This Movie Changed Me

Nick George

Brown Sugar

Last Updated

October 1, 2019


The movie Brown Sugar is, at its heart, a tribute to hip-hop — complete with a soundtrack featuring artists like Mos Def, Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, and Mary J. Blige. It follows Dre and Sidney, childhood friends whose love of hip-hop is what connects them throughout their life. This coming-of-age story celebrates how love and music feed one another — an idea that spoke to Nick George. From the first time he picked up the DVD at Walmart as a college student to his life now as a spoken-word poet and community leader, Brown Sugar has accompanied him as a grown-up in life, in art, and in love.

Guest

Image of Nick George

Nick George is an author, poet, and the founder of The Listening, Inc — a community organization that connects the performing arts to healing, mentoring, and social impact.  He is also an adjunct professor at Central Virginia Community College. Nick shares his storytelling wisdom in the TEDx talk “Revenge of the Snap.

Transcript

Lily Percy, host: Hello, movie friends. I’m Lily Percy, and I’ll be your guide this week as I talk with poet Nick George, about the movie that changed his life, Brown Sugar. It’s okay if you’ve never seen the movie. We’re going to give you all the details you need to follow along — and get ready to enjoy some classic hip-hop.

[excerpt: Brown Sugar]

When I first saw Brown Sugar, I was completely taken over by the music, of course. It’s the first thing you notice about the movie: The wonderful tribute to hip-hop — an ode, love letter, however you want to call it, to hip-hop that permeates every scene in the movie.

[music: “Breakdown” by Mos Def]

[excerpt: Brown Sugar]

But the thing that really carried me through watching it over and over and over again was the relationship between Sidney, played by Sanaa Lathan, and Dre, played by Taye Diggs. Their relationship is as equals. It’s not something I grew up watching in rom-coms, it’s not something that I saw — men and women respecting each other, talking to each other as if they both believed each other to be intelligent, equal human beings — and their relationship gave me hope for what love could be.

[music: “Brown Sugar (Fine)” by Mos Def]

[excerpt: Brown Sugar]

So we begin the movie with Sidney and Dre as kids, first learning and falling in love with hip-hop. And this love of hip-hop is what connects them throughout their life. Sidney becomes a writer, an editor of a powerhouse hip-hop magazine, and Dre gets into the recording industry. He is the man behind the artists, and he gets into this field because of his love of hip-hop. But both Sidney and Dre are struggling to reconcile this idyllic love that they have of hip-hop with the reality.

[excerpt: Brown Sugar]

[music: “Brown Sugar (Fine)” by Mos Def]

As we see hip-hop grow and change, we also see Sidney and Dre grow and change and it was this intertwining of love and hip-hop that really spoke to poet Nick George. In fact, when our lead producer Maia emailed him to talk about Brown Sugar, he had this to say: “When I first saw Brown Sugar, both love and hip-hop were new things to me. I thought I understood both. I also thought that their utility in my life was simple. And yet through this movie, it’s become apparent that both are unpredictable… one of the major themes is ‘evolution’ and allowing a thing to grow beyond what we thought we knew about it.”

Ms. Percy: I’m going to take you back in time by asking you to think about the first time that you saw Brown Sugar — where you were, how old you were, all the circumstances that surrounded it, maybe the people you were with. And just take ten seconds to close your eyes and think about that moment when you first saw it. And then I will prompt you when the ten seconds are up.

Mr. George: All right.

Ms. Percy: So what memories came up for you?

Mr. George: College …

Ms. Percy: College.

Mr. George: [laughs] … which is a very broad perspective to come from, but yeah. I was an undergrad. It was probably during one of the holiday breaks. And I didn’t have a car, so I was walking to Walmart, and I said, “OK, I got cereal. I got milk. Now I need something to watch.” And I’ve heard of the film, but I hadn’t seen it in theater, so I got it on DVD. 

Ms. Percy: Had you heard of the film because of the soundtrack or because — I know you love hip-hop; is that why you had heard of it?

Mr. George: I was actually skeptical because of how much I love hip-hop, I was skeptical on how they would handle it. But it was Walmart. So I said, you know, I’m not really losing out here. And if it sucks, I have a new coaster.

Ms. Percy: [laughs] There you go.

[excerpt: Brown Sugar]

Ms. Percy: What did you end up thinking about it, when it came to its treatment of hip-hop? Hip-hop is another character in the movie. The movie starts out with Sanaa Lathan’s character, Sidney, talking about when she first fell in love with hip-hop. Not when she first fell in love — when she first fell in love with hip-hop. So as someone who also loved that genre, what did it speak to you — what did you think in that moment, when you were a college student watching it?

Mr. George: I think that set things off, for me, to dig deeper into hip-hop, because it helped personify it, in a way. Growing up, my dad was not with hip-hop at all — at all. Keep in mind, this is during the ’90s, and gangsta rap was massive strength. The culture was still learning its way, but bold enough to just stand out there and not care. And I can say now, as a parent: I get it. I get it. But when you’re dealing with this unknown force, this unknown culture, you want to protect your kids.

Ms. Percy: And that’s what was being represented about hip-hop, in gangsta rap, particularly — yeah, the misrepresentation of it.

Mr. George: Right, or maybe, the isolation of it, because that’s not like it wasn’t true.

Ms. Percy: [laughs] Good point.

Mr. George: These stories are true. But because of, I guess, marketing or whatever, it was gridlocked and isolated in such a way, and my exposure to hip-hop wasn’t all the way there. I think the first time I got a real taste of hip-hop, it was at my grandmother’s house, and my cousin, he had a copy of Biggie’s album, and I think he was playing “Notorious Thugs.” And just the rhyme — I’m listening to it in my head right now — “Armed and dangerous.” [laughs]

[music: “Notorious Thugs” by The Notorious B.I.G. feat Bone Thugs N Harmony (from The Notorious B.I.G. – Greatest Hits)]

That was my first time hearing anything like this. And I remember having all these “Is he allowed to say that, to talk like that? He’s talking really fast, but it still makes sense. It’s musical. Can you do that?” and just being blown. And I think, how this film handled hip-hop, there’s no way they could’ve covered all of it. But I think, with what they were trying to do, they took a very decent approach in looking at the heart of hip-hop, the heart of it.

Ms. Percy: Well, and I love that it takes it seriously. That’s one of the things that, in re-watching the movie this week, getting ready to talk to you, I was like, I don’t think I appreciated that before, enough, how seriously it takes it. Sidney has this narration all throughout the movie, where she keeps returning to what makes hip-hop so important to her and what it’s given to her. And I love these lines where she says: “For many people, hip-hop was that first friend, the first to talk to us, the first to understand. Hip-hop has always been that kind of friend to me. And like any relationship, I’ve watched it grow. I’ve watched it change.”

And it’s just beautiful, because it’s talking about that evolution of the genre but then, also, her own evolution as a person, as a woman, and then, her relationship with Dre; their own friendship and the love that’s blossoming.

Mr. George: Right. I didn’t think of hip-hop in terms of love, early on. It was more like that friend that was always gonna get you in trouble, but knew you better than anyone. [laughs] At least, that’s how that relationship was. I couldn’t bring any old music into the house. But when I was able to hear it, I was able to listen to it, it was something else. And I think one of the things that’s continued throughout hip-hop’s growth is its ability to still be true, still be real. I think this ongoing conversation in hip-hop’s growth and in hip-hop’s maturity, as to what it is — and we go through that too as we grow and we go through childhood and adolescence and the hellhole known as the teenage years. And then, we arrive at adulthood. And throughout all of that, we still are trying to figure out what this identity is.

And I think — hip-hop’s been around maybe as long as I have, maybe a little bit more. Hip-hop is maybe on the early stages of middle age. And you would think that it’s completely arrived. But how many people do we know in that same age range that are struggling with identity crises, that are struggling with just that midlife crisis? I think hip-hop is in that place where it’s trying to remember and trying to stay true to what it is but still push forward and still be. And I don’t think it’s done, but I don’t think it’s any one thing. Fortunately, this film was respectful of that by staying true to the art of it: recognizing that growth, recognizing that that transition does happen and will continue to happen, but sticking with what made it a thing in the first place.

[music: “Paid in Full (Seven Minutes of Madness) [The Coldcut Remix]” by Eric B. & Rakim]

[excerpt: Brown Sugar]

Ms. Percy: In reading a bunch of reviews about Brown Sugar — which was interesting for me, because the movie came out in 2002; I thought it came out in the mid-’90s, because that’s what I equate with it, mid- to late-’90s — I was really fascinated by how many critics kept talking about how precious it was, and how naïve and idealistic. It was fascinating to me because I’m like, when I listen to the hip-hop of my youth and the artists that I love, like Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul and the Beastie Boys — which I love that they name-check in the movie — it feels idealistic, but what’s wrong with that? That is part of growth. That’s part of being a human being. You go through stages where you are more idealistic than others. But hopefully you retain some of that. And I think, in so many ways, the characters of Dre and Sidney, they’re trying to hold onto their idealism, despite what the world is throwing at them.

Mr. George: Right. Right. And I definitely — I think that I have that appreciation for their characters now, because I am an adult now.

Ms. Percy: Yeah, you’re in your 30s now. You’re older than they were in that movie. Doesn’t that blow your mind? [laughs]

Mr. George: [laughs] So weird. But I definitely am an idealist in that way, because I grew up in that type of experimentation, that jazz, beat-break-’80s-influenced kind of — being so informed by the traditions of the past and charging forward with that new energy. So anything that sounds like that — I grew up, obviously, loving Biggie. I was a major fan of Will Smith. People clown him, but he’s one of the OGs of the game, if you will.

Ms. Percy: He is. He’s so talented.

Mr. George: He’s an amazingly talented writer, and if you’re just talking about bars, he has bars for days. I grew up, once getting into hip-hop, digging deep: loving Mos Def, Talib, Immortal Technique, Dead Prez, Tribe, Busta Rhymes, and moving up with it. But with that, you have to have some flexibility and know what’s called for in your life and what you need in your life at that moment. There are times in the car where I need a Busta Rhymes moment. But there’s also times when I need Joey Badass. Or this moment might call for Kendrick. Or maybe I don’t need any of that, and I need some Thelonious Monk. And that’s tricky.

Ms. Percy: When did you realize — because you, yourself, are a poet. When did you realize that what you’re talking about, what these artists do, was poetry? When did you make that connection?

Mr. George: I don’t think I made it by myself. I struggled in middle school and high school with thoughts and attempts of suicide. And I will never forget, at Sacred Heart School in Vailsburg, [Newark], New Jersey, in Essex County, my guidance counselor, Mr. Beckworth, asked me if I had ever heard of Maya Angelou. And I think I had, but not really paying attention to it. So he suggested I read some of her poetry. And from then on, I was that world of poetry, of using language to communicate something that basic sentence structure couldn’t do.

And with that, I ventured into the local open mic scene, and I started to witness people, poets, come to the microphone with poems that sounded a lot like rap. So how were they able to do this? How could you do this? Are you rapping, or is that a poem, or what do you call this? And then, being a part of that culture and being a part of that community, I was able to see that connection a little bit more physically. I think one of the things that this film really helped me see was — in addition to arriving at the heart of hip-hop, because you saw that echoed with Sidney and Dre’s relationship — that it’s more than just saying, “I like you, and you like me.” There’s an actual back-and-forth; there’s a tango. And learning that, learning the language of it, and spending the time with it, pulls on different parts of your intellect — and your emotions, as well.

[excerpt: Brown Sugar]

[music: “Love of My Life (An Ode to Hip Hop)” by Erykah Badu feat. Common]

Ms. Percy: What’s a song you’ve shared with someone you love? This week in our newsletter, we’re asking subscribers to share a song for a playlist inspired by this conversation with Nick George on Brown Sugar. To add to the playlist, look for those instructions in your inbox or sign up at onbeing.org/tmcmletter.

[music: “Love of My Life (An Ode to Hip Hop)” by Erykah Badu feat. Common]

Ms. Percy: One of my favorite things about Brown Sugar is how it juxtaposes the love that both Sidney and Dre have for hip-hop with the love that they have for each other. And I’m just curious how this movie shaped the way that you viewed love in your own life.

Mr. George: [laughs]

Ms. Percy: Clearly, it did. [laughs]

Mr. George: Well, I wasn’t — obviously, I wasn’t married when I first saw it, but I knew that after seeing this movie, I couldn’t be with anyone that didn’t love music. I’m not excluding everything else; hip-hop definitely, definitely — but had an appreciation and an awareness of music and art and all of those things. That had to be a part of how we connected, because I couldn’t imagine being in a relationship with Nicole Ari Parker’s character. She was a beautiful person; she was talented; she was all of these great things, but couldn’t connect with Dre on this “hip-hop thing.”

I will let you know, I was offended when she said that. I was offended when she said that. How could you say something like that? You obviously don’t know what you’re talking about. You’re obviously not about that life.

And I think that when talking about love and relationships — obviously, it was a movie, so it had to be presented in a certain way. But for all the things that marriage and relationships can be, I think it’s a beautiful thing when they are on the same page and on the same wavelength. And I think, for me, I knew after seeing this film, OK, we’ve got to agree on this. If I say we have a chance to go and see Chance the Rapper in concert, I need you to be as excited as me. I can’t walk into this by myself, and you’re just there to be polite. No, we need to vibe out, and we need to rock hard to this, because we need to breathe the same way, when this is in the atmosphere. We need to feel that synergy and that connectedness. And maybe we grow at different paces — since then, I’ve managed to catch the eye of a tall South Carolinian girl, and she still likes me, so that’s cool. But —

Ms. Percy: But does she like hip-hop? That’s the question.

Mr. George: That is the question. And I think it’s safe to say, she does. I didn’t use that example arbitrarily. We went to see Chance last year, and it was great. It was great. And to be able to drive home and have that memory, that shared memory together. I couldn’t imagine not going to this concert without her.

And I think — the scene where they were on the park bench …

[excerpt: Brown Sugar]

and they were sharing the lines to Common’s “I Used to Love Her”…

Ms. Percy: I love that scene.

Mr. George: That was such a musical scene, such a lovely scene, such a magical scene; it was such a simple scene too.

[excerpt: Brown Sugar]

Ms. Percy: So true to life, right? That you do that with your friends who also love the same music you do. You recite lyrics; you talk about — “Remember when we heard that song? Remember when we saw that band, that artist, in concert?”

Mr. George: Right. Can I share a story?

Ms. Percy: Please do.

Mr. George: So when we started dating, there was a mixtape released by DJ J. Period. It was a collection of the best of Lauryn Hill. And I told her about it — as a matter of fact, no, we weren’t even dating. Oh, man. I’m messing the story up. We weren’t dating yet. She was dating this other guy. [laughs] But we were friends, and she was the only person I told about it that was as hyped as I was; like, “Dude, we gotta get this mixtape.”

Hers came in the mail. And I remember clearly, going with her to the mailbox to get it, and we were so hyped about it. And I think her boyfriend was with her there. And me and her were geeking out, and I think he was kind of like, “Oh, all right.” [laughs] But just having that moment — to this day, it’s, I think, one of our most treasured memories that was there in our friendship. It wasn’t a romance thing. I wasn’t trying to get in her pants — well, not yet.

Ms. Percy: Maybe not vocally; consciously.

Mr. George: Right. It was just excitement about — and it was such a great mixtape. It’s such a well done mixtape that covers her whole discography, her time with the Fugees, unreleased stuff, live stuff, interviews and stuff — it’s a great mixtape. And we both love her as an artist. So it was all this amazing stuff in this one neat package. And to be able to have someone to share that with, I think that was our park bench moment.

Ms. Percy: That’s lovely. That’s so lovely. That’s one of the things that I love the most about Brown Sugar, is that excitement that they capture, in their relationship, of — when Dre has to go see an artist. Or anything to do with music, they’re each other’s phone call. They’re the first people that they call to share that excitement with.

So I have to talk about Queen Latifah, because she is one of my heroes, and she has some of the best lines in this movie.

Mr. George: Indeed.

Ms. Percy: And so one of my favorite lines that I often think about, actually, is the “You’re turning into a Terry McMillan character,” when she plays Sidney’s cousin, when she tells her that, because she is becoming a Terry McMillan character. And I’m just curious about your favorite characters, your favorite lines. You mentioned the park bench moment, which is such a great moment in the movie. But what are the things that you always turn in your mind to, when you think about Brown Sugar?

Mr. George: I think — Mos Def’s character — I think his name is Cabbie? [Editor’s note: Mr. George misstates the name of Mos Def’s character, Cavi.]

Ms. Percy: Yeah, because he was a cabbie.

Mr. George: I think his character stands out. Right. I think his character stands out the most, to me. I think he was like the hip-hop Jiminy Cricket of the movie.

Ms. Percy: I think he would really appreciate that, because there are comparisons he makes and lines that he says to Dre’s character, to Taye Diggs’ character, that I’m like, he is such a poet.

Mr. George: I think he holds it down in that respect, for reminding not just Dre, but the audience, and calling him out, being the conscience in the room, like “What are you doing, dude? You know that’s trash. You know that’s trash; you know you shouldn’t be doing this” — but at the same time, human enough to not know how to step to Francine and —

Ms. Percy: Played by Queen Latifah, yeah.

Mr. George: Right, yeah. His character definitely stands out, because he just had great lines in the film, but just more so for what he represented. If the only representation in the film was Rin and Tin, then that would be a major disservice. But he played a character that was so fully hip-hop, you got to see both sides of the conundrum that we had in front of us. You have a guy who’s in the culture in such a way that doesn’t care about making a buck. You want to; that’s great when it happens, if it happens. But ultimately, you’re doing this because you need to do it. And I think I connect to that because I needed to see that. I needed to see that there’s still a voice for that type of artistry.

[excerpt: Brown Sugar]

Ms. Percy: So since seeing this movie as a college student, how has it continued to inform and educate you? How has it continued to grow with you, as you’ve become a man in your 30s and a father and a husband, and continued to grow as an artist, as well?

Mr. George: There was a time where I claimed hip-hop was dead. I think we all were saying that at some point, because it didn’t look like what we grew up with. But somehow, it persisted, and even though we thought it was flatlining, it actually had a very healthy heartbeat. The underground movement was still there, still very strong, and people were still saying, we want something real. We want something true; we want something innovative that pushes boundaries still, but still tells our story, still tells a story that we’re interested in, that’s still not completely wanting to achieve commercial success.

And I think, at this stage in my life, I’m comfortable with where hip-hop is. I don’t think I can say it in good conscience, that there’s no good hip-hop out there; there’s a lot of amazing artists out there. I don’t think I need to rest my hat for that only from hip-hop. I think there’s enough beautiful music out there to be able to diversify it.

So I think, at this stage in my life, I know better than to expect it all from one place, because the energy’s different. And we have kids now, and some things you just — you have to be intentional about what you hear and what you let in, because that energy really impacts your day.

Ms. Percy: I love, when you were emailing back and forth with Maia about Brown Sugar — Maia’s the lead producer for this podcast — you wrote her saying — I love this. You said, “Since watching this movie the first time, and each subsequent viewing since then, I find myself reliving the wonder of the expansion of my appreciation and naivete when it comes to love and hip-hop. Love, in my 30s, has become something different. And music, including hip-hop, and what I want from it, has become something different.”

Mr. George: [laughs] That’s so true. I’m glad I wrote that down. I forgot that I said that, but I’m glad I wrote that down. It’s so true.

Ms. Percy: You see? Isn’t this great? [laughs] You are a poet, my friend. You are a poet.

Mr. George: Oh, thank you.

[music: “Bring Your Heart” by Angie Stone feat. Diamond Stone]

Ms. Percy: Nick George is an author, poet, and the founder of The Listening, Inc — a community organization that connects the performing arts to healing, mentoring, and social impact. Nick is also an adjunct professor at Central Virginia Community College. You can hear more of his wonderful storytelling wisdom in his TedX talk “Revenge of the Snap.”

Brown Sugar was produced by Magic Johnson and Peter Heller, and distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures — the clips you heard in this episode are credited entirely to them. MCA Records released the excellent soundtrack that we featured all throughout this episode. With artists like Mos Def, Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, Mary J. Blige. Do yourself a favor and add this one to your playlist.

[music: “Brown Sugar (Raw)” by Black Star]

Next time on This Movie Changed Me, we’ll be talking about one of my favorite movies, Mike Leigh’s Career Girls. Unfortunately this movie is pretty hard to find streaming anywhere — and I’d lend you my DVD copy but I only have one! We recommend investigating at your local library or finding a second hand copy on eBay.

The team behind This Movie Changed Me is: Maia Tarrell, Chris Heagle, Tony Liu, Kristin Lin, and Lilian Vo. This podcast is produced by On Being Studios, which is located on Dakota Land. We also produce other podcasts you might enjoy, like On Being with Krista Tippett and Becoming Wise — find those wherever you like to listen or visit us at onbeing.org to find out more.

I’m Lily Percy, and I’m off to watch all of Sanaa Lathan’s movies again because I am completely in love with her.

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