Thomas Chatterton Williams

THOMAS CHATTERTON WILLIAMS‘ father, “Pappy,” pretty much solidified his son’s fate when he named him after the 18th century English poet. And Williams has never wavered in his dedication to the craft — or second-guessed his father’s wisdom.

“Ever since I was old enough to speak, he always told me that I was a writer and that I could write,” Williams said. “There were books all over the house, and I was always told that I could write and that it was something good to do. So when I finally did it, it wasn’t so strange or bizarre.”

But Williams, who left Fanwood, N.J., to attend Georgetown University for a degree in philosophy and then graduated from New York University with a master’s in journalism, spent his teenage years immersed in a hip-hop culture that tried to undermine everything his father had taught him. That struggle, and Williams’ eventual decision to fully break away from a life of baggy jeans and being “real,” is documented in his first book, “Losing My Cool: How a Father’s Love and 15,000 Books Beat Hip-Hop Culture.”

“I still listen to some hip-hop and I still have black friends, but once my freshman year of college came around, I never had the same relationship [with hip-hop],” Williams said. “It didn’t define me or hold me the way it had before.”

Williams will discuss the memoir, which mixes his own memories and analysis of the effect of hip-hop culture on black youth, at the Barnes and Noble on 12th Street in Washington, D.C. on May 5. He talked with Express about his inspiration for the book and how it has changed his family dynamic.

20100505-thomaschatterton-book-250.jpg» EXPRESS: In a column that you wrote for The Washington Post in 2007, you talk about how seductive hip-hop culture is. How did it draw you in?
» WILLIAMS: I really got into it as a child; I played a lot of basketball … the point I’m trying to make is that sports and hip-hop would go hand in hand. … BET was a touchstone for me and a lot of my friends — it was a place you could go to see exactly what being black in 1992 and 1996 was like and what it was supposed to look like. … There was not another choice — I remember being a small child and listening to a variety of music, and by fifth grade I was only listening to hip-hop.

» EXPRESS: In the book, you talk about studying under your father’s tutelage while also hanging out with your friends, all of whom embraced hip-hop like you had. Did you feel like you were living a double life?
» WILLIAMS: My parents were much more aware of the life I led outside the house than my classmates and my peers were aware of what went on inside the house, and I would say it wasn’t a double life as much as I had multiple identities. And I was lucky to have another identity … the biggest problem is that a lot of my friends and people I knew coming out didn’t have multiple identities or anything else to retreat into that would help them when they got out of their adolescent years.

» EXPRESS: Was writing the book a cathartic experience?
» WILLIAMS: I found that all these voices — my father’s voice, my friends’ voices and the forces of hip-hop artists that I was listening to at the time — just started spilling out onto the page, and it became very personal. It became a very different book. I was really reliving in my mind a lot of our years together, and realizing how hard [my father] worked and what he was trying to do for me.

» EXPRESS: What do you think is different about hip-hop now, compared to when you were growing up?
» WILLIAMS: I think what’s really on the radio now is legitimately, objectively dumber. I think the bar for getting respect and the way you express yourself was simply higher before now, and when the south became extremely popular at the end of the ’90s and when the south became the place to set the aesthetic, I think that was the turning point that the culture has never recovered from.

» EXPRESS: For readers, what do you think will be most impactful about your book?
» WILLIAMS: I would say that the events and the things that happen in my life that I wrote about are less significant, and more important is the meaning I’m trying to get out of those things. The analysis is more important than simply the story, although I think that my father is a powerful character and so I think that there is a real father-son story. But that’s to his credit, not to my credit.

» Barnes and Noble, 555 12th St. NW, Wed., May 5; 6 p.m., free; 202-347-0176. (Metro Center)

Written by Express contributor Roxana Hadadi
Photo courtesy Luke Abiol