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The Urban Griot

Omar Tyree opens up

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Omar Tyree, the self-proclaimed "Urban Griot," began planning his writing career while still an undergrad at Howard University. He wrote and self-published his first two books, Colored, On {a} White Campus and Flyy Girl, his sophomore year. From there, it was straight to the New York Times best-sellers list and a 2001 NAACP Image Award.

Growing up a jock on the rough streets of Philadelphia, Tyree spent a good deal of his time boxing, playing football and running track. But things changed after he began writing political essays while on an academic scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh. At 19, the former pharmacy major decided to make a living writing books, transferred to "The Mecca" and you know that wasn't all he wrote.

What They Want is the 14th in Tyree's long list of novels following the lives of "driven and ambitious" characters living it up in the big city. His latest protagonist, Terrance Mitchell, is a successful male model dealing with troubles with the opposite sex. Speaking of S-E-X, Tyree revealed that this volume is full of it, claiming it's "a direct response to what women want to read right now [and] to Zane [the very popular author of Addicted and The Sex Chronicles 1&2], but told from the male perspective." In fact, it's so steamy that when I sat down to speak with him at a book signing at Books-a-Million in Concord Mills, he could only read the first chapter in the store spotted with members of the PG-13 family.

Creative Loafing: How has life for you changed since your breakthrough novel, Flyy Girl?

Omar Tyree: I can't say it really changed. I mean, I was straight out of college. That is my life. I'm a writer. I started off writing newspaper articles, doing poetry, it's been my whole life. I've never had a day job. Wrote my first couple of books at 19, 20; put 'em out at 22. Twenty-three, I was self-employed. Twenty-four, I was making money. I never worked for anybody but I worked for a black newspaper for a year and a half and that's coming straight out of college. After that second year, I just was doing freelance for them. Books and articles, that was it.

Three of your novels follow the heroine Tracy Ellison. Does she have a real-life inspiration?

Everything is real-life inspiration. We had millions of flyy girls in my era. First generation hip-hop, that's how girls were.

And why do you always return to her?

Cause they won't let her go. That's my career. The audience is mostly female so they [tend to] gravitate to the female character. So, I wanted to keep dealing with the execution of the character.

You've made a career confronting stereotypes in your novels. Do you think society's views of black people have changed?

No. The general society, they can look at black people as a group and as individuals. And the only time they look at you as an individual is if you hang out with 'em or you get to be a superstar. That's it. But the rest of you, if you don't hang out with white people and you're not a superstar, you're part of the black masses. If you're a regular black person walking in with three of your black girlfriends, you're a stereotype. They have no way of knowing our culture at all.

What is your take on the down-low phenomenon?

I got nothing to do with it. I don't even know why Oprah brought that on there. It's funny how she'll bring on that kind of content, but won't bring on the straight heterosexual, still young, still in the community. I shoulda been on Oprah's show 10 years ago. I got nothing to do with that culture. I'm a jock. For the most part, we're like anti. I address it for a hot second in What They Want.

Why do you call yourself "The Urban Griot?"

Griot is an old African word meaning storyteller. In the late '80s/early '90s, when we had A Tribe Called Quest and Public Enemy and X-Clan, griot was a very common word. They were all griots. Alex Haley would be about the most famous griot. Generally, it's verbally. Black folks are verbal people, trying to get 'em to read ... that's a whole diffent thing. I'm a literary griot, where I'm passing mine down through literature. It lasts longer that way. It don't get all mixed up and changed up, switched up on the grapevine. Yeah, urban, that's what I write about all the time ... stories from the inner-city. I'm like the lead person that started doing that.

Here's a sample of the What They Want survey Omar will moderate during the Charlotte Literary Festival. The full survey is available at www.omartyree.com. Bring your answers to the festival and find out how you rate. Are you (i) High Maintenance, (ii) Optimistic, (iii) Practical or (iv) a Drama Queen:

1. Would you be willing to seriously date a man with limited income?

A. I have my own income, and a grown man should have his own, too.

B. I would try and support him and help him find a better job.

C. Maybe, but that would depend on how much income he's lacking.

D. Not at all. A broke man is the enemy.

2. How much education would you want your man to have?

A. If he doesn't have a college degree, then he at least needs to be an entrepreneur.

B. A good heart and a hard worker is sometimes better than education.

C. Some college and/or a degree is a good thing, but not everything.

D. As long as he can take care of what he needs to take care of, I'm good.

3. What response best describes your ideas on communication?

A. Communication is very important. I want my man and I to be on the same page.

B. Open conversation and honesty is the key to any relationship.

C. Sometimes we have to be more patient for real communication to work.

D. Let's face it, some men just aren't going to tell you everything.

4. Does your man need to be a churchgoer or committed to God?

A. Yes, the church is still the cornerstone of the family.

B. I would rather my man be more spiritual than religious.

C. Well, I don't really go to church that much myself, so I can't ask him to.

D. Please, going to church doesn't make your man any better than the next man.

5. How important is sex in your relationship?

A. I won't go there. Sex is a private issue for me.

B. Sex is not as important as trust and real companionship.

C. If the sex is lacking, then we'll need to work on it to get it right.

D. If he can't please me, then I can't keep him.

Charlotte Literary Festival

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