press to embrace, and even when they have, it is rarely without bias. Hip hop news with any sort of journalistic quality now is even harder to find among the throngs of sites purporting to “cover” the field. In actuality, most sites are doing little more than functioning as e-bulletin boards, where content creators serve as content regurgitators, simply sticking a pushpin through a blurb of the moment, jamming the entry onto the top of countless other small announcements, waiting for the opportunity to do the same as soon as a new blurb is available.

Site owners are as happy to yell FIRST! as site commentors are, but as is the case in real journalism, first doesn’t always mean right, and aside from the occasionally interesting long-form pieces in magazines like XXL or good online reporting from sites like HipHopDX, the art of storytelling in our communities borders on woeful.

Even on nights where reporting on New York hip hop isn’t at the forefront of my mind, it is impossible for me to miss the voices of the unheard, as they surround us every day, especially in a city with the size and diversity of New York.

One Saturday night, as I was traveling from Long Island to Manhattan to attend a lounge event hosted by friend and colleague DJ Domewrecka, life led me on a meandering path, where people and stories practically dropped into my lap. I was mildly aware of it as it was happening, but only after the night was over, and I was immersed in one of my frequent, meditative, Birthplace Magazine-related soul-searching sessions (where I vacillate between reveling in the genius of my potentially game-changing journalism vision, and basking in humility, doubting my ability to pull it off), did I feel the full effects of this inspiring succession of encounters.

I often take the Long Island Rail Road into New York, particularly if I am going to be in Manhattan, and double particularly if I plan to drink. Inbound night trains are usually spaced out pretty far, but generally on time.

Saturday, the train was late.

I have learned long ago, there is little benefit in losing one’s shit over late trains. So I accepted this reality, standing wallflower-style against an Optimum Online billboard, sipping the remains of my Dunkin Donuts iced coffee.

A guy who was passing by, but in no hurry, struck up a conversation with me. Brown-skinned, about 5’10”, perhaps in his late 40’s, despite the lack of any grey hairs mingling among his sideburns. We talked. He was upset that he had to work and couldn’t watch the Mayweather-Ortiz fight.

At some point, I asked him what he did.

“I’m an entertainer,” he said.

“Oh!” I’m always interested in entertainers of course. “What kind?” I inquired, thinking how disappointed I was going to be if he said “juggler.”

As it happens, in the past he has been a lead singer with the soul group MSFB. He has worked with The Funk Brothers, George Benson and Freddie Jackson. He produces and performs his own Michael Jackson tribute show that he guarantees is unlike any other. He is working to bring it to large venues, starting with an upcoming New York appearance at Canal Room in November.

He’s no juggler.

Michael Clark - The Michael Live ProjectNo, Michael (ironically) Clark has an interesting background story that includes involvement in the music business and working with legends, even visiting the Jackson family. He is working to stage a bit of a personal comeback mixed with a fulfillment of his musical performance dreams that have been just out of reach for a decade.

The train sounded its horn, finally entering the station, eager to carry me into the underbelly of the Big Apple, a place I was not only visiting that night, but now, a place I will be sure to visit on November 18 when Canal Room hosts what could possibly be the best Michael Jackson tribute around.

Because it’s part of an interesting story.

My destination, Dominion Bar and Lounge. It was a combination celebration for DJ Domewrecka, both his 40th birthday and 21st year as a DJ. His friends were there. Some DJ comrades. His dad.

And Jasmine.

Jasmine is a long-time friend of Domewrecka. She is a single mother, independent with a good job. She lives in Manhattan, taking care of her daughter, who would soon be turning the big zero-five. Jasmine is a Bronx native, pretty and well-spoken with a touch of unmistakable New York ‘round the way girl swagger.

Jasmine is also a budding chef. She created and decorated Domewrecka’s birthday cake, a simulated piece of vinyl, tastily representing the only ammunition in Domewrecka’s DJ arsenal. She talked about skipping a chance to go to culinary school some years ago, opting instead for a good paying job, and how she is now putting more effort into her cooking endeavors.

Jasmine told me a deeply touching story about her serendipitous and spiritually fulfilling trip to Puerto Rico, to personally deliver the remains of her beloved abuelita to her homeland. It was a sweet story that would surely tug on the heartstrings of anyone who has lost someone special.

We spoke for some time, about these, and other things. Regular life things with a hard-working, kind-hearted, ambitious person with good energy. Jasmine made me want to root for her. To introduce her to the world, in case anyone needs a cake. Because she deserves a chance.

Because she shared with me her story.

After the night wound down, and I grappled with the multitude of New York City subway delays, ending up back at Penn Station around 3:15 a.m., with plenty of time to kill before a 4:17 a.m. train back to the ‘burbs.

A slice of sub-par pizza here, leafing through magazines here, and I eventually ended up under the fabled Penn Station LIRR scheduling board that exists almost purely to tease people, waiting until the last possible moment to inform travelers which train will be on which track, causing an instant, stampeding migration of humans to rumble through the space and down the  stairs.

Waiting for that watched pot to never boil at four in the morning is something of a sociological case study. The sober among us stand as witnesses, quietly observing the wobbly mass of drunken humanity who have been reveling in the jewels of New York City’s nightlife. We observe equal parts of humor and humility during these times, perhaps simultaneously a bit jealous that we aren’t having that much blissful fun, yet relieved we’re not going to be so blindingly hungover the next day.

This early morning, as my eyes darted among the fray, I noticed a young lady standing nearby, seemingly quite sober, trying her best to tune out the rancor of those around her. A laminated badge swung softly from the lanyard around her neck, signaling that she had attended the UrbanWorld Film Festival. It denoted her as “PRESS.”

Despite the potential for disgusted rebuke I risk approaching a random woman at 4 a.m. in Penn Station, I took my chances, curious as to what media outlet she was with.

Luckily, Nicole was friendly.

The Madlab Post - Madlab EntertainmentIt also turns out that she is not a local. Nicole was in town for the week-long festival, and would be heading back to Philadelphia soon after our meeting. She writes for Yahoo! Movies as well as her own site. She is an avid follower of independent films. Nicole highly recommending festival entry The Tombs, a short film by Jerry Lamothe about one man’s journey through New York’s central booking jail system, and spoke highly of 50 Cent’s performance in Things Fall Apart.

We rode the train together, talking until she transferred at Jamaica. I enjoyed meeting her, and guarantee at some point I will watch both of those movies. You should too, I trust her judgement, and you should trust mine. In any event, a friendly, fellow journalist passionate about covering an indie arts scene is my kind of person, and I look forward to reading Nicole’s work on a regular basis.

Because stories about stories are how we find out about things that matter.

To be fair, none of these interesting and ambitious individuals could have normally made the e-pages of Birthplace Magazine. We are editorially bound to stay within the confines of our mission statement: New York-area hip hop.

But these folks, these random people I met one night, without trying, and without immediately realizing it, were quite inspirational.

Like any startup conceived by one, financed on a shoestring budget, and operated by volunteers, Birthplace Magazine is easily as much a job as any “day gig.”

The commitment to maintain the site is nothing short of monumental. To conceive and create content, attend performances, manage correspondence, coordinate writers and photographers, create plans and presentations, speak with advertisers and investors, all while being a responsible, attentive husband and father with a director-level position at a major media outlet, takes quite a toll.

Even though I believe we’re doing groundbreaking work, it’s often too much to cope with.

Sometimes I feel like quitting.

But then I meet folks like Michael. And Jasmine. And Nicole. And the countless hip hop artists, DJs, producers, dancers, promoters, bloggers, photographers, videographers, organizations and entities I meet around the tri-state area.

And telling their stories somehow becomes part of my story.

So I keep going.

Because stories, including mine, still matter.